Rob Patterson

Top of the Pop with a Bullet

The late Warren Zevon once wrote a song called "Lawyers, Guns and Money." Gee, maybe Phil Spector should have produced it.

What is an entertainment fan supposed to do when those they admire artistically do bad things? I think Jerry Lee Lewis and not Elvis is the King of Rock'n'Roll -- judging by Lewis's musical brilliance and breadth, innovation, and sheer musical power -- but I also believe that he may well have caused the death of one of his wives. Yet anytime I hear "Breathless" (from back in the 1950s) or his version of Bruce Springsteen's "Pink Cadillac" (from his latest album) or countless others, I am transported to a place of bliss approaching being in the presence of God. I may not totally suspend my firm sense of morality in this case, but yeah, I let Jerry Lee slide a bit.

Now the trial of Phil Spector for the murder of Lana Clarkson has ended with a hung jury (another trial is expected in the new year). It appears that he killed her. And his reported history with women and guns only reinforces that belief.

But the idea of him spending the rest of his life in jail bothers me, given all that he contributed to popular music in his day. That and the fact that he obviously needs help that is more than just penal.

Yet, Lana Clarkson is dead, and that begs for justice. A friend who used to live in the apartment next door to me was a close friend of Clarkson. Another friend who I once dated also dated Spector. She is alive, well and very fond of him, and a wonderful woman. So I am one degree of Kevin Bacon from both sides of this, and my sympathies are torn there as well.

What to do when celebrities kill or harm and they get off? It's clear as day in the courtroom of my mind that O.J. Simpson killed his ex-wife Nicole and Ron Goldman. And now, thanks to the recent incident in Las Vegas, he may end up where he belongs. It's obvious to me that Michael Jackson sexually preys on underage boys -- a heinous act just shy of murder. I think Robert Blake killed his wife. Yet all of them got off the hook, certainly with the help of lawyers and money.

Who needs help? Who should be punished? And of course, as many commentators have asked, why is it that California juries can't convict celebrities when they are so clearly guilty?

Those of you who read this column regularly know that I am unimpressed by celebrity. But I am impressed by great artistic achievement, which may be why the Simpson verdict angered me, yet the hung jury at the Spector trial gave me a sense of relief. I am only human, after all.

And we are all human, even celebrities, and if there is any answer to these quandaries, a sense of humanity (for both victims and perpetrators) and an understanding of celebrity and its effects on the famous and us is somehow part of it all. Our society raises celebrities to demigod levels. When they fall, it seems to make them more like us, and that likely raises sympathy. But their life isn't a TV show, and real crimes beg for real justice.

Despite all my sympathies for Spector, however, the moral imperative should not be set aside even for admiration and empathy. In an ideal world, Spector would be receiving help for his psychiatric problems, but the cocoon of wealth and celebrity enabled him to live with them. His fame and money may be a factor in the recent hung jury and could in a future trial.

And whether he is ultimately convicted or not, I'll feel conflicted either way. And somehow that seems to me like it's all not quite justice.

Rob Patterson is an entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email

From The Progressive Populist, November 1, 2007

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