Danny Fields Is the Music Industry Wild Man You’ve Never Heard Of
He devastated The Beatles with a headline, gave the world the Ramones, and caused mischief throughout the 60s and 70s. With Danny it was always right place, right time, all the time.
In an early scene in Danny Says, a newly released documentary about the legendary manager, editor, writer, musical impresario Danny Fields, we're treated to one of the less glamorous scenes in his massive audiovisual archive: a home movie of his bar mitzvah. The skinny teenage boy in an ill-fitting suit, awkwardly waving at the camera and pouring Manischewitz for several dour-faced party attendees, is light years away from the hell-raising Danny whose exploits are forever enshrined in seminal rock tomes like Please Kill Me and No One Here Gets Out Alive. As the video draws to a close, with his entire family smiling, the credits read: Marquet Studio, Forest Hills, NY. "Forest Hills," muses the adult Danny, off-camera. "Home of the Ramones, right?"
It's one of the first of many critical coincidences, run-ins, and happenstances that pepper Danny's life. His uncanny knack for making connections and reeling artists into his personal world of mischief and wonder makes it astonishing that there hasn't been a documentary made about him earlier. For instance, the Queens-born Harvard Law grad found himself in the East Village in the 60s, running with Warhol's infamous Factory crowd (Edie Sedgwick lived in his apartment for a time). He championed The Velvet Underground, worked as a publicist for Elektra Records with The Doors, the MC5, and The Stooges, not to mention managing the Ramones from the ground up. The list of his achievements in those 15 or so years alone could be the subject of several feature-length films, and these experiences don't even make up three-quarters of the doc's run time.
"I first heard about Danny when I was a Jim Morrison freak at age 14 or 15 and I read No One Here Gets Out Alive, and he's just kind of behind the scenes," says the director of Danny Says, Brendan Toller, an enthusiastic music fan in his late twenties. "So he's the publicist to Jim Morrison and The Doors and they hate one another, which is well-documented in that book. Then I read Edie: American Girl and Please Kill Me, so I always thought like, 'Well, this Danny Fields can't be the same guy. It's got to be two or three different people.' Of course, it is the same guy, but I still can't believe that he's stealing crystal with Edie up in Cambridge and then years later managing the Ramones. He's just at the right place at right time, all the time."
Reaching Danny over the phone, it's immediately clear how his fingers have found their way into so many pies over the years. He's approaches everyone like a potential new friend. Over the course of our hour and a half long conversation, he shifts temperaments frequently: he's a gossiping bosom buddy; a distant father figure who's vaguely concerned for my professional wellbeing; a charmingly inappropriate uncle sharing his killer weed stash and incredible record collection. He skips from subject to subject, touching on his love of gender-bending Belgian pop star Stromae ("He's the person who, as a performer, I find most intriguing"), American folk classics ("'Go Tell Aunt Rhody the Old Grey Goose Is Dead.' It's so lovely"), and the dire state of his Netflix queue ("I just stick to animals eating other animals! The wilds of Madagascar, hoping for carnivores."). His personality is almost overwhelming, which makes his relatively blasé reaction to a film celebrating his very existence all the more intriguing.
Iggy Pop and Danny. All photos courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. Photo by Brigid Berlin.
"There's no built-in interest in me," he says when I ask him how it feels to have so many moments of his life compiled in one movie. "My name would not go on a marquee. It's kind of coincidence that my name's in the title. It means nothing, other than the fact that it's also the title of a catchy song," he states matter-of-factly, referring to the 1980 Ramones ballad from which the documentary takes its name. "It's very convenient that that song exists and that you don't have to think about a title for the movie, because what else would you call it? Danny who? I am lucky to have interesting people in my life who then have interesting connections. So to that extent only, is it about me."
The bulk of the film relies on access to Danny's borderline obsessive personal archives, a minutely catalogued timeline of all those fabulous people weaving in and out of his orbit. Particularly juicy are the hours upon hours of phone conversations, which seem to have been taped more as a matter of habit rather than posterity. "In the early 60s, with the advent of the easily-usable cassette recorder, everyone started to record everything," he explains. "They had these little suctions cups you would put on the back of the handset of a landline phone, and you would record the entire conversation. You know, in those days, it was horrible, if you were running out of room on a cassette you'd do triage. 'Eh, this person is cuter. I'm gonna tape over this person who, I don't know, I didn't like the way he smelled.'"
There's a strikingly funny exchange with Nico around the recording of her polarizing avant-garde album The Marble Index, in which she speaks to Danny about work in the same deep drone of her singing voice. "It's what you would expect, right? And how lucky we are to have that!" exclaims Danny. "I mean, she has been way more fabulous and legendary and important to our civilization since that tape was made. Then she died, you know? What if I had said, 'Oh, I had all these great phone calls, I could have taped them but I didn't'?"
Although another scene in the movie briefly focuses on Danny's "Wall of Fame," an area in his NYC apartment, covered floor-to-ceiling with photos he took with various famous musicians—Janis Joplin, John Lennon, Brian Eno—he doesn't appear to be mournfully trapped in the past, either. "I think when he goes back to his story, he goes back to a beautiful day or a beautiful time or a beautiful person that he loves," says the director. "And so many have passed away. There are tons of friends that just have vanished from his Rolodex. But I think that, to anyone who wants to know, he'll talk about anything in the past because he knows that in the present, those stories might excite somebody or reveal something of those times that they never heard before."
"I still think that," confirms Danny of his habit of documentation. "'Ah, what a wonderful night, what a beautiful person that was, why didn't I take a picture.' I don't record everything, but I still think it. 'God, that was the funniest phone call I ever had,' or 'God, I wish I had that person's voice on tape, how I miss that person.'"
Although not overt, this melancholy is threaded throughout the raucous anecdotes in Danny Says—the inherent undertone being—Danny may very well be the last of a dying breed in that he's a person who, although not a musician, was able to exploit the riches of the music industry from the inside and facilitate some of the most influential rock music ever. His chameleon-like way of slipping from role to role—editor of teen magazine Datebook in the mid-60s (he's responsible for the "Beatles are Bigger than Jesus" headline that ended the band's touring life in America), Elektra's resident "office freak"—all offered him insight that a person bound to traditionalism could never possess.
"So many people today are defined by their job, and so many of people don't even do their job," Brendan explains about what drew him to research Danny's career. "What this film hopefully shows is that his sexuality doesn't necessarily define him, the job that he has at any given moment doesn't really define him, none of those things define him. If he were an artist, his medium would have been people. Just instilling confidence or creating context for that person to exist in the mainstream, whether it's Joey Ramone, or Patti Smith, or Iggy Pop. These were artists that a Clive Davis or even a Jac Holzman wouldn't have ever really gone for, but through his education and intelligence, Danny could take disparate elements and convince people that this was something interesting to see and hear."
Danny, however, dispels any such romantacism. "It was a want ad—and what a metaphor for what do to with your life, 'Hm, let me see what is wanted'—that started me in the most unlikely place in the world, which was the popular music industry," he muses. "I lied and I got fired, but by then I was in it, I'd made a fair amount of mischief, to put it mildly, and I just kept going. It had music, it had five cute boys at a time, let's not forget. All boys say they were in bands to get laid, and all girls said they liked it because you got to meet five cute boys at a time! So whoa, that was nice. But I don't think there's a Eureka! moment. I think you get into it, and then you invent this thing that you are that manages to pay the rent, and feed oneself."
Perhaps it's just that the environment in which Danny made his mark plainly doesn't exist anymore; he's a throwback to an era where labels had the money to invest in someone of his social skill set. "I didn't have a job with a name, which is why I always thought I was going to get fired, because whatever they'd be looking for, I'd con my way into the job, and I would be the wrong person. But as long as you have an expense account and secretaries and a salary, you push yourself along. And vast amounts of money were being generated by the scam of selling people 12 songs when they only wanted one." He laughs. "People were rolling in money. We were being flown first class to Copenhagen for a weekend to see, I don't even remember the name of the group. First class to Europe and back, and you know, five-star hotel to come and see a band? Sure."
He asks me if I get similar perks as a music journalist in 2016. I inform him that I do not. But if you are bringing legitimately genre-shaking artists into that arena, aren't you kind of following the ethos of punk in the first place? Subverting the status quo for the sake of authenticity and shock value? For example, take the notorious Beatles episode, when Danny's devil-may-care nature ran incited the rage of conservative America. "I started with a magazine. What I did best was read and write, and look at pictures of cute boys. You put them all together and you had a rock 'n' roll magazine! Then you throw in Jesus and you cause a little trouble, and years later you can talk about it because it's only gotten more important, that bit of trouble. Brendan had an inquiry on Facebook asking, 'Is this the movie about the journalist who killed John Lennon?'"
Danny sounds genuinely shocked. "This is the world we live in. Imagine you're sitting there at your first job at a magazine, you're 20 years old, and you go 'Hm, let's put into motion something that in 15 years will result in the death of John Lennon.' I mean, what? That's not something I did, but now there seems to be someone out there in the universe who thinks I did that. That's staggeringly insane and stupid, but if someone thinks that, I'm pretty helpless in the face of it."
This seems to be an isolated event in the film's timeline where Danny's ripple effect loses control, but it's much more indicative of the right-wing folly of the era and the power of the music press at the time than him willfully lighting the fuse.
Danny no longer causes quite such a ruckus in the industry (the film doesn't touch on his work in the country music world, or his acclaimed biography of close friend Linda McCartney). In fact thee days he seems to actively avoid it (he laments having to attend the premiere of Danny Says for fear of "selfie people").
"Music has been part of my whole life, although, now I feel free to say that I hate music when people start talking about it—meaning for me, I hate about how people talk about the business of it, because that was my career. When you're coming into customs or something and they ask you 'What did you do with your life?' I say, 'I was in the music business' but only for lack of a better phrase. It takes more than one thing to change the world. A teen idol has to be on a television show, and/or have a hit song, usually some kind of combination of the two. You need the Bay City Rollers," he says, of the teeny-bopper band he helped break in America as the editor of 16 Magazine in the mid-70s—yet another professional identity. "Every girl in England was screaming, but we could not get them to scream in America until they got a number one record. You just need that little kicker. You need a little music, and little song and a little dance. But you need both. That's why I just want to dance now."
"Danny's just this punkish figure," says Brendan. "One of his favorite movies is The Thief of Baghdad, and I remember him telling an interviewer, 'I just want to be this wonderful, sexless, troublemaking creature that rides off on a carpet into a rainbow.' That's who he is, right? I think that even though he's not working in the music industry right now, he's still doing the same thing that he always does, whether it's discovering a Qigong teacher or just amplifying some young waiter's artistic ambition. He's just him, and he adds value to the world by just being Danny Fields."
Danny Says is out in theaters now and via iTunes and Amazon and On Demand.
Cameron Cook is a writer living in Berlin. Follow him on Twitter.