March 5 2003

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Frequencies
By Josh Kun

When it rains

ON THE FIRST Monday in February, Phil Spector was arrested on suspicion of fatally shooting an aspiring B movie actress in the face at his hilltop suburban Los Angeles mansion. Not long after, the rains came. Streets flooded, hillsides oozed onto freeway overpasses, restaurants and gyms emptied. It rains in L.A. every year between January and April, and when it does, the city stops being itself. L.A. runs on the myth of sunshine, and people live in L.A. to live myth, not reality. That's why we have Hollywood, and cell phone towers built into plastic palm trees, and newspaper ads for "vaginal rejuvenation," and why a new outdoor mall dropped fake snow on Banana Republic during the winter holiday.

Spector came to L.A. from New York after his father killed himself with carbon monoxide when the boy was nine. He got a guitar for his bar mitzvah and by the time he was a 17-year-old student at Fairfax High, he and his singing group, the Teddy Bears, had already turned death into pop success, writing and recording "To Know Him Is to Love Him," a radio hit based on his father's epitaph. As Timothy White told it in his book The Beach Boys, A Near Faraway Place, that song's success first made a young Brian Wilson believe in the California dream.

As Spector rose to pop prominence in the '60s, Wilson would go on to love Spector's production on "He's a Rebel," and to this day he calls "Be My Baby" his favorite song. But Wilson's relationship with Spector became as much about respect as about rivalry. In 1965, Wilson paid tribute to Spector by one-upping him, writing "Then I Kissed Her" for the Beach Boys, a rearrangement of Spector's hit for the Crystals, "Then He Kissed Me." Spector said he made his legendary girl-group records to be "teen symphonies." A few years later Wilson went further: he said he wanted Pet Sounds to be "a teenage symphony to God."

They were '60s L.A.'s most driven illusionists, troubled audio savants determined to harness the power of God. From "Be My Baby," in 1963, to "Let It Be," in 1970, Spector-produced songs were defined by their production. Spector made sure that when you heard the Ronettes or the Beatles, you were also hearing him. He was the producer as Ahab, the perfect pop song his always elusive white whale. Stories about what would happen when Spector felt his control slipping away are legendary: guns, insults, tantrums, and after the U.S. flop of Ike and Tina Turner's masterpiece "River Deep, Mountain High," self-inflected social isolation.

Wilson had his well-documented periods of withdrawal too, but he was most like Spector in his fear of the California he helped promote. "The one thing I never understood about Phil," ex-Ronette Ronnie Spector once said of the man she famously claimed kept her a prisoner in their home, "is a how a man who loved California as much as he did could be so afraid of the sun." The last time the two worked together, on "I Wish I Never Saw the Sunshine," Ronnie sang these words: "I wish I never knew the sunshine, 'cause if I never knew the sunshine baby, maybe I wouldn't mind the rain."

Likewise, the man whose name is synonymous with California surf culture, with the "Fun, Fun, Fun" of waves and beaches, was terrified of the water. The Beach Boys' 1971 album, Surf's Up – political, psychedelic, and full of environmental dread – was a great lie of an album. It includes Wilson's melancholic collaboration with Van Dyke Parks, "Til I Die," in which the ocean isn't freedom, but existential solitude. "I'm a cork on the ocean," it begins, "floating over the raging sea. How deep is the ocean? I lost my way."

Two weeks ago Wilson was at the Staples Center as the Lakers defeated their hometown rivals, the Clippers. He sat – his face ghostly pale – three rows up from the floor, almost directly behind the spot where Spector used to sit before his arrest, right neat center court, one of the best seats in the house.

Lakers games and little else could lure Spector from the 1926 replica of a French castle he called home. Unlike the other courtside celebs, he rarely socialized and rarely got excited about a Kobe dunk; he always looked like he was supposed to look: the sad, mad genius, the pop hermit gone crazy. At that Lakers-Clippers game, the night Wilson was in the house, someone else was in Spector's seat. Free on a million dollars' bail, he was back in seclusion, a casualty of his need to control pop paradise. "Baby, do you know what you did today? Baby, do you know what you took away?" Ronnie sang on "Sunshine." "You took the blue out of the sky."

E-mail Josh Kun at jksfbg@aol.com.