‘I was maybe a little out of my league’: Don Was on what went wrong with Bob Dylan’s Under the Red Sky

Plenty of people have criticized Bob Dylan’s unfocused 1990 release Under the Red Sky. (Heck, we even called its lead song Dylan’s worst-ever moment.) Producer Don Was is here to explain what happened.

Was, at that time, was coming off the hit album What Up, Dog? with Was (Not Was), his band. Dylan, meanwhile, had made a long-hoped-for return-to-form with Oh Mercy in ’89.

The stars seemed to be aligned for a producer who had already worked his magic with the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Iggy Pop and the B-52′s. He put together a crack guest list including Elton John, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Slash, Randy Jackson (later of American Idol fame) and Kenny Aronoff, then with John Mellencamp.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Our much-reviled Sucks Series makes a stop in the Bob Dylan epoch, lambasting missteps from 1970's 'Self Portrait' to 1990's 'Under the Red Sky.']

But almost nothing went right — mainly, Was now says, because he was somewhat out of his league.

He says he argued with Dylan about the legendary singer-songwriter’s vision for the project, saying he wanted to return Dylan to the sound and feel of Highway 61 Revisited, the seminal mid-1960s album. Years later, Was had a chance to relive these disagreements, because an assistant engineer on the project actually recorded all of his conversations with Dylan — thinking Was would like to have them for posterity.

Instead, Was says he was simply appalled at his own inexperience and lack of vision.

“If I was Bob Dylan,” Was tells CBS Local, “I would have gone home and said, ‘Don’t ever bring that guy around me again!’”

Under the Red Sky would only reach No. 38 on the American charts, though the album made it to No. 13 in the UK. After enduring withering criticism, Dylan didn’t record again for seven years.

“I was maybe a little out of my league, experience-wise, when I did Under The Red Sky,” Was says. “I was thinking like a fan. ‘Man, I loved Highway 61, it’d be great if he did something else like Highway 61!’ So, I’m trying to get him back to something, and he’s trying to look forward and do something different. Which is what you’re supposed to do! You’re not supposed to just imitate yourself, you’re supposed to do something new, that challenges you.”

Was grew to appreciate how some of those musical intuitions played out on later albums, as Dylan turned more to roots music. “You can see he was trying not to be the 24-year old rock-and-roll guy,” Was tells CBS Local. “I can hear the roots of all that stuff in Under The Red Sky for the first time. Even the way he sings the songs, it’s a different approach to singing.”

Was has gone on to produce Glenn Frey, Ringo Starr, Bob Seger and the Rolling Stones — with whom has worked since Voodoo Lounge in 1994. Meanwhile, Dylan is now out with the critically lauded Tempest, which Was praises as his best since their 1990 collaboration.

Was says the lessons of that time still resonate with him: “It’s larger than producing records,” Was says. “Don’t be that way in life. Don’t keep repeating the same old things. Be present in each new moment; don’t rehash the past. So I don’t think I was of great service to Bob Dylan.”

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