In 1990, Don Was was one of the hottest producers in music, if not the hottest. His band, Was (Not Was) had a hit album with What Up, Dog?, which featured the pop hit “Walk The Dinosaur.” And he had produced successful comeback albums for The B-52’s, Iggy Pop and Bonnie Raitt, bringing each artist to bigger commercial success than they’d previously had.
And then he got what he thought would be the job of a lifetime: producing Bob Dylan‘s Under The Red Sky album.
“That was the gig I wanted all my life!” he told CBS Local. “From the time I was 14, all I wanted to do was play bass for Bob Dylan! And when I became a producer, I thought, ‘If I could produce Bob Dylan, that’d be incredible!’ And then it actually happened. The odds of that happening, man, are like, absurd! But the universe came together, and there I was, with Bob Dylan!”
Unlike the other artists he’d worked with, Dylan didn’t need a “comeback” album; 1988’s Oh Mercy (produced by Daniel Lanois) was seen as a strong return to form. But Was assembled an all-star band of session musicians (including future American Idol judge Randy Jackson and John Mellencamp’s drummer Kenny Aronoff), and invited in an A-list of guest artists (Slash, Elton John, and Stevie Ray Vaughan among them). But still, Under The Red Sky was judged harshly by critics and fans.
Although Was had worked with Bonnie and Iggy, he says he wasn’t really prepared to work with Bob.
“I was maybe a little out of my league, experience-wise, when I did Under The Red Sky. I was really just getting started as a producer. There were mistakes that I made…”
Watch Was talk about his experiences with Under The Red Sky below.
Apparently an assistant engineer recorded all of Was’ conversations with Dylan, thinking that Don would appreciate having them. But when he listened to them, he was appalled. He clearly recalls at least on thing on those tapes: “(I heard) Bob standing at the piano telling me something that he wanted to do, and me telling him why it wasn’t gonna work… I didn’t even let him try the thing out! It might have been the greatest thing ever, and I sort of thwarted him. If I was Bob Dylan, I would have gone home and said, ‘Don’t ever bring that guy around me again!'”
He continues: “I was so ashamed of myself. I was thinking like… like a fan. ‘Man, I loved Highway 61, it’d be great if he did something else like Highway 61!’ So, I’m trying to get him back to something, and he’s trying to look forward and do something different. Which is what you’re supposed to do! You’re not supposed to just imitate yourself, you’re supposed to do something new, that challenges you.”
But he took it as a learning experience of sorts: “It’s a lesson to everybody. It’s larger than producing records. Don’t be that way in life. Don’t keep repeating the same old things. Be present in each new moment, don’t rehash the past. So I don’t think I was of great service to Bob Dylan.”
In fact, after that experience, Dylan didn’t release another album of new material for seven more years, when he followed up with the GRAMMY-winning Time Out Of Mind (produced, again, by Daniel Lanois).
On every album he’s done since then, there has bee a big roots music influence, and Was now understands that Dylan was trying to get on that path during the Under The Red Sky sessions.
“It’s only in retrospect that I realized he was trying to do. If, in fact, you listen to Under The Red Sky, and then listen to the albums he’s made in the last decade which lead up to [2012’s] Tempest, which, I think, is the best of all of them, you can see he was trying not to be the 24-year old rock and roll guy. I can hear the roots of all that stuff in Under The Red Sky for the first time. Even the way he sings the songs, it’s a different approach to singing.”
Of course, the experience hasn’t hindered Was’ career: he went on to produce records for Bob Seger, Ringo Starr, Glenn Frey, and most famously, The Rolling Stones. He’s produced all of their studio sessions since 1994’s Voodoo Lounge, up to and including their latest songs, “Doom And Gloom” and “One More Shot” from their recent GRRR! collection.
— Brian Ives, CBS Local