As a member of the Ronettes, Ronnie Spector was the main voice behind some of the greatest songs of the '60s. Produced by Phil Spector, who romanced and married her, "Be My Baby" has one of the most instantly recognizable opening beats in rock 'n' roll, but it's the voice—part New York tough chick, part tender-girl vulnerability—that drives the point home. Spector and the Ronettes followed that hit with many more, including "Baby, I Love You," "I Wonder," "The Best Part Of Breakin' Up," "Do I Love You," and "Walking In The Rain." But eventually the hits dried up and the Spectors' relationship turned worse than sour. Ronnie Spector's 1990 autobiography Be My Baby: How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts And Madness tells an unhappy story of abuse, and she's spent the past 15 years extricating herself from the situation, which she's understandably reluctant to discuss. Now Spector has something else to talk about, a new EP on Kill Rock Stars (originally released on Britain's Creation label) produced by Daniel Rey and longtime fan Joey Ramone. She Talks To Rainbows includes a song penned by Ramone (the title track), one by Johnny Thunders ("You Can't Put Your Arms Around A Memory"), a duet with Ramone ("Bye Bye Baby"), which is a terrific and fascinating study in contrasting vocal styles, and "Don't Worry Baby," the song Brian Wilson wrote for her but which Phil Spector barred her from recording. After several decades, a couple of failed comebacks, and a guest spot on an Eddie Money hit (1986's "Take Me Home Tonight"), Spector's voice sounds terrific, her spirits seem high, and She Talks To Rainbows sounds like the real thing. Spector recently spoke to The Onion.
The Onion: Your voice sounds great. How do you keep it in shape?
Ronnie Spector: I don't know. It's just born with me, I guess. I take a few vocal lessons and I just go, "Aaaaah," that stuff, if I haven't done a show for a while. But other than that, it just comes out sort of naturally.
O: How did this project come about?
RS: Well, Joey [Ramone] had recorded "Baby I Love You" in the '80s, which was a remake of my '60s version. And my husband, who's also my manager and father of my kids and stuff, was listening to one of his cassettes in his car, and he came across this song "She Talks To Rainbows." He brought it home, and I said, "Who wrote that? I've got to meet this person," not even knowing it was Joey Ramone. I called him the next day and I said, "Joey, I've got to meet with you, I loved the song." We met the next day at Daniel Rey's house, and from there it was like a natural collaboration. It was just like magic, like me and Joey were meant together. And that's why we did that single on the record. It's so different. Joey's this tall guy from '80s rock, with the black jeans and the leather, and here I am, this girl from the '60s—sexy, rock 'n' roll—and we just clicked. We hadn't seen each other since the '80s, and it was just like we saw each other yesterday, so we started it from there and just kept going.
O: Did you get him to try to stretch his vocal range at all?
RS: [Laughs.] Funny you should ask that, but Joey has this natural sound. He's like me: He doesn't rehearse things, he just sings 'em. When I started out with him and he played me the song, the one that we do as a duet, he didn't have to change his key. I just had to sing over him, and it just worked. It wasn't thought over like the way most artists today have to go over song after song and pick out this lyric or that. We just went with it, it clicked, and it's wonderful.
O: How does the approach differ from, say, Bruce Springsteen's? [An admirer, Springsteen was behind an unsuccessful '70s single from Spector. —ed.]
RS: I was running back and forth to California because I had to be in court, and it was… I had custody of my children, and I was in court for 10 years, you know. I love Bruce, I love The E Street Band, and they tried, but I wasn't ready yet, then. I was still going through heavy stuff back in California, if you get my drift. So I didn't have time to really concentrate on my career, because it was constantly interrupted.
O: So, did you record this one and then pitch it to Creation? How did that work?
RS: Well, with Creation, I thought it was best to start off in London, and they were such a small label; that's why we got onto Kill Rock Stars in America. With Creation, I think they dealt with really less known artists than me. When others said Kill Rock Stars, and when Jonathan came to me and said, "How do you like this?," the first thing I said was, [very excited] "Yes," because I love [the name Kill Rock Stars] alone. Because most of the people I grew up with and loved—Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon—are dead, so I said, "I've got to get with 'em."
O: Do you like any other bands on the label? Do you listen to Elliott Smith or anything?
RS: No. I saw Sleater-Kinney in New York, and I thought they were very cool. I liked their sound and stuff like that. But I'm not one of these people… You have to remember, I'm 30, 35 years ago, so I don't really concentrate on the new artists of the day because they come and go so fast. You know, the reason I like Kill Rock Stars as a label is because Slim Moon, the owner, is his own truly independent person, and he puts out music that he believes should be heard. Not necessarily packaged, you know, where the artists have to have dancers and all this stuff before they go out there. He just believes in what should be heard, and he heard my voice and said, "She should be heard." And we took it from there.
O: So, why an EP and not a whole album?
RS: That was my idea, an EP, because I want to come back slowly. So many people come, put out an album, and they're gone. This way, by coming out with an EP, I'm just saying, "Remember me?"
O: Well, I like EPs. You don't wear out your welcome.
RS: Exactly, exactly. You hear the artist, and you hear four or five tunes, and then later maybe an LP. You know, I love rock 'n' roll, so I'd rather build my career rather than just throwing it out there, you know what I mean? And Kill Rock Stars is so good for that. Especially if… I feel like I'm a brand-new artist now, and it's just cool to have an EP because it's less pressure on me. So many people don't care about the artist these days—or in the '60s or '70s, obviously. And [Kill Rock Stars] cares about the person and their sound. That's what I love about Slim Moon; he believes that I should be heard, and he called us and said, "I want her." That's how it started, through Joey and Daniel and Jonathan and myself.
O: There have been a few years between this and your last album, which was in 1987, right?
O: What were you doing in between records?
RS: Running back and forth from California. Um, doing a few shows here and there. I just had my children, you know? I had three adopted children with Phil, and now I have my own biological children. In '87, they were like 3 and 4, so I really didn't want to go out and tour and all that; I wanted to be a real mom. I had my children and I wanted to stay home and know my children, and for them to know me. So I did a show here and there. I still worked, but not touring 200 days out of the year and stuff.
O: You're going to get a lot of attention for this album because you finally got to record "Don't Worry Baby." How was it to finally record it after all these years?
RS: That was so great! I was supposed to do that 30-some-odd years ago. "Don't Worry Baby" was supposed to be the follow-up to "Be My Baby." I mean, Brian Wilson actually went home after hearing "Be My Baby" and wrote "Don't Worry Baby" for me. And, of course, he didn't get a chance to give it to me, because in those days Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich were writing my songs, and they didn't want anything to do with other people. So that's why I didn't do it. "Don't Worry Baby" actually helped me in the '70s when I came back, to relax and stuff. I would play it over and over when I got depressed.
O: It's made for your voice, too. It's kind of odd, though: The lyric dealing with drag-racing, was that always there for you? It seems like such a strange song for a woman.
RS: You know, I knew that, too. Joey, Daniel, Jonathan, and I talked about that, because I said, "I can't say, 'Race the car,'" you know, when the lyric talks about drag-racing or whatever. But I didn't want to change a word, even though I'm a girl. Because girls drive, too, and girls race and stuff these days. So I left that in there on purpose because, really, it was a dedication to Brian Wilson.
O: You wouldn't want to mess with what he'd done.
RS: Yeah, and after he knew I couldn't have it, I guess that's when he changed the lyrics to being about a car.
O: Did you contact him to let him know you were doing this?
RS: No. Other people did; he sure knows. As a matter of fact, about a month ago, he was at the Beacon Theater, and they invited me down to see his show. He actually sang "Be My Baby" in his show, and it freaked me out. I'm sitting there in the audience with everybody, grooving off his music, and all of a sudden I hear the drums going "bum-ba-bump." I never expected him to sing "Be My Baby," but he did.
O: It must have been a thrill.
RS: It was! I went backstage after hearing him sing, which was an honor to me. Brian's been through a lot of tough times in his life, and when I got up to his dressing room, I just started singing "Be My Baby" to him, and he loved it. And then I sat next to him and put my head on his chest and started singing "Walking In The Rain," and he freaked. His body started shaking and then I got up and sang "So Young." And he's like, "Oh, no, I love that song!" And then I went into "Do I Love You?" as I was walking out, and he was absolutely starting to tremble and shake. I thought I scared him. I thought he was going to have a heart attack or something. I said, "Oh, my God, I've killed Brian Wilson," as I was walking out of the room, because he started actually shaking. So I sorta walked out of the room, and he just said, "Ronnie, you brought me so much love." And I think for that moment, he actually became the old Brian Wilson. He was drug-free, he was the guy from the '60s with The Beach Boys all over again, just for those few moments that I sang. And I gave him like a little concert, and I only sang a little of "Be My Baby," a little of "Walking In The Rain," and a little of "So Young," because I know he's been playing my album for 30 years. That's all he listens to, and to hear me in person, without music, just singing those songs, it blew his mind.
O: You know, I thought he looked good on that tour.
RS: Me, too.
O: I thought he really got it together, or the people around him were helping him out an awful lot.
RS: Oh, you know, that's what it was. He had so many people sorta walking on eggshells because they know him and understand him. That particular night, they had asked me if I would sing "Be My Baby" at his show. Then one guy said yes and the other guy said no, because he has these moments and you're sort of frightened, and I was frightened even going in his dressing room. I didn't know what else to do, so I just started singing, and of course he loved it.
O: It was weird. I actually bumped into him at a Denny's after a show.
RS: No kidding?
O: And I had to go up. I never… I mean, it's Brian Wilson, so I had to go up and say hi. I don't know if I made him nervous or not, but I just had to thank him for the show and everything.
RS: What did he say?
O: He kinda nodded, and we left him to his dinner.
RS: [Laughs.] Well, I sorta did the same thing; I just sorta sang and then walked out of the room. I didn't want to upset him. But that's amazing that you met him at Denny's after the show.
O: What's your favorite of your old songs?
RS: Of my stuff, or just in general?
O: Of your older songs.
RS: Probably "Be My Baby." I just love that song.
O: It's pretty near a perfect song, isn't it?
RS: Yes, I think so. I mean, you know, to have lasted this long… I was telling somebody else earlier today, I was in a restaurant the other day with my mother-in-law having lunch, and "Be My Baby" came on. It never ceases to amaze me that it's still playing every day. I take my kids to karate class and I hear it in the car; the kids hear it, and it's like, "What?" It's like, I'm amazed that they're still playing it as if it were the '60s.
O: Did you have any idea that it would endure for this long when you recorded it?
RS: Never. I mean, you never even thought about that. I never would have thought it would have gone into the year 2000, ever. Five years tops, you know?
O: Especially in the early '60s, when everyone still thought rock 'n' roll was a fad.
RS: Exactly. In the early '60s, you know, you were called one-hit wonders. That was it; you were in and you were out. For me to get in the car and go to the grocery store and hear one of my songs, I have to stop and go on the side of the road with my car and hear it because I'm in shock. I'm so amazed that they're still playing it.
O: Why do you think people come back to it?
RS: Because it was real, it was innocent, it was natural, the lyrics are pure. You know, "For every kiss you give me, I'll give three." It was just songs that were written on the spot, you know what I mean? That came from the heart, you know, when I was with Phil; he was in love with me and I was in love with him, so the lyrics and all that came about with the relationship. That's what's so natural, and that's why I think all those songs lasted, because they were so innocent and real.
O: Who do you like who's working today? Is there anyone you're impressed with?
RS: Today. Ugh. You know, so many people come and go, and before I get a chance to like them, they're gone. You know how you get a taste of a new group and then they're gone? They have the video bands, and the singers don't go out and learn how to perform live. The label spends half a million dollars to create this image of the band, and you go see them live and there's nothing happening. Stage performing is a dying art form, and I'm afraid with this technology and stuff that people are going to wake up one day and not know what rock 'n' roll feels like. You know, the sweat, the energy, the sexual tension. There's nothing like it in the world.
O: I can't imagine Whitney Houston working as hard.
RS: Exactly. People like that, the Whitney Houstons, are obviously… It's for the money, for the glamour. I just saw her on one of these Oprah shows, and she's showing her outfits that she's wearing at her concerts, and that is not rock 'n' roll. What I do is peek out at the audience and see what they're wearing, and then I sort of slip into what I feel they… You know, you give to the audience. Today, people go up there and want you to admire them and look at their clothes and their wigs and their make-up, and it's not about rock 'n' roll at all.
O: Are you going to be touring?
RS: Oh, yes.
O: Will it be a big tour?
RS: No, I don't know if it's going to be a big tour, but I know I'm doing San Francisco, all the "in" places, you know. A lot of college stuff, so kids can see what rock 'n' roll was really about. I think God saved me so I can show the kids what it was really about in the '60s.