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(Credit: Billboard / Roland Godefroy / Wikimedia)

The day Phil Spector held a gun to Leonard Cohen's head

It wasn’t the first time infamous music producer Phil Spector had held a gun to somebody’s head, nor would it be the last. In 1976, Leonard Cohen joined forces with the record producer to write the singer’s fifth album, Death of a Ladies’ Man. The collaboration was tough going. The pair’s relationship was already fraught with tension and, combined with Spector’s increasingly erratic behaviour, things quickly took a turn for the worse. After a long night, all Cohen wanted to do was go home and fall into a deep velvety sleep. He’d been stuck in the same studio day after day for what must have felt like an eternity, watching session musicians come and go, drinking cup after cup of tepid, black coffee. He still hadn’t managed to lay down a single vocal track, but finally, the moment seemed to have arrived.

Cohen did a couple of takes and felt happy enough with the result that he started making his way out of the recording booth and to the control room to take a listen on the studio monitors. Spector, however, was nowhere to be seen. Then, from the corner of his eye, Cohen saw Spector marching towards him with a bottle of something strong in one hand and a pistol in the other. The producer, dressed in a blazer patterned with marijuana leaves, grabbed Leonard by the neck and pressed the gun into the singer’s skin. Putting his mouth to Cohen’s ear, he whispered: “Leonard, I love you,” with a menacing tone. “I hope you do, Phil,” Cohen replied.

By 1976, both Cohen and Spector’s career’s were going through something of a slump. Spector had made his name in the ’60s, recording immensely successful songs for the likes of George Harrison and John Lennon. But, by the mid-1970s, he was in the midst of significant financial difficulty. Having signed a $100,000 contract with Warner and failed to make any records of note, the studio wanted blood. The outlook wasn’t much better for Cohen, who, following a slow and painful divorce from the mother of his children, Suzanne Elrod, had taken to heavy drinking.

To add insult to industry, Cohen’s label, CBS, was threatening to drop the star if he didn’t manage to break into the Canadian and European markets. In a last-ditch attempt to save Cohen’s skin, they suggested he team up with Spector for Death of a Ladies’ Man. The collaboration, however, descended into anarchy almost as soon as it had begun. When Cohen felt the nozzle of Spector’s pistol pressing into his neck, he must have wondered what had taken him so long. The producer had already taken shots at a number of other high-profile stars, including John Lennon.

Spector arrived in the studio where Lennon was recording and, being high on a cocktail of booze and amyl nitrate, starting firing shots above the singer’s head. Enraged by Spector’s wanton destruction, Lennon shouted: “Phil, if you’re going to kill me, kill me. But don’t fuck with my ears. I need ’em.” Spector’s unhinged behaviour during the recording of Death of a Ladies’ Man in 1976 would stick with Cohen for a long time, with the singer later recalling the terrifying occasion he bit onto a burger and found a pistol concealed between the two slices of bread.

Death of a Ladies’ Man came out the following year and was regarded as something of a departure from the minimalist folk sound that had defined much of Cohen’s earlier records, embracing the ‘wall of sound’ approach for which Spector was so famous. On release, it was treated with nothing short of bafflement. I’m sure Cohen felt equally confused as to why he’d agreed to work with Spector in the first place, considering the producer had eventually run off with the session tapes and, much to Leonard’s dismay, crafted the record around demo-quality vocal tracks.

For Cohen, the failure of the record was due to the insane levels of control Spector required from his partners. As the singer would recall in a 2001 interview: “It was just one of those periods where my chops were impaired and I wasn’t in the right kind of condition to resist Phil’s very strong influence on the record and eventual takeover of the record.” So many years later, Death of a Ladies’ Man still carries the weight of that terrifying dynamic between two of American music’s most enigmatic personalities.

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