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What Was Was and What Was Is

After years as a top producer and bandleader, Don Was lost his creative vision. Then Francis Ford Coppola and Hank Williams gave him an idea.

March 23, 1997|Richard Cromelin | Richard Cromelin writes about pop music for Calendar

Don Was isn't the first person to rhapsodize about Hank Williams, but since Was is one of pop music's leading record producers, you tend to pay attention when he discusses the songs of the tortured country music legend.

"They're so universal," says Was, whose production credits include the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson and Brian Wilson, among many others. "He found certain emotional common denominators in human existence that are just part of the human chemistry. He defined it in the simplest form. You couldn't get any more basic yet any more emotional about it."

So how did Was approach these sacred texts when creating "Forever's a Long, Long Time," a new recording project that's built on Williams material?

"I wanted to twist them inside out," he says.

That's just what he's done on the album, which will be released by Verve/Forecast on April 8. Scrapping Williams' archetypal hillbilly sound, Was steeps the existential verses in a rich jazz-funk elixir executed by a band he calls Orquestra Was. It includes such luminaries as Herbie Hancock, Terence Blanchard and Harvey Mason, along with wild cards like rock guitarist Wayne Kramer. Some of the musicians--and the spirit of musical surrealism--are holdovers from Was (Not Was), the avant-garde funk-rock band that Was, who also plays bass, co-led from 1980 to 1993.

The album ends with Merle Haggard's spare rendition of the previously unrecorded Williams song "I'm So Tired of It All." Was says it's like gently returning a car to its owner's garage after taking it for a joy ride.

But there's more than the music. "Forever" is an enhanced CD that includes a 15-minute movie directed by Was--a film-noir parable with Sweet Pea Atkinson (the album's chief vocalist) as a small-time Detroit gambler and Kris Kristofferson as spectral, Williams-like figure.

The synergy of the music and the movie is actually what allowed Was to get the project going. Until he discovered it, he was stuck.

'I'd gone through this period of not having any sense of myself as an artist anymore," says Was, 44, whose real last name is Fagenson.

"I thought that Was (Not Was) had really lost its way. . . . And I started working with my heroes. I sat there and watched Bob Dylan write songs, watched Keith Richards come up with guitar parts, heard Willie Nelson sing. . . .Every time I picked up an instrument I thought, 'Well what's the . . . point?'

"I finally had to settle on some voice for myself. How can someone make music in light of the presence of these giants?"

The answer came through Francis Ford Coppola, whom Was met after directing a documentary about Brian Wilson. Was was intrigued by some short films Coppola produced for VH1 that created a narrative and employed several songs from albums by such singers as Joe Jackson and Van Morrison.

Coppola encouraged the musician to take it a step further and create an entire album project incorporating the cinematic element.

Says Was, "All of a sudden I don't have the specter of Brian Wilson hanging over me anymore. This is some new turf.

"And at the same time I started thinking about where I come from, Detroit, and music I got to hear when I was a kid that influenced my whole approach. This is a fairly unique experience I've had, and if I just stay true to the stuff that I have, I'm gonna say something unique."

That upbringing explains the rampant eclecticism of Was' music. Both the Stooges and Parliament-Funkadelic played dances at his high school. Hard-rock radicals the MC5 jammed with jazz visionary Pharoah Sanders. Was and his pal David Weiss--later the co-leader of Was (Not Was)--snuck into a jazz club to see Miles Davis.

"It was all about breaking down barriers, taking this edgy music and going somewhere else with it," Was says. "That's something that really used to have value in music. . . . Sounding different used to be an important thing."

From the straw hat topping his dreadlocks to the thongs on his feet, the outgoing Was looks like a post-hippie beachcomber as he sits by the swimming pool of a house in the hills overlooking the San Fernando Valley.

Was, who lives next door, has converted the home (which once was owned by exploitation-film icon Russ Meyer) into a lavish recording studio. Employees scurry around in the former living room, setting up equipment for the day's recording with Bon Jovi guitarist Richie Sambora, who has hooked up with Was in an attempt to shake his image as an arena-rock star.

Was will work here for about 12 hours, then head directly to the Hollywood studio where the Rolling Stones are preparing for their next album. That session will last "until Keith gets tired."

What about Was? Doesn't he get tired?

"The key is I don't feel like I'm going to work," Was says. "This is a great thrill for me to be able to do this. It doesn't take a physical toll. I'm energized. It's actually less stress because I love what I'm doing."

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