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.”

Alicia Keys a lonely voice of reason in a typically vapid VMA show

Look. I’m 64. I shouldn’t even be watching the MTV Video Music Awards (it being way past my bedtime), let alone writing about it. No they don’t need me and they sure as hell don’t feed me.

In fact, the last VMAs show that meant anything to me, where I knew the music and the artists, was probably the first one, 32 years ago at Radio City, when I was there and writing extensively about music videos and MTV. In all honesty, I write about them now just to hang on and kid myself into thinking I’m still relevant.

That said, even the commercials last night were lame. I mean, the Taco Bell Foundation? Who knew? And the Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children spot got me going until diluting itself with “featuring a new song by Florence + the Machine.”

The show itself can be summed up by the Ariana Grande/Nicki Minaj workout on “Side to Side,” as it hardly got anyone worked up. Or speed-swimmer Michael Phelps, who introduced Future after crediting his “Stick Talk” for inspiring him at the Olympics, with Future responding by slowing the proceedings down to a standstill with his single “Commas.” Or Kanye—of course—whose excruciating ramble was matched only by his video premiere for the at least appropriately named “Fade.”

I must qualify my criticism for tweeters Key & Peele and their seeming rip of In Living Color’s “Men on Films,” since while I’ve heard of them, I’ve never seen them and didn’t get the gag until googling them midway. But I’ll stick with my own tweets, i.e.:

Separated at birth: #KanyeWest and Sata

Did I miss it or was there a melody in the #NickJonas song?

#KimKardashian speaks like a Shakespearean scholar

[After Britney’s bit] Gee, that was worth the wait

#Beyonce get to the hook already!

#Beyonce: The performance that never ended

They could have fit in at least five more performers in the time wasted by #Beyonce and #KanyeWest

Wait! #Beyonce sampled Andy Williams “Can’t Get Used to Losing You” on her song! If only he were still alive!

That last one reminds me of the time when I ran into Andy Williams at the Grammys, but I digress. Admittedly, I was happy DNCE won for “Cake by the Ocean” since it’s such a great tune. But then The Chainsmokers could only remind me how much I liked Parliament, The Winstons and even Sopwith Camel. Like I also tweeted: I must be the oldest living person watching this shite. And, after the first five minutes, My God this is awful.

So why do I love Rihanna so much? I thank Naomi Campbell for nailing it: the islands, meaning, she never gave up her Caribbean roots, which makes perfect sense in that I’ve always felt her voice has so much character, flavor, and adaptability to whatever a song needs from it. She was great, her speech was fine, and she even made Drake good.

But really, the true star last night was Alicia Keys, out of place as she was in physical appearance–but naturally stunning nevertheless with her committed no-makeup look (which I didn’t know anything about until reading up on it after the show)–not to mention political stance in noting the 53rd anniversary that day of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. And suddenly I didn’t feel so old as arguably the most talented singer-songwriter of her MTV generation recited an antiwar poem harking back to my g-g-generation’s “Make love, not war” slogan.

The poem became a brief a cappella song, also about breaking walls, instead of building them–as the one presidential candidate so desperately wants. With such a pivotal election just weeks away now, Keys provided the one glimpse of reality through the typically overblown VMA glitz, in time-honored topical music fashion.

Waiting for Miley Cyrus

The day before the annual MTV Video Music Awards crapola and I oddly find myself more looking forward to it than maybe even the first one 31 years ago, when all of us in the biz back then had drunk the Kool-Aid and were swept away by the asshole moonman.

Now, a 63-year-old man with music tastes reflecting my age, I’m also thinking back on my flimsy indirect Miley Cyrus connection via her dad.

I can’t remember if it was Key Largo or Orlando where Mercury/Nashville held a weekend junket for media in 1992 to showcase three of its baby acts including Billy Ray, and I can’t remember the other two, though one might have been Shania. And while I never got to know him that well, I was great friends with his (and Buck Owens’) manager Jack McFadden. I still remember Jack’s cutting riposte to my buddy Travis Tritt’s disparaging remarks during Fan Fair that year regarding Billy Ray’s out-of-nowhere career explosion by way of “Achy Breaky Heart”–which were shared but unuttered by many others in the country music community: “He’s [Tritt] just feeling the heat from our afterburner!”

Then a few years later, after Billy Ray’s career had seemingly flamed out almost as fast as it burst, I was asked to appear on one of those dumb celeb news shows, I think it was Access Hollywood, to comment on his chances of making a comeback with his then just-released new album. It was not at all impossible, I stated, with authoritative certainty, only to be told I’d never be asked on the show again for refusing to do stupid B-roll walking-through-the-hall or sitting-at-the-computer bullshit.

“I’m not an actor!” I huffed. “I’m a writer.”

Sure enough, I never did the show again.

As for Miley, well, I never watched Hannah Montana. So I never paid much attention to her until the infamous performance at the VMAs with Robin Thicke two years ago, when I found the twerking and tongue lolling vulgar and annoying, then was put off further by every succeeding outrageous stunt culminating with the video for “Wrecking Ball,” which I hated: By now it all seemed so calculating, like Madonna, and the song itself became tedious after a couple listens, with its bouncy verse and big, overwrought chorus. No denying, though, she sang it all very well.

Maybe it was her heartfelt induction of Joan Jett into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that turned me around, or her staunch refusal to apologize for what she does and who she is–along with her outspokenness in support of scores of progressive charities and causes. Here the one that really got me was her own nonprofit Happy Hippie Foundation, with its mission “to rally young people to fight injustice facing homeless youth, LGBTQ youth and other vulnerable populations.” To launch the foundation, she created a Backyard Sessions series of videos, many with guests like Jett and Ariana Grande, in which she respectfully covered classic rock songs including The Turtles “Happy Together,” garnering praise from none other than that group’s lead singer Howard Kaylan.

Miley told The New York Times (“in between freshly rolled joints”) that MTV told her, “This is your party,” and promises to give them a “psychedelic” and “raw” show unlike any previous ones—precisely why the network hired her, no doubt. But she also revealed that she’s working on “avant-garde” new music with the Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne, which, in conjunction with a new visual Instagram style influenced by underground Net artists, indicates that she’s continuing to experiment and grow as an artist as she is as a person.

“When you look at it now, it looks like I’m playing hopscotch,” she said of her 2013 VMA appearance. “Compared to what I do now, it looks like nothing. I can’t believe that was a big deal. It wasn’t shocking at all.” She added: “I still love it. But I now watch it, and I see someone that isn’t me now.”

Who she is now, it seems to me, is an uncommonly centered, concerned and caring person for 22, completely opposite from the narcissistic pop superstarlets of her stature—Taylor Swift in particular. To be fair, Swift also gives plenty to charity, and has commendably established a close relationship with her massive fan base.

But Swift seems focused on surface, i.e., her physical appearance, celebrity friends and post-adolescent romance, whereas Cyrus, though younger, is so much broader and deeper in interest and reach. Here’s hoping to see more of this come into play tonight, whatever the shock value.