What Was is now

OK, Don Was doesn't wear shoes and thinks Ringo Starr is a great drummer. But that hasn't hindered his success with Was (Not Was) or his reputation as the world's most bankable pop producer. And then there's the film with Coppola...
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Ringo Starr: genius drummer or holy fool? Don Was inclines to the former view: "People think he's like the guy in A Hard Day's Night, but ask Jim Keltner or any of the great drummers and they'll tell you that Ringo really altered the way people approached the drums with his fills. What I discovered when I made a record with him is that he's not thinking "here's the end of the verse, let's do a fill on the chorus", he's listening to the singers. You don't put a chart down in front of Ringo, you put down the lyrics and he plays the song. You wouldn't have had The Beatles without this guy."

Though it's a controversial opinion (Ringo as a tub-thumper who got lucky being the more conventional view), Was should know what he's talking about. As well as producing Ringo's album Time Takes Time from 1992, and scoring the soundtrack for The Beatles bio-pic Backbeat, he and Ringo have just formed a new band. The other members? In a line-up as incongruous as any panel of Shooting Stars, come-on-down country stars Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson, maverick rocker Leon Russell, and Was himself on bass. They are set to record later this year, and to perform at Farm-Aid. "I don't care whether I make any money or not," Was says. "I just want to have my own bus, travelling in a convoy between Willie and Merle. Willie has this 10,000 sq-ft log cabin but he spends all his time on the driveway in his bus, watching TV with his kids."

Hunkering down for a spot of trailer-DIY with country legends seems a long way from "The Woodwork Squeaks and Out Come the Freaks", the theme tune for Don Was's great group Was (Not Was) in the early Eighties. Then, their label Ze Records inaugurated a fashion for ironic disco-funk that British ears found particularly appealing. After some belated success, and a parallel career as a producer that began in Britain with Floy Joy, Helen Terry, and Boy George (with whom he co-produced a PP Arnold record), Was wound up the band in 1992. "We opened for Dire Straits at Earl's Court for a week, and what had started as ironic and twisted - what Sun Ra was to Duke Ellington - had essentially become a parody. By the end we could have played Las Vegas. I lost any sense of who I was; I was just chasing the radio."

Was (real name, Donald Fagenson; age 44), recovered his self-esteem through his success as a producer, while remaining a freak to the tips of his toes. Though he may be the most bankable record producer in popular music, he still doesn't wear shoes, a fact attested to by many of the advertisers in the 26 pages of tribute to him in last month's Billboard magazine. "Don: we salute your incredible creativity, your deep wisdom, your humanity and your genius - and all without shoes!" - from Corleone International Associates, is a typical, if fictional, example. The real stuff is more icky, as in the contribution from guitarist Richie Sambora, Was's latest client: "Don, as a producer and a musician, your philosophical vision into the spirit and essence of making music is truly an extraordinary gift to us all."

The modest beneficiary of all this praise says that he hasn't changed his style of dress since his late Sixties coming of age in Detroit. Then, Iggy and the Stooges and George Clinton and Parliament played his High School Prom, the MC5 kept him awake at night, and Marvin Gaye was likely to drop by the record shop where he worked part-time. The political ideas of the time also made their mark, reflected in a later version of "Out Come the Freaks" where Leon Trotsky is name-checked along with John Coltrane. At his smart London hotel suite, an abandoned pair of flip-flops indents the deep pile of the carpet as if in silent vigil to his bohemian roots, while Was sits in the conservatory listening to tapes from the sessions of the latest Rolling Stones album, which he is producing.

He still looks like a clean-shaved version of Phineas from the Furry Freak Brothers comics: matted dreads hanging over his eyes, a string of hippie beads visible above the loose collar of his sweat-top, callused feet resting on the seat of an expensive chair. Though success came to him late, it came big. Bonnie Raitt's Nick of Time album, which he produced in 1989, won four Grammys; her next one won three. Between then and The Stones' Voodoo Lounge in 1994 (another Grammy), he produced albums by artists as diverse as Bob Dylan, Paula Abdul, Marianne Faithfull, Cheb Khaled, the B-52s and Willie Nelson.

Since then, he has directed the brilliant documentary film about the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson, I Just Wasn't Made For These Times, completed another Bonnie Raitt, another Stones, and Rhythm, Country and Blues (two more Grammys), among an unfeasibly large number of other projects, including songs for many film-soundtracks. At present, when at home in LA, his schedule is as follows: "I do Richie Sambora from 1pm to 1am, then drive over to The Stones until 7am, and at the weekend fly up to San Francisco to work on a movie by Francis Ford Coppola."

His latest album, his first as a performer since folding Was (Not Was), is Forever's a Long, Long Time by Orquestra Was, an updated and more expensive version of his earlier group. It's not just an album, either. The project developed from Was's friendship with Coppola, whose company had made a couple of extended videos for VH-1 to accompany albums by Van Morrison and Joe Jackson. "I thought that it was a shame that Van didn't know in advance that Coppola was making a movie of his album," Was says, "so I wrote a script, recorded music to reflect the script, and then the music took on a life of its own." The result is a short film, directed by Was and produced by Coppola, and included on the album as a CD-Rom track. "Sweet Pea [Atkinson, Was (Not Was) vocalist] basically plays himself and he's visited by the ghost of Hank Williams, played by Kris Kristofferson."

The result is a witty and stylish black-and-white short, in which Atkinson - who looks as lived-in as he sounds - excels. "He's a consummate con- man," says Was. "Years ago he managed to get pensioned off as sick by Chrysler in Detroit, where he worked on the assembly line, until his case- worker caught him playing with us in a club." The film also acts as a dry run for Was's first real movie; later this year he is to direct an adaptation of a novel by Harry Crews.

Despite all his success, Was - who is wonderfully funny and sharp - still harks back to the days of Was (Not Was) when, with his partner David Was, he created a band to reflect the musical and cultural fabric of Nixon- era Detroit. They based their songs (for which David wrote the lyrics) on real people and events, and "Out Come the Freaks" was nearly their undoing, when the Eddie Harold whom the song celebrates for his habit of tape-recording his bedroom conquests, decided to sue them for $10m. Only an acquaintance with another neighbourhood friend, now a celebrated lawyer, saved them.

The group's greatest achievement, the heart-rending "Zazz Turned Blue", was the true story of a high school friend who suffered a seizure after he was wrestled with a neck-hold during street corner horseplay, and who later became the only one of their High School contemporaries to volunteer for the Marines and go to Vietnam. They got the veteran crooner Mel Torme to sing the lyric, after David, who had moved to LA to become a jazz critic, had praised one of his shows and Torme had written a letter of thanks, indicating that there was a favour waiting to be called in. They travelled to Miami, where Torme was singing in a lounge, to record the track. "We were terrified," remembers Don. "It was long before I learnt how to work with other artists, but when he started to sing I was covered in goose- bumps. It's still the best moment I've ever had in a recording studio. This guy took a song that we wrote and gave it a zillion times more meaning than we had ever intended, finding nuances in the phrasing that really gave it some weight, all the time acting like he was an uncle doing a favour for two weird nephews who wanted to get a start in showbusiness."

An even fonder regard is reserved for the British group Floy Joy, for whom Was produced two albums in 1983, after they had tracked him to New York from Sheffield. The first album is stunning, a street-soul precursor to Soul II Soul and perhaps the whole British dance music scene. "I'm really proud of those records," he says. "They had a real attention to detail." Almost misty-eyed, he immediately covers up, donning cowboy hat and shades for the photo-shoot, as if in readiness for Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Ringo, and that convoy of buses `Forever's a Long, Long Time' is on Verve 314 533-915