What I say about ‘Danny (Fields) Says’

danny2

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.”

Tales of Bessman: Garth Brooks and the new Adele video

If I wasn’t the first I most surely was among the first reviewers of music videos, having critiqued them at the short-lived Rock Video magazine–edited by Danny Fields–back in the early ’80s. I also did a sort of Siskel & Ebert thing for Nashville’s Music Row trade magazine, in which I was invariably the curmudgeon opposite another reviewer (Bob Paxman, a nice guy, which I most assuredly wasn’t) who 99.9 percent of the time disagreed with me.

Let me just say that while there’s nothing like a great music video, virtually none of them are great, and most of them are just plain shite. We had an okay thing going for a while at Music Row until I got an angry email from a low level music video production house staffer taking issue with my review of one of its productions. I remember it was a stupid letter, and I responded stupidly: She forwarded my letter to Music Row’s editor—remember: this was a trade magazine—and I was out on my ass.

I don’t remember that video or exactly what I said in my letter. I also don’t remember the video that prompted my dear late friend Sherman Halsey–who directed Tim McGraw’s videos–to bust up laughing when he read it in-flight: “I can’t believe a reputable music writer used the word ‘barf’ in a review!” he told me (italics are mine).

The only video review I remember is my trashing of Garth Brooks’ controversial clip to “The Thunder Rolls”—which of course went on to win the 1991 Country Music Association award for Video of the Year—even though it had been banned by TNN and CMT due to violent content.

The video, like the song, had to do with a cheating suburban husband who returns home to his wife on a stormy night when “A strange new perfume blows/And the lightnin’ flashes in her eyes/And he knows that she knows/And the thunder rolls.”

And she guns him down.

Garth played the husband and locked ridiculous with a beard and mustache, later explaining that he wanted viewers to find him so despicable that they’d want to shoot him as well; as such, he appeared in marked contrast to the intercut performance footage, where he was shown as his country boy self singing the song clean-shaven and wearing his cowboy hat. I looked all over for the video and was only able to find an upside-down and backwards image copy at this site.

My contention–and it was emphatic, as I recall–was that a whiff of strange new perfume was not grounds for murder. My negative review was later quoted in an early Garth bio–and not as a compliment.

I was in Nashville shortly after my review was published, and was invited to Garth’s managers’ office for some sort of press party or reception. I don’t remember if it was Garth-related, but he was there—and not particularly happy to see me.

Now I’d known Garth from the beginning, having been old friends with one of his managers. I had breakfast with him in New York before his breatkthrough hit “Friends in Low Places” from the preceding year, so I went over to him and extended my hand. He shook it, but not without expressing his disappointment over my review.

I think I was more surprised that he’d even seen it than uncomfortable by his reaction, and stammered something to the effect that it had hardly hindered his superstardom. Looking back now, it was just another oddity in his Country Music Hall of Fame career, like his ill-fated Chris Gaines rock star alter-ego experiment, his aborted retirements, his habit of referring to himself in the third person and his wife as “Miss Yearwood.”

There’s no denying, of course, that he earned his superstardom—and Country music Hall of Fame recognition. He remains the biggest star ever in country music—unless you consider Taylor Swift country.

And I always remember his kindness to my dear Minnie Pearl (he named ), his loyalty to the Grand Ole Opry, that time at Fan Fair–when it was still at the Fairgrounds–when he signed autographs for 24 hours straight, and how he’s always remembered me since–in a good way.

I thought of Garth yesterday when I gave in to the hype and joined 57 million others in watching Adele’s video for “Hello,” released barely two days ago. And once again the thunder rolled.

Well, maybe it didn’t roll, but the rain falls pretty hard throughout “Hello,” which like most every video in rock, pop or country, has, besides rain, a steamy romance that’s falling apart, up to and sometimes past the point of murder.

I watched it twice. The first time was on a site I found on Twitter, that had it, but counted the time backwards, unlike YouTube, which goes forwards. Hence I had to sit there while six minutes and six seconds of my life ticked off backwards, second by second, never to return. The second time I watched it on YouTube, only to see the lost seconds pile up.

Six minutes and six seconds! For a music video!

I mean, this ain’t Citizen Kane we’re talking about, though after two minutes waiting for the song hook–which I’m still waiting for, by the way–it was starting to feel like Birth of a Nation—especially as the first 20 seconds of the black-and-white clip are silent. Then you hear Adele on a flip phone–that’s right, a flip phone!–losing her signal because she’s way out in the sticks. Nice nails and windblown hair, though!

She opens a creaky door to an apparently long-vacant house with covered furniture full of dust, and it’s like an old horror film–which it’s becoming more and more like as more and more seconds go by without any music; indeed, she seems to go into a trance until the first piano notes finally sound at 1:15. Then she turns on the gas, brews some tea, lots of unfocused shots suddenly focus and I have a headache.

There’s a flash cut of a man smiling. She opens the door and goes through papers on a desk, picks up a desk phone and makes a call, and since nothing much is going on in the song of melodic or lyric interest I’m straining to hear what she’s saying–since you can hear the conversation! Not even she respects the song!

More flashing to the guy, who happens to be black—-messing up the Birth of a Nation analogy.

And he’s in the rain! But then he’s inside cooking a big pan of something or other, presumably during happier times, the couple’s happy talk now audible. But suddenly she’s outside in sharp focus and now singing in full music video anguish. Then it’s back to boyfriend, now smiling–but he can’t keep his trap shut even as her beautifully manicured hands grab his cheeks, either to caress or stifle him. C’mon, man! This is her big comeback song, for Chrissake! He turns away angrily, now in the parking lot and the pouring rain–and the whole fucking thing is only half over!

Cut to an antiquated phone booth in the middle of the woods covered with vines and leaves in what passes for surrealism in music videos. That the handset is dangling indicates symbolism, I guess, but I never did understand Bergman.

Some crosscutting between her singing and an agitated encounter with the guy, who’s either throwing clothes at her or getting hit by the ones she’s throwing at him. Cut to her on the phone and a tear runs down her cheek, or maybe it’s my cheek now–four minutes deep, now, with no end in sight.

Cut back to Adele singing outdoors and apologizing. Cut to me and I’m not accepting it–er, cut to him back in the rainy parking lot and he’s not accepting it. Only thing missing is Miley Cyrus flying in on a wrecking ball, grabbing Adele and dragging her out of the wind back in the woods.

It ends with her looking down at him from an upstairs window. It’s not raining. He’s speaking on his own flip phone and is clearly much younger than her, his forearm full of tatts. He’s not happy. She’s not happy. I’m not happy.

Except that at least I have a smartphone–and I’m sorely tempted to call Music Row.

CF44

It was just one of those days, I guess.

At least it started out pretty good. I got to the Met Monday morning in time—10 a.m.—to meet the great Danny Fields. We were going to the dress rehearsal for Don Giovanni, but found out when we got there that instead of the usual 10:30 start, it was 11, likely because of the morning snowfall, probably because I just didn’t get the memo for the later start.

Anyway, that gave us an hour to kill, and Danny fatefully suggested Starbucks. I had a large with soy, and felt compelled to down the whole damn thing. Of course I hit the men’s room at the Met, and figured I’d be fine until the second act, that three-and-a-half hours duration there’d be two intermissions.

No, I didn’t check the program, not until an hour in when I knew I was in trouble of the prostate cancer kind. This had happened to me a couple years ago, shortly after the seed implants, when I had to walk out in the middle of an actual Met performance. Luckily I was near the aisle, but the ushers freaked out, rightly, but understood when I explained the problem. Now, again I was reaching the point of no return, so I leaned over to Danny and told him I had to go, then apologetically climbed over two people at the end of the row and made it to the can in the nick of time, this time without any interference from ushers. I took my phone, laptop and ticket stub—which you need to have to get back in.

Bathroom break achieved successfully, I figured I could sit in the lounge area across from the men’s room, and at least work on my Don Covay appreciation for examiner.com. I wasn’t alone, especially since they have a TV monitor on the wall showing the performance, but without the subtitles. At one point I heard a thud next to me. It was my phone falling into the crack between chairs.

At the end of the first act I was able to go into the auditorium without being seen and pick up my lunch bag, then met Danny downstairs and ate. Went back to the bathroom prior to Act II, drained it best I could and figured I’d had it made this time.

All this prostate shit, by the way, I’ve gone into in greater depth in this section, though newcomers be forewarned: It really isn’t all that funny.

I’m sure you know what’s coming. Halfway through Act II the discomfort commenced. Soon I was squirming around in my seat. I knew I’d have to make a run for it at curtain call, and began praying they didn’t have to redo anything.

They didn’t. I told Danny I’d talk to him later, made another mad dash to the can and got there again in the nick of time.

And then I realized my phone was missing.

I went back to the lounge, went through all my pants, sweatshirt, coat pockets two, three times. Took everything out of my gym/lunch bag. No phone.

Ran back to the auditorium, but I’d taken so long at the urinal that everyone was already out and it was locked. I caught up with an usher as she was leaving and she took me to the Lost & Found, gave me a slip with the phone number, and said I could call between 2 p.m and 4. It was getting close to 3.

I trudged home through the snow, all the while wondering if I had any friends and family members left to beg for money for a new phone. I didn’t.

I made it to the bathroom, again, in the nick of time. When I finally got to my desk it was 3:30—and I’d even lost the fucking Lost & Found phone number.

I had no recourse to call my friend at the Met who’d got me the tickets to the dress rehearsal—Lady A, we’ll call her, and we’ll go a step further and say that the “A” does not stand for “Antebellum.”

Lady A gave me the number, which I called and left a voicemail, as directed, with my name and number and missing item. It said they’d get back to me if they found anything, between 2 and 4. By now I was thinking of life without a cell phone, life in the Stone Age.

But Lady A said she’d also go down and look, and call back. She did.

“I have no good news,” she said. “I know you tore apart your bag and pockets and everything….”

“Yeah.”

I tried to reconstruct everything and now I wasn’t even sure I had my phone after Starbucks. Then I remembered how it had plopped into the crack between the chairs in the lounge. Lady A, being the saint that she is, offered to go down, again, and look.

She called back 10 minutes later.

“You are so lucky!” she said. “I’m a fucking asshole!” I replied.

“I didn’t mean that,” she said. “Just that I’m a great person.”

“You’re a great person because I’m a fucking asshole.”

Lady A had got down on her hands and knees, moved all the lounge chairs around—and found nothing. Then she found one of the auditorium guys who let her in, went to my row, got down on her hands and knees again and found the phone, a Samsung Note 3 in a black case, on the black floor in the darkened room.

“You’re so lucky!” she repeated. “I’m a fucking asshole!” I replied.

I think she laughed. Then again, I think everyone laughs.

I trudged back to the Met. Lady A handed me the phone through the cast iron Met gates, and I trudged back home, having wasted what was left of the afternoon.

Prostate made itself known once again, but at least I didn’t have to make any money-begging calls from the desk phone.

[This is a two-part post! Part Two can be found here at “Talking to Myself Out Loud.”]

Concert Highlights: Judy Collins, 1/2/2015

There’s nothing like seeing anything with Danny Fields, but especially something that he was intimately involved in—which doesn’t much narrow it down.

Case in point: Judy Collins. Danny was so much a part of her career when he was working at Elektra in the 1960s and she was a roster artist that she’s in the forthcoming Danny documentary Danny Says. When I found out on Dec 30 from her concert opener Ari Hest—in the Fab Faux’s dressing room at City Winery following the band’s dead-on performance of Danny’s favorite Beatles’ album Rubber Soul in its entirety—I brought him with me to see her Jan. 2 at City Winery.

Due to hot saki and two electronic pot hits, I’m afraid I took worse notes than usual. Hence, this account will likely be especially incoherent and meandering. About all I can say with certainty is that Judy Collins remains a national treasure, along with Linda Ronstadt one of our two broadest interpreters of popular song. That said, I can also say that she opened with “Open the Door,” one of her most beautiful original songs and sentiments (“I’d like to be as good a friend to you as you are to me”).

We sat at a table with a couple in town from Chicago. The wife had first seen Judy in 1969. Judy, meanwhile, looked out at Varick Street from the City Winery stage facing it, and recalled coming to New York herself from Denver and playing Gerdes Folk City in 1961—and wondered if anyone in the audiience was even alive then, besides, that is, me and Danny.

“Everybody was there–Joan [Baez] and Mimi [Farina, Baez’s sister]. Even Cisco Houston, who had only a couple months to live. Peter, Paul and Mary, before they were Peter, Paul and Mary. And a guy at the bar who was so pathetic, singing old Woody Guthrie songs—and not the best ones. I thought he was sad, that he didn’t have any repertoire. That was Bob Dylan. And I thought it was wonderful that they all came to see me and then I found out that my opener was a 13 year old named Arlo.”

Judy sang something that had to have been so beautiful, because the Chicago wife was weeping openly afterwards and saying something to Danny. I really wanted to let her know who Danny is—or at least direct her to this fab piece I wrote a few months ago!—but I knew Danny would modestly shrug it off.

Judy was now noting that Marcia, her grade school friend from Denver whom she’d known for 63 years, was in the audience, that they’d been in a group in the ‘50s called The Little Reds, assuring the audience that in those days, “[Little Reds] meant nothing political.” She mentioned meeting up with Leonard Cohen’s singer-songwriter son Adam while touring Australia. “You’d be proud of me for not telling him I put him through school,” she said, and indeed, Leonard Cohen was one of many budding or otherwise then unknown songwriters she championed throughout her career.

Me? I was unusually jumpy, maybe because of the weed, maybe because Danny had explained to the Chicagoans that we hadn’t paid for the seat at our table that we let the wife have because we were VIPs. Whatever, something went to my head, and when it became clear that the waitress had forgotten my second whiskey, I pointedly, perhaps arrogantly, gestured at her from across the room. She rushed over with it and apologized. I waved her off and downed it like the VIP Danny said we were.

Judy was talking about her early music influences—the old folk song ballad “Barbara Allen,” via Jo Stafford (me and Danny nodded at each other and made referece to Stafford’s hit “Shrimp Boats”), and of course, The Highwaymen’s “Gypsy Rover.”

I’ve heard her sing “Gypsy Rover” many times. But I also got to hear The Highwaymen sing it, a few years ago when the four then-surviving members of the original quintet regrouped and performed at the annual Association of Performing Arts Presenters conference at the Hilton.

I couldn’t believe it when I saw the listing and read the blurb. I didn’t think it was possible that The Highwaymen—the early ‘60s folk group who arguably recorded the definitive baby boomer versions of “Michael (Row the Boat Ashore)” (which actually topped the pop charts in 1960), “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” “Cotton Fields” and “The Gypsy Rover”—were still together, let alone still alive. Yet there they were, doing 20-minute sets for talent buyers in little showcase rooms at the hotel.

I was blown away. I was eight when “Michael” came out, and here I was speaking with lead singer Steve Fisher, who had formed the group with four other Wesleyan freshmen in 1958. I told him how I always loved to hear Judy Collins sing it in concert, and he said that they’d never met her, but were about to open a show for her and that they were so excited about it they didn’t know what to say. I also told him how I often found myself (and still do) singing the plaintive “Ah-dee-do, ah-dee-do-dah-day/Ah-dee-do, ah-dee-day-dee” chorus on the street, even in the shower at the gym (not recommended). He laughed.

Sadly, Dave died in 2010, and was followed in 2011 by Bob Burnett and Gil Robbins (Tim Robbins’ father, who had joined the group in 1962). That leaves only Steve Trott and Steve Butts of the original five, Chan Daniels having died in 1975. I relate all this here because meeting them and hearing them was like meeting Odetta, many of whose songs they also popularized. And when Judy sang the “Gypsy Rover” chorus a cappella at City Winery, I chimed in with everyone else, this time without embarrassment.

And then it was back to Bob Dylan. She joked about hearing the forthcoming Dylan Shadows in the Night album of Sinatra songs, which she’s apparently not too impressed with. But acknowledging that “he changed our lives forever,” she said, before leading the SRO crowd in “Tambourine Man” (which she recorded after being present when he wrote it): “He can sing Rogers and Hammerstein if he wants. He can do anything he wants.”

Yeah, well he can’t do Sondheim. Judy can and did: three Sondheims ending with “Send in the Clowns” (the other two are lost to incapacitation). And she could have done any number of other writers—Webb, Weill and Robin Williamson, to start with “W.”

Not to mention Ari Hest! He came up to sing his excellent song “The Fire Plays,” with Judy accompanying him beautifully–after a gushing intro thanking him for joining her on a trip to perform at some castle in Ireland (like anyone wouldn’t? Shit, I’d have carried her guitar!).

Just remembered! She kicked off her shoes for an encore at the piano after starting it and then discovering she could get “a better grip on the pedal” without them. Otherwise her longtime piano/vocal accompanist Russell Walden was wonderful as ever. They did a stunning version of Billy Ed Wheeler’s “Coal Tattoo” and it made me wish she’d do a whole album with Richard Thompson

Danny was thrilled that she encored with “In My Life” from Rubber Soul (also the titletrack of her 1966 breakthrough album) and then she finished traditionally with “Amazing Grace.” Now I had tears in my eyes, which, when closed, melted the decades back to that night at Gerdes in 1961.