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

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Plenty of people have criticized Bob Dylan’s unfocused Under the Red Sky, released on September 10, 1990. (Heck, we even called its lead song Dylan’s worst-ever moment.) Producer Don Was is here to explain what happened.

At that time, Was had just scored a hit with the album What Up, Dog? as part of 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.

But almost nothing went right — mainly, Was later said, because he was beyond his depth.

He says he argued with Bob 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 told CBS, “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, Bob Dylan didn’t record another album of new material for seven years.

“I was maybe a little out of my league, experience-wise, when I did Under The Red Sky,” Was said. “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 Bob Dylan turned more to roots music. “You can see he was trying not to be the 24-year old rock-and-roll guy,” Was added. “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, maybe most famously, the Rolling Stones, with whom has worked since Voodoo Lounge in 1994. The lessons of his time with Dylan still resonate: “It’s larger than producing records,” Was said. “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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