Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory" is one
of Johnny Thunder's most beloved songs, tinctured
with nostalgia just out of grasp and the bittersweet
intangibles and tangibles of life's fleeting fancy.
Listening to Ronnie Spector sing this paean to past
as elusive present at the Life disco in New York
City for a recent Christmas show—she of the
sleigh-belled Phil Spector Christmas album on which
she saw Mommy kissing Santa Clauauauaus—was
the whammy of the double pop icon, singer and song.
Knowing Keith Richards would be coming out to play
Chuck Berry's greatest licks in tandem with Ronnie,
with Joey Ramone guesting and somewhere in there
Tom Clark and myself doo-wopping a medley of holiday
tunes by the Castelles and Sonny Til and the Orioles,
only added to the occasion. I began to feel the
tectonic-plate reverberations of a life lived in
iconic look and voice are hers, simply. Or, as Joey
Ramone puts it, "Ronnie's just Ronnie." Her legendary stardust stare is enshrined on the cover
of her new She Talks to Rainbows ep
(released on the Kill Rock Stars label, no less),
where her black-encircled eyes tell her sultry tale.
These windows to the soul, dark and direct and framed
like a renaissance artwork in their brushed liner,
straddle the twilight zone between sensuality and
innocence, able to go either way. Both, in Ronnie's
grew up as Veronica Bennett on the Upper-Upper West
Side, a sliver of Manhattan blocks just under Washington
Heights that was then, and still is, in ethnic flux.
The flow of the Hudson a few short blocks away gave
the neighborhood a port feel, and the family settled
at 405 West 149th Street, near St. Nicholas
Avenue. The tempo in the air was Afro-Spanish, and
Ronnie herself was an acknowledged half-breed, black
and white intermingled, a mix heightened by the
compressed nature of New York's neighborhoods, where
the musical bleed was united by the weekly charts
of New York's AM hit radio: the WABC All-Americans,
the WMCA good guys and especially Murray the K of
WINS, who played tunes for "submarine race-watchers"
and ran shows at the Brooklyn Fox each holiday season.
He was New York's most revered disc jockey.
lived in a small apartment with her folks and sister
Estelle, who was two years older. A cousin, Nedra,
was close by, and the trio hung out together, adopting
the beehive hair and Cleopatra eye make-up that
defined au-courant-a-go-go plumage, riding the Seventh
Avenue subway into midtown to do the twist. The
sixties had just begun. All three were waiting in
line to get into the Peppermint Lounge on West 45th
Street in 1962 when the manager, thinking they were
the onstage dancing group, pulled them out and up
to the stage alongside Joey Dee and his Starliters.
Passed the microphone during "What'd I Say,"
Ronnie opened her mouth. A bird of paradise sprang
maybe it was a bit more calculated than that. The
pre-Ronettes had entertained thoughts of being singers,
and the family was musical; an assortment of cousins
(including Ronnie) even traipsed to the nearby Apollo
Theater to sing "Why Do Fools Fall in Love"
one amateur night. Ronnie loved Frankie Lymon's
voice, his cusp of child-to-adult, his perfect diction
and his dead-eye aim on the note, striking it straight
on and then shaking it with vibrato.
girls enrolled with a vocal coach in Broadway's
legendary Brill Building, and one day, while sipping
Cokes at the downstairs coffee shop, were approached
by an agent named Phil Halikus, who said he could
find them work. He connected them with Colpix producer
Stu Jacobs (responsible for the Marcels' version
of "Blue Moon"), who, over the spring
of 1962, recorded a dozen sides. The released singles—the
best of which is the delightful "What's So
Sweet About Sweet Sixteen"—were somewhat
anonymous, reflecting the girls' inexperience and
Jacobs' attempt to figure them out. Their chosen
name, Ronnie and the Relatives, offered few of the
come-hither qualities that would later define them.
Ronnie was determined to be noticed, and once the
Lounge had taken note of the sensation the girls
had caused in their impromptu performance, they
became the Peppermint Twisters, singing a couple
of songs with the band and spending the rest of
the evening dancing atop the "rails" shaking
their "tails." They were in show business,
ten bucks a night and all the dreams they could
singles released by Colpix disappeared into the
black hole of nowheresville, and the girls were
further disheartened by the director of Hey,
Let's Twist, a bandwagon movie shot at the Lounge,
refusing to let them be in the film because they
were neither black nor white.
this cross-polarization would prove the future Ronettes'
strongest cultural card, a racial tension at the
core of the music known as rock and roll. When blended
together in just the right alchemy, it can transmute
all elements into gold. The first to recognize their
uniqueness was Murray the K, who visited the opening
of the Florida branch of the Peppermint Lounge and
invited them back to New York to be his dancing
girls at the Brooklyn Fox, not realizing they were
the hometown transistors to his transmitter. He
only knew they looked like the music he played.
Fox was home to a dozen acts each Christmas, Easter
and Labor Day, allotted a song or two or three,
depending on how many hits you had spinning around
the charts, four or five or six times a day, with
the downtime spent hanging out backstage with the
peers of your musical moment. Little Anthony, the
Shirelles, Dusty Springfield, the Marvelettes and
Marvin Gaye all brushed shoulders along Flatbush
Avenue. The Ronettes' job was to keep the tail feathers
flying around Murray, sing the occasional song and
wonder why they were twelfth on the bill and their
records weren't going anywhere while their slit
skirts and slit eyes were making the crowd go wild.
can shimmy; few can sing. Adopting the look of Spanish
calle culture kept their catcall whistle-factor
high, but eccentric legendary producer Phil Spector
was not one to be attracted by a mere toss of the
hip. He made records, sound pictures that created
their own cinerama visuals; no one could ever live
up to their widescreen grandeur.
is, until he heard Ronnie sing. She was the picture
he hung on his epic wall-of-sound; the records they
made together represent an apex of Spector's art
and the Girl Group as it came to be well-beloved
in the mid-sixties. The hits—"Be My Baby,"
"Baby I Love You," "Walkin' in the
Rain," "The Best Part Of Breaking Up"—sing
for themselves. Even in Spector's dense fog of heightened
instrument overlay and indelible hook, Ronnie (and
her Ronettes—this was a trinity, with the
thin angularism of Nedra balanced by the curvaceous
badder-girl Estelle) stepped out from the swirling
production and proclaimed herself incarnate. Tough
but fragile, as able to break your heart as bust
your head. "Good-bad, but not evil," as
the Shangri-Las would put it, playing the Rolling
Stones to the Ronettes' Beatles, though those categories
had yet to be invented. In the early sixties, it
was the Fab Four who threw a party to celebrate
the Ronettes' first English tour, and Keith Richards
who slept on her living room floor when the Stones
initially visited America.
Girl Group as a phenomenon reasserts itself at regular
intervals. Perhaps it never goes away, just taking
on the accessories of the present, earrings to piercings
with a nod to the synchronized dance step. Occasionally
a golden era will result, when a style crystallizes
("Da Doo Ron Ron!") and pop music finds
its most seductive silhouettes-for-this-season draping
the female voice, the sashay and song styling and
the polished fingernails of production raking themselves
down your back. I think of this whenever I hear
Destiny's Child negotiating the staggered rhythms
of "Bills," or So Plush's "Damn (Should've
Treated U Right)," or Aaliyah's "Are You
That Somebody." I think of this when I hear
only thing Phil Spector could do was marry Ronnie.
That he proceeded to try to cage the very thing
which had fascinated him so, the wild burst of freedom
Ronnie unleashed in her voice, is probably the same
impulse that made him a great artist in the first
place: all visionaries wish to grab a grand emotion
out of the air and capture it, encase it behind
the bars of a work-in-progress. There's an element
of big-game hunting, of tracking the exquisite concept
and bringing it back alive, trapped in your own
personal trophy den, in the shape of a novel, or
record, a movie or this article. But you have an
obligation to let your subject find their way within
your work; otherwise, there results a battle of
will and expectation, and Spector, the control aficionado,
had no compunctions about sacrificing his work in
pursuit of an unattainable ideal. In the end, it
would topple the edifice of his production empire,
leading to studio skirmishes with artists—Dion,
the Ramones, Leonard Cohen—and records that
could never be topped. Instead, they toppled, like
his meisterwork of "River Deep Mountain High,"
featuring Ike and Tina Turner. Eventually, as the
sixties closed, he turned inside himself, to his
was trapped with Spector. Was this what "Be
My Baby"—"my one and only baby"—was
about? Doors locked from the inside, bodyguards
making sure she never left the grounds of a Beverly
Hills mansion, her career cut off just as it was
Ronnie escaped. In 1972, she left him and went off
to test the waters on her own. Nedra and Estelle
were retired; it was up to her now. "I wish
I didn't love it so much," says Ronnie wistfully,
her voice still retaining some of the spanglish
inflection of her old stomping grounds. "It
would make it all easier. I say to myself, Ronnie,
you've got kids now, you're living in Connecticut,
why not just hang up your rock and roll shoes? But
I can't. It's those three little words. I love it."
they love her, a new generation whose sense of the
Ronettes has been passed along like oral folk tradition,
crowding the front of stages from Tokyo to arcane
clubs like New York's Coney Island High. When she
brings up Joey Ramone to duet with her on "Bye
Bye Baby," their voices meld to bridge any
she feels at home in the music of today—listening
to Ricky Martin reminds her of the days when she
used to cha-cha and mambo at the Palladium with
her best teen-girlfriend, Mildred Rodriguez—she's
also at home with herself. "I have a real life
now," she says, "and my voice is better
than ever. It's my turn now."
hasn't been easy, what with a fourteen-year ongoing
legal battle with Spector denying her access to
royalties and even excising her appearances from
the classic TNT Show and compilations of old Shindig
and Hullaballoo television programs. But she's nothing
if not a survivor, and she has the vocal cords to
prove it. "I sing all the songs in the same
key," she says proudly, and it's up to me to
add that it's also with the same emotional commitment
and onstage joy.
solo career has shown a remarkably open mind and
range of collaborators, all anxious to pay homage
to the girl they fell in love with in their formative
years. In the mid-seventies she worked with Miami
Steve Van Zandt and the E Street Band, recording
Bruce Springsteen's "You Mean So Much to Me"
and Billy Joel's "Say Goodbye to Hollywood."
Ten years later, she was riding atop the charts
with Eddie Money and "Take Me Home Tonight."
She has made records with Genya Raven and Paul Schaffer,
and today, produced by Joey and Daniel Rey, her
new ep shows that though the settings may change,
one thing remains constant. That voice.
all begins there, a vibration from deep in her throat
and the push of air. One time I had the opportunity
to hear a pre-mixed tape from a Spector session,
an early version of "Walking in the Rain"
with the background vocals isolated, Ronnie and
her -ettes in a small sound booth, joined by Cher
(then an up-and-coming singer yet to click with
Sonny) and perhaps the Blossoming Darlene Love.
No studio trickery; the voices glow with burnished
has so much love and passion in her voice,"
says Joey Ramone. "She's a free spirit."
and strength are the attracting opposites of Ronnie's
appeal. When I first interviewed her, in the early
seventies, when she was fresh from breaking away
from Spector, she brought her mother to the interview,
and the very sweetness of this gesture won my heart.
The remembrance seems especially poignant in the
light of her losing her mom a year ago, but Ronnie
has always made no pretense about wearing her beating
heart on her silken sleeve.
no diva. She hates the term, connoting as it does
haughtiness and a sense of queenly entitlement that
seems out of place with her earthy splendor. It's
about "having fun, sweat, sex, tears and energy."
"Either you got it or you don't," she
winks, and once the gift is given and thankfully
received, it is your duty to give it back to the
people who lend their ears to you.