My nights at the Carnegie Deli

I haven’t eaten at the Carnegie Deli in a long time, and being vegetarian, I don’t expect to before it closes down at the end of the year.

Not that a vej can’t get anything to eat there, as I’ve known since first arriving in New York in the early 1980s, and in short order getting a job at the long gone Cash Box music trade magazine.

Cash Box was at 57th and Broadway then, easy delivery distance from the Carnegie, just a few blocks away on 7th Ave. It’s so long ago I can’t remember what day our deadline day was, though I think it was Thursday. That day we’d stay in for lunch and order out from the Carnegie, and this I remember clearly.

The Carnegie figurehead then was late co-owner Leo Steiner, whose caricature was emblazoned on Carnegie napkins along with the slogan “Carnegie Leo makes a goooood sandwich!”—the “good” strung out because the Carnegie’s famously “overstuffed” sandwiches were indeed that, so long as “good” means “immense.”

I mean, if they didn’t have a foot-long hot dog, Carnegie sandwiches were surely a foot-high, and as big as a fortress, defended, to the death, by surrounding plates full of varied dill pickles. The corned beef sandwich, as an example, was piled high to the sky. My egg salad sandwich was as big as a mountain.

I also ordered a side of fries, though by the time they got there, they were pretty soggy, laying flat and lifeless in their thin cardboard box like (as they might say at the Carnegie) a lox. And then we all made the worst possible mistake you could make with a Carnegie sandwich, on deadline day or any other: We ate the whole fucking thing at once.

Let me tell you: You eat a whole Carnegie Deli sandwich in one sitting, you’re down for the count. I could have lived maybe a month or two–easily–on one of those sandwiches. The rest of the day was accompanied by the sounds of groaning from us comatose Cash Box staffers, who nevertheless did get their copy in on time—the quality of which I cannot recall.

But I remember groans other than my own and my fellow Cash Boxers, namely Alison Krauss & Union Station. When AKUS first started playing at New York—at the Bottom Line—they were still pretty much kids: late teens, early twenties, first times in the Big City. Naturally they gravitated toward the Carnegie, and naturally they pigged out bigtime.

It was an honor and a privilege to pig out with them. They’d even order double to bring back to the bus. Kept them all going all the way back to Nashville, for sure, and maybe back to New York again. Like the Carnegie motto said, “If you can finish your meal, we’ve done something wrong.”

But AKUS was hardly alone in heading to the Carnegie after a gig, though one time after a Texas Tornadoes show (again at the Bottom Line) the band decided to go to some other late-night joint that I can’t remember, somewhere in the East 30s or 40s. I was in a cab with Augie Meyers, but when we got there we found it closed due to a kitchen fire. It might have been pre-cell phones, because we couldn’t contact Doug Sahm and the rest of the guys in another cab. So we just decided to head over to the Carnegie, and when we got there, Doug and the others were already there and chowing down.

But My last memory of the Carnegie is especially fitting, as it concerns the one and only Jackie Mason—one of many celebrities who were regulars there. It was probably 1987, the year Warner Bros. released the soundtrack album of his Broadway hit show The World According to ME, though it could have been the followup Brand New, released via Sony in 1991. Whichever the label, they had a release party for Jackie at the Carnegie, and of course being a huge fan, I was there.

I’d get to know Jackie a bit over the years, from going to his shows and running into him on the street. Then a couple years ago I joined him and his entourage for dinner a few times, until I either said something wrong or didn’t say something right. He turned to the guy sitting on his left and said, to my perverse and lasting pleasure, “I’m speaking to a fucking moron!”

And that was it, though he did say he’d call me—just not when. Sadly, if and when he does, it won’t be to meet him at the Carnegie.

By the way, Carnegie Leo died at age 48 on December 31, 1987, and was eulogized by none other than Henny Youngman as “the deli lama.” Cause of death, according to Wikipedia, was complications of a brain tumor—a creative euphemism, no doubt, for terminal indigestion.

What I say about ‘Danny (Fields) Says’

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I’m very happy that Danny Says, a documentary on the life and times of Danny Fields that’s been in production for the last couple years, is finally coming out via Magnolia Pictures on Sept. 30. Based on attending an early screening, I can say it’s very good.

But it’s also missing my four hours of interviews-two of me, two of Seymour Stein that I did, though at least Seymour does get a few onscreen seconds. As the director has the tapes, I don’t know what I said verbatim. But I did say a few important things about Danny that no one else said-neither Seymour nor the stellar likes of Iggy Pop, Judy Collins, Jonathan Richman and Alice Cooper–so I’ll try to recapture them here the best I can.

I definitely recall my main point about Danny Fields, since it’s one I often use when I speak about him–which is often–and that is, there’s no telling what music of the last 50 years–from the mid-1960s on to this day–would be like without him. I mean, this guy had a hand in nearly every key music development post-Beatles–and even had a hand in The Beatles, too.

Indeed, Danny “is an expert arbiter of culture–music being his main focus,” Timothy Young, curator of modern books and manuscripts at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, told me a couple years ago when I wrote about the library’s acquisition of truckloads of Danny’s papers–along with his vast collection of interviews and photographs, audio and video tapes, films and memorabilia.

“But we have to keep in mind that he has been writing all of his life. His articles for 16 Magazine deserve a close reading for how they promoted and shaped youth culture in the 1960s and 1970s. His several books detailing the lives of his friends–Linda McCartney, [Andy Warhol’s Bad star] Cyrinda Foxe–were the result of an amazing amount of research. His role in creating, promoting, and managing the public personas of The Ramones–one of the most influential rock groups of the 20th century–is a case study in how music culture operates.”

Yes, Danny discovered and managed The Ramones, for which he remains best-known to most people, probably. But long before that the Phi Beta Kappa Harvard law school dropout was deeply embedded in Andy Warhol’s Silver Factory scene in New York (he wrote the liner notes for the Velvet Underground’s Live At Max’s Kansas City and lived with Warhol superstar Edie Sedgwick) prior to becoming publicity director at Elektra Records, where he worked with acts like The Doors, Nico and Judy Collins and managed The Stooges and MC5. He also worked with artists including Cream, Lou Reed and Rufus Wainwright, and if you ever get the chance to stroll through his West Village apartment hallway you’ll see a wall lined with his photos of a young Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Divine and many of the aforementioned.

And as Young noted, Danny played a not insignificant role in Beatles history—aside from being a close friend of Linda McCartney. He’s the one who published John Lennon’s infamous “We’re more popular than Jesus” quote (in the August, 1966 issue of Datebook).

Danny Says, of course, takes its name from the Ramones song on the band’s landmark Phil Spector-produced End of the Century album. But Danny is a true Renaissance man, with interests far beyond pop music.

“It’s odd to go from Shakespeare folios and 18th Century prayer books to posters of Dee Dee Ramone!” he told me, and now I’ll tell you what I’m sure I said in my interview: Danny can go from Shakespeare folios and 18th Century prayer books to posters of Dee Dee Ramone–and just about anything cultural, historical and intellectual you can think of. He and I actually go to the opera together, which is great for me on two counts: Not only do I get to spend quality time with him, but he actually knows opera and can explain to me what we’re seeing.

Of course, my close friendship with Danny Fields isn’t based on opera, but even though I wrote the first book on The Ramones (Ramones—An American Band) and thanked him in it and interviewed him at length, it isn’t based on The Ramones or punk rock, either—though I obviously knew his name from both.

No, when I first met Danny Fields—and I was so thrilled to meet him, knowing full well who he was—it was in, of all places, Nashville. To be precise, it was at a Warner Bros. Records party at some country club during what was then called CMA Week, in reference to the week of performing rights society banquets and other celebrations culminating with the Country Music Association Awards. Must have been 1984, because I was full-time at Cash Box magazine as retail editor, in New York only a year or two and hadn’t managed to break in as a freelancer anywhere—until that fateful night.

Two things stand out, over 30 years later. First, Conway Twitty was there! Second, so was Danny Fields! But what on earth was Danny doing at a country music event in Nashville?

What I didn’t know was that Danny, who was no longer managing The Ramones, was now editing a country music magazine called Country Rhythms—having famously edited 16 Magazine–and was starting up a magazine to capitalize on the new MTV craze, Rock Video. I was an avid MTV viewer at the time, but was ambivalent about the quality of rock videos–though extremely opinionated. So when Danny said he was starting up a magazine called Rock Video, I practically begged him to let me write for it, specifically, review rock videos.

He asked how I got to the party and I told him I drove there in a rental car. He said if I gave him a ride back to his hotel—and got him back safely—I could write for him and Rock Video.

Thank you, Avis.

I’m pretty sure I was the first writer to review rock videos. And Danny let me contribute to Country Rhythms, too, country music being, ironically, what brought us together in the first place.

So not only do I not know what popular music would be like without Danny Fields, I don’t know what my career writing about it would be like. And I’m absolutely sure I’m not the only writer who would say that, let alone musician, let alone Yale library curator.

“He teaches me something every time we meet,” said Young, “and I’m glad to have his papers here at Beinecke with those of Gertrude Stein, Thornton Wilder, Robert Giard, Richard Neville, Ezra Pound and other talents who reshaped the way we see, read, and hear the world.”