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- Posted on May 26th 2010 6:00PM by Steve Baltin
For Was, working on 'Exile' brought him full circle to his own youth. As the performer and producer tells Spinner, hearing 'Exile' as a University of Michigan student in 1972 helped him decide to drop out of college. Was talked with Spinner about why the album played such a big role in his life, the emotional experience of being in the studio with Bonnie Raitt in the recording of 'I Can't Make You Love Me' and why, even after working with Bob Dylan, the Bard is still enigmatic.
You just interviewed the Stones for Sirius satellite radio. Knowing the band so well, how did you decide on what to ask Mick, Keith and Charlie as a journalist?
Well, first of all, I know the answers already to the main questions [laughs]. So we really didn't talk about 'Exile' all that much because over the years I asked them every possible question [laughs]. [But] people should ask them more about their songwriting. I think their lyric writing is so important, especially on 'Exile.' They leave space in these songs for everybody to project their own inner life onto the song, and that's why I think 'Exile' is kind of timeless. Like 'Tumbling Dice,' you sort of know what he's talking about, but, man, whatever's going on in your life you can find a way to make 'Tumbling Dice' apply to you.
I'm sure as a fan, 'Exile' had meaning to you long before you worked on the reissue.
It means a great deal. In 1972, I was attending the University of Michigan, which was a hotbed of radicalism; it was the birthplace of the SDS [Students for Democratic Society] and the Weathermen, and all this Vietnam stuff was going on and there was a prevailing sense that the system could not be changed from within, like everyone was promoting in the '60s. It either had to be blown up or you had to get the hell out. And I saw 'Exile' as encouragement to get the hell out, to drop out and to start your own lifestyle someplace. To me, with these guys going to the south of France, just from these pictures you'd see of this dingy basement and the kind of flora that was around there, it looked like they were in the jungle. It was like 'Heart of Darkness' and 'Lord of the Flies,' these guys with bread and girls just leaving everything and going off to the end of the world and making rock 'n' roll -- that's a pretty appealing message to a 20-year-old [laughs].
So did you run off to the South of France?
I ran off to Clawson, Michigan [laughs], picked up a waitress.
So did you actually drop out of school?
I did drop out of school.
Because of 'Exile on Main Street'?
Well, that would be strong. I like it, it's good poetry, but it certainly was a factor, yeah. There was a mindset that led to me dropping out of school, taking my chances with the [Vietnam] draft -- I had a low lottery number.
Did your parents always hate the Stones after that?
[Laughs] I totally forgot about that. I've been to every Stones tour. When I was 12, I saw them for the first time, in 1964 -- they played at a hockey arena in Detroit before they were even on 'The Ed Sullivan Show.' The place holds 16,000 and there were about 200 people there because they just knew there was some sort of Beatles kind of group from England there. But I remember a later show -- I was still young enough they had to drive me to the show -- and Brian Jones was still with the band and then we were gonna take a bus home. That's how long ago it was; You could let your 14-year-old kid ride a city bus home after a rock concert. And [my parents] said, "Now, don't go hang out with these guys. Don't try to find their hotel. You'll end up undressed, running through some hallway in a hotel." And in hindsight it was quite perceptive [laughs]. How did they know about that?
After the Stones helped facilitate you dropping out of college all those years earlier, what did your parents say when you started working with them?
At that point, they were thrilled. It bought them a new Lexus. They're grateful to the Stones.
So you first saw them in '64 and first worked with them in '93. What has it meant to you to work with them after all those years of being a fan?
It's really something. It's incredible to be involved with these guys; it's not just luck of the draw that their music has endured for so long and that they still can put 100,000 people in stadiums all over the world. They're the greatest at what they do. And that's the dream, to work with great artists, and you can't do any better than this.
What effect did being able to delve into the 'Exile' tapes have on the college student who fell in love with the album in '72?
I want it to stay enigmatic. I don't really understand how the room was set up and where they recorded. I've seen pictures and I kind of glance at them, but I never sat down and tried to diagram out the room or anything like that. I can't figure out the layout. I don't really know what it looked like and I don't want to know. I want it to be in my head.
That's impressive that you can fulfill that childhood dream without losing the sense of magic.
I'm sure you've found this as a journalist, when you get to the really great ones, they are enigmatic. It's not just the information's been withheld from you, it's that it's unknowable. That's one of the things that got me into producing: I wanted to see how guys like Bob Dylan write 'Gates of Eden.' "I want to see him do this, I wanna learn how to do this, why can't I do it? What's he doing that I can't do?" I still don't know and he doesn't know [laughs]. I not only have watched him myself, I've written songs with him; he doesn't know. If you ask him, or if you ask Keith Richards about writing songs, or if you ask Willie Nelson or Kris Kristofferson, they all tell you the same thing: I moved the pencil over the paper, but I didn't write it. It came through me. Keith Richards, when he has an idea in a session, he doesn't say, "I got an idea." He says, "Hold it, incoming." The answer I was looking for is that there is no answer [laughs]. That's the sum total of 30 years of producing records. Nobody knows.
For you, what have been a couple of the moments that stand out the most where you've been there and you've watch this greatness come out?
There have been a lot of them, but the first thing that really comes to mind is the session for 'I Can't Make You Love Me,' by Bonnie Raitt. We knew this was a great song; we had Bruce Hornsby in there playing piano with her. But when she connected to this thing, I don't even know how to describe it. But I guess it's like someone hooking you up to an electrical current; it was a physical experience to sit there and listen to it as it was going down there in the studio. And it was incredibly emotional. The only thing we ever had to change was a couple of lines where she started sobbing while she was singing. It was just an emotional thing, and she connected to the core of the song, and it was magnificent. And you can hear it today. It's tough for me to listen to that record today and not get really emotional. And I can't even relate to the song. It's, like, a woman's song. It's not what the song is about that gets me, it's some indescribable thing about the raw emotion in her performance.
So when the song won all these awards and became the monster hit it was, you weren't surprised then at all because you knew she had tapped into something amazing?
Oh, yeah. I was surprised that it was on the radio. It just seemed like it had nothing to do with anything that was on pop radio at that time, but I knew it was a great moment.
Now, will we hear any more Stones music in the near future?
You know, there are no concrete plans to do anything else. But there are possibilities for everything.