Michael Gerber
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In the run-up to John Lennon’s 75th birthday this week, this old post of ours is getting a lot of traffic. If you haven’t read it, it’s great — and an example of the wonderfulness of Bill King’s magazine Beatlefan. And after you read it, you might head over to this thread on The Beatles Bible. [Originally posted July 20, 2010; reposted October 7, 2015.]

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(Folks, in the process of answering a comment from stalwart commenter Nancy, I stumbled across this excerpted Beatlefan interview with Jack Douglas, the producer on “Double Fantasy.” I found it interesting–perhaps you will, too.–MG)

Producer Jack Douglas

Producer Jack Douglas has nice hair.

Lennon’s Last Sessions

Producer Jack Douglas on Recording ‘Double Fantasy.’

When John Lennon and Yoko Ono decided to return to the recording studio in 1980, they enlisted an old cohort to produce the sessions. In this revealing conversation, he tells Ken Sharp what it was like ….

Producer-engineer Jack Douglas was known primarily for his work with Aerosmith and Cheap Trick before he got a mysterious phone call in 1980 that launched him into John Lennon’s ‘comeback’ recording sessions – also his final sessions, as it turned out. Contributing Editor Ken Sharp talked with Douglas recently about those sessions and Lennon’s work with Cheap Trick- one track of which is included in the new ‘John Lennon Anthology’ box set …

Q: I want to get into the Lennon “Double Fantasy” sessions, but I didn’t realize that you’d worked with John prior to that on, was it, the “Imagine” album or the song “Imagine”?

A: The “Imagine” album.

Q: You engineered some of that?

A: Yeah. Well, I was second engineer. Roy Cicala was first engineer but that was where I met John.

Q: What was that like working with John back then?

A: It was amazing and it’s so weird because we got to be friends. I was working in one studio; I was doing editing while he was tracking in another room and doing vocals. I mean, there was no way I was allowed to do vocals with him. I was way too young but he came in and I was putting stuff together and editing and he said to me “How ya doing?” You know, I’d met him earlier in the day but this was the first day and I said “OK, OK.’ I wanted to be nervous but like I said, he wouldn’t let you be. And he lit up a smoke and I said to him “I’ve been to Liverpool” and he looked at me and said “why the hell would you have been to Liverpool?” and I said well, you want to
hear this story?

Q: Is this the one on the boat? [As a young musician, Douglas and a friend stowed away on a boat In order to get to Liverpool, only to be caught and written up in British newspapers.]

A:Yeah. I told him that story. And he, like, cracked up, he was cracking up ’cause they’d read the papers about these idiots who were held captive on this boat … after that, he said “What are you doing?” I said, “Well, after this?” He goes, “Yeah”. I said “Nothing.” He goes, “You can come with me.’ So we went out, you know, and he took me to a party and he was like – see, I told him I was born and raised in New York, and he would say to me, “See that guy over there?” “Yeah” and if I knew him, he’d say, “Well, who is he? What is he?” I’d say, “Well … that guy’s an asshole. Don’t even go near him. He’ll fuck and suck your blood.” “Thanks, man.” It was like one of those kind of things.

Q: So you continued the friendship through the’ 70s?

A: Yeah, all through it. And, in fact, I was staying with him out in L.A. during the crazy period (the so-called ‘Lost Weekend”) while I was producing Alice Cooper.

Q: Oh, okay “Muscle Love”?

A: “Muscle Love”, yeah. And so I was hanging, I was hanging with him and I was doing Yoko records. All those crazy records with Yoko during which John was most of the time not allowed in the studio.

Q: Really.

A: Yeah. You know, I never let those two…very rarely when I did “Double Fantasy” did I ever have them in the room at the same time.

John and Yoko in studio 1980

“Needs more cowbell, John.”

Q: Why?

A: It just didn’t work. John always wanted to get in to Yoko’s stuff and she could not bear it. It was already . . . there was already too much competition between those two.

Q: You really think there was, even then?

A: Yeah. Absolutely. And so it was, it just was when John came in and heard what she did after it was done, it was like ‘Yeah!” he’d get really excited. But if he was there …

Q: Would she be excited, conversely, with what he did?

A: Nah, “That’s good, John”, you know. But, yeah, he was always good. For her, getting her part done was the biggest challenge, you know. And I mean, he was just … I mean, for me, he was the ultimate guy to produce because he was such a true professional. He always left his ego outside the door when he came into work.

Q: What was he like as a player?

A: He was a great rhythm player. He could not play lead to save his life. Very small hands, so he had no reach at all. But man, rhythm …

Q: How did you get enlisted to produce “Double Fantasy” and wasn’t It a secret for awhile? If you can talk about how it was kept hush-hush …

A: Yeah. How did I get … I think I ran into John about six months before we did that record, maybe almost a year. I was in a health food store over on the East Side and in comes John and Sean, who was maybe 3. And the nanny and they were just coming from the YMCA where they’d been swimming. And John comes up and goes ‘Hey, Jack’ and I hadn’t seen him in years. “Jack, how ya doing? What’s happening? Oh, you’re a big producer now.’ He was always kidding me, or goofing with me. And I was goofing back with him. And he told me, ‘Why don’t you call me?” Gave me his number, and he said “Come on over to the Dakota and hang out’ and I just, I took the number and I stuck it in my pocket and my wife said to me, ‘Wow, that’s great, he wants you to come over and hang out and stuff, ‘And I said ‘Yeah, I’ll do it, you know, but, you know, maybe he was, I mean, he’s so involved with his family now and he’s kinda out of the business. I’ll call him sometime.’ I never did. I never did. Stupid, too, isn’t it?

Q: Damn, If John Lennon gave me his phone number …

A: And I never, I never called him. I always felt like ‘I don’t want to really bother him,” you know and It turns out he would have liked to have gotten that call and it was really stupid of me not to do it but anyway the thing was John was – we had a relationship and it was a good, trusting relationship and also I had that same relationship with Yoko. She also trusted me; she knew that I respected her work. And that I was a trustworthy person and John, I once asked him, I said -well into the album, we’re sitting there and mixing and I said to him “I meant to ask you, why am I doing this record with you?’ I said, “I just wanted to know…”He said, “Because you have good antenna and that works for me because you always can read me, you know what this is about’ and that s pretty cool because I always felt that was one of my strong points but it was very important to him to be able to so easily communicate with his producer. And again, like I said, because he was so without ago when he was working, he would just take a direction- If I told John, ‘For this vocal, I need you to stand on your head,” he’d say, ‘if you think that’s better, I’ll do it.’ I mean, he was like that.

Q: Were there any tracks that took a bit more time for him to nail?

A: I don’t remember. Sure … they all took about an equal amount of time. “Beautiful Boy” maybe took a little bit longer because of the chorus. Then he would double. He would double track his vocal, like in Beautiful Boy, like he would double. First shot. He loved doubling. Yeah, he was the perfect doubler. But you know, he doubled because he hated the sound of his voice. And I used to tell him, ‘John, you don’t have to double.” I mean, when he sent me the demos from Bermuda – you have to understand that these are recorded on a boom box, right, a Panasonic, and it was just acoustic guitar or in one case, piano on ‘Real Love’ and him and I think, Fred Seaman, banging on pots and pans, and he actually took the time to play those from one Panasonic to another one and double his vocal because he couldn’t bear that – I would hear these things with a single vocal.

Q: What did you think of Seaman, by the way? He’s now like this vilified character.

A: Fred, was like, you know, he just got hammered, man, I mean, there was no – John loved him and he was hired to be John’s assistant. I mean, wherever John went, he brought Fred, you know? And, I mean, Fred, he probably made a couple of mistakes. But what he got nailed for was like really off the wall. John – and I was there – John used to get things sent to him, not just one thing, he’d get a boom box, or a cassette machine, they’d send him two, three of them, or they’d just send him one – he just didn’t want all the stuff that he used to get from companies. Everybody would just want him to say “I use this,’ you know. And he was getting complimentary stuff all the time and he told Fred one day, ‘Take that,” he says, “Go in the room, Fred, and take whatever you want, man, you can have it.” And Fred went in and he took stuff and he brought it home and it was practical stuff he could use but Yoko had somebody always keeping an inventory of everything that was in that room and so, I mean, you know, Fred never, like, signed this stuff out. John told him, ‘Keep it Take it, I don’t want that crap’ and when Fred finally got nailed it was because they said, well, you know, there’s this stuff missing and you might find it at Fred Seaman’s house. And once they went there, they matched the serial numbers, it was like a grand larceny rap. And so, that’s what he got taken down on and it was really like, you know, he was there to keep a journal for John … and whatever John ever asked him to do, Fred was like right there. It was a bum rap.

Q: Tell me about the secretiveness of the sessions.

A: Well, I’ll go back a little bit here … You probably already know the story that I got flown out in a sea plane to Glen Cove to the big house out there and a seaplane right onto the beach, hush-hush, and I already knew I was being asked to do a record because I had already gotten the phone call from Yoko and John. He’s going back, he wants to talk to me about making this record; ‘Don’t say anything to anyone; just go to 34th Street, get on a seaplane and come out.’ And I came out and Yoko said to me, she handed me the envelope ‘For Jack’s Eyes Only. Or was it ‘For Jack’s Ears Only’? Maybe it was both. And she said, “John is going to call you in a few minutes.’ She said, ‘But I just want to tell you, he’s going to ask you to do a record.” I went, ‘Cool, that’s great.’ ‘You would produce it with us.’ ‘Cool.’ She said, I’m going to have a few songs on it and John doesn’t know yet.’ “OK.’ She said, ‘You can’t tell him.’ ‘All right; you tell him.’ So I had opened the tape; there was one cassette from John. And Yoko said, ‘Now here’s some of the songs’ so she handed me a thing, like a stack …

Q: Of her songs?

A: Yeah, a stack. I mean, she’d been in the Record Plant with Elephants Memory, doing demos … I wonder where those demos are; some of them were very cool. And just a stack of not cassettes, of 5-inch reels, of seven and a half, dozens and dozens of songs. And I was like shook up, ‘You gonna have a couple of tunes on this record?’ Handing me stacks and John finally called me and he said, you know, “I don’t really think I have that much stuff, you know.’ He eventually sent me another one. He said, “I think if s kind of the same old shit’ and actually that is on the tape, him saying that. ‘Most of it, I think we’ll give to Ringo” and ‘The deal is, I don’t know if this is really going to come off.’ He said, ‘I’m going to give it a try but, Jack, I’ve been out of it for a while and I don’t even know what’s going on. . So the deal was put together a band, arrange the songs any way I thought would work, I mean, as you know, if you’ve heard any of those things that are out around, you know, that things like … ‘Watching the Wheels” was like boom-jang, boom-jang, it was like fast, and almost Dylany and stuff. And he wrote me a letter saying, ‘Can you make it sound circular?’ You know, it was all these instructions I got from him and the deal was ‘Don’t tell anyone this is happening.’ We put together the band.

Q: I was curious about why you chose some of those players.

A: I wanted guys that were – well, he knew Hughie [McCracken], anyway. And he knew [Andy Newmark] and he’d played with him. So these were guys who were his contemporaries. So the important thing for me there was if John made a reference to something that was maybe from the early ’60s, or even the ’50s these were guys who would know what he was talking about.

Q: Quick.

A: Yeah, quick was very important. I did not want guys who went “duh” and I also needed guys who could read. You know, the only guy who couldn’t read was Ed [Slick]. And I brought in Ed because he’d done such fine work with David Bowie.
Let me just go back a little bit … now the band didn’t know, had no idea who they were – Tony Davilio and I did all the charts for all the songs except for “Starting Over,” which did not exist at that time, just didn’t exist. So I’m singing all of the songs to the band at rehearsal an octave lower than he would sing ‘am. And they’re like ‘Wow, great songs, Jack, but really, the vocals, I mean, who’s singing these things?” Apparently, a couple of the guys had guessed but didn’t say anything because I told them, you know, this is a secret session. They all loved it. The pay was good. They’re all getting double.

Q: Of the scale?

A: Yeah. The same with the studio. I booked the time but they didn’t know who for.

Q: The Hit Factory, right?

A: It was way out west. . . it was out of the way. No one would know. We could go in and out of there without ever being seen.

lennon and guitar 1980

Smokin’ and strummin’, 1980

Q: So what was it like when he first walked in?

A: Well, there was one more rehearsal, the last, the night before the sessions, the last rehearsal was at the Dakota. He sits down at the Fender Rhodes and he plays “Starting Over” and I said, “Where’d that come from?” He said, “Oh, I dunno, it just kinda came.’ He said, “You think it’ll make it to this record?” I said, “Make it? ” I said, “It’s gonna be the first single.” I said, “It’s gotta be the first song on the record. You know, come on, it’s perfect.” So we recorded that, we went in and rehearsed that in the studio…

Q: It’s the first track you recorded?

A: The first track we recorded. And it just went down. Now, all this time, we’re in there, we were in there a month before there was any acknowledgment that these sessions were going on. Here was the deal: If word got out that these things were happening, it was over; it was gonna end. So, I mean, I’d tell that to the musicians …

Q: Why was it so secretive?

A: Because he wasn’t sure if he could do it. You know, he was very, very insecure about this stuff. He didn’t think he had it any more, you know. He thought he was too old, he just couldn’t write, he couldn’t sing, he couldn’t play, nothing.

Q: Do you think once he started playing again with the band …

A: It took awhile, it took awhile, there were some moments there where yeah, he was like, “I don’t know. . .” I used to have breakfast with him every morning, he insisted at 9 a.m. I’d come to the Dakota and he was always so punctual. 9 a.m., he came out his door and we would walk from the Dakota to La Fortuna on 71st Street, a little cafe. We’d sit in the back, in the garden, and have chocolate iced cappucinos and talk over what happened last night, what was gonna happen, what was going on with Yoko, everything. And then, he’d go back and he’d like take a nap and by 11 o’clock I’d working with Yoko. But we’d sit there couple of hours and talk through every and there were moments at La Fortuna when I had to say, “John, really, I swear, it’s good know, it’s good, I’m telling ya. Even the vocals, everything, you sound great.’

Q: What do you remember about the last thing you said to John or what did he say to you?

A: The last thing I said to him and he said to me was “I’ll see you in the morning at 9 a.m.’ The usual. We were going to meet and then we were mastering that next morning. We were going to master ‘Walking on Thin Ice”. It was done. We’d finished the mix so, I mean, I said goodbye to him. I saw him with this huge, with this big smile on his face and his new leather jacket that he’d gotten at The Gap a few weeks earlier which he loved, and there’s just this big smile on his face, “I’ll see you in the morning.”

Q: How long after did you hear [that he’d been shot]?

A: About 45 minutes later.

Q: How did you hear about it?

A: My wife came in and told me. We lived only a few blocks [away].

Q: You must have thought you were hallucinating …

A: I absolutely did that. I thought I was hallucinating for a good six months, good six months, it was like, gone – it wasn’t a good six months, a bad six months.

Q: Yeah, of course, of course.

A: I mean, I just flipped out.

Q: What happened after, there was a lawsuit at some point because you weren’t paid royalties? Did that get straightened out? You got paid finally.

A: Yeah, yeah. Boy, what that was. ‘Cause I waited like, two years, three years. I had a contract. I waited like three years then I finally said to Yoko, you know, ‘It’s like really like a lot of royalties probably accruing here. You know, I think it’s time like we maybe have … accountants, have somebody, you know, you don’t have to deal with it, let’s just sort it out, let our people sort it out.’ And I got like a nasty letter. Almost like “Fuck you, you’re not getting anything.” And it was like “What? I don’t get this.” And, I mean, all kinds of nasty business went down after that, you know, being followed and having people offered money to say bad things about me. None of which, even if they had succeeded, I mean, Cheap Trick was approached, none of those things …

Q: To say bad things about you?

A: Yeah, yeah.

Q: By her? By someone in …

A: Yeah, someone In her camp, ex -FBI guys, Elliot Mintz.

Q: What do you think of him?

A: Ugh. I’m not an Elliot fan. He doesn’t like me; I don’t like him … weird because John, you know, didn’t have one good word for Elliot. Sorry, Elliot. It’s like, if Elliot was coming, John was like ‘ugh’. He was more Yoko’s friend. Yeah. I can remember Elliot coming by r place, you know. Someone brought him their not knowing that it was not a good idea but I came up and it was a house I had in the Hollywood Hills … I was doing some records out there. And I so treasured these great pictures that I had, of John and 1, that I would take them with me when I was traveling. I was going to spend six months in a house in Los Angeles so in my little office I had pictures of John and 1. Amazing picture of John and I listening to ‘Starting Over’ for the first time, [while finishing up ‘Double Fantasy’] somebody from the maintenance shop, because we released it as [an advance] single. Somebody from maintenance said ‘Hey, they’re playing ‘Starting Over on the radio.” John and I went running into the maintenance shop and we’re both standing like dumbfounded, like with these stupid smiles, like kids, listening to ‘Starting Over” and there’s a little radio, me and John leaning over it, unopposed just like kids and somebody took a snap of it and so I had all these pictures and someone brought Elliot by and Elliot saw these pictures around my place …

My place was burglarized and you know what they stole? Pictures. That’s all. All the pictures were gone. Every picture I had. There must have been a dozen, really beautiful. That’s strange.

I mean, all my gold and platinum records ended up in a closet at Yoko’s. I never got them! Well, somebody [took] one out and gave it to me as a birthday present. They gave me a platinum single and a platinum record.

Q: But you worked on the record, you were very loyal.

A: One day, I asked someone, I’m not gonna mention the name because he’s still working, a loyal employee, who was also a good friend, and I asked him, “What’s the story up there?” and he said, ‘I don’t know, Jack, for some reason you are on the enemies list.’ And all I could ever think of was that I knew too much. And that it would be better – she suspected that everyone who knew a lot over the years was gonna write a book, you know, and that I would be one of these people who wrote a book and like tried to make money off it.

Q: And you still haven’t.

A: You know, I made enough just in the royalties, [they] were like 3 million bucks. It was like ridiculous and she really lost a good friend because I was really a friend to her and I really respected her art. And she always knew that, so she really lost a good friend. I pleaded with her over and over again every time that we could see each other where I could get a word in, ‘Yoko, don’t go to court. This is so silly, let’s not go to court. And when we did, it was a big public to-do. And she really was, I mean, it was a jury trial, six in the civilize, and the jury was out five minutes, came back in and the judge screamed at her, and it was like all this. Like how can you do – it was a matter with the contract. Like she tried to say the contract was a forgery, all this really weird stuff, brought in people to say that I … people like [Rolling Stone publisher] Jann Wenner to say that I was a nobody, that they’d never heard of me … and then my lawyer said “Can we talk about how many times you’ve mentioned him in your magazine?”… He made Jann read those on the stand.

Q: John was talking about touring?

A: Oh, yeah, yeah.

Q: What was his plan?

A Oh, tremendous production, including and these have to be on some of the “Lost Lennon Tapes” or whatever they call them his arrangements of songs that he said ‘we never got right,’ which were “She Loves You” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand”.

Q: He was gonna do them?

A: Yeah, he was gonna do them. He was going, “You know, we never – we always wanted to do something like … but it never got done exactly the way we wanted to do it.”

Q: You remember how he wanted to do some of those songs?

A: He played them on guitar.

Q: And how were they different?

A: Maybe the tempo was a little different but it was more like ideas he had for what the rest of the band was gonna do. But that was gonna -be in the show.

Q: He was gonna do some Beatle songs?

A: Oh, yeah, absolutely.

Q: I heard that McCartney or Harrison called the studio during the sessions and Yoko didn’t allow the call to be placed through.

A: No, it was McCartney.

Q: What happened?

A: Well, from what I heard and from what I heard from John as well, he was looking to get. like, hooked up with Paul before Paul went to Japan, to do some writing.

Q: They were going to write together?

A: Yeah. And … after the sessions, John never left immediately, he’d always sit in the control room and usually took a little grass. He had this old opium pipe, it was probably 500 years old, and he’d say to me, “Is it all over?” ‘Cause he would never do anything if we were working. And I’d say, “It’s over, John.” And he’d sit back and put his feet up on the console and he’d load up the pipe and sit back and light up and a few of us – I’d ride home with him because I only lived two blocks from him. And he’d start talking, you know, reminiscing about things, we’d listen to the radio and if a Beatles song came on, he’d talk about it. But the one thing – the overwhelming feeling about the things that he was saying was that he loved the guys in that band more than anybody else, you know? He was pissed off at George because George’s book had come out and didn’t mention John. You know, like, “How can he write a book about his life and not mention me? I’m the most important…” Yeah. But he loved the guys in The Beatles. He loved them. And he loved that band. And, you know, it was like his band. And I mean, the way he went on about it …

Q: And he was gonna write with Paul?

A: He was looking to get hooked up with Paul, yeah. But yeah, that call came through and that didn’t happen. And Paul went off and got in trouble. And when he got in trouble…

Q: He didn’t get the message from anyone?

A: No.

Q: Who kept him away?

A: I think Yoko probably thought … I can’t speak for Yoko. Maybe she thought it’d be a distraction. I don’t think it would have been…Who knows what would have happened. But when Paul got busted for pot in Japan, we were in the studio, when that call came in that he was in trouble, man, you oughta see John flippin’ out.