Phil Spector had a lot to be proud of, but he was proudest of his billiard table. Right here the legendary pool player Willie Mosconi had given Phil lessons on how to sink balls like a champion. Mosconi had once sunk 526 in a row. He could make one billiard ball jump over another and then strike and sink a third ball. Mosconi had coached Paul Newman during the filming of the 1961 movie The Hustler. Phil Spector was no Paul Newman, but when it came to producing a record, he was Marlon Brando.
He had big plans for End of the Century. The Ramones’ fifth studio album was going to be big in both the sonic and sales senses. Seymour Stein was paying Phil Spector on the order of a quarter million dollars to produce it and put the band over the top.
Phil led us back to the living room and explained how his Wall of Sound would meet the Ramones’ wall of sound and create wall-to-wall sound. For that to happen, we had to all listen to him and put our confidence in him. He told us how much he liked the new songs, including “Do You Remember Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio?” which he said had a classic fifties feel and which should become a huge anthem. He had high hopes for “Danny Says,” which was an airy ballad and a major departure for the group.
The cover song he wanted to do was “Baby, I Love You,” which he had cowritten back in 1963 for the Ronettes. Phil emphasized how important it was for Joey to get the right feel on the vocals for “Baby,” and that if he did, there was no stopping us. The song had been a hit before and could do it again.
Although I loved the song, I wasn’t sure it was right for the Ramones. But it wasn’t like I was going to question the judgment of probably the greatest producer who had ever lived. In any case, Phil Spector was comfortable with old friends, whether they were songs or people. It was easy to see why Grandpa Al Lewis fit into that category. Lewis’s politics were, like Phil’s, radical and to the left. There in the living room, with his cigar and classic New York accent, Lewis argued for the abolishment of New York’s harsh Rockefeller drug laws and the establishment of universal health care. John wasn’t into it.
“You give these lazy immigrants something free like that and you’ll never get rid of them.”
“Who wants to get rid of them except you?” Lewis said.
“They built the country.”
“People like my father built the country,” John said.
“Do you know how many Chinese immigrants died pounding out the Union Pacific Railroad, my friend? Hundreds!”
I had to laugh hearing John warn us about immigrants taking free stuff. All his T-shirts came from the band’s merchandise. We would get plain T-shirts in bulk so that Arturo Vega could silk-screen the Ramones logo onto them for sale after the shows. Before the logo went on, John would skim a dozen black shirts, a dozen blue ones, and a half dozen of whatever color. Those were the shirts John wore to every occasion including interviews, bar mitzvahs, and wakes. He never under any circumstances bought underwear or socks. His mother always bought him a ton of them for Christmas and that was all he ever needed. John’s yearly wardrobe budget was zero dollars and zero cents.
Grandpa Al was more than a left-winger. He was an eccentric and one with a delusion here and there. He told us he served on the legal defense team of the 1920s anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti. There was no doubt Grandpa would have if he could have, but he was about eleven years old at the time—or an infant, depending upon which birth date you believed. He also informed us that in the sixties he met Charles Manson, who babysat his sons. “He was a gentleman!” Grandpa said. Hearing this, Dee Dee started talking about his own sons, who didn’t even exist, and about his fictional days fighting the Vietcong. Someone should have grabbed a tape recorder, because this was an album.
When we walked into Gold Star Recording Studios on May 1, Phil, my new buddy, stopped me.
“Take it off. Take it off! I’m not spending the fucking day staring at a picture of my ex-wife!”
I was a Ronettes fan. It was as simple as that. That’s why I was wearing a T-shirt with Ronnie Spector and the other two Ronettes on it. It was not to annoy Phil. If anything, it was a tribute. For a second, I didn’t know what to do. On one hand, I didn’t take shit from people, including the guys in my own band. On the other hand, I wanted things to go smoothly, especially now. We didn’t need to start the album of our lives with a confrontation. But on the first hand again, I didn’t have another T-shirt with me.
So I took off the shirt, turned it inside out, and put it on again. Now Ronnie’s gorgeous eyes were staring at me, not him. I thought I saw Phil smile for an instant. It wasn’t much—just an upturn of one side of his mouth and done. I had shared wine with Phil many times and felt equipped to deal with him. If everyone in the room took the same approach, there was no reason it shouldn’t be smooth sailing.
There wouldn’t be many people in the control room. Those were Phil’s rules. It would be just Phil, his longtime engineer Larry Levine, the three other Ramones and myself. No wives and girlfriends allowed, and no crew. Monte had driven us to Gold Star from the Tropicana and would drive us back later but was content to sit in a chair just outside the control room. He had other things to worry about and had taken enough shit from us on the road to last a dozen rock-and-roll lifetimes.