Was (Not Was)…Was

January 5, 2011

Paloma recently mentioned a musician – a portly, mustacheod fellow and one quarter of an iconic band of the late ’60s – and I reacted with the disdain akin to that Kramer and Newman had for baseball great Keith Hernandez.

I had to remind her that several of us had unpleasant encounters with this legend at the record store where we worked and met in the ’90s.

(in one memorable incident, our jazz buyer – a burly cat in a beret – followed this character to the bookstore next door and verbally smacked him for his rude treatment to one of our clerks)

This particular record store was very large – close to 20,000 square feet – and it wasn’t uncommon to see celebrities.

I vividly recall staring out at the sales floor, bleary-eyed, early one Saturday morning and asking a puzzled co-worker, “Is that Peter Jennings?”

Al Gore, Liza Minelli, and Lauren Bacall came through while I was there as well as a lengthy list of musicians, producers and session players. It was hardly surprising to see someone like Peter Frampton, Jon Bon Jovi, or Rob Zombie browsing through the racks.

The Drunken Frenchman would often point out less recognizible luminairies like Robert Fripp, Albert Lee or session saxophonist Jim Horn.

“He’s probably got George Harrison’s phone number in his back pocket,” he said to me as he gave Horn a respectful, knowing nod from behind the counter where we stood.

Both staff and patrons usually left the celebrities in our midst alone. Often, there would be little recognition unless it was courted.

One lead singer of a successful band opted to park his limo outside the entrance in a no parking zone and had two mountains serving as bodyguards keep the aisles adjacent to the one in which he was shopping cleared.

It drew attention, but the sad thing is that I overheard more than a few customers whispering to each other and obviously having no idea who was causing the commotion.

More often than not, though, the brushes with greatness I experienced were pleasant ones and more in line with one of my first such encounters.

I hadn’t been working at the store for more than a few weeks and, though I’d seen a couple famous folk, my mind was still inclined to think that I was seeing the doppelganger of Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson rather than the genuine article.

It was near our midnight close and we had already doused most of the lights. I was working in the store’s cassette department, mostly just hanging out behind the counter, chatting with a manager when a guy in a denim jacket with a mop of bushy, unruly hair and dark glasses walked into the department.

“Is that Don Was?” I asked.

This manager usually worked in the video department, listened to essentially nothing but Frank Zappa, and had a justifiable hatred of mailmen.

“Go ask him,” he suggested.

So, I did something I rarely did during my years at that store and approached him as he was browsing through the country music section.

“Did anyone ever tell you that you look just like Don Was?”

He stopped and stared at me for a moment – long enough for me to think that I’d made a poor decision. Then, with a sudden motion, he stuck out his hand.

“Nice to meet you.”

He was quite gracious and when I asked what he was working on, he told me that he’d just finished working on an album with Willie Nelson.

(the album would prove to be Nelson’s well-received Across The Borderline from ’93)

Then, in a memory that becomes more endearing as time passes, the musician/producer began to tell me how he was speaking with Brian Wilson about a project.

It was still Don Was behind the dark glasses and he was still naturally cool, but as he spoke about the legendary Beach Boy, it was obvious that he was stoked, as stoked as some goofy twenty-something kid working in a record store might be to meet Don Was.

Here are four songs that are merely a sampling of from the vast catalog of songs with involvement from Don Was…

Was (Not Was) – Spy In The House Of Love
from What Up, Dog?

The first time I ever heard Don Was was with his band, Was (Not Was), and their 1983 release Born To Laugh At Tornadoes. The eclectic album featured guest appearances from Ozzy Osbourne, Mitch Ryder, and Mel Tormé, and I used to hear the track Knocked Down, Made Small (Treated Like A Rubber Ball) often on 97X – the future of rock and roll.

Six years into that future, Was (Not Was) returned with What Up, Dog?, notched a Top Ten hit with Walk The Dinosaur and another Top Twenty hit with the sly, soulful dance pop of Spy In The House Of Love.

Iggy Pop – Livin’ On The Edge Of The Night
from Brick By Brick

Brick By Brick gave punk godfather Iggy Pop his greatest commercial success and even a hit single with Candy, his duet with The B-52s’ Kate Pierson, in 1990. I don’t recall, but I imagine that the record’s polish probably caused some angst for fans of the singer’s earlier work.

I dug it, though, and the album’s closer, Livin’ On The Edge Of The Night is wiry and resilient.

Johnny Clegg – In My African Dream
from In My African Dream

Johnny Clegg has a fascinating and inspiring story, certainly worthy of more than a few scant words here. The interracial make-up of his band Juluka and the politics of their songs put the members in jeopardy simply to perform in their native South Africa during the years of apartheid.

In My African Dream alternates between the slinky, light funk of the verses and a bouyant, optimistic chorus.

Willie Nelson – Graceland
from Across The Borderline

There needs to be a Willie Nelson fantasy resort. Who wouldn’t pay good money to spend a week living like Willie?

Get up early, shower, dress semi-presentably, endure a death-defying commute, and spend nine hours being a drone or get up considerably later, put the hair in pigtails, let someone else pilot the biofuel bus, and inhale.

Not a difficult choice there.

Advertisements