Lately I’ve been listening to what many would agree is Leonard Cohen’s most controversial and least successful album, his 1977 collaboration with legendary record producer Phil Spector, Death of a Ladies’ Man. The album is bizarre on a number of levels. Strangest of all is that it appears to foresee an event that took place a quarter of a century later: the fatal shooting of actress Lana Clarkson, a crime for which Spector is currently serving time in prison.
The Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen is famous not so much for his singing and the melodies of his songs as he is for his powerful, poetic lyrics that explore existential themes. As evident in his music, Cohen has battled with depression throughout much of his life. Now a practicing Zen Buddhist – though without having abandoned his Jewish roots – he is recognized by his fans as something of a prophet, a wise old man who speaks and sings the truth, even if very cryptically. “Give me back the Berlin wall/Give me Stalin and St. Paul/I’ve seen the future, brother:/it is murder,” he growls in his 1992 song The Future.
During the writing and recording of Death of a Ladies’ Man, Cohen was going through what he describes as a “very very dark period” in his life, having “lost control…of my family [and] my work.” At that stage he was living in Los Angeles, a city foreign to him. Spector, the originator of the famous “wall of sound” production technique which redefined pop music, was in just as troubled a state as Cohen. Though he’d achieved a great deal of success in the past, particularly during the 60s – producing such hit singles as “Deep River–Mountain High” with Ike and Tina Turner – his career had slumped dramatically.
Ever since the 60s, there were rumors that Spector suffered from mental health problems, many describing him as mad rather than simply eccentric. In 1974, several years prior to his collaboration with Cohen, he was thrown from the windscreen of his car during a horrific and near-fatal car crash in Hollywood, from which he sustained serious head injuries. Following the incident, he became more reclusive than he’d been in the past, and began donning outlandish wigs to cover the scars on his head.
When Cohen stepped into the studio with Spector, the record producer’s dark side quickly came to the fore. Spector showed signs of “megalomania and insanity,” while the atmosphere in the studio “was one of guns,” recalled Cohen in a 1994 BBC Radio interview. “You know, people were armed to the teeth, all his friends, his bodyguards, and everybody was drunk, or intoxicated on other items, so you were slipping over bullets, and you were biting into revolvers in your hamburger. There were guns everywhere. Phil was beyond control…”
On one occasion, says Cohen, Spector became annoyed with a violinist for failing to play the way he wanted him to, and so “pulled a gun on the guy.” He describes another disturbing incident: “And at a certain point Phil approached me with a bottle of Manischewitz kosher red wine in one hand and a .45 in the other, put his arm around my shoulder and shoved a revolver into my neck and said, ‘Leonard, I love you.’ I said, ‘I hope you do, Phil.’”
When it came time to mix the tracks, Spector, in another act of lunacy, locked Cohen out of the studio so as to exercise full control over the process. Cohen, his art practically stolen from him, was extremely disappointed with the finished product, calling the album “grotesque.” Even worse, the majority of his fans felt the same way, many critics stating that his singing and lyrics had been swamped by Spector’s loud and chaotic wall of sound. The gun-toting Spector, on the other hand, was convinced that he and Cohen had created “some great fucking music.”
As the decades rolled by and Spector’s mental health continued to deteriorate, disaster finally struck. In the early morning hours of February 3, 2003, an emergency call was made from Spector’s 33-room mansion in Alhambra, California, by his chauffeur Adriano de Souza. There police discovered, slumped in a chair, the body of actress Lana Clarkson, the bottom of her mouth blown off by a gun. (The tall, blonde, and busty Clarkson was the star of the 1985 cult classic Barbarian Queen, as well its sequel, Barbarian Queen II: The Empress Strikes Back.)
It emerged that Spector and Clarkson had first met each other at the House of Blues nightclub on the evening of February 2, where the 40-year-old actress worked part-time as a waitress to help make ends meet. Clearly unaware of Spector’s fondness for firearms – nor of his childish tendency to threaten people with guns when they refused to comply with his wishes – Clarkson agreed to climb into Spector’s limo so as to join him for a drink at his home. Several hours later she was dead. Spector was eventually charged with Clarkson’s murder, yet still denies the crime, arguing that her death was “an accidental suicide” and that she “kissed the gun.” The only piece of evidence supporting Spector’s version of events is that his fingerprints were absent from the murder weapon, a .38 Colt revolver.
In an article published in LA Weekly in 2009, titled “Phil Spector’s Deadly Ways: Does Leonard Cohen’s Death of a Ladies’ Man Foresee Lana Clarkson’s Murder?” pop music critic Randall Roberts explores this very question. “In hindsight,” he suggests, “[the album] could be seen as a portent of Spector’s woes.” Citing such tracks from the album as “True Love Leaves No Traces,” “Don’t Go Home With Your Hard-On,” and “Fingerprints,” he states that these are “all key themes in the Spector murder trial.” He continues: “The more we dug, the more evidence surfaced that maybe this Cohen guy was on to something, like he had some sort of premonition.”
Like Roberts, I can’t help but think that Cohen was “on to something,” especially in the case, as Roberts himself points out, of the very rambunctious “Don’t Go Home With Your Hard-On,” the chorus of which warns: “Don’t go home with your hard-on/It will only drive you insane/You can’t shake it (or break it) with your Motown/You can’t melt it down in the rain.” Had Spector heeded Cohen’s advice, and not “gone home with his hard-on” the night that he and Clarkson met, most probably the actress would still be alive today.
Below is Roberts’ analysis of Death of a Ladies’ Man, revealing some of the album’s most premonitory moments:
Item 1. Spector meets Clarkson at House of Blues in West Hollywood, where she is a waitress:
I walked up to the tallest and the blondest girl
I said, Look, you don’t know me now but very soon you will
So won’t you let me see
Won’t you let me see
Won’t you let me see
Your naked body?
– from “Memories”
He invites her over to his place after she gets off work. She agrees:
She took his much-admired oriental frame of mind
and the heart-of-darkness alibi his money hides behind
She took his blonde madonna and his monastery wine —
‘This mental space is occupied and everything is mine.’
– from “Death of a Ladies’ Man”
Item 2. They arrive at Spector’s Alhambra mansion. They get to know each other. He, a producer past his prime; she, an actress who had to work at House of Blues to pay the rent:
She said, I see your eyes are dead
What happened to you, lover?
What happened to you, my lover?
What happened to you, lover?
What happened to you?
And since she spoke the truth to me
I tried to answer truthfully
Whatever happened to my eyes
Happened to your beauty
– from “I Left a Woman Waiting”
Item 3. Spector, a legendary ladies’ man, and strong with manly desire, admires the blonde Clarkson. She, however, is not so sure. This is understandably frustrating to the producer:
But don’t go home with your hard-on
It will only drive you insane
You can’t shake it (or break it) with your Motown
You can’t melt it down in the rain
– from “Don’t Go Home With Your Hard-On”
Item 4. Enter a gun. Who knows how it got there? An alleged struggle:
Your beauty on my bruise like iodine
I asked you if a man could be forgiven
And though I failed at love, was this a crime?
You said, Don’t worry, don’t worry, darling
There are many ways a man can serve his time
– from “Iodine”
Item 5. Serve time? What are you talking about, serve time? A gunshot. Who pulled the trigger? Where is the evidence? Why aren’t Spector’s prints on the gun?
I called my fingerprints all night
But they don’t seem to care
The last time that I saw them
They were leafing through your hair
Where are you now my fingerprints?
– from “Fingerprints”
Item 6. Call an ambulance! There’s been an incident at the Spector mansion! Too late. It’s over.
And many nights endure
Without a moon or star
So we will endure
When one is gone and far
– from “True Love Leaves No Traces”