(Just Like) Starting Over

The unimaginable tale of how the death of a Beatle wrecked – and restored – one Waukesha family.

Jack Douglas may have been the last person to tell John Lennon goodnight. He was probably the last to say, “See you in the morning.”

On Dec. 8, 1980, Lennon and Yoko Ono had just concluded an evening’s work at New York’s Record Plant studios. Douglas, who had become one of the East Coast’s top record producers over the course of the ’70s, was Lennon’s handpicked choice when the ex-Beatle ended a five-year career hiatus with the album Double Fantasy.

Lennon and Douglas were to meet over breakfast the next morning. They were plotting Lennon’s heralded comeback, which would include a series of albums, a tour and perhaps even a renewed collaboration with Paul McCartney. Douglas had reason to believe he’d be there every step of the way.

But within minutes of leaving the studio that night, John Lennon was murdered by a stalker outside his Central Park home. Surprisingly, the recoil from that shot fired in New York would have an upending effect on a single mother and her two small children 900 miles away in Waukesha.

John and Yoko met in 1966; so did Jack Douglas and Waukesha’s Lori Thiel. Douglas, a brash New Yorker who was a touring rock musician at age 20, had a gig in Green Bay. Afterward, the rabid music fan made a run to Milwaukee to see the Checkmates, an R&B group from Indiana.
Milwaukee was hardly the most exotic destination Douglas would set for himself: Just six months earlier, he had snuck onto a tramp steamer headed to Liverpool, birthplace of the Beatles. Armed with a guitar but no passport, he was booted out of the country, making the front page of the local paper as he noisily departed.

Douglas’ destination on that Wisconsin July night in 1966, however, was the Scene, owned by mobster Frank Balistrieri. Pushing cocktails there was Lori Thiel, a 20-year-old UW-Milwaukee student. One of eight kids in a barely-getting-by household, she was the first in her family to attend college, thanks to a scholarship and part-time jobs. The Scene, then located where the Grand Avenue mall now sits, was an exhilarating place to earn good money. 

The outfit she was forced to wear – fishnet stockings and the Milwaukee approximation of a French maid’s costume – was another story.

“It was not her favorite thing to wear,” laughs Carol Bloede, Lori’s sister. With the culture changing all around her, Lori was already sizing up her position in the coming gender wars. 

“She was more of a feminist,” remembers Julie Comstock, another younger sister. “She thought women should command respect.”

But Frank Balistrieri – who knew a thing or two about inflaming the seedy inclinations of seducible men – got the effect he was looking for as he dolled up his waitresses.

“She knocked me out,” Jack Douglas recalls with a soft, awestruck smile nearly 50 years later. “I did everything I could to pick her up, but she would not have it.”

Douglas was back in Milwaukee a few months later with Nightshift, a new band steeped in the psychedelia that was now swirling a Technicolor splash. Over several nights at O’Brads, near Locust and Humboldt, Nightshift shared a bill with the Shags, a trippy local art rock band. Douglas found companionship with a UWM student who had a bookish roommate: Lori Thiel, his crush from the Scene. She had no memory of him, but after spending some platonic time together, Douglas was hooked.

“Lori was extremely bright, and a terrific poet,” he recalls. 

The musician embarked on a wooing campaign that continued once he returned home, and by early summer of 1967, Douglas had worn her down. Thiel dropped out of UWM and headed to New York, following the Pied Piper call of an upended social structure that was telling young people that the world was theirs for the taking.

For almost a decade, Douglas and Thiel took it. Spectacularly.

They were married in New York in February 1968. After a European honeymoon by motorbike, they returned to New York. Jack worked as a bike messenger between band projects and Thiel walked dogs for a living. In time, she would begin classes at Brooklyn College. 

In 1969, when his band’s debut album flopped, Jack thought it wise to consider other jobs in the music industry. The Record Plant had opened the year before, and Jack’s musical background and scrappy charm won over his new employers; he was handed a mop and put to work as the studio’s janitor.

Lori found a similarly modest foothold in the media world. She worked briefly as a secretary at NBC before being hired by an Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker. She paid her dues answering phones and typing letters while slowly learning her way into filmmaking. She was soon part of the crew on locales as diverse as the Calgary Stampede in Canada and the Everglades, shooting a series of TV specials hosted by radio and TV pioneer Arthur Godfrey. 

The sponsor of the broadcasts was Racine’s SC Johnson, and in the very early ’70s, she flew back to Wisconsin to film an interview with an executive. Lori’s mother and some of her siblings got to tag along on a tour of the company’s Frank Lloyd Wright-designed headquarters, and they were impressed by how she had blossomed.

“She was definitely thriving [in New York],” says Julie Comstock. “She loved her work.” 

Jack moved himself up the ladder at the Record Plant. In 1971, a gust of destiny swept in, as John Lennon recorded Imagine at the studio. Douglas had since been made tape editor, working in a room far removed from where the recording was done.

One day, the door of Douglas’ lair opened and there was Lennon, asking if he could hide out with Douglas while taking a cigarette break. The Grade A Beatlemaniac anxiously spliced together length after length of recording tape, until he finally summoned the nerve to tell Lennon the story of his ill-fated trip to Liverpool in ’65. 

Lennon laughed with delighted recognition. “You’re that crazy American!”

It turned out that while lying low in his hometown at the absolute peak of Beatlemania, Lennon had read about the ruckus caused by a 20-year-old American as he was thrown out of the country. Lennon even remembered the make of the guitar – a black Les Paul – that Douglas had been photographed with on the front page of the paper.

From this remarkable twist of fate to that final December 1980 parting, the arc of their creative partnership was drawn.

Douglas was soon promoted to engineer, working on career-making albums by Alice Cooper, Patti Smith and The New York Dolls. He distinguished himself on The Who’s legendary album, Who’s Next, in addition to other Lennon and Yoko Ono projects. 

When in 1973, a scruffy new Boston band called Aerosmith went looking for a producer to oversee their critical second album, Douglas assumed the studio’s top job. He would essentially become the sixth member of the band, masterfully shaping the raw, bluesy albums that would make Aerosmith one of the most successful acts of the ’70s.

As producer of a superstar band, Douglas earned extravagant royalties on each Aerosmith album sold. Soon, Jack and Lori were flush with cash and running with the biggest rock stars of the day. 

In 1973, Jack was in Los Angeles working on an Alice Cooper album. This was the same time as John Lennon’s “lost weekend,” when he and Yoko split up and he spent a year or so carousing riotously around L.A. Lori flew west to visit Jack, and one night, they hung out with Lennon at his house. A discussion of poetry broke out. 

“Lori was a very good poet,” Jack recalls. “John was impressed.”

“I guess Lori was like an intellectual,” says Julie Comstock, still sounding intrigued by her sister’s complexity. “She said that [Lennon] was a fascinating person. The two of them talked for hours. I thought, ‘Wow! How cool is that?’”

After the birth of Jack and Lori’s daughter, Sarah, in 1974 and son, Colin, two years later, the young family moved out of the city to a house in Montclair, N.J. Lori walked away from her burgeoning career and college aspirations to be mother to her kids.

“Lori was very intense,” says Julie Comstock. “Everything had to be the right nutrition, and she didn’t want anyone else touching the babies. Those kids were her world.” Because she valued family so highly, trips to Wisconsin were frequent for Lori and Jack. During one fateful visit in the spring of 1976, Jack heard about a weird but rocking young band from Illinois that was tearing up clubs throughout the Midwest. (One of the band’s regular stops in Milwaukee was Humpin’ Hanna’s, the Locust Street dive that, as O’Brads, had provided a stage for Douglas almost a decade earlier.)

Douglas scouted the band at shows in Madison and at the Sunset Bowl in Waukesha, and he quickly knew that the rock and roll universe would be a lesser place without Cheap Trick. He got them signed to Epic Records, and brought them east to the Record Plant to produce their first album, released in early 1977. A year later, Douglas would oversee the American release of the Japanese concert recording that would turn Cheap Trick into superstars.

It was a career highlight for Douglas, but also the beginning of the end of his marriage. Having met his artistic destiny, he was in the studio around the clock.

“When I found the studio, I wanted to live in it. It became everything to me,” he admits. “Lori was a mom, first and foremost. The best mom you can ever imagine. My work and the people I worked with became unimportant to her; we started to live two different lives. 

“Mix in a little drugs and more money than you need, and…”

Douglas makes no claim to have been a Boy Scout while building his career, but as producer, he maintains that it was his job to stay relatively sober even when the band was getting wrecked. “If we did a little coke, it was because it was 3 in the morning and we still wanted to work,” he says. “The label was bringing in coke as part of the budget. They wanted the record done.

“When I finished The Who album, they must have given me an ounce of cocaine: ‘Here’s your tip.’ It was insane. It was a different time.”

Douglas also began to stray, and by 1978, he had begun an affair that would lead to his second marriage and family. Jack and Lori separated, and not long after Lennon’s death in 1980, Lori gathered her young children and moved back home to Wisconsin, to the solace of her family. 

“I was so full of guilt,” Jack concedes today. “If moving back there to be with her family was going to make her feel better, then so be it. Wisconsin was safe; I knew it would be a good place for the kids.”

After Dec. 8, 1980, New York would not be a good place for Jack Douglas. 

John Lennon’s murder launched Douglas into an almost complete professional and personal collapse that would have a severe impact here in Wisconsin. And while he cuts himself little slack for the hurt he caused his first wife and their children, his meltdown is compelling if you are moved by his journey. In 15 years, Douglas went from being an audacious fan sneaking into the Beatles’ Liverpool to becoming John Lennon’s creative confidant – only to have it snatched away in the most nightmarish way imaginable. 

It was more than just losing Lennon as a lucrative, high-profile client. During the months in 1980 that Douglas worked with John and Yoko, he lived just a couple blocks from them; on most nights, he would join them on the limo ride home. For years, one thought haunted Douglas: Had he been with them that night, he might have done something to save Lennon. 

Less than 24 hours after Lennon’s murder, Douglas numbly recalled their final hours together on network television. To watch that interview 34 years later is to see a broken man being drawn to the abyss.

“The guilt [of breaking up my family], coupled with Lennon’s death, really put me on a dark path,” he says now, referring to the heroin addiction that would nearly destroy him. “One thing led to another, and it was not nice.”

As Douglas began his descent, life had started soundly enough for Lori and her kids in their home on American Avenue in Waukesha. Resuming the modest lifestyle of a woman who had been raised poor, her divorce settlement allowed her to devote herself entirely to being a single mom. Aerosmith and Cheap Trick had seen their fan bases disappear as musical tastes moved on, so Jack’s income was not what it once was. He continued his studio work, producing lower-profile musicians like Graham Parker and one-hit wonders The Knack.

Then Yoko blinked.

Incredibly, Douglas had never been paid for producing Double Fantasy, which had been a massive hit (album sales would ultimately hit 3 million in the U.S. alone after Lennon’s death). Douglas won a Grammy for Best Album of the Year, but Lennon’s widow never made good on the royalty agreement he had negotiated. As his professional income declined and the support checks to Wisconsin became harder to make, millions of dollars were owed him. 

Ono finally paid up in 1985. Douglas was awarded north of $3 million dollars, but most of it was lost to lawyers and taxes. But because Lori Douglas had legal claim to a share of her ex-husband’s earnings, more than $300,000 made its way back to Wisconsin. Lori used most of it to buy a house on West Avenue in Waukesha and put money aside for the kids.

It would be the last financial support the family would see for a very long time. With the Yoko money fallen through his fingers as his addiction closed its grip around him, Jack Douglas dropped out of sight in the mid-’80s. He would scarcely be heard from – his whereabouts often unknown – for almost a decade.

For Lori Douglas and her two kids, things quickly got tight. She began working a series of modest jobs around Waukesha, but when her income was not enough to sustain her family, they lived for a time on food stamps and government cheese. Then Lori had to begin selling off family possessions – including their car. Sarah and Colin were often shuttled around town in taxis. 

For Sarah, who has worked in New York since 1992, this provides a contrast she now finds ironically amusing. “Taking taxis [in New York] means you’re considered to be rather affluent, or at least middle class,” she says over an early afternoon appetizer at the Mark, the legendary hotel across Central Park from where John Lennon was shot. Six months pregnant, she is intense and straight-talking, like any well-assimilated New Yorker. Nevertheless, she was looking forward to flying back to Wisconsin the next day for a cousin’s wedding. 

“But in Waukesha, if you took taxis, there was something wrong with you: ‘Why don’t you have a car?’” she winces slightly, recalling the reaction of other kids. “We always felt weird. And the taxis always smelled bad.”

But through it all, Lori Douglas provided a stable home and inspiration for her kids.

“She always encouraged them, and motivated them,” recalls Lori’s sister Julie. “She exposed them to art and music and books.”

Sarah excelled at Waukesha South High School as she began to find her voice as a gifted writer. By graduation in 1992, she’d been offered a full scholarship to UW-Madison and a partial one to New York University. Ever practical, her mother urged her to take the free ride from UW and avoid the burden of student loans.

But Sarah, like her mom 25 years earlier, felt the call of New York City. “I wanted to get away,” she says simply. “I just had to get out of Wisconsin.”

Things had not always run smoothly between mother and daughter. Almost from the moment she returned to her hometown, Lori became fixated on holding Jack to his responsibilities. In 1987, two years after his financial support stopped, she filed a claim against him that would not be settled for almost 10 years. Over all that time, it brought a dark cloud over the house as the kids grew up.

“She felt compelled to harangue my father about the things he wasn’t doing, which any self-help book would tell you eventually wears you down,” observes Sarah. “She got into this cycle of resentment, and that was never easy for us.”

Moreover, Sarah found it difficult to reconcile her mother’s decision in 1974 to give up college and a promising career to raise her kids. Coming of age in a much different era, Sarah still cannot comprehend how her talented mother – identified as an early feminist by an adoring younger sister – would walk away from a future that promised such fulfillment.

“I think of my mother’s story as a cautionary tale, and it’s something that I’ve had to grapple with myself,” Sarah says, her mother very much on her mind as she anticipated the August birth of her first child. Sarah’s waiting until 40 to become a mom was a reflection of the struggle between career and motherhood that has become much more complicated since the ’70s. 

“For me it would be inconceivable to give up my job [to raise my child]. Not just because I love my work, but also because I would never trust anyone to take care of me – especially financially,” she says firmly. “My husband and I are very much involved in each other’s finances, but to completely be in someone else’s care is inconceivable to me. A lot of that is because of my mother’s experience.”

Colin’s path became music. By 11, drums and percussion would take hold in a way that would sustain him into adulthood. 

A natural talent, for a time he ran on two very distinct tracks – one not surprising. “My dad’s music – Aerosmith and Cheap Trick – was always around. I loved that music, and I was a huge freak for punk rock,” recalls Colin, now 38.

But his father’s unruly rock and roll was contrasted with the highly regimented demands of the concert percussionist. By fifth grade, he had fallen under the tutelage of a teacher named James Sewrey, a former Army reservist who drilled budding percussionists in the unyielding precision of rudiments. 

A teacher at Carroll College, Sewrey founded the Project Create Percussion Ensemble, a nationally acclaimed music program. Recognizing Colin’s talent and commitment, Sewrey brought him into the ensemble – and waived the cost of his studies. Future instructors would offer similar financial help. 
By the time he graduated from Waukesha South High School in 1994, Colin had been accepted to the prestigious Conservatory of Music at Lawrence University in Appleton. Although not the stellar student his sister had been, his talent earned him enrollment where his grades did not. A partial scholarship made the education financially possible; the rest came from student loans.

Colin was plunged into the Conservatory’s famously rigorous percussion training. Snare, marimba, xylophone – if you could hit it with a stick or a mallet, you were drilled in the precise mastering of it. “I didn’t have time for anything except practicing my instrument,” he recalls. “It was really hardcore.” 

In 1994, as Colin and Sarah Douglas embarked on their college careers, something remarkable was stirring in New York. 

Over the course of their childhood, the gravity of their father’s troubles had almost completely erased him from their lives. There had been a handful of encounters prior to his disappearance in 1985, including a short reunion in 1984 when Jack came to Sound Summit studios in Lake Geneva to produce a Cheap Trick album. Colin and Sarah – then 8 and 10 – played with guitarist Rick Nielsen’s kids.

But for the most part, their father was “like a ghost,” Sarah says. Animosity would be understandable.

“There was absolutely resentment,” Colin admits, sharing his adolescent inner dialogue. “’Why don’t we have all the stuff that we had when we were in New Jersey? Why isn’t he in our lives?’”

And, one might surmise: “Would he ever be in our lives again?” It turned out their father had resolved to make that happen.

Monumental things had been coalescing around Jack Douglas. In 1993, his mother died. On his way to her wake, he was pulled over for a broken license plate light. Drugs were found in the car.

“I spent the night in jail,” he says. “I was dope sick, and I missed my mother’s wake. I got out in time for her funeral, but I thought, ‘How low can I get?”

And then there was his 20-year-old daughter, who had been studying at NYU for two years by 1994. For a time literally living on the same block in New York, father and child encountered each other rarely – and what Sarah saw was shocking. The adolescent imaginings of her father’s deterioration now stood before her, and it was worse than she could have expected.

“One time, he called and asked if he could borrow $25. I said no, even though I had $25,” she recalls coolly. “I worked all the time, and I saved all my money. I had this job working for a neurologist uptown, and instead of taking the subway, I would run both ways,” she says, noting that she was a distance runner as a teenager back in Waukesha. 

“I had quite a bit of money,” she says. “But I didn’t give him $25.” 

Somewhere back in Wisconsin, Lori Douglas may have smiled.

It is possible that degrading phone call to his daughter marked rock bottom, because very soon afterward, Douglas decided to get sober. His salvation came in the form of Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and Joe Perry. Once caricatures of burnt-out rock stars, the band had gotten itself sober in the late ’80s and was enjoying a remarkable career resurgence. Now, they were circling back to save the guy who had helped turn their youthful decadence, and rock and roll swagger, into gold.

“They told me that every time somebody brought up my name, they thought they were going to hear that I was dead,” Douglas says grimly. “They said, ‘Honestly, Jack. If we could [get sober], and you know how bad we were, you can do it!”

They introduced him to the same people who had cleaned them up, and despite abuse that met or surpassed that of the lengthy roll call of rock and roll drug casualties, the program took immediately.

“Most people don’t get it the first time. They go through rehab and make it a few years, and then they’re back in rehab,” Douglas says over dinner at a favorite Italian place just two blocks from where the Record Plant had been. Under a tousle of white hair, his East Coast feistiness enlivens a natural gift for storytelling as he recalls his breakthrough moment in rehab.

“First time I heard the words: You don’t have to do this alone. I thought, ‘I don’t?’ Everybody was there to help me.”
But when it came time to see if there was anything left to salvage with the adult children he barely knew, he was on his own. 

With Colin, reconciliation came easily. Maybe it was because as a lifelong musician, he accepts the unorthodox and sometimes destructive behavior of the artistic soul. Quite possibly it was because, unlike his sister, he had not seen with his own eyes the depths to which their father had sunk in New York. 

But one night, a sober Jack Douglas came to Appleton to see his son perform, and by the end of the evening, Colin welcomed his father back into his life.

Sarah would prove to be a much harder challenge.

“She didn’t trust me, because there were a lot of empty promises for years,” Jack realized. “And she also had come back [to New York] to find that her father was fucked up.”

By that point, Sarah had begun to soar at NYU. After switching her major from English to art history, she was on a path that would eventually see her graduating magna cum laude. She was on her way to the life her mother might have had, and suddenly, here was the man who had brought Lori within reach of it and then shattered everything. Claiming he was sober on the very first try.

The subject remains raw for her; when first approached for this story, she was wary that this would be a fawning puff piece about her famous father. Perhaps she had read one too many articles romanticizing the sleaze and insanity of his rock and roll past, without appreciating the collateral damage that that decadent life wrought on families.

When it is stated that the ’80s weren’t easy for her father, her voice is barbed: “I’m sure they weren’t,” she says curtly. Presumed translation: “I was in Wisconsin eating government cheese and riding around in smelly taxi cabs in the ’80s. That’s what I had to show for my father’s awesome career.”

Jack had beaten one seemingly impossible force – heroin – only to come up against yet another in his wounded and skeptical 20-year-old daughter, but he would not be dissuaded. In time, Sarah let down her guard and began attending 12-step meetings with her father to witness the commitment he had made to remaining straight. 

There is genuine thankfulness in Sarah’s voice now when she points out that, in 2014, the first 20 years of her life in which Jack was absent have now been precisely matched by the 20 years she has had him with her, sober and fully present to be grandfather to her newborn daughter.

“It was just amazing, because [he] wasn’t there – and then he was there,” she marvels, recalling the profound change that came with sobriety. She’s quick to clarify that she doesn’t just mean he was physically there. Now when she sees her father, she recognizes the soul that had once been snuffed out during his years of addiction.

Douglas stepped into at least the semblance of a fatherly role at a time when both his kids were facing crossroads.

So impressively had Sarah passed through NYU that, after graduating in 1996, she earned a fellowship at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts to earn her master’s in art history. The reward would be the security of a teaching degree that, given her talent, would likely lead to a prestigious professorship. But after a year and a half, she was miserable. She was a writer, not an academic, but the thought of abandoning the fellowship brought a deep depression upon her.

Her mother, whose lack of a degree had left her working a series of unfulfilling jobs back home, pushed Sarah to stick with the sure thing. “She’d say, ‘Oh, Sarah. You don’t want to end up like me,’” Sarah recalls.

At about the same time, Colin was facing an identical crisis. After two years at Lawrence, the intensity of the program and the prospect of a life in academia or as a professional in a straight-laced orchestra began to feel wrong. “I just didn’t think it was the right place for me,” he says of Lawrence. “I was in a hurry. I wanted to do what I wanted to do musically.” 

With his father finally there to assert his professional influence, Jack helped Colin get into the Manhattan School of Music. Colin moved to NYC in 1997, but quickly found himself in just as rigid and uninspiring a program, trading orchestral music for jazz.

“It was still, ‘Just do this, don’t do anything else,’” he says. “I was getting into all different styles of world music, and there were so many influences on the way I wanted to play music. I wasn’t feeling school. I just wanted to work.”

As Sarah and Colin wrestled with their next steps, something unimaginable had fallen into place: A resurrected Jack Douglas was in New York, finally committing himself as father to his kids, while Sarah and Colin’s mother – who had painfully left the city behind and struggled to give them the confidence and resources they needed to succeed – was on the outside, hundreds of miles away in Wisconsin.

Both Lori’s sisters say it was particularly hard for her seeing Sarah and Jack reconcile. “I think she was jealous of Sarah’s relationship with Jack, because of the proximity they were sharing. And then Colin ended up [in New York], too. I think Lori would have liked to have been there, but she was here.”

To the extent that his advice was sought about their dissatisfaction with college, Jack encouraged Sarah and Colin to follow their passion – a philosophy that his parents embraced when he came to them with a crazy idea in 1965.

“My parents totally encouraged me to go to Liverpool; my mom helped me pack,” he smiles brightly. Douglas was an adolescent before learning he was adopted, and the selfless support of his parents was one of the things that haunted him when he let his own kids slip away. And what inspired him to earn his way back to them. 

“[My parents] said, ‘We’re going to miss you, but whatever it is you’re looking for, find it.’ And they slipped a couple bucks in my pocket.”

Encouraged to break free of their set paths, Sarah and Colin left the classroom to work their way up in the realms where they’d hoped to make a living. Sarah started at a contemporary art gallery, where a small staff and the challenge of a major art market crash gave her the opportunity to learn the business from top to bottom. 

Having broken into publishing by freelancing short pieces to The New York Times, she moved on to a series of writing and editing jobs for art publications in 2000. Her rise has been dramatic; in July of this year, she was named editor-in-chief of ARTnews, founded in 1902 and now the world’s oldest and most widely circulated art magazine.

Prior to that, she was the culture editor at the New York Observer, launching and overseeing its influential blog, Gallerist. “We started it from nothing,” she says proudly. “In the space of a year, people were reading it in China and Switzerland – I can’t tell you how gratifying that was.”

In one of the marvelous displays of serendipity that weave throughout the family’s story, the offices of the Observer occupy the building that was once the Record Plant. Sarah had built her career at the precise geographic coordinates where her father started as a janitor 40 years earlier. 

And here’s another curious twist: While covering Manhattan’s art world, Sarah occasionally finds herself around Yoko Ono, who remains a highly regarded figure among the avant-garde. She has been tempted to approach Ono and express her gratitude for inadvertently lightening the load of a family in Waukesha, Wis.

“My father won that lawsuit and my mother [received] some of that money. She was pretty smart with it, and we were able to live off it for a while.” Sarah says.

Colin’s destiny had been set in his early 20s. During the time between leaving Lawrence University and moving to New York in 1997, he went to San Francisco to study with Michael Spiro, an acclaimed Latin percussionist. He quickly recognized where he needed to be. 

“Through Michael, I saw this whole world of music,” Colin says. “It was the first time I saw a working musician. It was so different than anything I had seen in academia: All these musicians, all these characters, this crazy stuff happening at gigs – I wanted that.”

Colin moved to the Bay Area in 1998 and embarked on the requisite slog of dues-paying: “crappy” day jobs, relentless practicing, and picking up studio or live work wherever he could find it.

Sitting in with more bands than he can count while building a side career as a music teacher to pay the rent, Colin’s long and steady rise in the Latin jazz community paid off in 2013: He snared his first Grammy nod for his work with the Wayne Wallace 
Latin Jazz Quintet. The band – which includes Michael Spiro – lost its drummer to cancer in 2012, and after 15 years of watching Colin’s growth and determination, Spiro declared him ready to fill the spot. 

In January, mentor and protégé were together in L.A. for the ceremony. They fell short of winning, but Colin recognized the awesomeness of the accomplishment.

“As a musician, you know that a Grammy nomination doesn’t really mean anything. It doesn’t get you any money,” Colin says with the world-wise brusqueness of a music lifer. “But it’s kind of nice to get respect from people who were previously [saying], ‘You’re a musician? That’s not a job! You can’t do that for a living!”

Colin’s move to the opposite coast did not sever the ties he’d just restored with his father. Jack, now a sprightly and sharp 70 years old, continues to produce albums and nurture the careers of promising musicians. But now, he’s crossed into academia, teaching studio etiquette a few times a year at a sound and visual arts college in Northern California, just 30 minutes from Colin’s home. Having been too young to see his father in his professional glory, Colin is grateful for the opportunity to see Jack in his element.

“He’s great. He’s got all the gifts that those old-school producers have,” says Colin, who has worked professionally with his father, including on an album by Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash.
“[Dad and I] get to hang out, which is a blessing.”

To complete the triangle, Jack – his sobriety maintained after 20 years – is also writing a book about his life for a publishing company owned by Johnny Depp, a longtime friend. Jack worries with a laugh that his headstrong daughter might bristle if he publishes his very first effort after she has spent her whole life working to get there.

“Sarah probably has a great novel in her, or a great book of criticism. Whatever it is, it’s going to be amazing,” he says.

Sadly, Lori Douglas did not live to see Sarah and Colin flourish in their 
careers, nor find a satisfying place for herself in a family that had grown back together in a way that would tease her with what might have been. But by the time she died of a brain aneurysm in the fall of 1999 at age 54, the course she had set her children on was sure.

At that crucial moment in their lives when they wrestled with their commitment to college, each of her children took leaps that seemed born of their father’s influence: Go with your gut, don’t play it safe, artists belong out in the world, not in a classroom.

But having earned their way into demanding academic settings only to discover that their dreams lay elsewhere, it seems they could not have so successfully taken those leaps without the grounding instilled in them by their deliberative mother. 

“Nothing was simple for her, both in a good and bad way,” says Sarah Douglas, who gave her daughter the middle name Delores, her mother’s full name. “Someone at her funeral said that she was wasn’t a person who dealt in superficialities, which I’m sure is what attracted my father to her.”

And maybe it was her Midwestern grounding. Even during his breathtaking professional rise in New York, Jack Douglas seems to have developed a genuine fondness for Wisconsin; 40 years later, his recall of local bands, nightclubs and restaurants is astonishing, particularly given his years of drug abuse. He still marvels at the working-class discipline that Cheap Trick brought to the studio: always on time, always ready to work, the absolute opposite of the chaotic and perpetually buzzed Aerosmith, New York Dolls and The Who. 

In the same way his first wife gave their children a stability that set them up for success, maybe Lori’s Waukesha practicality gave him the foundation he needed to accomplish his dreams, despite what would later become the hellish influence of the rock and roll business.

“Lori was a very, very special person,” sighs Jack Douglas, the promise that the two shared still fresh in his memory. “I loved her from the first time I saw her.”

Tom Matthews is a freelance writer, often for Milwaukee Magazine. Write to him at letters@milwaukeemag.com.

‘(Just Like) Starting Over’ appears in the December, 2014, issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
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