||TURNING THE KEY OF THE UNIVERSE:
JACK NITZSCHE REMEMBERED
By Andrew Loog Oldham (from last Gadfly online)
Jack Nitzsche, who died last August at the age of 63, had been a seminal, but shadowy, figure in rock ’n’ roll since the early ‘60s. Here, Andrew Loog Oldham (among many other things, manager/producer of the Rolling Stones during their classic era, 1963-1967), takes time out from editing 2Stoned with David Dalton to remember Jack Nitzsche. The first volume of Oldham’s triography, Stoned, was published in the U.S. last spring by St. Martin’s Press and in the U.K. by Vintage/Random House books. 2Stoned will be published in the autumn of 2002.
Jack Nitzsche came into my life through an album cover: the Warner Reprise 1963 hit instrumental LP, The Lonely Surfer. There’s Jack in his suit and specs—"Jack ‘Specs’ Nitzsche," as he was billed on the Phil Spector singles—looking out at you. Not the lead singer, mind you, or the surf-guitar wizard—but the arranger. Back in England, we were saying to ourselves, Wait a minute, arrangers get their own albums? Previously, that had only happened to Mantovani and Frank Chacksfield. Or Elmer Bernstein or Les Baxter. It hadn’t happened to anybody interesting. So that was a revelation, one that inspired me to create the Andrew Loog Oldham Orchestra. Later on, I took one of the tracks from The Lonely Surfer and it became the first single, "Baja," by John Paul Jones.
Jack was Phil Spector’s arranger. He had created the roiling wall of sound orchestrations on the Crystals’ "Be My Baby," "He’s a Rebel" and "Da Doo Ron Ron"; the Ronettes’ "Be My Baby" and "Baby I Love You"; and Ike and Tina Turner’s "River Deep, Mountain High." So when the Stones and I went to L.A. to record, Jack was definitely on the hit list of people we needed to meet. But it wasn’t through Phil directly that we met him—Phil was not into sharing. I met Jack through Sonny Bono, whom Phil had sent to meet us at the airport our first time in L.A. Later in the week, I went to a session Sonny was producing at RCA Studio B for a group of session singers. They were doing a version of "Yes Sir, That’s My Baby" in the style of Phil Spector’s Bob B. Soxx and the Bluejeans’ record, "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah." There was Jack, doing the arrangements for the session. He and Sonny had also written Jackie DeShannon’s sexy version of "Needles and Pins."
The Stones records could not have been done in New York in that particular time—same climate as London—it had seasons. That’s why we went to L.A. to record—it placed a tone on the records we made there. Walking outside a studio any time of the year into the sunshine was a trip. And we’re talking about a year when everybody was well—this was a big plus.
Jack ended up playing on the whole RCA Stones run—all their records from that time. After Sonny Bono introduced me to him, he just appeared at the sessions. I didn’t ask him what he was doing there, in case he asked me for money. There are three keyboard players on those mid-‘60s Stones RCA sessions. If it’s a blues figure, it’s Ian Stewart playing piano (Ian Stewart was the Ur-Stone who was not to become part of the group). On a few occasions when it’s slightly strange it might be Brian, but the rest—all the piano, organ, harpsichord playing—plus the denseness, the body, the glue—is Jack Nitzsche.
There are some tracks you can definitely hear him on, for example, the harpsichord on "Play with Fire." His overall contribution is a little harder to pinpoint. If I were to try and define his contribution, I’d say he provided the glue and imagination. All through those sessions, it’s like he was providing the melodic bond. The undercurrent, reinforcing the layers of brainwash that Keith and Brian are laying down.
He didn’t arrange—that was the Stones’ job—he led, he sat in the pit, he was the metronome in groove time. On some of the tracks, like "Satisfaction"—depending on the system you’re hearing it on—you might not hear Jack’s piano, but it’s fucking there. And if it weren’t there, you’d miss it. Whereas on "Let’s Spend the Night Together"—of course, you can hear it.
And then there was the nitzschephone, that mythical instrument! I made that up for the credits on those Stones albums—it was just a regular piano (or maybe an organ) miked differently. It was all part of this package that was created around the Stones. People believed it existed. The idea was meant to be: "My god, they’ve had to invent new instruments to capture this new sound they hear in their brains." And they were inventing fresh sounds with old toys—therefore, it deserved to be highlighted—it was the read-up of creation, of imagination—getting credit for a job well done. I mean you wouldn’t, for instance, have found a "nitzschephone" on a Freddie and the Dreamers record.
My son Maximillian was channel switching yesterday, and suddenly I heard "I Am Waiting" from Aftermath playing. That’s Jack Nitzsche all over that record and Brian Jones, too, at his very best. It’s a weird little song, just the beginnings of Revolver psychedelics. We were in a period where we knew the Rolling Stones never did anything that the Beatles hadn’t done already. That was the order of life—the Fab Four were on first.
Jack gave us an understanding of tone. Which tone fits the universe? Which thing was hummable in the street? It was never a tone or a key that would embarrass a member of the public and dissuade him or her from singing along. On the up-tempo things, that’s the key he provided. Tone was key in those days because we were, in a way, only one step away from direct disk recording. Everything was down to placement and miking. Where somebody sat and what leaked into what was critical. We were pre-separation. And it’s that knowledge of when a certain level of an instrument works. It’s that placement.
The other thing that Jack had was a grasp of, and interest in, sex. How to inject sex into the sound is a gift of understanding between you and your third ear. That’s a huge component. And I suppose after awhile it can become a little frustrating if you know how to make perfectly recorded sex. It could leave you with frustrations in the other world.
He would go on to be a producer himself—already was, a matter of fact. There were no rules then—just get on with it. With Nick Venet he produced "Love Her," the first Walker Brothers record. It was made at that same RCA studio where the Stones recorded. That was the Barry Mann/Cynthia Weil song that became their first single released on Phillips when the Walkers arrived in England.
Jack continued to work on Stones albums up through Let It Bleed and Sticky Fingers. Aside from the Stones, his closest collaborations were with Neil Young. He orchestrated "Expecting to Fly" for the Buffalo Springfield in ’67, played on Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night and Time Fades Away and wrote arrangements for Harvest. All those wonderful arrangements for Rust Never Sleeps ("Old man, take a look at yourself") and Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere—those great Warner/Reprise albums of Neil Young’s. The lavish string arrangements, which were done at that church in England with the 3-1/2 second natural echo—St. Giles, Cripplegate, I think it is. And, of course, he was in Neil’s band, Crazy Horse—played keyboards on all those Crazy Horse albums. Boy, could he sit a track down.
Then there’s all the work he did with Randy Newman, Ringo, Jackie DeShannon and Mink DeVille. Those Mink DeVille records were very clever. But as to developing a style as a producer, I don’t think he had one. Basically, he chased the style of the artist. The art of production is an elusive thing—especially to a producing observer. I never went to a Phil Spector session, but Mick went once and came back saying he was very disappointed—"All it was was a lot of musicians." I know from the John Lennon/Phil Spector sessions that half the game is to play the rhythm sections to death so that they’re almost beyond being creative but end up sounding like one. And that one is Phil. And for that, God bless him, for making so much possible. That’s Phil’s style—he is the act.
Jack was a sweetheart, but you’ve also got to remember that he was also a musician! Meaning that he would behave one way to me as a producer and another way toward me when among the musical troops—at which point he could be very dismissive, as only a musician can be about those on the other side of the window. And that, I’m afraid, one has to put down to one’s life’s plight.
Back in ’64 when we first met him, Jack was robust. If he took drugs, he didn’t take them in front of me. He was sweet, shy, polite, cooperative and fucking talented. What else do you want, you know? Went home. He was boring on other people’s time. I remember him fondly as a married man who should have stayed happily married. We don’t know what goes on once somebody closes his own oak door, but where he was at the time was in a place that was very warm and attractive. I know Shirley and Charlie Watts were very attracted to that side of him—they spent a lot of time with him and his wife Gracia, whilst everybody else was out chasing pussy and buying clothes. You can only wish that kind of thing would go on forever for people like Jack, but, for whatever reasons, he wanted to change his life. And, unfortunately, he was one of those people who can only do that with dire consequences to themselves.
Jack was a very tender man. Remember, I knew him at the time he was still with his wife, Gracia. And as long as he had that stability, he was fine. But Jack had an unfortunate habit of recording and then falling in love with all his leading ladies. He produced Buffy St. Marie and then married her. With Buffy, he wrote "Up Where We Belong," which won an Academy Award as Best Song in 1982 from An Officer and a Gentleman.
Jack’s musician-idolising-fetishizing thing was a treacherous area —you’re supposed to make the public fall in love with the act. But if you do, too, it’s fatal. It’s the same thing as in the ’80s when the whole of America in radioland fell in love with Emmy Lou Harris’ hair. I find a little gross what some program directors wanted to do with her hair. That business where Jack is supposed to have shoved a gun in Carrie Snodgrass’ cunt is an example of that madness and drug-driven entitlement.
We all go through a period where we’re good at one thing and we think that qualifies us to be good at other things. And that’s probably where Jack got his dick cut off—he couldn’t play producer. In a way, Jack was almost too sensitive and he played with some pretty fucking hard people. I mean, I’m sure Mink DeVille is probably a sweetheart. But when I met him, his opening line was: "I don’t trust anybody who doesn’t take opiate." He had no problem with me that year, but it does give you a slightly limited forecast. I mean, I heard that Neil Young turned up when he heard Jack had died. But he wasn’t there exactly out of compassion; he was looking to see if there were any tapes left in the house. That’s what I heard. I’m not saying it’s true, but he is a survivalist and a musician. It’s no different than a dog in a suit asking for a Scotch and toilet water. Common sense
I ran into Jack on the staircase of the Speakeasy in 1974 when I was producing Donovan. I hadn’t seen him since ’66, and Jack’s opening words to me were: "Andrew! How are you? Do I have to be bisexual to make it?" And I went, "Uh oh, you’ve been hanging around with Mick too long, honey." Mick has this habit of playing with people who haven’t actually got a head for it. Like Mick Taylor. Mick Taylor’s a perfect example—turned him into Humpty Dumpty inside of two years.
He got caught up, like a lot of people in this business, in trying to be somebody he wasn’t. People have the habit of being fucking combinations of you and other people. He wanted to be me and Phil. I wanted to be Phil, I wanted to be Laurence Harvey, I wanted to be a lot of people—we all do it. But you have to have something of your idols in you already to pull it off—and Jack just didn’t—he wasn’t anything like the people he was trying to be. I heard from Kim Fowley that Jack would leave our sessions and then walk over to Warner Brothers and play a cross between me and Phil Spector, making deals. Thank god I didn’t have to see it. I understand that later on as a producer he was a fucking madman.
Aside from the odd gig, mainly from the ‘80s, Jack was doing film scores: The Exorcist, 91/2 Weeks, Stand By Me, An Officer and a Gentleman, Performance, Cutter’s Way, The Crossing Guard and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest—for which he was nominated for an Academy Award. He did Hardcore, that was a great soundtrack. The soundtrack to The Hotspot, the Dennis Hopper movie. Fucking great use of Miles Davis and all that blues stuff. But Hollywood is also a very Gothic place. Just read Julia Phillips’ book, You’ll Never Eat Lunch in this Town Again. He had to mix with a lot of sick fucks in quicksand.
The last time I saw him, it was a gorgeous occasion. Phil Spector flew him into a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and all of us were managing to behave for the evening. Jack looked just like Jack of old, and it was just wonderful. He was all apple pie, you know, American apple pie around the waist, but then it is carbo heaven north of the border. I had a sweet time, but what’s not to have a sweet time on the night Philip was being honored? For once, he wasn’t behaving like a Maniechevitz/Prozac-driven pig—which he did do on other occasions. Even Phil was very sweet that night. We went over to Mick Jones of Foreigner’s apartment on Central Park, and Phil was telling me off about taking drugs—the pot calling the kettle beige. He may not have been doing anything that night but a little Manischevitz and Prozac, and he was gone, anyway.
The final curtain must have come very fast for Jack—it does. I know it from personal experience. I was only three weeks away from my own last act when I decided I wanted to live. Jack was robust at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and then he crashed and burned. I went through my own nightmares in London, but nightmares might be worse in L.A.—which is where Jack had to go through his. After all, when someone like David Begelman kills himself in L.A., you know we’re all in trouble.
Jack became a kind of maniac toward the end. I saw a picture of him taken in the Mayflower Hotel in New York the August just before his demise, and he looked absolutely terrifying. He looked bad—I mean, frankly, he looked like he hadn’t recovered from Neil Young. It was awful. Do you remember that wonderful cover of Willie Nelson with the cowboy hat—like the old Gringo Indian but with every fucking disease under the sun? That sounds harsh, I know, but I’m not trying to be tough on Jack. I’m trying to be edutaining and give people warnings, which we know they won’t take ’cause everybody’s invincible till the final curtain comes down or fluffs you on the shoulder.
Jack had the ability to sit and figure it out, to get to the square root of the sound. And what he gave us was priceless—the hum in the key of the universe. But it wasn’t enough for him. Sometimes your talent turns around and hits you back in the face, unfortunately. And that’s what it did with Jack. It wasn’t enough; it was also too much. It will do that when you elevate it above just being a job or work.