Phil Spector, the musical legacy: Part three

Leonard Cohen

I attended numerous Spector produced recording sessions on Leonard Cohen in 1977 that resulted in their album “Death Of A Ladies; Man.” I had done an interview with Cohen for “Melody Maker” previously, and Phil’s office invited me to one particular scheduled Gold Star marathon. I had taken Cohen to see Allen Ginsberg read his poetry at The Troubadour music club, and had been talking to Allen at the time, and later did a couple of published interviews with him.

It was a year of unlikely artist/producer combinations – Helen Reddy/Kim Fowley, Roberta Flack/Bob Ezrin, Grand Funk/Frank Zappa, etc. – this is perhaps the most unlikely: Phil Spector, demon genius of the rock-and-roll production number, producing Leonard Cohen, ascetic prophet of acoustic disaffectedness, with the final product to be known as “Death of a Ladies’ Man.”

The two men got on well at the post-Troubadour reception, and kept in some sort of loose touch thereafter. Late in 1976, when Cohen visited Los Angeles again, Spector invited him to be his houseguest. The first night, the two worked out a new version of Patti Page’s ‘I Went to Your Wedding’; by breakfast, they’d co-written two new songs – Cohen the lyrics, Spector the music (picked out on the piano). The seed was sown for what ultimately became “Death Of A Ladies’ Man.”

Spector and Cohen, despite their obvious surface differences both in personal style and in musical direction, share one, all-powerful element of musical taste – a love for rock-and-roll. It is deeply rooted in them, and it pervades the work they do together. It is their shared medium, their common ground. A mutual affection for rock’s basic greatness has bound the two men together, and made some their collaboration work.

I chronicled this endeavor in an article published in the now defunct periodical “Phonograph Record Magazine” in 1978, “Working with Phil,” said Cohen nonetheless, “I’ve found that some of his musical treatments are very…er…foreign to me. I mean, I’ve rarely worked in a live room that contains 25 musicians – including two drummers, three bassists, and six guitars.”

Cohen likes Los Angeles. A native of Montreal, who has spent much of his time in recent years in the South of France and in other European hideaways, he has now moved to Southern California himself. “I like it,” he said. “It’s so desperate here that it’s really not bad at all. And, besides, this is the only city in the world where I’ve ever written a song while sitting in a driveway in a parked car.

“Phil is not a great songwriter, but he’s a bold one,” Cohen mentioned at the time. “He’s bold enough to employ the most pedestrian melodies, and yet somehow make them absolutely successful. That is why his compositions are brilliant.” Cohen is especially impressed by Spector’s early work – ‘To Know Him Is To Love Him’, ‘Lovin’ Feeling’, etc. “In those songs, the story line was as clear as clear could ever be. The images were very expressive – they spoke to us all. Spector’s real greatness is his ability to induce those incredible little moments of poignant longing in us.”

Cohen’s own images are expressive, too, of course. On ‘Death Of A Ladies’ Man,’ they seem particularly direct. “This is the most autobiographical album of my career,” he admitted. “The words are in a tender, rather than a harsh setting, but there’s still a lot of bitterness, negativity, and disappointment in them. I wish at times there was a little more space for the personality of the story-teller to emerge, but, in general, the tone of the album is very overt, totally open.”

The track Cohen and Spector most impressed with was “Don’t Go Home with Your Hard-On,” the album’s all-out stomper, with hosts of loud horns and pulsating beat that’s hammered all the way home by dual drummers playing in perfect synch. Above it all, comes Cohen’s menacing, gritty vocal work, which holds center stage in a most unexpected but effective way. “I can really belt ‘em out, you know,” he said at the time as he took a swig of Jose Cuervo from the bottle.

Cohen also revealed, “I was a little off-balance this year.” Songs like ‘Iodine’, ‘True Love Leaves No Traces’, and the album’s title track mirror his situation. All the usual Cohen concerns lost love, personal chaos, doubt, romantic dilemma, alienation, lust, etc. are present in strong force. “And don’t forget humor,” Cohen adds. He also offers, “I worship women,” and suspects that, with the release of this album, “Everybody will now know that within this serene Buddistic interior, there beats an adolescent heart.”

Best Phil Spector Action Performance: It is 6:00 a.m. in the morning well over 30 years ago. I was staying over at Phil’s house one night while he was working with vocalist Darlene Love on the song “Lord, If You’re A Woman,” slated to be cut the following week at Gold Star. David and Dan Kessel were also on the scene, hanging for the entire weekend. The Spector-produced Leonard Cohen album had already been completed.

In his former Beverly Hills residence, Spector, a Los Angeles Lakers supporter and fan, in the greeting room, had a photograph of himself with the legendary hoopster, Boston Celtics’ center Bill Russell. Phil played the Beatles, John Lennon, and “Let It Be” mono mixes all evening.

Phil then told us about the first time he met Fats Domino at Imperial Records on Sunset Blvd. in 1958 or ‘59. “He was up at the label to pick up royalties, and wanted to be paid in cash, not check, put in a paper bag,” he howled. “I was perplexed. I didn’t know if I should say ‘Hi Fats’ or ‘Mr. Domino’ at that time.”

At this moment Phil was doing the majority of his own administrative work on recording and music license clearances for TV and movie projects. Proposals kept arriving on his fax machine all evening for immediate review. The Kessel boys were in the room for a short period and we were all startled by the stream of activity requesting his durable catalogue.

One of the many business phone lines rings and Phil puts the caller on the speaker phone. A determined record company Business Affairs person who supervised music for the company had worked real hard to get Spector’s direct number, and inquires about one of his songs being utilized in a movie. She was upset that Phil hadn’t returned her message from the day before, probably due to the low figures she presented to him for initial inspection.

“Boys, her phone call was an insult, not an offer,” fumed Spector. This girl is right out of law school. This lawyer-turned-recent music lover introduces herself for the second time, and Phil, always the gracious host, tries to explain that at the moment he is noshing with some musicians hearing material in pre-production. Yet, this gal keeps spieling full speed, and is perplexed that if the Motown Records and Jobete Publishing Company didn’t balk at her $10,000 fee for one of their recorded tunes being used in a big, important film, why isn’t Spector jumping at her presentation?

David Kessel cited musician Lester Young, who played with his dad Barney, to inquire, “How do the bread smell?”

Phil already detailed his advance money requirements to the employee but his figure suggested didn’t register. “Mr. Spector, the Motown master owner and Jobete copyright administrator immediately accepted the monies offered. How come you aren’t?” the attorney demanded, “The difference is, young lady,” Phil loudly screamed at the bank of telephone lines, ” WE AREN’T MOTOWN AND I”M NOT RUNNING A GOD DAMN FIRE SALE AROUND HERE!!!”

The last part of this four-part series will be continued next week.

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