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.”

Adventures with Billy Gibbons

Billy Gibbons discusses African art with fellow collectors at Sotheby's.
Billy Gibbons discusses African art with fellow collectors at Sotheby’s.

Look. I admit I don’t know shit about art beyond that I like Vermeer and Turner, like everyone else. And Richman’s “Pablo Picasso.”

And when it comes to African art, well, I very much appreciate the Sugar Bar décor—very African village and full of fabulous art collected by Nick Ashford—but I can’t tell you the difference between a $700 piece and a $700,000 one.

“Seven hundred thousand dollars for a statue!” said Billy Gibbons. “Can you believe it?”

Billy F Gibbons, unbeknownst maybe to you and most ZZ Top fans, is a major collector of African art.

I’ll never forget years ago when he was in New York and called me up and told me to meet him at the hotel and walk over with him to Christie’s for a preview of a major auction the next day. We got on the elevator and everyone was excited—but not because he was Billy Gibbons, rock superstar. To them he was Billy Gibbons, African art maven.

Everyone there knew him and loved him, just like the rest of us. We got off the elevator and everywhere you looked there were waiters in tuxes holding trays of champagne among the most amazing—and expensive—pieces of African art. And again, everyone knew Billy, African art maven.

He told me once how he got into it. Way back in Dallas, when he bought a loft and didn’t know how to decorate it. A friend took him to a flea market and they found some African pieces, and that started it; he made more African art acquisitions to place in the doorway of his recording studio “as an energy booster.”

Of course it all made sense. Billy pointed out that Picasso picked up his concepts for cubism from African art—and a hasty perusal of the heavy In Pusuit of Beauty–The Myron Kunin Collection of African Art catalog of the big Nov. 11 auction at Sotheby’s included an article that bore this out. Billy, of course, became one of the top Africa-derived blues-influenced rock guitarists. Like art, like music.

Billy was in town for a veterans benefit at the Highline the night before, with the solo band he brought to B.B. King’s and City Winery earlier this year. He and the band would play again that night at Brooklyn Bowl.

He had found out about the Sotheby’s auction after he arrived here, and decided to go in order to “show face.” No surprise how many were so happy to see it.

“Billy!” It was an ecstatic Indian man in the back of the auction hall, who hadn’t seen him in a long time. Then again, nobody had.

“See the guy in the pink pants?” Billy whispered to me. The gentleman was hard not to see.

“He’s from France. He sold me an unusual piece.”

It was an unusual and rather frightening Nigerian female Boki tribal mask. Billy, shall we say, leans toward the visual extremes, and came to the poor gal’s rescue and spared her from a certain life in the closet.

Two African men came over to say hi, then another took him aside and slipped a tiny bronze African whistle in his hand. Billy courteously declined it.

“I don’t really like bronze, or ceramic,” he told me afterward. But he did like the four and a-half inch Kneeling Power Figure carving from the Democratic Republic of the Congo–one of a handful of pieces enclosed in glass display cases in the room.

“I got a guy that’s quite similar, an interesting two-sided one,” he said, then went downstairs to buy the $55 catalog.

I just sat and observed the action while he was gone. The auctioneer was behind a lectern, and flanked by phone banks staffed by Christie’s executives taking orders from out-of-town clients. There were two more banks on the right side of the hall, and on the floor above them, private skybox-type rooms shrouded, unless the inhabitant opened a window, by curtains–though you could see through them enough from the floor to recognize movement, a phone and a computer.

The bidding was done in person, by phone and online.

In between the auctioneer and the phone bank on his right was a pedestal with an abstract wooden sculpture of a woman that was really quite striking.

Billy returned with the catalog. It had plates for each of the 164 pieces in the auction, along with their provenance, previous owners and exhibitions. It also had scholarly features on the nature of the works within the context of their regional and tribal origins, as well as an essay on the late Minneapolis hair-salon magnate Myron Kunin, whose African art collection was among the world’s best.

“Each plate is frameable,” Billy pointed out, paging over to the Kneeling Power Figure. “I just had to to have that little guy.”

That little guy eventually went for $480,000. But the big prize was the Senufo Female Statue, a late 19th Century/early 20th Century sculpture from the Ivory Coast—the one on the pedestal next to the auctioneer. The catalog said it was one of the most iconic and widely recognized African sculptures, and the bidding accordingly began at $4.9 million.

Senufo Female Statue
Senufo Female Statue

“It’s going so fast!” marveled Billy as the millions mounted. “Hundreds of thousands of dollars every 30 seconds.”

Indeed, each wave of the auctioneer’s hand signified another $100,000 bid.

“I’m severely tempted to raise my hand for everyone,” Billy said, “but I’m afraid the bidding will stall as soon as I do.”

I reminded him that his wife had told him befrore we left to keep in mind that he was trying to sell a warehouse full of stuff back in Texas.

As he explained it later, “An autograph-seeker distracted me at the last second, and I missed the $10.1 million closing bid by a mere quarter-mill.”

But Billy was kindly taking the fall.

“No, Billy,” I interjected, fessing up to my responsibility.

“We’d have made it if I hadn’t blown $250,000 yesterday at the track—and if I’d gotten paid on time for my last bio.”

“Fucking record companies!” I sniffed.

“What’s a record company?” Billy asked.