ARTS / Show People: Knob-twiddler to the vets: Don Was
Sunday 12 June 1994
Don Was doesn't need to advertise his Midas touch. When he twiddled the nobs for Bonnie Raitt and Willie Nelson, grit turned to gold. Next month sees the fruit of his collaboration with the Rolling Stones, who have been needing a leg-up in the studio for years. And through the summer he will be engaged in the ultimate act of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, bringing the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson back to creative life.
Having produced the sublime crossover-fest Rhythm Country and Blues, Was can now claim to have worked with all but a few of the senior statespersons of American music. His diary is as packed as his address book: the world's most popular producer doesn't have a spare moment of studio time until deep into next year. When he tells you he likes someone, he's probably not just referring to their music.
Down the line from Beverley Hills, the bedside manner that the dinosaurs go for comes through soft and clear. In his own judgement, Was's selling points are calmness, sympathy and respect. The funny thing is that his most recent experience of band life is break-up. Not long after they released Hello Dad, I'm in Jail, 1992's compilation of remixes, his band Was (Not Was) was not. Don Was (ne Fagenson) hasn't spoken to his childhood friend David Was (ne Weiss) for 18 months, during which time he has evolved a whole theory about the 'behavioural cycle of musical collaboration' that shows off his almost professorial take on the world of pop.
'They've done studies in Japan: in countries that are highly nationalistic, where there's one race of people and you can't attribute class struggle to ethnicity - what happens? People find new and subtler ways to define differences. The same thing happens in a band: initially they start in a garage and they're going to take over the world and the music business becomes your enemy, and eventually you attain the level where there's no one to conquer, so you turn on each other. That's why I was a good producer for the Stones: I'm living what they were going through and I'm so sensitive to those kind of issues.'
Was (Not Was)'s garage was in Detroit, where they evolved a perky, knowing brand of dance music that had brains as well as feet. Don wrote the music, David the lyrics and they used hired hands to sing on such wacky confections as 'Walk the Dinosaur' and 'Out Come the Freaks'. They also gave good interview, if not good photograph. When Warner Bros released their first album in 1981, 'the R & B promotion took one look at us and said, 'No pictures of these guys for six months'. White middle-class Jews aren't conventionally reckoned to have rhythm.'
Ever since he first heard the Stooges play at a high-school 'sock-hop' (so called because you had to take your shoes off for fear of scuffing the basketball court) in the late 1960s, Was has been running from the conformity of his background. There's nothing new in that, but his rebellion is more driven than most.
''When I work 14 hours a day, seven days a week, I know that I am still running from that existence. The school had like the largest percentage of lawyers and doctors in the country. It was as bleak to me as sleeping in a cardboard box downtown and I was really fearful of turning out that way.' Detroit in the Sixties, with its mass explosion of musical sounds, was the right place to start running. At 14, he and Weiss began doodling on a tape machine that, because of a technical error, recorded sound on sound. 'After desperate nights of trying to pick up girls unsuccessfully we'd retreat to the solace of the tape recorder.' They came up with 'a really coarse version of what we ended up doing'. After high school Weiss went West to become a jazz critic in LA, while Fagenson spent the 1970s playing bass in jazz and bebop groups in Detroit.
Sometime in that decade, he also started wearing black Ray-Bans in homage to Aristotle Onassis. 'I read that whenever he was involved in intense negotiation he put on shades because no one would know what he was thinking.' When Was met the Stones for the first time and tried to remind himself of his 'responsibility not to be some awestruck fan, it took a couple of weeks for them to come off'.
The new Stones album will doubtless sound a lot more like a Stones album than a Don Was album. He stands out among other big-name producers - from Phil Spector through to Nile Rodgers - in having no stamp of his own. His work with, say, Willie Nelson is light years from the two B-52s albums he worked on, or his collaboration with Cheb Khaled, or Iggy Pop, or Bob Dylan, or Paula Abdul, or the incidental bebop soundtrack he composed for the recent Stuart Sutcliffe bio-pic, Backbeat. 'I try hard to be pretty invisible,' he says, and in spite of his ubiquity he makes a good job of it.
It helps that he mostly works with senior citizens who know their own sound. 'I tend to end up with older artists because they have this greater depth of experience to draw on and they've had more time to develop their communicative skills. People under 41 don't know how to feel anything.' Don Was is 41. More than anyone else in the industry, he is ensuring that pop doesn't die just because it's getting old.
The Rolling Stones' 'Voodoo Lounge' is released by Virgin on 11 July.
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