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Don Dixon: Soul for Hire

December 13, 1987|CHRIS WILLMAN

Don Dixon's first album ended with the North Carolinian singing Percy Sledge's classic words, "When a man loves a woman, he'll do almost anything."

On his new effort, Dixon uses that theme as a through-line. "Romeo at Juilliard" (on Enigma Records) is a funny, touching and provocative treatise on male sexuality, full of romantically desperate characters who'll ring a bell with anyone who's read Warren Farrell's best seller "Why Men Are the Way They Are." It's one of the year's smartest and catchiest mainstream releases, a record that sometimes sounds as if Nick Lowe made another "Pure Pop for Now People" but let Elvis Costello write the words.

"Young girls have incredible power over guys," the handsomely balding North Carolina native observed during a recent interview. "You see many mature, intelligent adult males being brought to their knees by women, and by young women who very often are not even doing this on purpose. . . . These songs are more about the animal weaknesses of people, and I write about guys just because I'm a guy. . . ."

Some of "Romeo's" tracks are lighthearted (including a rendition of "Cool" from "West Side Story"), but in others, the male protagonists contemplate murder ("February Ingenue") or suicide ("Heart in a Box," which deals with "the concept of paying back your significant other for their indiscretions by having your heart carved out and given to them in a box"), or even start wars ("Helen," as in "of Troy").

Noted Dixon, "I still think that relationships are a good thing to talk about in pop music. People like to use music to identify with emotional experiences. And I think the way people interact with each other in relationships and are still able to get up every day and brush their teeth and go to work is important.

"We really can't in good conscience write songs about 'Tutti frutti, good booty' anymore. I mean, it's not appropriate. Great songs from that era exist, but we have to try to bring whatever our environment is--whatever it is we have to live with and deal with on a day-to-day basis--into the things we're talking about for it to be interesting. I have to keep myself interested in what I'm saying."

This whole side of Don Dixon--that he plays virtually any instrument that a studio situation requires, crafts hooks like the best veteran pop fishermen of our time, writes lyrics of uncanny insight, intelligence, wit and poetry, and is a great white soul singer as well-- remains largely unknown even to most of those rock fans who know his name. He's far better known, at least for now, for his skills as a producer-for-hire.

With these twin careers, Dixon joins the ranks of today's true rock 'n' roll Renaissance men--the Todd Rundgrens, Nick Lowes and T Bone Burnetts of the world who regularly hone their own fine albums while also finding time to dive behind the boards and work with new talent.

Dixon has helped craft commercial successes for R.E.M. and the Smithereens, acclaimed efforts from cult artists Marti Jones and Marshall Crenshaw, and the just-released records by alternative bands Guadalcanal Diary, the Reivers and Fetchin Bones, among others.

And he makes no bones about the fact that his own experience as a singer/writer/player gives him distinct advantages that non-musician producers can't claim.

"Lots of times when I'm producing some band, I'll just learn the songs with them," said Dixon. "I'll be sitting in the studio with a guitar learning what they're doing, and maybe I can help them over little humps when they have a problem just by explaining to them some alternatives."

While some producers are proud of leaving an audible "stamp" on each project, like a dog and its fire hydrants, Dixon is more a documentarian than shaper and molder.

"I enjoy producing bands that have an (existing) vision intact. . . . I'll always try to make the stuff work in the context of what they already feel is right, and just show 'em a few new avenues here and there, and help 'em to understand the politics of whatever the record deal is they have.

"Because that's a real important part of being a producer, to help that side: Make the record company remember why they signed this band, make the band remember why they're making records.

"They're not making records for the record company--they're making records for human beings. There's a certain amount of that kind of stuff that's as important to making good music as how many tracks you use. As a matter of fact, that's the least important thing."

Not that he hasn't been willing to make commercial compromises requested by record companies--but he can cite situations in which the changes implemented were all for naught, and labels have entirely lost interest in promoting a project by the time it came out.

"It's a classic situation," says Dixon. "The politics are just so unpredictable and so phenomenally huge in the record business that you can't worry about it. You can't lie awake at night trying to figure it out, because it's going to be different by the time you think you've got it figured out. So you just keep trying to make yourself happy, which is why we're always chasing this ghost of self-fulfillment."

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