danny fields, the godfather of punk who partied with warhol and broke up the beatles
Danny Fields discovered the Ramones, granted Patti Smith entrance to CBGB, and (sort of) broke up The Beatles. 40 years after setting New York's explosive proto-punk scene in motion, he tells his own incredible story in Brendan Toller's new documentary...
danny fields and the ramones in 'danny says,' © arturo vega/danny fields archive
If Lou Reed, Joey Ramone, Iggy Pop, and Patti Smith are the lionized central characters of New York City's 70s music scene, Danny Fields is the wizard behind the curtain. The proto-punk orchestrator of the records and relationships that would shape the seminal era has played small roles in many of the books and movies that chronicle it — including unauthorized punk history Please Kill Me by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain, who recently told us, "Danny was not just the Ramones, he was MC5, he was the Stooges, he was Warhol." Such accounts are vital our understanding of the musical and visual artists he managed, publicized, and partied with. But much of Danny's own story has been been recorded only on the hundreds of hours of footage and tape recordings housed in the same West Village apartment he's lived in since 1977.
That's the material that forms much of Brendan Toller's new documentary on the goofy god of NYC punk, Danny Says. The film isn't just full of intriguing background facts and tape recordings, including a brilliant piece of lost audio on which you can hear the notoriously crotchety Lou Reed being floored by hearing the Ramones for the first time. Its star is arguably the best embodiment of the explosive humor and ever-shifting social circles that characterized downtown NYC in the 70s. "I always thought there were a couple of different guys named Danny Fields because I just didn't see how the guy who was press agent to The Doors could have been palling around with Edie Sedgwick in Cambridge and also discovering the Ramones years later," the 29-year-old director told i-D the day after the film's New York premiere. Here Brendan talks about documenting punk's most mythical figure over the course of seven years and the empowering potential of his now-recorded legacy.
Danny is an important figure in famed punk movies and books like Please Kill Me. Even Andy Warhol wanted to turn his story into a film at one point. Why do you think he has remained so elusive for so long?
I don't think that the spotlight is necessarily where he wants to be. I think he likes to be behind the scenes — the man from Oz behind the curtain. I think also a lot of the music that he championed really took 40 years [to be celebrated]. Stooges fans were really few and far between up until about maybe 15 or 20 years ago, and now they're at the forefront. We're still sort of appreciating and discovering and rediscovering these artists, and they're just getting bigger as we go on. I think also because he had this fractured narrative and the book is not complete that adds to the elusiveness. This is really the first time that his complete story is out there.
How did you become aware that Danny had such an insane archive of photos and recorded phone conversations? The one of him and Lou Reed listening to The Stooges for the first time is incredible.
When you walk into Danny's house there's this little wall of fame which is pictures of everyone he has known and loved — celebrities, close friends. It's a good access point for him to start talking to [visitors]. He can start telling all his good stories based on what they're interested in on the wall. If you walk further in there's this office that has this cassette "database," as he calls it, with this really advanced file that had descriptions of all these tapes. He sent me that file one day and I was just blown away. I was like, "You have all these tapes, when can I start digitizing them?" Some of the tapes were very old and would snap, so he was very cautious about letting them go out of his house to be digitized. Eventually I brought a tape deck and a little desk into his house and started digitizing.
Danny had no idea he had that Lou Reed tape. We were digitizing that one afternoon and our ears were just pinned to the speakers. It's really amazing because it's not the curmudgeon Lou Reed that we all know. It's a really supportive and floored Lou Reed. That was just so incredible, as were the phone conversations. These recordings really take the viewer within the times. To get to hear Nico talk like she does in the film… at the premiere last night people were just hooting and hollering, they thought it was so funny.
Do you know why he recorded all those conversations? Danny seems quite chill rather than obsessive. Did his close association with Warhol, who was a pretty neurotic documenter, have anything to do with it?
[The person] who actually started it was Brigid Berlin. She was the one who actually taped the Velvet Underground performing at Max's [Kansas City]. She started taping people on the phone — Andy Warhol, Danny, her mother. Danny was enamoured by Brigid's incredible artistic oeuvre and way of being. She did a lot of stuff with Polaroids and instantaneous documentation before everyone was doing it on Twitter and Instagram and Snapchat. I think everybody was kind of taping everyone in those days, at least amongst a certain crowd. That [those recordings] would be such a total gas to hear years later is something that they never could have predicted.
Danny is refreshingly open about his sexuality both now and as a young Harvard-turned-NYU student. Do you think that the proto-punk era was more tolerant than is often thought?
Danny's sexuality is a focus, but it's not who he is. It's not necessarily what defines him, it's just a part of him, and I think that's a very important message for the culture at large to glean. We've got to get away from people saying, "Oh, meet my friend Geoff, he's gay," like that defines somebody's sensibility or taste. Danny obviously knew from a very young age who he was attracted to, and if there are any punk homophobes, hopefully this reorients their brains a little bit. Danny really wears his sexuality on his sleeve. If he talks about fucking somebody, it sounds like anybody else talking about fucking somebody, and that's how it should be.
One scene that demonstrates that really well is where Danny is recalling a conversation about Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe loitering outside CBGB, and saying, "Let's bring them in and fuck them!" There's no distinction made about who'll be fucking who. It's interesting to watch from a 2016 perspective.
Yeah. That's the perfect example. You didn't know which one was the boy and which one was the girl. It was that whole 70s androgyny thing. Danny is intimate with males but he falls in love with all kinds of people. That has always been present but now it's kind of dissected and put up front in this political way when it shouldn't have to be.
It's sort of like what makes him different, at first, is just being a genuinely decent person. I'm thinking about the scene when he was reprimanded by the Warhol crew for intervening when a woman was trying to jump out of the window at one of their parties.
He learned very quickly that if you're going to hang around the Warhol gang, don't try to save people that are in this crazy snakepit. The first time he met Brigid Berlin she was topless and came up with a doctor bag and chased him around the apartment with a needle full of amphetamine. I think the Warhol scene introduced him to some really crazy but also really brilliant freaks. He saw how Andy dealt with it, which was just to kind of sit back, act cool, and don't act excited — that kind of Velvet Underground glaze. And I'm sure that served him well when dealing with Jim Morrison and Iggy. Danny says all the time that he used to wake Iggy up before a gig, take a needle out of his arm, and push him on stage.
Danny actually introduced Iggy to David Bowie. He was quite cool with taking a backseat to their conversation, saying, "They talked about the one thing I hate most in the world — music."
I think he hates the music business, listening and rating it. Especially with Iggy and David, it was very technical, and that just bores him to tears. But I know that music is one of the only things that makes him cry. There is a lot of anti-music talk in the film, which is ironic because it's at the center of a lot of it, but he's being a bit cheeky.
Because in reality, it seems like he occupies this weird space between being a manager and being a superfan of these bands.
Yeah, there was a lot of talk about whether he was an artist or not, and I think that his medium was people. He can really open doors that you would never dream existed. I don't think anybody who was working in the records business would have seen Iggy behind a vacuum cleaner at the University of Michigan student union ballroom and said, "That's my guy!" But Danny has an incredible intelligence and he's able to put disparate elements together to create context and worth and value. That's a skill that is really lost today. We're the most informed generation that has ever lived, but editing and creating context are really underrated skills.
Do you think then that the fanboy side of Danny was quite vital to the success of the Ramones and The Stooges?
Oh, sure. He always says when he sees an artist perform and maybe wants to work with them or wants to help them in some way, he expects that when the show ends he'll lining up with 20 other people who are doing the same thing. Most times it's just him. I think that's what's great about the film, too. You don't necessarily have to be an artist. Artists needs translators, they need appreciators, they need conduits, they need support. He was there for so many.
Not Aerosmith or The Beatles though. Danny is very adamant that he played a part in breaking up The Beatles [by printing, as editor of 16 magazine, John Lennon's claim that The Beatles were "bigger than Jesus" and Paul McCartney's racism condemnation "America is a lousy country where anyone who is black is made to seem a dirty n----r."].
He's proud of it!
Those headlines would probably still appear quite controversial even 50 years later.
Like Danny says, when was the last time you saw the word "n----r" on the front cover of a magazine? This was from a Paul McCartney quote where he's talking about race relations and how badly white Americans view black Americans. It was apt to put it on the cover of a magazine, I suppose, because it was the Shout Out! controversy issue. Of course Christianity trumps race, and in the U.S. still does, unfortunately. What Danny did was kind of Journalism 101 — it just happened to catch fire. Or not Journalism 101, but it's reporting and it's headlines. It's the attention-grab kind of headline thing. This would have happened to The Beatles regardless, probably. Everything was getting really crazy, and they were growing as people, so they were bound to say something that was going to offend someone. Might as well be the Christians, right?
In 2013, like Danny says, five massive punk legends — including Arturo Vega and Lou Reed — all passed away. What was the impact of that loss?
It was really crazy. There was just this one year where people were just falling off the map. Who knew Arturo Vega, somebody who was so healthy, who ran marathons... I think that's what keeps Danny going — to still be able to fall in love with artists and young people and sort of be in the now and be in the moment. He's generous about his past but he's very about today. He's constantly telling me about artists who three years later are the new huge thing. He can catch a hit in two seconds.
As a documentarian, how do you feel when people claim that the preservation of punk in history is incongruous with its rebellious roots? Why do you think it's important to record this era?
That whole thing is kind of funny. Danny was at the British Library for those 40th anniversary celebrations. Joseph Corré was saying, "When did the Queen give her blessing? When and where? Where is that?" To burn [punk artifacts] is such a waste. I think when punk came around, nobody thought it was going to mean anything, but it changed the course of pop culture, it changed the way we dress, the way we think, the way we talk. It changed everything in our day-to-day life, really, and it has inspired so many people. Not necessarily musicians, it could be someone like me, a filmmaker, or a painter, to just go and do it. It's powerful and empowering. All Danny's papers are now at the library, and researchers can access them. They can check out all 60 boxes of audio tapes. It's a real treasure.
Text Hannah Ongley
Images courtesy of Magnolia Pictures