The history of rock and roll is littered with decisive behind-the-scenes figures whose names have remained in the liner notes of history, who have never been given their rightful due outside of the industry. They are the producers, engineers, songwriters, managers, bodyguards, hanger-ons and muses who helped inspire, create, organize and handle the greatest popular artists of the 20th century. Jack Douglas is one such pivotal figure—a humble record producer who helped guide the likes of John Lennon, Aerosmith, and countless others.
Over the course of his career in the music industry, Douglas partied with The Who and contributed to Miles Davis projects; he became a go-to producer at The Record Plant in the '70s with Patti Smith, Blue Öyster Cult, the New York Dolls, and Cheap Trick (who he helped discover). He co-wrote some seminal Aerosmith songs (including their hit "Kings and Queens") when they were at their most drugged out, earning the nickname of "the sixth member" of the band. Deeply influenced by The Beatles as a kid, he ended up having a long friendship and working relationship with Lennon, co-producing several of his solo albums. He was also one of the last people to see Lennon the night he was killed.
We talked to Douglas about his long career in the music industry in a series of interviews that we're rolling out today. First up: Douglas discusses meeting Lennon for the first time while working on Imagine.
Update: Here's part 2, where Douglas talks about his last night with John Lennon, the night he was shot.
How did you first meet John Lennon? I was working on the Imagine album. Because I'd been good at editing, I'd edited stuff that John had recorded in England. There was a two-track on a demo that John liked that needed to be transferred to a multitrack so they could dub things like piano or voice or guitar.
You had a band named The Liverpool Set, so you must have been a pretty big Beatles fan. I was a giant Beatles fan. They changed my life at that point. When I heard them, I was like, this is very amazing, this is very important. And I sold my acoustic guitar and I got a 1955 Les Paul custom, probably worth half a million dollars now. But it was only nine years old when I got it.
Were you out of your mind when you met Lennon? In 1965, I’d already gone to Liverpool with another guy in my band. Like so naive, we just wanted to go there and experience the sound. And we brought our guitars and little amps and suitcases. And we only had a one-way ticket. It was a very terrible trip, we crossed the North Atlantic in the late fall on a little tin can steamer that put in everywhere. When we finally got to Liverpool, 15, 20 days later, the immigration came on board and said, “What are you doing?” And we said, “We’re here to play, to experience it.” And they said, “You’re not playing without work permits. Do you have a work permit?” “Uh, no.” “Do you have a return ticket?” “Uh, no.” “So uh, you’re not going to land. When this boat leaves, you’re going to be on it.”
So of course my friend says, “What a mess you got us in after that fucking trip, now we’re going to be on this ship the rest of our lives.” I mean, you can imagine, we were kids! And so I escaped from the ship that first night, which was quite easy. I went into Liverpool with a few quid. That was the only preparation we had, was some pounds. And I took a bus into central Liverpool, and the day I arrived there was the day they released Rubber Soul. And I went into a record store and I bought it and went into a listening booth and was just flipping out, like “Oh my God, this album is revolutionary, I’ve got to do whatever I can to stay here.” And I noticed when I walked out of the record store that there was a newspaper office across the street called the Liverpool Echo. And I went in there, thinking to myself that the English journalists like sensational stuff and I’d tell them this story about how we’re American musicians and I was being held captive and escaped and blah blah blah, and America welcomes all these British musicians and we just wanted to come here.
Anyway, the story worked. The editor actually took me for fish and chips, drove me back to the boat, to the docks, told me to sneak back on the ship and that the next day he’d have the press all over them. And he did, and for quite a bit of time we made a lot of press, my friend, we were on the front pages of the Liverpool newspapers, pictures of us. It was spectacular. Eventually we got caught playing in a band and got deported. Now, if you flash forward some years, I’m editing in a room way off from the Imagine sessions, being produced by Phil [Spector] who was already a mess.
He was just a mess. I mean, this guy was a hero of mine but then I met him and thought, “Don’t ever let me go down that road.”
Was it the drugs, him spiraling out of control? Drugs, alcohol, paranoia.
Did he have guns with him? I didn’t see guns until we were in California, during the Rock and Roll album. And Roy Cicala was doing the dates, and John produced that album, and I don’t know what Phil did except lift his head out of a coma once and a while and say, “More echo.” He was useless. He’d be carried out every night by his body guard. It was just terrible. He was really a disappointment.
But back to Imagine: I’m in this room, editing, doing transfers, and about a week or five days into this whole process John Lennon walks into the room. And I’m just thrilled to be on this. And he walks in, and he says to me, “Do you mind if I just sit in here for a little bit?” There was a lot of activity, the two rooms where they were doing overdubs and tracking. And I said no problem, and he sat down and I’m like a nervous wreck because he was my favorite Beatle, of course.
And he sits down on the other side of the console, feet up on the glass, and cigarette smoke was all I saw, pair of sneakers. And after a few minutes, I was editing on a small speaker, and I said to him, “Uh, I’ve been to Liverpool.” And his head popped up, and he said, “Really? You been to Liverpool?” And I said, “Yep.”
And he said, “Where’re you from?” And I said, “Born and raised in New York City.” And he said, “Why did you want to go to Liverpool? Everybody there wants to come here.” And I said, “Oh, I was a musician and I really wanted to immerse myself into the Mersey sound. I wanted to figure out what you guys were doing. It just affected me so much, I had to be a part of it, to understand it.” And he said, “Oh, how’d that work out for you?” And I said, “Good and bad. Bad because I got deported, but that wasn’t so bad. They shackled me to a train and took me to London and then to where the boats leave and then put me on the first ship in steerage and sent me back. But the good was I made a lot of noise before I left.” And he said, “You did, huh? ‘65, the crazy Yanks in the papers. It was you, wasn’t it?” And I said yeah, and he said, “I’ll be damned. We released an album, Rubber Soul, it should have been just us on the front pages of the Liverpool paper but who do I see there?” And we laughed and he said, “You and your buddy, on the front pages of these newspapers” which I still have. I love them, I sent them all home. He said, “I can’t believe it, you’re here.” And he got all excited about me.
You were these crazy Americans. Yeah, that he read about and laughed about. So he invited me down to the studio where they were tracking because he wanted me to meet Yoko, he thought there was something magical about just meeting her. And there were people who were a little bothered to see me there and I said, “I’m with him, I don’t know why.” And so he asked me then, where do you live? And I said, “Oh, in the Village.” And he said, “Oh, me too, on Bank Street, we just moved in.” And I said, “Well I live on East 5th Street between A and B.” And he said, “Oh, well I’ll give you a ride home.” And then I jumped in the limo and on the way back he says, “You know anywhere where we can get something to eat? Just grab a bite? Maybe go in a back door, not bother anyone?" And I did. And that started a regular thing.
You guys would go out and eat together? Where would you go? I can’t remember the name of the place, it was downtown, a little coffee shop. Later we would go to Roshi London which was on 6th Avenue, you could get a real English breakfast there. That became our spot for years.
We went quite often. I gave him my phone number, he’d call me up and ask me to go to some parties with him, to watch his back because he knew some of the characters. [Abbie] Hoffman, that whole crew, looking to use John in some way for their revolution. But he was not into anything that was violent. I remember him being violent himself though, telling people about hating violence. Screaming about it. If there was going to be a revolution, fine, but it had to be peaceful. Then he asked me to go into the studio with Yoko and we started making those crazy records, and I made quite a few of them.
Those were the primal scream ones? Yeah, yeah. Approximately Infinite Universe. I was a big fan of John Cage, I was a big Jazz freak, I loved Ornette Coleman and Yoko, she liked that too. I didn’t mind if she got inside the piano to play it, whatever she wanted to do I was like, “Yeah, let’s see what it sounds like.” I was an open mind. And John, sometimes he would produce that. Sometimes he wouldn’t, but he’d always be around. And we became friends. I would work with them on and off, he would come in and play his stuff. I remember after the Rock and Roll album, he came back to New York and we were sitting there and he wanted to play me all the stuff. So he played and he then said he was going up to Morris Levy's house.
Levy was a gangster. [He ran] music companies, record companies and labels including Roulette Records. He’d been invited to Levy's house because Morris had published all those great old songs. He even had his name down as a writer, although this was a guy who was a bouncer. He was a mobster, a famous one. To John, Morris Levy was like a god, not a gangster. Because his name was on so many of these great records from the early 50's and 60's. I said to him, "John, whatever you do, don’t leave him a tape. If you’re going to play him the songs, be sure to take the tape with you."
So I see him a few days later and I ask, how’d it go at Morris’s? And he says, “You know, we went up there, up to the farm, and he didn’t have time to listen so I had to leave it for him.” And I said, “7 ½? The whole album?” And a week later that thing was for sale, on television, Adam VIII, Morris’s son’s label.
And that was the Rock and Roll album, with Phil Spector. Yeah.
You warned him, you tried. Yeah. They sold a million units on television before they got a judge, before they got them to cease and desist.
Wow. The famous story. [Label] Adam VIII, John Lennon sings the hits of the 50's and 60's! Amazing. Oh no. Anyway.
So you were in Hollywood for the recording of Rock and Roll? I had been working with Alice Cooper at the time, and John called and said it's great, you should come out to the West Coast. "You're a producer now, you can do anything you want, bring it out to California and be out there." So I had a lot of fun.
Were you around Nilsson and Ringo? I was driving the getaway cars.
I'm very fascinated by that period. All the stories I've read make it sound pretty debaucherous. Yeah. It was pretty wild. Look, the guy couldn’t drink.
John couldn’t hold it? When John drank, his Irishness came out. He was kind of a violent drunk. Not a pleasant person to be around. [Legendary studio drummer] Jim Keltner and I rescued him a number of times. Jim would be wrestling with him in the backseat and I would be driving the getaway car from some bad situations.
What was John's relationship with Yoko like during this period? In the early 70's they had that weird break, when John had his "Lost Weekend," and was partying all the time with other rock stars. Yoko thought he needed a break. May [Pang] was there, and it was encouraged.
It's always seemed to me like Yoko put May there to look after him. She kind of did. Maybe things got a little out of control. Certainly the alcohol and drugs didn’t help.
Was he worse off away from Yoko? He really had his great moments, but he was out of control. And finally he came home. It all happened at the Elton John concert.
Oh right, the whole number one record, come and play with me deal. [John bet Lennon that the song "Whatever Gets You Thru The Night" would top the charts, and made Lennon promise to appear on stage at one of his performances if it did.] And then he retired.
Was he sincere about not wanting to make music anymore? Actually, he was. Because I ran into him a year before we got into the studio [to work on Double Fantasy] and he was at the Y on the East Side and [his son] Sean was having a swimming lesson. I ran into him in a health food restaurant. He was surprised to see me, he said, “Oh, I read about you, you’re a big deal producer.” And I said “Oh, you know, I like the artists I’m working with. I haven’t been pigeon-holed yet, I can go from Patti to Allen Ginsberg to Cheap Trick to Aerosmith, jumping around pretty much. And so he said, “Why don’t you come by the Dakota and we’ll talk about what’s going on in the business.”
He gave me this number, and I never called him. I thought, the last thing this guy needs is me telling him about what’s going on. He was telling me about how happy he was, being out of it.
So he was really at peace with himself then? Oh he was, totally.
Do you think that he was musically uninspired? Or was he making a decision, that music was a negative influence? I think he was more interested in his family, and his son.
This was after he and Yoko reconciled. And they had Sean, and John was able to live a life he’d never had before. He was able to walk in the streets, after being away from it for awhile, it was a totally different thing. I lived a couple blocks from him, I was on 76th Street, between Central Park West and Columbus.
But you didn’t see him a lot during this period? I saw him maybe once walking into the Dakota but didn’t go, “Hey, John!” He loved the park, he walked in the park.
He loved New York City. Oh, absolutely.
Did he ever talk more about his feelings about the city? He did later, when we were in the studio. Or when we were at breakfast. We had breakfast every morning [when we were working], at like nine in the morning.