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March 24, 1989 - Image 58

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1989-03-24

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

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FRIDAY, MARCH 24, 1989

Continued from preceding page

companies with a phony cover
letter that I'd written on
Herald-Examiner stationery
saying 'You must hear this
band! I'm a critic.'
"And the guy who signed us
said that's the only reason he
listend to it; it was just one of
hundreds of tapes that he
receives."
Although Weiss is the
songwriter, Fagenson penned
the name Was (Not Was). "I'd
like to say it has something to
do with French existen-
tialism," says Weiss, "but no,
I'm afraid my partner just
was thinking of something to
put on the tape box when we
sent it out. And his little boy
was in a stage of thinking —
I think that Piaget calls it
`Reversability thinking' — so
he was saying, 'Hot, not hot.'
This genius (Fagenson) plugg-
ed in Was (Not Was), and said
`And we'll be the Was
Brothers.' Little did we know,
nine years later we'd be
checking into hotels under
that name." Although the two
have not changed their
names legally, they use the
professional names Don and
Davis Was.
The band's first record
"Was (Not Was)" and their se-
cond, "Born to Laugh at Tor-
nadoes," were similar in style.
They featured a variety of
rock, soul and dance and pop
music with off-the-wall lyrics
and some surprising guest
performers. Among the
singers on the second album
are heavy metal hero Ozzy
Osbourne and crooner Mel
Ibrme. The band's eclectic
creativity impressed the
critics but upset their record
companies, which gave the
albums little promotion.
In 1985, Geffen, the group's
second company, refused to
release the band's third effort.
The tapes sat on the shelf for
three years until the British
Phonogram company bought
them and helped the band
finish its album, "What Up
Dog?"
Geffen did not like the
band's composition. Most of
its performers are black, in-
cluding lead singers Sir
Harry Bowens and Sweet Pea
Atkinson. "They'd even gone
so far as to tell us, 'Look, you
guys are white, why don't you
hire a white singer? You'll be
blue-eyed soul,' " recalls
Weiss. "And it was kind of
making us disgusted because
we had two great singers and
they sing in this soul tradi-
tion, as good as anybody. So
we were held up legally. We
couldn't record under the
name Was (Not Was)."
The band's perseverance
paid off last year when the
album produced two Top Ten
hits in Europe, "Spy in the

House of Love" and "Walk the
Dinosaur." "Spy" was releas-
ed in the U.S. last fall. It hit
number one on the Billboard
dance chart and 18 on the
magazine's pop chart.
"We've never even ap-
proached the pop charts (in
the U.S.) before," says Weiss.
"I'm still a little numb. I
figure we have been led down
the primrose path so many
times. So many times we've
had sure bets that evapo-
rated, that you really set
yourself up emotionally for
failure. So when something
good happens, there's kind of
an emotional time-lag."
Weiss calls songwriting "A
waiting game. I fancifully
describe it as, you wakeup in
the morning, strap on a
figurative lightning rod and
go out looking for lightning.
Obviously you're gonna get
struck once in a Purim .. .
"Sometimes it's a slow pro-
cess. Like, we have a song, '11
Miles Per Hour,' (on What Up,
Dog?) and that took a couple
of readings of a few books
about the (John) Kennedy
assasination ."
Another example of Weiss'
songwriting methods is the
genesis of their latest U.S.
single.
"I had a line once, written
down. I didn't know what it
meant, except that there was
some time-paradox within it.
It was the first line of 'Walk
the Dinosaur.' It was a night
like this, 40 million years ago'
as if someone could remember
back that far or live that long.
And I didn't know what to do
with it.
"It was sitting around for
the longest time. Then my lit-
tle boy turned five or six years
old and he was just living in
pre-historic times. All he was
talking and thinking about
was dinosaurs. And all I did
was read dinosaur books, for
a half a year, to him. And
there I was, well-seasoned to
turn those idle lines into a
song about dinosaurs and ex-
tinction and, by extension,
about nuclear annihilation,
our own capacity for extinc-
tion."
After writing the words,
Weiss gives the songs to
Fagenson, who writes the
music. Despte his proficiency
as a studio producer — Fagen-
son has produced records for
Bonnie Raitt and the B-52's,
among others — Fagenson
says his most creative work is
done away from the studio.
"The best things have been
written by not having
anything there except the
words. Usually in a car, in a
place where I can't fall back
on any cliches, any downbeats
or my style of playing the
piano or anything. To just

,

look at his lyrics and try to
sing 'em, into a tape recorder
without thinking about it.
Usually the first impulses are
the best ones?
continues,
Fagenson
"There's music in the lines.
It's not like it's a biography of
Abraham Lincoln."
The song is put into final
form in the studio. "When it
comes time to sing it," ex-
plains Weiss, "we'll change
the melody right as it's being
sung. Because you can tell if
it has singability or not at
that point and if the words as
written can be sung. I know
I write a mouthful."
On stage, as in the studio,
Fagenson is in charge. Weiss
calls him the "bandleader,'
adding, "so he's working

The tapes sat on
the shelf for three
years until the
British Phonogram
company bought
them and helped
the band finish its
album,

while I'm looking for girls in
the audience." Weiss calls
himself a "writer-turned-
songwriter" who travels with
the band on tour because he's
a founding Was Brother. "I'm
just out here symbolically; I
wasn't born to play in a
band," he says.
Whether it's Atkinson and
Bowens or a guest vocalist
such as Doug Fieger or Frank
Sinatra Jr. singing, the key to
Was (Not Was) is still the
"Was Bros." So far, the friends
have been compatible as well
as creative partners.
"There's certain perils built
into partnerships in general,"
says Fagenson. "I think the
thing that we have to strive
for is to remember that it's
built-in. It's automatic. In cer-
tain situations you are almost
set up to butt heads. And
that's good, that's where the
good things come from, that
you're coming from two dif-
ferent sensibilities and
somehow you merge into a
stream that becomes original
and is stronger for having the
two tributaries contributing
to it. But because of that, I
think all you can do is watch
out for it. This is going to hap-
pen and you just try not to let
it get in the way of being
friends."
Weiss adds, "It's the
Socratic ideal that one plus
one equals more than two,
slightly. And it's also that we
know each other so well that
we're each other's best
editors. We're the first au-
dience. When I write a song,
he's the first one I show it to.

-4

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