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(May 8, 2013)

Lately I’ve been enjoying some musical variety by heading out on my walks with my wife’s MP3 player instead of my iPod. It was a birthday present I got her this year and I loaded it up with the songs I knew she’d like. There’s tons of stuff from the ’70s plus a smattering of more recent offerings, such as fun. And there’s some material from in-between.

One of those in-between songs really got the memory banks flowing this morning. It was “Boy’s Gone Crazy” by the band called Was (Not Was), from the incredible 1988 album What Up, Dog? If people remember that album it’s probably because of the freak dance-floor hit “Walk the Dinosaur.” But What Up, Dog? is so much more than that; it’s a collection of twisted funk from two white guys from Detroit who called themselves Don and David Was, and a crackerjack band of great musicians.

I first heard of Was (Not Was) when I was working on my little music magazine in Boston. It must have been in 1984 or 1985 when the magazine received a promo copy of an album with the curious title Born to Laugh at Tornadoes by a band with an even more curious name, Was (Not Was). The album turned out to be an odd but listenable collection indeed, with tons of strange guest stars. Detroit rocker Mitch Ryder contributed the vocals to a ditty called “Bow Wow Wow Wow,” Doug Fieger, late of the dirty-minded pop band the Knack, sang on a couple songs. Ozzie Osbourne contributed some off-kilter rapping and Mel Tormé sang a very strange little ditty called “Zaz Turned Blue” (“Zaz turned blue. What were we supposed to do?”). Then there was “Man vs. the Empire Brain Building,” which has become a touchstone of my personal philosophy. It goes like this:

In this life there are just three things:
Man vs. man
Man vs. woman
And man vs. the Empire Brain Building.

How can you argue with that?

Born to Laugh at Tornadoes became a personal favorite of mine back then, but it didn’t prepare me for the wonderfulness that was What Up, Dog? I first came across it when I was on a trip to London. Apparently the British appreciate Was (Not Was) more than us Americans do, because London record stores had big displays of the album in their shop windows. I studied the jacket to see if this was, indeed, the same band that did Born to Laugh at Tornadoes. Apparently it was but I had to wait until I returned to the States to buy up a copy—on vinyl. It was indeed the same band, yet . . . it was different. It was less rocky, more soulful. It had fewer synthesizers.  It opened with a wistful ballad called “Somewhere in America There’s a Street Named After My Dad,” but then it launched into funkier territory with “Spy in the House of Love” and “Out Come the Freaks” (a different version of which was on the previous album). There were gruff and soulful vocals by Sweet Pea Atkinson (who was supposedly discovered while working on a Detroit assembly line) and smoother stuff by Sir Harry Bowens (the apparent knighthood provides another indication of how much the British loved the band). There was a song about the JFK assassination, the aforementioned “Walk the Dinosaur,” and some strange stuff like “Earth to Doris” (My favorite line: “She makes champagne out of Seven-up and cheap wine—a chemist!”). Then there was the crème de la crème of strangeness, with a discordant band backing up David Was in a “song” called “Dad, I’m in Jail.”

It was a great album. And the CD, which I eventually purchased, was even greater because it included even more songs, among them “Wedding Vows in Vegas,” with vocals by Frank Sinatra, Jr.

Here’s “Spy in the House of Love”:

So when I heard that Was (Not Was) was coming to the old 9:30 Club in Washington in 1988 I hurried out to get tickets ($8.00 each). As I recall, my girlfriend (now my wife) and I had hosted a small soiree the night before and on Saturday she was suffering from what we referred to back then as a “sick-headache.” So I headed downtown to the club by myself. It turned out to be one of the greatest live shows I have ever seen. The club was practically deserted, which may have been just as well because the band was so big they had to set up some of their equipment on the floor next to the stage. They had a horn section and the trumpet player played two instruments at once—one from each corner of his mouth. I remember they did a killer cover of “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” which later appeared on their 1990 album, Are You Okay?

When I got home I put the unused ticket into a scrapbook, just in case someone invented time travel and gave me the opportunity to go back to 1988 and use it.

Flash forward a long time—a span that included marriage, two kids, a move to Pennsylvania, a new job, lost job, new new job. Suddenly it’s 2008 and Was (Not Was) has just released a new album—Boo!—after almost 20 years. It was a good album, too. Even better, the band was touring and was scheduled to play an all-ages show on a Sunday afternoon at the Ram’s Head in Annapolis. That was a reasonably easy drive and, my wife and I realized with the excitement of parents who want to leave their children with precious memories, we could bring the kids. They’ll love it!

Well, we were wrong about that.

As parents we liked to expose our children to new experiences and thereby expand their growing minds. We watched classic movies with them—until they started complaining if they had to watch anything in black and white. We dragged them to historical sites despite their vociferous protests. (“Henry Ford was right, Dad!” they would protest from the back seat. “History is bunk!”) We introduced them to new foods so they could declare they didn’t like them. And we took them to see Was (Not Was).

Before we left the house for the road trip to Annapolis I carefully removed the unused ticket from 20 years earlier and slipped it into my pocket. Just in case.

It was a beautiful day for a drive but the kids sat in the back seat and glowered. Despite a traffic backup on I-95 we reached the Ram’s Head in plenty of time. I spied the band’s tour bus parked in front of the club. We decided to eat lunch at a table on the sidewalk. As we ate I looked up and saw David Was (born David Weiss) walking down the sidewalk. I jumped up and approached him, my 1988 ticket in hand. He looked at it with amusement. “Was I there?” he asked. “I don’t think I’m old enough.”

I assured him he had been there and I brought him over to our table to introduce him to the family. “The kids like ‘Dad, I’m in Jail,’” I told him. Which was true enough, I think. “We don’t do that one anymore,” Was said. “That was all pretty much made up in the studio. I saw the red light go on and I just started say, ‘Dad, I’m in jail.’” I had him sign the ticket. “Thanks so much for coming,” he said. “Come up after the show and say hello.” Then he left.

My wife and I were ecstatic. The kids, less so. Then I spotted Don Was (a.k.a. Donald Fagenson) stepping out of the tour bus. With his shades, white-man dreadlocks and cowboy hat, he looked more like a star than his musical partner. Maybe because he was. Don Was had made a name for himself as a producer, working with Bonnie Raitt, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson, and a host of others. (Just  recently he became president of Blue Note Records.) But he, too, was perfectly affable and friendly when I approached him with my ticket and he happily signed it.

Then it was show time. The Ram’s Head is a pretty small club and we got a great spot in a booth facing the stage. The show was terrific—a great mix of songs, a tight band, high energy—and I figured the kids must be finally seeing the light. But when I glanced over I saw that they were both glowering in the booth, their jiggling legs rapping out a Morse code that obviously read, “Can we go now?”

And then David Was approached the mike. “We’d like to do this for the youngest member of the audience,” he announced. And then he said, “Dad . . . I’m in jail. Hello, Dad. I’m in jail,” as the band riffed behind him.

Wow! Was (Not Was) had just dedicated “Dad, I’m in Jail” to my son. He had to be pretty psyched by that!

Nope.

Well, my wife and I loved the show and we were walking on air when it was over. Our children’s stormy visages, however, clearly indicated that they did not want to go up and say hello to the band. Instead we left the club to explore Annapolis on a beautiful spring day—until the insistent, repeated queries of “Can we go now?” finally convinced us it was time to head home.

Yes, youth is indeed wasted on the young. I do hope, though, that someday, when Was (Not Was) is being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, my children will recall the glorious day when their parents dragged them, against their will, to get a taste of musical greatness, and they will finally realize how lucky they were.

But I won’t hold my breath. I might turn blue, like Zaz.

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