Weird at My School: Jack Nitzsche

Jack Nitzsche

by DJ El Toro

Last month, legendary producer and songwriter Phil Spector was convicted of second degree murder. And I’m finding it a bit difficult to listen to his records. I love those classic “Wall of Sound” oldies, Spector’s “little symphonies for the kids,” designed to sound huge even through the tiniest transistor radio speaker. Yet my Ronettes and Righteous Brothers sides sit untouched right now. Playing them seems distasteful; I felt the same way about anything affiliated with Ike Turner for years.

Where to turn for vintage pop on an epic scale, while this self-imposed embargo is in effect? Right now, when I’m hankering to hear tunes that sound and feel like more than just a bunch of ones and zeroes pinging back and forth in my ear buds, I rely on the vast repertoire of Jack Nitzsche.

Spector may get the lion’s share of the credit, but Nitzsche was one of the architects of the Wall of Sound, too. Starting with “He’s A Rebel” in the summer of 1962, he was responsible for the arrangements on most of Spector’s definitive singles: “Be My Baby,” “Then He Kissed Me,” “River Deep Mountain High.” But he worked with a ton of other artists, too, and was a gifted producer, songwriter, and conductor as well. He even scored a Top 40 hit under his own name, with a melodramatic 1963 instrumental (“The Lonely Surfer”) that sounds more like Ennio Morricone than the Beach Boys.

A couple years ago, the folks at Ace Records compiled a pair of stellar Nitzsche retrospectives, Hearing Is Believing: The Jack Nitzsche Story 1962 – 1979 and Hard Workin’ Man: The Jack Nitzsche Story Volume 2. Revisited them over the weekend, I was struck time and again by Nitzsche’s knack for inching big name artists outside of their comfort zone. He could take a vanilla act like Bobby Darin or Lesley Gore, even Doris Day, and forge a recording was just a little more dramatic, or that rocked a little harder, than what the public expected. And it was Nitzsche who helped Marianne Faithfull transition from a pop lightweight to a serious artist with his work on the original 1969 version of “Sister Morphine.”

Spector’s records inevitably sounded over the top, yet Nitzsche took a different tack. His pushed things right to the edge -- then stopped. There’s an element of danger to the records he arranged and produced. A sense that one instrument out of place could make the whole venture horribly overblown. Or, worse still, one too few might reduce it to business as usual.

His resume reads just a bit cooler than Phil’s, too. Spector had the Beatles, Leonard Cohen and the Ramones, but Jack worked with the Rolling Stones, Tim Buckley, and the Germs. He enjoyed a long, successful career scoring films, too, including Performance and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Perhaps “Up Where We Belong,” which he co-write with Buffy Sainte-Marie, seems a little square today, but it won the Academy Award for Best Song in 1982. Not too shabby.

Not that Nitzsche, who died in 2000, was some kind of angel. In the detailed liner notes of Hearing Is Believing, “Queen of the Beatniks” Judy Henske recounts the prodigious amount of booze and pills she and Nitzsche ingested while working together. “I’m surprised somebody didn’t just commit us both to an asylum at the time,” she writes.

That whiff of danger I cherish on his records seems to have spilled over into his personal life, too. In 1979, Nitzsche was put on three years probation for breaking and entering. And then there’s this quote from his obituary in the New York Times: “In the late 1990′s, The Los Angeles Times reported, his arrest was shown on the television series Cops after he waved a gun at someone who had stolen his hat.”

Like I said: Right to the edge. But not over it. Not quite.

DJ El Toro is the host of the overnight show In Between Sleep & Reason, Wednesday mornings from 1 AM to 6 AM on KEXP 90.3 FM Seattle and kexp.org. His column, Weird At My School, appears every Monday on the KEXP Blog. You can now follow DJ El Toro on Twitter!

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