Reading this makes me feel sad in a way, because Jack Douglas kept mentioning John had so much plans and one big priority was Ringo’s album. It would have been a mini-reunion for The Beatles had that pushed through. I remember that there was a scheduled recording with Ringo in January 1981, but John was killed on December 8, a month before that session. Just too bad.
ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT ON JUL 19, 2016 12:30 PM, GothamistIN
Jack Douglas with John Lennon and Yoko Ono (Jack Douglas)
Jack Douglas was a pivotal rock producer in the 1970s, forging relationships with everyone from Patti Smith to the New York Dolls, from Aerosmith to Cheap Trick, from Miles Davis to The Who. Previously, he told us about meeting John Lennon and becoming friends with him during the making of Imagine. Below, he discusses how he was summoned by Yoko Ono to work on what would turn out to be Lennon’s final two records, Double Fantasy and Milk and Honey; the night Lennon was killed; and Lennon’s enduring love for The Beatles.
So there was this four or five year period where John was basically off the radar. How did he approach you about wanting to record again? Listen, the way he approached the whole thing was so strange. I got a phone call one day and it was so mysterious. [He said] if I’m interested in doing something extra special, show up at 30th Street. There was a pier where sea planes used to land and I showed up and met a sea plane at noon. Now, how could you resist that? [I had] no idea what it was for.
So I went there, and a sea plane landed, and I got in it, and we flew over to Cold Spring Harbor and pulled up to this mansion, the boat pulled right up to the beach. [Yoko’s ex-husband Ichiyanagi] Toshi came out and said, “Come this way, Yoko is waiting for you.” And I said, “Yoko?” I walked up there, Yoko was there, “Oh Jack, it’s so great to see you. What I tell you right now, you can’t ever tell anyone.” “Okay. Fine. My lips are sealed. What is it?” “John wants to do a record, he wants you to produce it. But you can’t tell anyone about it, he’s in Bermuda right now. He’s going to call and talk to you in a few minutes.”
This sounds very secretive. “Okay.” So the phone rang and John said, “You know, I want to do a record but I don’t know if I want to do a record. I have some material, I’ve been writing for a while, writing down here in Bermuda” and of course he had a near-death experience sailing in a storm down there, which I think changed his perspective completely. Because almost all of those songs were written in Bermuda.
So it was like one creative burst. Was this 1979? Yeah, ’79. And so I agreed that I would listen to the stuff. And he said, “Yoko has it” and she handed me an envelope that said, “For Jack’s ears only.” And I took it home and he called me at home the next day and asked, “What do you think?” And my honest opinion was that they were very primitive, a whole bunch of cassettes, there was narration in it, he talked me through it. The songs all began with an explanation, a lot of it funny, and all of them ended with, “What a piece of crap. I’m going to give it to Ringo for his solo album.”
Were these all songs that ended up being on the album? No, there were still a few more. And there was so much on that tape that I didn’t put on the album. But the Beatles had completed “Real Love” many years later, from that cassette. They built off of that cassette. Actually, I had the original so they built that off of a copy that maybe Yoko had.
Were there any songs from that tape that immediately hit you? Oh yes, there were so many. So many. There was so much material on that tape. Two cassettes.
Do you still have that tape? Yes.
Did you ever digitize it? Yes. But they’ll never be—it’s property of Yoko. Period. It’s her property. So anyway, most of it’s been released.
On the box sets [John Lennon Anthology and John Lennon Signature Box]. Yes, most of those demos have been released… Maybe not with his dialogue, which is quite funny, but he’s singing into a tape machine like a beat box, like a Panasonic from back in the day. He’s singing into it, playing guitar, and then playing that into another, just from the speakers and then singing along with it, like playing percussion or doubling his vocals. It was so primitive. Banging on pots and pans. Very primitive. And my first reaction was, “I don’t think I can beat it, to tell you the truth. It’s so good.” And he’s like, “Oh, no, no, no, that’s not—“ and I said, “John, put this out. It will be sensational. Just put this cassette out. I’m putting myself out of the greatest job I’ve ever had in my life, but I’m just telling you.”
And he said, “Look, when I come back, you start working on this. Put together a band. Here’s what I want to do, I don’t want to make a rock album. What I want to make here is a record about a middle aged man. I want it to have that feel, a man who’s putting together his life, who’s survived, for me. The Beatles. And all of this other crap that’s going on in my life. I survived it all, I’m now a family man. I’m facing middle age, I’m looking at 40.” And he said, “We’re probably going to get a lot of heat for the record we’re going to make, but I want session guys my age that I can talk to, and tell them, something like this, I can refer to old songs and they’ll understand, same touchstone.” “Okay.”
He said, “You put together a band. You go rehearse. I won’t be there. They won’t know whose record they’re making.” So that’s what I did, I broke out charts of the songs. He said, “You can do the arrangements, do anything you want. You do what you want, record the rehearsals, and when you leave the rehearsals, you come back to the Dakota and play it for me and we’ll talk about what changes I want to make.”
So I’d go to rehearsal, I’d go back to the Dakota, literally jump in bed with him because he liked to work in bed. He had this bed, and he was surrounded by instruments and guitars and recorders, keyboards, everything all around him. And I’d jump in bed with him and he’d listen and go, “Oh, that’s close. I want you to do this, change this a little bit.” And I’d go back to rehearsal and everyone would ask, “Who is the artist?” And I would sing the songs terribly.
And the last rehearsal was at the Dakota. I said, “Boys, this last rehearsal, it’s going to be a kind of unplugged rehearsal. Just meet me on the corner of 77th and Central Park West” and for most of them, it was suspicions confirmed. We went up to the Dakota and I said, “Now you know who it is, but you can not tell anyone. The studio didn’t know who I was bringing in. If you tell, the sessions will stop. Because John doesn’t even know if this is going to go forward. And if it doesn’t, it’d depress him to know he tried and couldn’t.” So that rehearsal, we just kind of jammed around in the studio, the other apartment he had on the 7th floor. Play piano, some acoustic guitar. Mostly just to meet the guys. Some of them he knew.
On the way out, everybody’s leaving—at the door to the apartment he had a Rhodes piano so if he had an idea when he got home, he could get to it and a little tape machine. Tony [Levin, bassist] was going through the door, and Hugh [McCracken, lead guitar] was following, and he grabbed them and said, “Wait, I just wrote it,” and he played “(Just Like) Starting Over.” And he said, “What do you think?” “I think it’s a smash, probably the first single. Why don’t we record that first and it’ll be like rehearsing, we’ll kind of get to know the band this way.
At one point I had Cheap Trick come in and record a couple tracks with him, and they’ve been released.
What songs did they do together? “I’m Losing You.” So I brought them in to cut some tracks, I thought they would get along great, and they did, but it was too edgy. That was supposed to be a soft record.
Yeah, but imagine Lennon and Cheap Trick touring together. I know, I thought it was the perfect combination.
Would have been a hell of a combo. Yeah. They were so Beatles-influenced. That was a band I found and signed. In Waukesha, Wisconsin. We haven’t talked much about other people’s bands. You get on Lennon, and there’s so much to say…
I think we’ll get there. So the plan was always for Yoko’s songs to be interwoven? We weren’t sure. To tell you the truth, when Yoko said, “Alright, let’s do them in order,” John and I did the same thing, we put him on Side A and her on Side B. And we still had another record in the can. For me, it was like producing four records. I had two artists, and we were doing two records.
So it sounds like for many of the songs, you already had backing tracks recorded for everything and it was just him coming in and doing his vocals. No, by the end of the process I had all those tracks. We recorded everything in the room, John sang live on all of them. All those were keepers. When I did the stripped down version a couple years ago, it was the basic track and almost all just live vocals. So you could hear him talk to the band, talk to me. It’s very personal, there are no effects on it, it’s very dry.
Were the final sessions pretty quick? No, it was a long process. Like I said, we’re talking about like four records. He took a little time off, he told me he was going back to Bermuda to write, the plan was to do a Ringo album, Paul had already signed on. So it was going to be Paul and John and we were trying to get George to back Ringo, which would have been unbelievable.
He’d written a couple songs here and there specifically for Ringo, right? Like “I’m The Greatest”? Yeah, there were a bunch of things. Almost every song, at some point, he says, “Okay, this is for Ringo.” And it could be that the Milk and Honey record may have been… a lot of those songs ended up on Ringo’s record.
Was it you or was it John who ultimately decided which songs were going to go on Double Fantasy? It was definitely mutual. I think we just had all this material. [After we finished those sessions] he told me he was going to Bermuda and to go ahead and do whatever I want, we would start recording again [eventually], and probably the Ringo thing after the first of the year, and he was planning a tour and all this other stuff. And then he called me and said, “We’re going back. Again. I feel like I just don’t want to leave the studio.”
He got the bug back. Yeah, and said, “Just you and me and Yoko. That’s all I want. Get an assistant, get an engineer, and produce.” And by then, we went back to Record Plant and we worked up on the 10th floor in the smaller room and I had already booked to do something for RCA, I moved it back to the middle of the night. And we would work all afternoon. “Walking on Thin Ice.” We only had a germ of that record, so we made a loop of I think eight bars, and then John and I played all the rest of the instruments on it. It’s just loop based. And a loop then was just a tape machine, I had it on a two- track spinning back to a multitrack, cutting bars together. And then John and I played over it, which was very wild. It was great. We were having a blast. We just felt like we had complete freedom to do whatever we wanted. And Yoko was great.
Everyone was getting along great during those later records. Yeah, and John knew that Yoko was onto something with that one. Especially with that spoken word. And the whole feel of it was so different that she was going to have a hit. It was nominated for a Grammy. But we actually finished that song and that last night he…I would go to my session afterward, a session at nine or ten at night, and he…we were planning on mastering in the morning. And some asshole went and shot him when he got home.
That was that night? Yeah, I said, “Goodnight, see you in the morning” at Sterling, the mastering studio. And a few minutes later I get a phone call, he’s been shot. I couldn’t believe it. I went up to Roosevelt Hospital, spent the night there. But he was already gone. They didn’t announce it until 6 in the morning.
So you were one of the last people to spend time with him. Yeah. It was me, Yoko and the driver. That’s it.
Double Fantasy was already number one. We were doing that in December. I mean he came back into the studio in late October, late November and started just messing around with stuff and decided on “Walking on Thin Ice”. And it didn’t look like he was gonna leave us, either. I mean, we were just having a great time. But then it was cut short.
The Dakota after Lennon’s death (Getty Images)
That’s a pretty incredible story. Do you think that he chose you specifically for that last project because of your prior relationship? I ask the same question. I mean, we were friends, I never had an agenda with him. None whatsoever. Yoko trusted me. Knew that I understood what she was doing and I didn’t think it was crazy. But I asked John… we used to have a lot of talks. We would talk for hours after a session, cause Yoko worked in the daytime for the most part. And she’d go home and John would come in and we’d work all night. And John would like to kick back after a session. He had an old opium pipe that he liked to load with some weed, [a pipe] that I believe he got from Paul.
“Are we finished?” “Yep” So we’d kick back and smoke his pipe. And we would talk. But one day we were sitting and talking just for the hell of it. Anyone in the world could be producing, there’s so many other producers out there. I do some interesting stuff, but you know, I’m not George Martin—who I actually have a great relationship with. He taught me a lot. In England he had me come over and got me a flat.
Oh, in the seventies? Did you work on a project together? We did work on that movie, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
The all-star production with the Bee Gees? Yeah, I cut “Come Together”, which was a hit. And then we became friends. But anyway. In fact, when I wanted Cheap Trick to play on the record, they were doing a record with George Martin in Montserrat, and I had to call George and say, “Listen, I got your guy, can I borrow mine?” And he said “With pleasure”. And they came up to record.
So I asked John, “You know, of all these different people, you could have had…” and that look he would give me, the look if you’re getting insecure about something. And I said, “Look, why me? Why am I producing this record?” And he said, “Don’t you know? You should know why.” And I said, “No” and he went like this to me [Douglas puts his hands above his head]. And I said, “What’s that?” and he said, “Good antenna”. He said, “I don’t have to say much. I know you’re ahead of me. You have an idea of what the flow is, what I’m looking for. You know I’m impatient, you know that if things get caught up I get angry, I can’t take it. It flows. It moves. If we get stuck on a song, you get off it and move on to another. Then you move on to the right one, the right order. That’s why.”
He said, “That’s why. I don’t have to work, I just let you produce”. And he was very easy to produce. One of the easiest people to produce. So easy to produce, such a pro.
It sounds like he had a lot of faith in you, a lot of trust in you creatively. I guess he did.
Did he talk much about the Beatles? All the time.
Did he feel like it was a weight on him? No, he absolutely loved it. I used to have a little Sony blaster that I would put up… It’s funny because now I do my fucking mix through a Bose wave radio, but then it was a Sony blaster. A fairly good one. And if you sounded good in there, everything was right. And one day in a few moments when nothing was going on, he would put on WNYW FM and listen to the radio. He loved to listen.
And when a Beatles song came on the radio, he would tell you everything about that session. Everything that happened. He never had a problem talking about how much he loved that band. And how much he loved those guys. He was a little annoyed at George, because George had written a book and he didn’t mention John much in the book, at that time. But he felt that that would come around.
But his love for that band. Phenomenal. It was great. It was what you hoped he would be like.
He loved them as much as everyone loved them. Did he ever discuss why they never reunited, or why they had those near-misses? Well you know he and Paul were already in the process. This Ringo album I think was going to be big.
That could have been a big stepping stone? Yeah.
Did you ever see them together, any of them? No. But I know that Paul was up at the Dakota.
Did they jam together? I don’t know. All I know is that Paul was preparing stuff for Ringo’s album.
Did you ever have moments when you became a fan again, and you were asking him specifically, like, “What did you do on this song?” I can’t say that I did. I did that more to George [Martin] and to their engineer, Geoff Emerick.
He has an amazing book, by the way. Geoff Emerick I drove so crazy. We’re good friends. But I drove him so crazy that when he did his one and only interview for Mix Magazine, they asked him who his favorite producer was, and cause he couldn’t think of anybody except the guy who drove him crazy, he said me. Which I always thought, but that’s like insane, you know. Me?
But both of them I drove crazy, and they both… George would tell me, real specific things, and when I was working at their studios for those months that I was, he would bring in his personal equipment for me to use and he’d show me how to use it. That he used on Beatles records. Every once in a while, I’d be working and I would look over and like… holy shit. That’s John Lennon over there. I think I maybe have a picture on my phone that expresses maybe what they were like. Because we had a lot of fun.
Jack in the studio with John and Yoko (Jack Douglas)