Stop The Presses!

Don Was on Producing the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan

Stop The Presses!

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Photo: Michael Bezjian

It was out of necessity that Don Was became a producer. As he explains it, it all evolved out of a dispute with the record label that his band, Was (Not Was), was signed to at the time.

"We got into a situation where the record company felt we should change the lead singers in our band, we refused and they put us on suspension, which I kind of felt was like baseball. It's 30 days and you get on with it, but it doesn't work that way," he recalls. "It meant we're not putting out your record until you change lead singers, which we never did, so it ran on for about three years.

"So unable to tour with our own band or make our own records, there was nowhere to turn but to start producing and I loved it from the start."

While that incident may have effectively put Was (Not Was), best known for the 1988 hit "Walk the Dinosaur," on ice, it indirectly launched Was into a career as one of the most successful producers of the last 25 years.

Over the years, he's produced albums by Bonnie Raitt, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Paul Westerberg, John Mayer, and many others.

Was had other production gigs before Bonnie Raitt's 1989 critical and commercial blockbuster Nick of Time, but it was that Grammy-winning, chart-topping effort that put him on the map as a producer. "I've been extremely fortunate," he says. "If you start selling records, people do respond to that and you will get called. How things fall into place is as mysterious as how songs come to you."

To emphasize that mysterious element, Was admits, "I personally didn't think I did anything that differently with Bonnie Raitt than I did with the record before [Floy Joy's 1986 album Weak in the Presence of Beauty] that you've never ever heard of."

And Was adds that much of the success was, of course, due to Raitt. "There's no question I was just really lucky to work with Bonnie Raitt at that time. She was ready," he says. "She had great songs and there was a lot of stuff going on inside. I really give her the credit for all of that."

After the success with Raitt, Was went on to work with the B-52's and Iggy Pop before he moved on to a whole other level of legends such as Bob Dylan and eventually the Rolling Stones. "It's very intimidating," Was admits of working with Dylan, "but you have to learn to get over that."

He says he came to a "turning point" while working on the title track for Bob Dylan's 1990 album Under the Red Sky. "George Harrison came in to play guitar. Bob was jocular and kind of rushed George through the solo he had to play. He didn't even let him tune up or learn the song," Was says with a laugh. "George played the solo once, but considering he didn't even know what key it was in when he started, it was OK. So they both turned to me and Bob said, 'That was great' and George was like, 'Help.' And they both said, 'What do you think, Don?' It was like time stood still and things got echo-y around me, and I thought, 'Oh my God. How do I handle this?'"

Was came to his senses and realized that he wasn't getting paid to be "a gushing fan. Bob was counting on me to tell the truth, but to do so in a respectful fashion. So I said, 'George, that was good, but I think we could probably do better. Let's try another one.' He was grateful and Bob knew it wasn't a good take. But that was a turning point. if I could say that to George Harrison in front of Bob Dylan, I guess I shouldn't be intimidated."

And then of course, there's the Rolling Stones, who Was has worked with since 1994's Voodoo Lounge. "It's great working with the Rolling Stones," he says. "It's not hard. It's a thrill and they really are the greatest band in the world. When you hear them play in a room, it's f**king incredible. There's this chemistry thing that happens. I was fortunate to have played bass with them on a number of occasions and the level of communication that goes on in the band is really deep. They're very much like a jazz group with a different groove underneath. It's really fulfilling to be in the studio with them."

Aside from producing new material such as 1997's Bridges to Babylon and 2005's A Bigger Bang, Was also had the task of going through the vaults and unearthing demos for inclusion on the reissues of the Stones' classics Exile on Main St. and Some Girls as bonus tracks.

"I saw them for the first time in 1964," he says, "so as a Stones fan, it was a real thrill for me to go through these things." It turned out to be quite an arduous task. The two-inch tapes and four-tracks had all been transferred to hard drives, "but they weren't particularly well marked, so it was a bit of a surprise. You just didn't know what you were going to find. There were some jaw-dropping things that came up."

Under the guidance of Was, the Stones engaged in the somewhat controversial practice of finishing songs they started decades ago, but never properly released. "They were enthusiastic about it," Was explained. "Everybody agreed [we should try] to preserve the integrity of what they did, but it was also an interesting experiment to go back and finish something about 40 years old. No one had ever done that, as far as I know, and we tried to tread very lightly, not redo anything, just finish it off."

During the process, especially while working on the Some Girls-era material, Was was impressed by Mick Jagger's memory. "There were songs where there wasn't a vocal and Mick remembered how the song went," Was says. "He remembered it. He just never got around to singing it. He hadn't forgotten what the lyrics were."

As for the future, Was says, "I don't think they ever stopped being the Rolling Stones. They love being the Rolling Stones. It's not like it's something they have to work to go back to doing. They like doing it a lot. I think they enjoyed this last tour a lot and it was pretty evident if you were in the audience watching them. I don't see any reason why they should stop, but you have to ask them what their plans are."

For now, Was is keeping busy serving as a judge of Guitar Center's 3rd Annual Search for the Best Singer-Songwriter in America. You can enter now through Nov. 3 by submitting an original live music performance at guitarcenter.com/songwriter.

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