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POP MUSIC SPECIAL : Was (Not Was) Is? (Not Is?)

October 14, 1990|CHRIS WILLMAN

Don and David Was--the masterminds behind the avant-pop/funk group Was (Not Was)--were in the studio finishing up their production work on the new Bob Dylan album, "Under the Red Sky," when an old friend of Dylan's, poet Allen Ginsberg, dropped by. It made a strange meeting of the minds just a little bit stranger, but seemed somehow appropriate.

"We were gonna finish mixing the album with the convocation of Rabbi Ginsberg," David Was remembers. "It was a great moment. It was like three generations of Jewish wiseguys in the room."

A little too smart--or smart-alecky--for their own good, some would say of the Was brothers (who aren't really related). On their own deliciously diabolical, soulful records--the most recent being "Are You Okay?"--Don and David have mixed black comedy with black music, intellectual Jewish Angst with visceral dance beats, the urban with the urbane.

Their refusal to "dumb it down" has cost them at times. Viewed as too schizophrenic, Was (Not Was) was unceremoniously dropped by its first two labels, Island and Geffen, after one record for each.

After signing with Chrysalis in 1988, the group surprised skeptics by producing two left-field Top 10 hits ("Walk the Dinosaur" and "Spy in the House of Love") off its third album. Yet Was (Not Was) continues to confound pop stations, pundits and product managers alike. Now "Are You Okay?" is off to a slow start on the charts, despite reviews that have been much more than OK.

Don Was admits that by operating on so many different levels, between the inherent incongruities of youth-conscious rhythms and sophisticated themes, the band risks alienating all camps at once.

"If I try to take a step back and worry about it, I'll think that, well, it's got this dance texture on it so kids are gonna listen to it, but they're gonna see that we're talking about different, more grown-up stuff than Bobby Brown is, so in the end they'll be put off," he says.

"And then the worry is that adults will hear all this beat stuff and won't be able to differentiate between us and 'Yo! MTV Raps,' and we're gonna put off everybody ."

If the album ultimately does a belly-flop into the bargain bins occupied by some of its wiseguy predecessors, Don Was won't have to worry about keeping up the house payments. He's suddenly become a hot record producer.

He steered Bonnie Raitt--who was considered a has-been--back into artistic and commercial glory, producing her Grammy-winning "Nick of Time" album. The B-52's exploded back into the Top 10 with his production of the single "Love Shack."

Besides the Dylan co-production with partner David, Don Was also has recordings either in the stores or in the works with Paula Abdul, Elton John, Bob Seger, the Knack, Michael McDonald, Dion, Leonard Cohen, Ozzy Osbourne, Voice of the Beehive, David Crosby and Iggy Pop. (See adjoining story, Page 51.)

In other words, just about everyone in pop music but Bobby Brown, who might want to add his name to Was' long waiting list now before it's entirely too late.

David Was is really David Weiss--the blond, goateed lyricist of the duo, prone to quoting obscure philosophical and scientific texts and puns in nearly equal measure; former jazz critic for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner and golf editor for City Sports, aspiring screenwriter, student of classical Greek, reed and keyboard player and crazed monologuist.

He's the one who does the spoken-word raps like "Dad I'm in Jail," "Earth to Doris" and the new single "I Feel Better Than James Brown," usually in a sarcastic, tortured voice that sounds like a Beat Generation Bob Hope on acid.

Don Was is in fact Don Fagenson--the dark-haired, shades-wearing composer and bassist, the quietly confident studio whiz who reins in some of his partner's outermost instincts with tight, sharp melodies, a student of every sort of pop craftsmanship.

These two have been collaborating ever since they met nearly three decades ago as junior high kids in Detroit, sharing a love while growing up of Dylan, the Mothers of Invention, John Coltrane and musical bourgeoisie-bashing in general.

Says David, "I'd like to think that it's where Don and I meet . . . somewhere in the middle . . . that his more savvy instincts about what works meet my instincts of throwing in some element that shouldn't be there, and that our happy medium is where his smarts and my idiocy create a spark.

"Although I've always held close my role as fly in the ointment, and realized that without Don being the ointment we'd have nothing to sell whatsoever, the fact is, if you unleash this guy, he is the ultimate pop ironist. He'll join two styles together faster than Wolfgang Puck can put raw chicken on a pizza."

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