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Dangerous Genius: The Rise and Fall of Phil Spector

The fine line between madness, evil, and creativity.

Given the debut this evening of the new HBO film Phil Spector, starring the great Al Pacino as Spector, I decided to re-post this piece previously published here just following his conviction back in 2009. I have not previewed the made-for-TV movie, but understand it focuses primarily on the murder trial and his relationship with his defense attorney, played by Helen Mirren. Readers either unfamiliar with or who may have forgotten some of the details of this fascinating case might find this post helpful preparation prior to viewing this movie tonight.

In his second trial, 68 -year-old legendary rock music producer Phil Spector was convicted this week of murdering aspiring actress Lana Clarkson.

Touted as a creative genius in his heyday, Spector's notorious inner demons gradually got the better of him. Creativity and evil live in close quarters in artists like Spector. In his case, evil eventually won out.

Fear of rejection and abandonment appear to be two of Spector's most predominant demons. At his trial, numerous former female acquaintances testified that he had pulled a gun on them when they attempted to leave him. His ex-wife Ronnie said that he threatened to kill her if she ever walked out on him. In 2003, after an alleged long night of drinking on the town, he met and invited 40-year-old actress Lana Clarkson to his Alhambra castle overlooking Los Angeles. Several hours later, she was found dead in his foyer, shot in the mouth with one of his guns. What caused this incredibly creative boy genius of early rock and roll to commit this evil deed? According to the prosecution, the answer is rage.

Spector is famous for his innovative and revolutionary "wall of sound" that so distinguished the recordings of the Ronettes, Crystals, and Righteous Brothers during the 1960s. Spector was also a session musician, playing the jazzy guitar solo for the Drifters' big hit, On Broadway, and co-writing Ben E King's Spanish Harlem as well as the soulful You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin' in 1965 — the latter tune holding the record for most frequent American airplay in the twentieth century. He later produced albums for George Harrison, John Lennon, and the Beatles (Let it Be). But by that time, he had become increasingly reclusive, eccentric, volatile, erratic, and was reputed to regularly carry and brandish loaded handguns.

Phil Spector lost his father to suicide at the age of 9, and soon after relocated with his domineering mother to Los Angeles from his birthplace in the Bronx. Ten years later, he turned the epitaph from his father's tombstone into To Know Him Is To Love Him, his first mega-hit, which Spector both wrote and produced. His career took off from there. He was, in his early twenties, one of the hottest and wealthiest record producers in the world.

But by the mid-'60s, the times, as Bob Dylan sang, they were a-changin', and musical tastes started to pass Spector by. When his elaborate production of River Deep, Mountain High by Ike and Tina Turner was snubbed by the American audience, he took it very personally, in effect giving the fast-evolving music business the furious finger and bitterly retreating from the field into a state of deflated depression.

He married his dream girl, Veronica "Ronnie" Bennett, lead singer of the Ronettes, in 1968. But Ronnie relates tales of pathological jealousy, mental abuse, violent anger, and insecurity, and his children describe him as a monstrous father.

Then, in 1974, he was in a near-fatal car crash in Hollywood, suffering severe injuries to his head, face, and scalp. Soon after, he took to sporting flamboyant long-haired wigs, possibly to conceal some of his facial scarring, but also perhaps to cover up some of the psychic damage to his inflated ego and the inevitable fact of aging in such a youth-oriented music market.

Substance abuse, vicious misogyny, mood swings, impulsivity, and frequent bouts of rage increased, based on reports of those around him during that time. He has said during interviews that at some point he was diagnosed and treated for bipolar disorder. (See my prior post on anger disorder.) His father's suicide, divorce from Ronnie, and deaths of dear friends Lenny Bruce and John Lennon appear — like his youthful fall from the pinnacle of professional success — to have been devastating losses from which he never recovered.

Short and slight in physical stature, Spector had no shortage of egotism, arrogance nor talent. But clearly, his demons — inferiority feelings, narcissistic rage, traumatic loss, fear of abandonment — gradually gained the upper hand, as happens with so many geniuses. "I have devils inside that fight me," said Spector during one published interview.

Consider, for example, the case of troubled mathematical genius Ted Kaczynski, (see my previous post), or tortured artists Vincent van Gogh and Jackson Pollock. Genius, creativity, and evil are closely connected. In my book Anger, Madness and the Daimonic: The Paradoxical Power of Rage in Violence, Evil and Creativity, I explain why.

Evil and creativity. Creativity and evil. At first glance, they seem contradictory, antithetical, mutually exclusive polar opposites. Yet, on closer inspection, creativity and evil represent two possible existential responses to life, both of which are present as a potentiality in every human being.

Jung's disciple Liliane Frey-Rohn writes perceptively that "evil is of fundamental importance also in the creative process. For although creativity is usually evaluated as exclusively positive, the fact is that whenever creative expression becomes an inner necessity, evil is also constellated." If creative expression is chronically frustrated or blocked, the same daimonic energies may express themselves negatively and destructively.

When artists invite the Muse, whether they know it or not, they are setting a place for both her creative and destructive inspiration. Creativity is a dangerous vocation. Genius is daimonic. Which is why, as one of my old mentors, Rollo May, pointed out, "creating, actualizing one's possibilities, always involves destructive as well as constructive aspects." (See my prior post on Roman Polanski.)

We tend to think of genius as something exclusively good and positive. But one can have a genius for evil too. That is, genius can be expressed in the world both creatively and destructively, depending on the basic existential choices made. (See, for example, my previous post on Mickey Rourke).

What makes one person (Picasso, Beethoven, Bob Dylan or John Lennon, for instance) a predominantly creative genius, and another a more destructive or evil genius? I term these two distinct types of personalities eudaimonic genius or dysdaimonic genius.

While each has the innate capacity — like all of us to some extent — for both creativity and evil, in contrast to the dysdaimonic genius, the eudaimonic genius is the more mature, conscious, integrated, whole, balanced and self-possessed person. He or she has learned to deal relatively constructively with their inner demons, whereas the dysdaimonic genius has not. The dysdaimonic genius embodies a confounding combination of exceptional creative powers juxtaposed with equally strong tendencies toward psychopathology, perversity, destructiveness, cruelty, and evil. Phil Spector apparently tends toward this latter category.

On Monday, the jury convicted Phil Spector of second-degree murder. He was subsequently sentenced to 19-years-to-life in prison and incarcerated. Based on my limited knowledge of the evidence, I believe that Lana Clarkson's death was probably accidental. It seems likely, given his reported reckless behavioral history, that when Clarkson rejected his sexual advances and tried to leave, Spector angrily and characteristically drew his pistol in a dramatic, machismo effort to have her stay, sticking it right in her face. Only this time, the gun went off.

And the so-called mad genius of rock music may spend the remainder of his colorful life behind bars, in some ways a tragic victim of his demons: childhood inferiority feelings, narcissistic rage, compensatory grandiosity, bitterness, alcohol abuse, drivenness, and his dangerous daemonic genius — the roots of which he never really consciously confronted, accepted, comprehended, or came to terms with.

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