Shine a Light:
Danny Fields Was THERE, Man.
He is, in the eyes of no less a glam-rock superfan than John Cameron Mitchell, the “handmaiden to the gods.” He played important roles in the careers of The Doors, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, The MC5, Nico and The Ramones, whom he managed for their four greatest years. He also, inadvertently, helped bring the touring life of The Beatles to an end – as the unlikely editor of a teen mag called Datebook, which first published John Lennon’s controversial “Jesus” quote in the United States.
By the time that firebomb hit, in 1966, Danny Fields had moved on, and rarely paused for long, working as a DJ, publicist, talent scout, manager, confidante and rock ‘n’ roll subversive at a time when the music was closely aligned with the social ferment of the era.
“I think when Danny first moved to New York [after leaving Harvard Law School], to make money he did pain experiments at Bellevue [Hospital],” says Brendan Toller, who gives Fields a tell-all platform in the documentary Danny Says [Magnolia Pictures]. “His pain threshold was so high they had to call in Japanese doctors to study him. Look at the music he likes. The Stooges are hard, The Ramones are hard, The MC5. This is visceral, loud, affecting music. I sort of feel like there’s a connection there.”
Fields was impressed enough with the young filmmaker’s enthusiasm that he handed him a set of keys to his West Village apartment – a true temple to rock history – and started talking. The movie, packed with terrific anecdotes from the likes of Iggy, Elektra Records founder Jac Holzman and surviving scenesters of New York’s punk heyday, captures a singular character who has never been as well known as the artists he helped boost to fame (or infamy, as the case may be).
“He’s a guy who’s inventing himself and then inventing a culture,” Toller says.
With the film now released on DVD, Stomp and Stammer rang up Fields awhile back to talk about all that.
How did it feel to see yourself in this documentary?
“It was horrifying. A good movie, but no one likes to see one’s self and no one likes to hear one’s self. I just watched it to make sure that I wouldn’t have to commit suicide… that I would be able to live on the same planet with it.”
You were very generous, giving the filmmaker complete access to your archives.
“Oh, absolutely. He could see anything. He could see things you wouldn’t show at a D.A.R.E. meeting. There was no off-limits. I had confidence he would not use anything that would embarrass anyone. That’s me or anyone else in the world. Except Jim Morrison, and he’s dead.”
You’ve got this great archive, and you’ve lived this amazing life, and one day someone comes along and wants to make a movie about it. So what does it feel like to relive all of that – or to share it with the wide world, not just friends?
“People have become their own documentarians. They’ve taken it upon themselves to do it, with all those things that I hate, all those intrusive things. Facebook. Nobody cares that much. I prefer the aristocratic model where you traveled with a priest, a dwarf, a joker, a doctor. Now you travel with a documentarian. I’m so relieved to see that it was so well made that I don’t have to change my face, name and become a blond. None of that, and I’ve already done that a few times.”
The movie conveys a sense of constant discovery, which was a strong part of those times. It put me in the mind of the time I first heard Patti Smith’s Horses, and the whole world broke open.
“It’s the story of an illumination. You are someplace and something illuminates what’s possible.”
It’s fascinating to me how someone like you finds yourself in the middle of all of it, and has a hand in shaping so much, by the nature of who you are.
“It’s a narrow spectrum of the culture of the last century. We all knew each other and what each other was doing. I had no talent. But I wanted to be around all these attractive people who did have talent and had made wonderful music and looked great and were sexy and smart and famous. My God. How great. But there was nothing I could do. OK? So I put myself at the center of it by making mischief because I was always able to do that.
“[Like] when they give you a magazine as your first job in any show business-related area, a magazine for teenage girls that is mainly about The Beatles. I see that we have rights to publish these interviews where Paul McCartney said, ‘That’s a lousy country where anyone black is a ‘dirty nigger.’’ That was published in London in 1966. And John Lennon says, ‘I don’t know which will go first, rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity.’ And then he says, ‘We’re more popular than Jesus now.’ Somehow, it was repeated and repeated and repeated as ‘We’re bigger than Jesus.’ But they never used the word. We reprinted exactly the interview, and the world changed. Fifty years later, it’s monumentally important. It was 50 years ago that The Beatles stopped performing, for a variety of reasons, one of which is that they had been through two weeks of death threats from the Ku Klux Klan, etc. John Lennon said something frivolous about the enormous popularity of this band he was in. In America, it started book burnings and record burnings and riots. They were greeted in Memphis by the Klan. In later years, Lennon said, ‘I’ll always be thankful to Jesus and the KKK for getting me out of this puppet show…’ Or flea circus or something. It was the last straw. I tossed the last straw, it seems.
“And on the cover of a magazine for 11-year-old girls, Paul McCartney is saying, ‘It’s a lousy country where anyone black is a ‘dirty nigger.’’ No stars or dashes like they would print that word in Rolling Stone. It was right there on the cover. But they were so shaken by John Lennon’s blasphemy they didn’t pay attention.”
What’s the world like now for you, as far as music goes?
“Beethoven’s last quartets continue to be far more beautiful and far more full of surprises and incomprehensible and wonderful. They do the opposite of fail, they enhance. And a bunch of Wagner and Richard Strauss. Classical music, or dance. EDM. You should dance to music, or it should be so profound that it requires everything. Like listening to a Beethoven quartet. Or, you can dance to it, or it should be both. You dance to it and you’re feeling profound and high and fabulous and you’re listening to Paul Kalkbrenner at the Tomorrowland festival. He’s a huge European composer. His shows are brilliant and I watch them on YouTube.
“I’m not high on whoever’s top whatever. I like songs. I go back to Rodgers and Hart, and The Rolling Stones, or Nirvana. I was always a song person. And it’s hard now.”
Obviously, you’ve been up to plenty of things in the 30-something years that the movie doesn’t cover. But it leaves the audience with The Ramones as a kind of crowning achievement of your music career. Would you say that managing the band was your proudest moment?
“It was the longest, most professionally committed thing I’ve done. There was no proudest moment. Getting Jac Holzman from Elektra to hear Nico sing one song on her harmonium and say, ‘OK, let’s do a record,’ which became one of the great records of all time, The Marble Index … that’s the proudest product. The Ramones’ first four albums when I was with them … There’s no proudest. Are you prouder of being Lou Reed’s manager for two weeks or are you prouder being with The Ramones for four years? I don’t know. Proud is something you did. You can’t be proud to be an American. That’s stupid. What did you do? You got born. You didn’t tell your parents where to have you. You can be proud of an achievement. You can be proud of your friends or someone you love. [For the record, Fields is immensely proud of a privately published photography book he made of The Ramones.]
With all the artists that attracted you, was there always some element that worked for you?
“You can’t predict that. You have to go, ‘Oh my God, I couldn’t have willed that into existence because I wouldn’t have known where to start!’ That’s the factor, that ‘Wow, this is new.’ The Ramones now, 28 years later, every TV commercial sounds like what they were doing. They did it. And now it’s the form. It’s the standard. You think their songs were too short? They were too long. What made them millionaires was five seconds of a song in a TV ad for Cadillac. In the beginning they were pure kid music. If Wall Street wants them to associate with product, they worked really hard and they deserve to be rich. Their heirs deserve to be rich. Their grandchildren deserve to be rich.”
Photo of Danny Fields with the Ramones by Arturo Vega.