Producer Jack Douglas on John Lennon: "He was tired of being the fat Beatle"
Jack Douglas at the mixing board in Terranium Studios
Jack Douglas has enjoyed a legendary career in music. After starting on Robert Kennedy's senatorial campaign, Douglas worked with a Who's Who of rock luminaries, from John Lennon and Yoko Ono to Aerosmith. Last weekend, he was in town recording a new single with The Oddfathers at Terranium Studio, where Gimme Noise caught up with him.
Hey, the Oddfathers! And I wanted to enjoy the weather. I heard it was snowing and stuff, and I was like, Last chance for snow, get out here right away. So it just so happened that coming out for the snow, and working with Brynn and the Oddfathers, it all came together at the same time.
You know Brynn from the Flipp years?
We've been doing stuff on and off for a lot of years, but we always stay in touch. I've been following stuff Brynn has been doing, like producing David Hall, really cool stuff. I could not resist when he sent me last summer a cassette machine and a cassette demo to play in it. I mean, it was irresistible.
You've had a legendary career. It pretty much all started with meeting Lennon, right?
That's the beginning of my engineering, recording, producing career, but before that I was a musician. ... So before I was doing that stuff on the other side of the glass, I had been signed as an artist. I started as a folk singer because I was working with Robert Kennedy. But I ended up as a rocker, being produced by the Isley Brothers.
How do you eventually end up meeting John Lennon?
Because during Imagine I was an assistant editor. And it's a long story because I'd been in Liverpool and I'd escaped from a ship -- I made a lot of press, and he recognized me. It's a long story, you have to wait for my book, which is coming soon. But we became friends and I worked with him and I worked with Yoko a lot during that period. And then when he decided to come back after six years of being absent from the business he gave me a call and said let's go in and do it. It was all secret, no one knew we were making a record for months, until he was sure he still had it. He was very insecure. So we finished that album and we were already on to other things when he was murdered. We were working that night. He left and that was the end of it.
You mention his insecurity. There have been reports he suffered from an eating disorder. Did you ever see any signs of that?
No, he absolutely did not suffer from an eating disorder. I mean, he was trying to do sushi and brown rice to cleanse his body. And he was doing a lot of yoga and he was meditating. There was a song on [Double Fantasy] called "Cleanup Time" that was about really cleaning yourself up, no drugs, no alcohol. He liked to smoke pot but only at the end of the session when we were finished, he liked to light up a joint. But he couldn't resist like every once in awhile ordering a pizza or a cheeseburger and putting it in the maintenance room and keeping it warm on a piece of equipment. You know, we used to go out after the sessions to a place where you could get a real Brit breakfast so he'd have Welsh rarebit and fried tomatoes, the whole bit. No, he had no eating disorder. But he lost weight because in all honesty he was tired of being the fat Beatle, is what he thought of himself as. So he enjoyed being thin and really in shape.
Why did he think of himself as the fat Beatle?
Because he used to look at pictures of himself. He used to think he had a fat face and was kind of chunky. That's what he thought he was, the fat Beatle...
That does sound like he was a little concerned about his weight?
Everybody in show business that's a public person is concerned about their image. There's very few people who aren't. Orson Welles? We had a picture of Orson Welles in the control room as "Don't do this," because he was enormous. So yeah, John was conscious of his image. And he always thought of himself as the fat Beatle.
You were with him the night of his death?
I was the last person he was with.
What was the last conversation you had with him?
See you in the morning.
That was it?
Yeah, because we used to have breakfast together at 9 a.m. every day.
What were you talking about before that?
We were going to master this thing we had just done, "Walking on Thin Ice." We had just finished it, we'd just finished the mix, we were going to take it over to Sterling to master in the morning, but first we would have our usual breakfast at this little cafe on 70th street.
Who said, "See you in the morning?"
He said, "See you in the morning." Big smile on his face. He was very up. He'd been very happy in those last months. He was writing a lot of material. There was a plan for a Ringo album, with the rest of the band backing Ringo. And there was a plan for a tour. There was a lot of stuff going on. He was so up, he had a lot of energy. Forty years old. He had just celebrated his birthday.
How long after that last conversation was he shot?
My girlfriend came in and said she heard it on the radio. A half hour after it happened it was all over the news. It was terrible, and particularly terrible because I used to ride home with him -- cause I only live four blocks from him on Central Park West. But I had another session after we finished -- something for RCA -- so when we finished whatever time that was, 8 or 8:30, instead of riding home in the limo I went to another session. So it was particularly troubling.
What was your relationship like with Yoko? I know there was a lawsuit ...
On and off. I think she was troubled, you know, what she just went through, I didn't ask to get paid for many many years, and I just wanted her to get over the loss. Then when I finally did ask to be paid, she didn't realize how many millions of dollars had accrued [in royalties] in that time. And I think that came as a shock to her. So when I finally did say, like five years later, I think we should now clean this up, the royalties situation, it was $4 million or something like that. So she thought maybe I should fight this. I think what happened was she was ill-advised more than anything else that it even went to trial. There was a contract -- I didn't ask for damages or anything else. The jury just awarded me what I was owed. But now we're very close.
When's the last time you spoke to her?
I probably got a text from her about two days ago. We stay in touch all the time. And we revisited Double Fantasy. We stripped it down and put it out with just the basic tracks, single vocals, so you could hear what John was doing. There was a lot of talking. It's a really cool album. I'd go to her birthday parties, we did that American Masters together. So yeah, I see a lot of her.
Jack Douglas with the Oddfathers
What were you looking for when deciding to work on the Oddfathers new single?
As raw as it could possibly get, because I like that a lot. Greasy, raw, nasty, hard, fast. They deliver.
How many songs did you hear and which did you pick?
I heard eight, and I picked the first one they played me.
And what was that first one called?
It's called "Eight Track Stereo."
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