February 3, 2005
Was Is Back
A few weeks ago, Sweet Pea Atkinson stood on the stage of the Los Angeles House of Blues, dapper in a red double-breasted, collarless suit, wearing a red fedora and red leather shoes. The occasion was the historic reunion of seminal groove band Was (Not Was) after a 14-year hiatus. Sweet Pea grabbed the microphone and proceeded to move the time continuum backward and forward for the better part of a rousing two-hour set.
Turns out Was (Not Was) was, is and continues to be a dance band, a Detroit-born dream of funk contrived by two white Jewish kids who met in junior high, Don Was, nee Don Fagenson; and David Was, nee David Weiss, who not only fantasized about being James Brown but went on to pay proper homage. Their encore consisted of a burning rendition of "Cold Sweat" that would have done the Godfather of Soul proud.
Confession time: Here's how I know Don Was. My wife, a.k.a. the reason people put up with me, plays in a monthly all-women's poker game with Don's wife, Gemma Corfield. As a result, I have had the pleasure of hanging out with Don, who, despite his brushes with music legends, is the most down-to-earth, sweet and funny person you could meet. Plus, he was kind enough to alert me to the historic reunion of Was (Not Was).
In case you missed them the first time around, Was (Not Was) had a good run in the 1980s as Ze recording artists, with two notable hits: "Walk the Dinosaur" and "Spy in the House of Love." Their songs veered from funk classics to art-house wit (i.e., turns out "Dinosaur" is a pop song about nuclear destruction -- who knew?).
However, after the release of their fourth album, "Are You Okay?"(1990), the band paused to pursue "other projects," as the press releases are wont to say. Truth to tell, they got busy.
David Was found himself a great deal of studio work and became the music supervisor on numerous films and TV shows, including "The X-Files." Today, he does all that and even does commentary for NPR.
Don Was, for his part, found himself in demand as a record producer after Ze Records founder Michael Zilkha asked Don to produce an album by Zilkha's then wife, Cristina Monet (they divorced in 1990). Although Monet's album "Sleep It Off"(1984) had modest sales, Don's work was universally praised (the album has been recently re-issued).
In 1989, Don's career was launched into the stratosphere when Bonnie Raitt's "Nick of Time" swept the Grammies. Don became the producer of the moment -- a moment that has seemed to go on to this day. Over the next two decades, Don worked with everyone from Jackson Browne and Bob Dylan to Willie Nelson and the Rolling Stones.
So why reunite Was (Not Was)? Time slipped by too fast. Don Was woke to find himself on the other side of 50, in the studio but not on stage and on the road. Something needed to be done.
Over the years, the band's eclectic constellation has included such diverse seasonings as Wayne Kramer of MC5, Harry Bowens of the OJays, Ozzie Osbourne and even a vocal or two by actress Kim Basinger. This current tour's team features saxophonist David McMurray, guitarist Randy Jacobs, keyboardist Tio Banks and drummer Sergio Gonzalez. Don Was is on bass, David Was provides flute and vocals.
At the House of Blues performance, David Was performed some of his classic Firesign Theatre-like rants, such as "Dad, I'm in Jail" and "I Blew Up the United States," which seem more dangerous than ever in our post-Sept. 11 world.
Was (Not Was) also proved themselves loyal to their Motown roots, performing an amazing cover of the Temptations' "Papa Was a Rolling Stone." This was not without some irony, as Don Was is currently working with the Glimmer Twins, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, on songs for the next Stones album.
Nonetheless, what came through loud and clear was that Was (Not Was) had returned to proclaim the power of the dance groove. That was the platform on which Sweet Pea intended to campaign, heading out on their reunion tour, which was to continue later in the spring and then into summer, fueling talk of yet another album.
In the meantime, Don Was, dreadlocks intact, stood on stage with a grin as big as Detroit. Up on the balcony of the House of Blues his son from his first marriage, Tony, 26, who as a child had given the band its name, now a grown man, a musician and performer in his own right, stood watch over Don's two young sons, Henry, 11, and Solly, 7. The kids were dancing, as excited to see their dad perform as they were to be rocking out on a Tuesday night and staying up way past their bedtimes.
The audience, for the most part contemporaries of the band, were also grinning. They, too, like the band, were excited to be up late, past their bedtimes, in a club, rocking to the music.
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.