Dubin graduated from Brooklyn Tech, where he studied physics and engineering, but was eventually lured by fast cash and easy work in the new medium of music videos. After the Lennon gig, he found jobs directing for Hall & Oates ("Private Eyes," "You Make My Dreams," "I Can't Go For That (No Can Do)") and Billy Joel ("Uptown Girl," "Tell Her About It," "The Longest Time," "Goodnight Saigon"), among others.
That's all well and good, but Dubin doesn't even like music. In fact, if there's anything he likes less than music, it's music videos. "It's all bullshit," he insists.
One of the creative minds behind the science-oriented '90s children's series Beakman's World, he would rather discuss Quantum Mechanics than any of his accomplishments in the music world. Surprisingly, he agreed to an interview about his work in music videos - at least, what he can remember of it.
Jay Dubin: It was easier. I was making money and it was easier. I'm serious, I did. It's the only reason.
Songfacts: How did you even get into doing it?
Jay: I knew people. I'm a fast talker, smarter than most, able to convince people to do things, and it was a lot easier than engineering. I was looking at going for a doctorate, and I was looking at an enormous amount of time and money to get the degree. I started doing this and it was easy and fast money. Period. No high answer to it. No really philosophical reason, very pragmatic. I was a smart guy with geniuses; I just thought I could be a smart guy with dummies. I thought it would be a better life.
Songfacts: Are you in any way related to the TV director Charles Dubin (M*A*S*H)?
Jay: I knew him. We met on occasion. But no, not at all. He was Dubinski, we're Dubnikov, Russian; they're Polish. I'm not related to anybody of consequence. Technically, if you look up Dubin on Wikipedia, the only Dubnikov you'll see is a guy who, according to Wikipedia, seems to be the real-life Borat - worked at Kasikstan News, went to Moscow Bureau of News Studies, and he's most known for his antique collection of black-and-white postcards, I'm not kidding. The guy sounds exactly like the real life Borat.
Songfacts: I actually dug up an old interview you did with the Washington Post back in '84.
Jay: That's when I was foolish. That's when I was really full of shit. You know, back then, if you're making money doing this, you're going to tell somebody what you want to tell them to get the next guy to call you up. Now I can tell the truth because I don't have to worry about getting the next person to call me up to do this to take their money.
Songfacts: You had said at the time that you didn't like other music videos at all.
Jay: I don't like music. At that time I didn't even own a stereo. I can't even remember the last time I listened to music. Can't even remember.
Songfacts: So when you had to prepare for a video, did you have to listen to the song over and over again to get a feel for it?
Jay: Yeah. Listen to the song. Like anything else, it's work. You do it. This is what you've got to do, you do it, and you get it done. [Laughing] It was easy money. I was making good money and it wasn't hard work.
Songfacts: Did you look for inspiration anywhere for what to do?
Jay: No. No.
Songfacts: Because there was really nothing to go on by at that point.
Jay: No. You look at the stuff and you go, "I think I'll do this." "Okay." "You don't like that, I'll do this instead." It's simple as that. I mean, this stuff is bullshit, music videos. All of this is bullshit. It's easy because it doesn't have to be real. It doesn't have to actually work. It just has to look nice and exist for a few short minutes. There's no magic in it.
Songfacts: A lot of the musicians felt the same way. So if you felt that way, too, you could kind of just go in and get your job done and nobody's going to be offended.
Jay: I would go in, I would do my stuff. I wouldn't hang out with anyone after. I would go home and do my stuff afterwards, eat my tuna sandwich and watch Star Trek.
Jay: I can't believe everyone asks me about that. I just met another guy from Al Jazeera doing a whole thing and he wanted to know all the details. It's real simple. I get a call from them, it's about 11. "Hey, we're over at Electric Ladyland, we want to shoot a video. We only have this much money. Can you get over here in a couple of hours?"
I go, "Yeah." Came in, did it, and left. I mean, there was no plan. It was just like, "Whaddaya got around here? What can I do?" Okay, I got this, this, and this. All right. And I've got a camera. Let's do it. Get outta here. Okay, 'bye. Two hours, done, boom. Go and edit it and I finish the next day. It was no big thing though, you know? [Laughing] Had nothing to work with. You have the room and the two guys, and a couple of other guys.
So you walk in and go, "Okay, everybody sing, point the cameras at them. Okay, now we'll do a close up, now we'll do this, now we'll do that." And, "All right, I'll have it done in the morning."
Songfacts: Anything you did would be unique because there weren't any other videos yet to compare it to, really, in 1981.
Jay: But this is not important stuff. This isn't heart surgery, you know? [Laughing] It amazes me. I get calls every other month, even now I get calls. And it just amazes me. I mean, why aren't you guys talking to, like, Neil Armstrong? He walked on the moon. [Well, for one thing, Armstrong died in 2012].
Songfacts: People are still interested.
Jay: I did meet Neil Armstrong, and that was an interesting guy.
Songfacts: I'll bet.
Jay: And I never said to him, "Hey, Neil, so what was the moon like?" Never mentioned the word "moon." I had lunch with him. I was doing TV commercials, and the guy who was running the thing with the commercials, he was doing another commercial with him and another guy, a car commercial. So he's saying, "I know you'd love to meet Neil Armstrong. Do you want to have lunch with him? I can work it out." "Yeah, why not."
And I said to myself, "Don't mention the moon. Don't ask him what it was like to be on the moon. Don't ask him." I just talked to him about small talk.
Songfacts: You had a common interest with John Oates, right? You guys both like cars.
Jay: Not really. I knew people in the car business. I didn't even own a car. Actually, I did. I owned a broken down Volkswagen Rabbit. That was all bullshit for the press. Again, you read what was written in the time where I had to embellish things to get the next guy to call me up and take his money.
I mean, I had a good time, but bottom line, it was like stealing money. It was easy for me to do. It wasn't a lot of work. I don't give a shit what anybody talks to you about how much work it is. It was never a huge budget, so worst comes to worst, you shoot something for two days, maybe. Usually it was one day. So maybe you put in one 15-hour day. Maybe one 18-hour day. Occasionally. But how often you do that? Twice a month? Three times a month? This was not hard work.
The rest of time you get up at noon. I mean, I didn't get up at noon, because I'd do other things. But you get up at 9:00, go hang out and have coffee and then schmooze and bullshit. This was not hard work.
Songfacts: You did a few for Hall & Oates, a few for Billy Joel. Did you get each of those jobs one at a time or were you slated to do them all upfront?
Jay: Tell you the truth, I don't remember. Occasionally, it would be, "Let's do two." But most of the time you'd get a call and you'd start doing something. See, those days were different. Those days, you got a call, you were the guy doing it. You didn't have to talk to three other guys. So that was it - you'd just get up, do it. You'd talk, you'd schmooze.
The big thing is I got in there and I'd talk to whoever was at hand, the powers that would like to think they'd be. The whole trick was, don't offend. [Laughing] Just say whatever the hell they want to hear, don't offend them, and then that's it. Because nobody had a clue what was going on.
Songfacts: Did you get connected to him through [producer] Jon Small?
Jay: No, actually it was a friend of mine who knew him from the old days. That's how I got together with all those guys.
Songfacts: And Joel's another one who hated music videos. He still says so to this day. Did that make it difficult to get him to participate?
Jay: No, I had no trouble with him. I did his HBO show (Live From Long Island) and we had no trouble with him at all. None at all. It was a breeze. No problem at all.
Songfacts: For the "Uptown Girl" video, you said there was a problem with the guy who owned the Rolls Royce?
Jay: Yeah, that was true. I didn't handle that. The guy who owned the car was a little crazy. His radiator went out. His radiator had a leak in it and he was trying to shake us down. He said he needed a new radiator, and a Rolls Royce radiator was $2,000. So I remember my guy, Bruce, that handled that went up to him and said, "Hey, no problem at all. I'll give you $2,000, but before I give you money, you've got to take the old radiator out of the car and give it to me." And he goes, "What do you mean?" Bruce said, "I'm buying a $2,000 radiator for you, I'm taking the old one." And suddenly the problem with the car went away.
Jay: Pretty much what was on the screen. It was filmed at the Pratt Institute. I went to school there for a few years. I mean, I wish I can give you some more, wax poetic. But, as I said, I ain't Jonas Salk, I didn't invent the polio vaccine.
Songfacts: That's okay. I like just hearing your thoughts about it. What's really funny about that video in particular is when you look it up, a lot of people have all these theories about the guy who played the janitor. They think he's some old doo wop singer or something.
Jay: No, that's all bullshit. This is how that guy gets hired: There was this black guy who got us all this talent on one of the other music videos, I think "Tell Her About It." I remember he used to come in the office all the time saying, "Hey, you got any work for me?"
Jon Small said, "No, but I need an older guy who looks like a janitor." He said, "No problem." He gets on the phone: "Uncle Willy? you want to be on TV?"
"Yeah, Uncle Willy'll do it." He says to Jon, "How much?" Jon says, "A hundred dollars." He says, "Uncle Willy, I'll make you fifty dollars!" He took fifty and gave Uncle Willy fifty. That's all I remember about that. [Laughing]
Who the the guy was, I have no idea. Was it racist? Absolutely. Back then, 8 out of 10 janitors at the local schools were black. They wanted to do that.
All I had to do was make sure the pictures looked good, he was in sync, and it was edited well. That was all I had to do. It was easy.
Jay: Yes, that was mine. I went to Billy Joel after we did the concert special. I said, "Hey Billy, wouldn't it be great if you were like all those great guys, and you were on the Ed Sullivan Show? You know: 'Now, Mr. William Joel.'"
He says, "Okay, do it." Simple as that. Done.
Songfacts: And Rodney Dangerfield was in that one, too, for a few seconds.
Jay: Yeah. A lot of crazy Rodney stories but not so much on the set. Crazy Rodney stories at Rodney's house and stuff. The wacko you saw was truly who he was.
I did some TV commercials with Rodney Dangerfield for some advertising agencies a couple of years later, which turned out well because I had that connection with him there. I was able to get the jobs on these commercials where they'd already hired him.
In a 1984 piece that criticized the increasing violence and misogyny in music videos, Dubin told Washington Post reporter Emily Yoffe he thought most videos were too sadistic and his goal with "Music Time" was to help soften the band's image.
"The group was serious, an extremely serious act. They felt they were losing the youthful approach. They wanted something more zesty, bubbly," he said. Now, he tells a different story.
Songfacts: You said that you made up a lot of stuff back then for that Washington Post interview. But was the point to try to soften their image a little bit?
Jay: No. I couldn't give a shit about softening anyone's image. Number one, it was how much money am I getting, how much can I do it for, how much money's going to be left over for me to keep? Number two, can I have fun and make a little thing on somebody else's dime? Can I do something I want to do on someone else's money and have fun. That was it. That was all my thinking, period. No more, no less.
Now, granted, that does not mean that I wanted to take a lot of money, spend nothing, and do a bad job. Obviously they all came out good, and I wanted to do them well, but very paramount in my mind was I have to make money doing it.
So it was, all right, I have this much money to have fun on my little school movie. That's it. It was like somebody funding my little student film - I would think of it that way. Maybe it was because of what I did, or maybe it was because who knows what, but they all came out good and served all parties well. No harm was done.
Songfacts: Do you remember anything about Tommy Shaw in that one?
Jay: You know something, I had no idea. Styx, I knew nothing of them before that, and I know nothing of Styx now. So, you're mentioning a name, I don't even know who was in the band. I don't know the names of any of these guys. Which one was he?
Songfacts: He was the guitarist.
Jay: I only remember the guy with the hat, who was the main guy who was running around. I don't even remember his name.
Songfacts: Tommy Shaw basically said he left the band and didn't want anything to do with the video. He was in it but wouldn't really participate in a lot of the scenes.
Jay: You know something, that could have very well happened. There were a lot of guys running around.
Is this going to sink the boat? No? All right. Fine. Move on. So the fact is I don't even remember he didn't want to be in it.
Songfacts: Yeah. The article said something about some of the scenes had to be shot in New York and some in LA.
Jay: Nope, nope, nope. Was shot in two days in LA. Pretty easy shoot. Fun, because got to do a lot of crazy-ass gadget stuff.
Songfacts: Did you get a bigger budget for that one?
Jay: No. No. The budgets were all about the same. Having a very technical past in physics and engineering, I used to really enjoy figuring out how to get things done. Figuring out how to get things done that looked like they were big and expensive but really weren't.
When you're in 100 percent control, you can do that. You can cut the waste. You can get these crazy-ass, high-tech things done without having to answer to a committee, just by going off and doing it. Then you can afford to do things that way. You can afford to get great results. You've got a committee, forget it, it's all over. That was something very interesting.
For instance, there's one part where the ball's moving back and forth in slow motion. Put it on a broomstick and have a guy move it. Oh, what are you going to do? You going to put it in later? You going to put in a rig? No, put it on a broomstick. Just make sure the top of the ball is on the edge of the frame and you don't see it and just have the guy with a broomstick moving it back in slow motion. That's all you've got to do.
You see, solutions like that, where if you put it out to a committee, you come upon the most difficult, the most expensive solution. It's not real. This is the beauty of it. It's not real. When I did science, I did physics, and it had to be right. There was a real answer or it didn't work. This, it just has to fake your eye, just has to trick your eye and that's all it's got to do, trick your eye for a second, two seconds, three seconds, four seconds. It's easy. It's very, very easy.
Jay: Yeah. Actually, I think it was shot in the same studio. But if you ask me what the name of the studio was, I don't remember, and I'm sure it's not there anymore.
I thought, "Casablanca, that was cool. Gee, that hasn't been done yet. That's a good way to do this. Oh, they're a big band, I can put them all in one spot."
I was able to make my little home movie and I was able to say, "I want to do sets and stuff. I want to do big sets and make it look like an old movie." That was really the only motivation behind it.
The guys in Chicago were really easy. We're very lucky. Most of the guys that we worked with were very easy to work with. I just said, "Hey, let me see how close I can come to Casablanca with this small budget. It would be fun to really see if we can get it to look right."
Songfacts: There's a little bit of Indiana Jones in that, too, at the beginning.
Jay: Yeah. I think one of the reasons we picked that studio was because it had a water pit, which it means there's a false floor. They have a 10 foot by 10 foot hole, basically a little pool in there, so we were able to fill it up with mud and water and stick them in there and put some shrubbery around it. It's just like, "Hey, I like that scene. Put it together." I always used to say, when we do this, if anyone finds a cure for cancer, let me know.
"I was one of the few people at the time that had a mobile phone - it looked like a police walkie-talkie. I remember standing in front of the Waverly Theater and it's John Lennon on the phone and he said [producer] Jack Douglas wants me to do this video with them. I didn't believe it was John Lennon, I thought it was someone pulling a joke on me. But he said, 'I really am John Lennon.' He must have gotten this a lot (laughs). 'Okay, let me sing a little bit of a song for you' and he did. So he convinced me it was him and then he put Jack on the phone. They wanted me to document a Double Fantasy session. Remember, this was before MTV. They didn't call them music videos, they called them clips. They wanted me to shoot a session over at the Hit Factory. Then I put together a crew."
They shot the clip in one day - August 10, 1980 - which included "I'm Losing You" and "I'm Moving On," along with some classic rock and roll covers. Just shy of four months later, Lennon was murdered and the footage was collected, never to be seen again.
Jay: Yeah, we did it. It never got released. He died. I got a lift back from John in the limo and he dropped me off. My fiancée, my wife now of many years, we're sitting there waiting for a table, and boom, John Lennon's shot. I said, "I was just with him." Simple as that.
So yes, we did shoot it.
Songfacts: And it's still out there somewhere?
Jay: I have no idea. All I can tell you is I used to have this slate that said, "Jay Dubin/John Lennon" with the dates and "Double Fantasy," - the old clapboards, right? I moved to LA and I could swear I put it in one of the boxes. Then on the 25th or 30th - some anniversary of John Lennon's death - I get a call from Sotheby's, "We saw that thing with your name on it, the slate. Would you be interested in putting that up for auction with the John Lennon memorial?" I said, "I don't know, what do you think you can get?" They said, "Three hundred grand."
When I picked myself up from the ground, I tore my whole house apart top to bottom. Every box was opened, and I couldn't find the thing. I sat there contemplating faking it, just making a new one. Because look, I'm the guy. Who are they going to go to authenticate it except me? He's dead, nobody else remembers it, I'm the guy who had it for 30 years. They're not going to ask, I'll fake it! I'll just make a new one! [Laughing]
I came real close to doing it and then I said, nah. I said, the probability of getting caught is over 20 percent and I don't like those odds. If I thought I had a five percent chance of getting caught, a two percent chance, eh, what the hell, you know? But I figured, no, if I've got a 20 percent or better chance of getting caught, I don't think it's a good move.
That's the best story I got. [Laughing]
Songfacts: There are some film stills that surfaced on a Beatles blog over the summer that are supposedly from that session.
Jay: I have no idea. He died, Yoko comes by, asks for all the stuff back. She sends the lawyers over. I give them everything. They pay me. I sign it over. You know, I'll tell you that struck a nerve because John Lennon was such an icon in world history. So that was probably the only thing where I really enjoyed saying I was with. That's the only thing that holds a little value.
Now, I must tell you I have a complete audiotape because somebody left a cassette player going of the whole session. I got it sitting in my closet. I put it onto digital so it wouldn't get destroyed. I've just had it for over 30 years, just sitting there.
Songfacts: No one's ever been interested or they just don't know about it?
Jay: Yeah, but first of all, it doesn't belong to me. The material on it really isn't my material. So what am I going to do? I don't want to put it up for free because it's not mine to put up for free. I'm certainly not going to sell it because it's not mine to sell. So it's in there. God knows when I go who'll end up getting it.
There were two people who I gave copies to. Ordinary Joe Blows. One was one of my son's teachers, and one was one of my other son's girlfriend's fathers, who was a gigantic John Lennon fan. They did me favors and I just gave them partial copies and said, "Don't ever ever ever ever ever ever ever copy this and give to anyone." And that was it. Now it's just sitting in there.
Songfacts: I take it you never revisit your videos on YouTube?
Songfacts: I didn't think so.
Jay: I was there, why do I need to go back? People say to me, "You left New York, you moved to California. Do you miss New York?" I say, "No, I miss 1985."
December 17, 2014
More Song Writing