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.”

Artistic risk and Gene Sculatti’s Binary Theory of rock ‘n’ roll

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Usually I write something it’s pretty much over, unless I’m on the elliptical and my mind wanders, like the other day at the gym. For some reason I thought back to my Rock and Roll Hall of Fame piece from May. And then I was reflecting further on the definition of rock ‘n’ roll, and what “makes it so great.”

To recap, the RockHall, in responding to Steve Miller’s criticisms during his post-induction press conference, stated that what makes rock ‘n’ roll so great is that it can “ignite many opinions”–a characterization that I ignited as one big crock of shit.

I then took issue with Ice Cube, who said, also in his acceptance speech, that rock ‘n’ roll is neither instrument nor style of music, but “a spirit that’s been going on since the blues, jazz, bebop, soul, rock ‘n’ roll, R&B, heavy metal, punk rock, and yes, hip-hop.” I didn’t care much for this definition, either, especially since he pointedly left out country, not to mention polka.

Like I said, not many country stars are in the RockHall, with Johnny Cash the only one coming quickly to mind outside of Bill Monroe and Jimmie Rodgers-both inducted as “Early Influences.” Seymour Stein always argued for Conway Twitty, whose career began in the 1950s with the rock ‘n’ roll chart success of hits like “It’s Only Make Believe.” I’ll always remember my late, great friend Dave Nives, who held various marketing and a&r indie label gigs and correctly ascertained, after I brought him a CD by polka legend Eddie Blazonczyk, “This is real rock ‘n’ roll.”

What is real rock ‘n’ roll, then, or what we have called since the l970s, “rock”? I have little idea from looking at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees, I thought, as I realized, with deep disappointment and mounting bitterness, that I’d only been on the machine for three minutes.

Then I drifted further into considering one of the main tenets of rock ‘n’ roll criticism, which these mostly old boys likely lifted from art criticism as a whole, that the rock ‘n’ roll artist must always take risks. As in crossing the street without looking? I wondered. As in throwing a pass from the one-yard-line on first-and-goal?

This is why I was never part of that old boys club. I never wanted my favorite artists to take risks. The Beatles could do it, for sure, but who else, besides, say Kenny Rogers?

Did I just say Kenny Rogers? Yes! By risk-taking criteria, Kenny Rogers is arguably the greatest rock ‘n’ roll artist of all time! The chronology: Houston native Rogers learned guitar and fiddle and played in a rockabilly recording band, The Scholars, in high school. He also recorded solo singles and performed on American Bandstand. Dropping out of the U. of Texas, he played bass in jazz combo the Bobby Doyle Three, and played bass on country star Mickey Gilley’s 1960s single “Is It Wrong.” He joined the Kirby Stone Four vocal group, then released a few unsuccessful solo singles before joining the successful New Christy Minstrels folk group–out of which the First Edition formed.

With the First Edition, Rogers scored the No. 5 pop-psychedelic “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” hit in 1968 and others including “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town,”
“Something’s Burning” and the distinctly country-flavored “Ruben James”–the band now billed as Kenny Rogers & the First Edition. Leaving the group, he then built a superstar country music career in the late 1970s and ’80s following the Grammy and Country Music Award-winning success of his No. 1 country hit “Lucille” in 1977; when it reached No. 5 on the pop charts, it also ushered in a remarkable country-crossover career generating a pair of pop chart-toppers in “Lady,” which was written and produced by Lionel Richie, and “Islands In The Stream,” his duet with Dolly Parton that was written and produced by the Bee Gees’ Barry Gibb. He also worked with The Beatles’ George Martin and mainstream pop producer David Foster. Besides Parton–who also recorded Rogers’ “Sweet Music Man”–Rogers had hit duets with Dottie West, Kim Carnes, Sheena Easton, Carnes and James Ingram, Nickie Ryder, Ronnie Milsap, Anne Murray, Wynonna, Alison Krauss and Billy Dean, and Whitney Duncan. He’s been represented on the charts in one way or other the last six decades, while spinning off a successful acting career–most notably his series of TV movies based on his Grammy-winning 1978 hit “The Gambler.”

Really, the guy’s done everything any critic could ask for and way, way more.

But otherwise, lets look at The Ramones, for example. Sure I like the Spector-produced End of the Century as much as the next guy–that is, if the next guy likes it–and I always loved Road to Ruin‘s country-flavored “Don’t Come Close.” And don’t forget, I wrote the fist book on The Ramones (Ramones-An American Band, if I remember correct)! But really, I and you really just want to hear “Blitzkrieg Bop” and “Beat on the Brat.”

Or Elvis Costello: Sure I love the country album Almost Blue produced in Nashville by Billy Sherrill, or The Juliet Letters with the Brodsky Quartet and Painted From Memory with Burt Bacharach, or any number of other artistic excursions beyond “Alison” and “Watching the Detectives.” But I always hope that when he performs with the band in concert, he goes back heavy on his second album, This Year’s Model, his first with The Attractions, and far and away his most intense rock record.

Which brings me, circuitously-and I’m off the elliptical and back home now-to Gene Sculatti and the Binary Theory of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Gene Sculatti, truly one of rock’s great theorists, is credited by U.K. author Jon Savage, in 1966: The Year The Decade Exploded, as one of the writers for the seminal rock magaine Crawdaddy who actually began using the word ‘rock’ to describe the new mid-‘60s experimental rock forms manifest on albums like The Beatles’ Revolver and Jefferson Airplane Takes Off. But what brings us to him here is his most brilliant Binary Theory.

Right up there with gravity, relativity and evolution, the Binary Theory—and I hereby admit that I’m pretty much a layman here, in terms of understanding such scholarly rock stuff—addresses the deceptively simple elemental principle that a rock artist initially does whatever he, she or it does (roots-rock, let’s say) and becomes successful doing so. They keep doing it the first few albums and tours, and then the success wanes. So they announce with great fanfare a new direction (dance music, let’s say), and enlist the top songwriters and producers in the field—but the ensuing record stiffs. So they announce a return to form (in our example, back to roots-rock) with even more fanfare (a.k.a. hooey), either admitting to the mistake of the failed new direction or more likely, blaming the record company and/or just-fired management.

“That’s the riff, yeah,” says Sculatti, taking a moment out of deep study in his ivory tower to talk down to a relative ignoramus.

“It’s important to distinguish the binary move, though, from such things as organic progressions like The Who evolving from lean, mean mods to arena-ready pomp-rockers, or mere trend-hopping, like the Beach Boys doing a 10-minute disco version of ‘Here Comes the Night’ off of Wild Honey, or the Grateful Dead doing disco on Shakedown Street. And it’s different from polymaths like Prince or Bowie, who could slip into new and different musical togs monthly and always wear them well.

“Then there’s the Stones, who pulled the binary as a canny, if brief, career move: ‘Oh, you think you know us only as noisy young rowdies? We’ll show you!’ Hence ‘As Tears Go By,’ ‘Lady Jane,’ maybe even ‘Play with Fire.’ And Elton, who starts as an earnest Band follower, all Americana’d up–but eventually realizes what a cul-de-sac that is and lightens up into the pop guy he really always wa,s i.e. ‘Crocodile Rock,’ ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,’ ‘Island Girl.’”

But “the real blatant binary cats are Kiss,” contends Sculatti, “who snag their biggest hit ever by momentarily abandoning bludgeon-rock for the reflective ‘Beth,’ and Alice Cooper. He starts out as a good solid rocker, gains some rep emphasizing the horror-show bit, but then–I’m almost sure pointed in this direction by management, who knew that songs about nightmares and dead babies wouldn’t get him into the Top 40–suddenly makes a complete U-turn and starts doing, and succeeding with, housewife-friendly ballads like ‘Only Women Bleed’ and ‘I Never Cry.’ I’m pretty sure I remember an interview with him later when he’d semi-retired and was doing the golf bit with Groucho: He said he could never go back to doing the immature shock-rock he’d become known for. Then, lo and behold, a few years later–and continuing well into the present day–he’s out there with the guillotine and all, right back where he started from.”

Sculatti kindly recaps.

“The binary is most often done by the act that dead-ends with whatever it first came to prominence with, so someone decides an about-face is the only rational move. Maybe it’s like Eno’s ‘oblique strategies’: Stuck for inspiration in the studio? Leave, go outside and stand on your head for 10 minutes or play hopscotch with the neighborhood kids–just do something different and your muse will return!”

Meanwhile, Sculatti, who’s also written for Rolling Stone, The Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Creem, Billboard, Mojo and other publications while authoring books including The Catalog of Cool, San Francisco Nights: The Psychedelic Music Trip, Too Cool and the Kindle book Dark Stars and Anti-Matter: 40 Years of Loving, Leaving and Making Up with the Music of the Grateful Dead, is issuing Tryin’ to Tell a Stranger ’bout Rock and Roll: Selected Writings 1966-2016, in both paperback and Kindle editions on Sept 21. The book collects more than 60 pieces from his prolific career. He’s also a featured participant in the just-released documentary Ticket to Write: The Golden Age of Rock Music Journalism.

Tales of Bessman: Bob Simon, Brian Williams and Dengue Fever

There’s Brian Williams, and then there was Bob Simon.

But Bob didn’t make anything up, or devote his time at celebrity. When it came to honesty and integrity in broadcast journalism, he was the real deal.

I was a CBS News guy, back when it was CBS News–a long time ago. Walter Cronkite and the other surviving Murrow’s Boys–and those that followed, including Dan Rather and Bob Simon, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, through Vietnam, Watergate, and the big stories that Bob Simon was so much a part of.

Met Cronkite at Jann Wenner’s 40th birthday party in 1986 at some hot dinner spot in Chelsea or Soho, so trendy that it didn’t have an address or name. I wasn’t invited, of course. But BeauSoleil was playing and they brought me along. I think the only person I knew was Seymour Stein, who introduced me to Ofra Haza. She really was beautiful.

Let’s see. Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, that’s all I remember now. Ahmet Ertegun and every other record company chieftain in New York had to be there. It was a Who’s Who of Rolling Stone magazine covers of the time, and those who made them happen.

And Walter Cronkite. Unlike Williams and CNN, Uncle Walter really was the most trusted name in news–not the most busted. When he told America there was no light at the end of the Vietnam tunnel, LBJ had no choice but to throw in the reelection towel. He even brought Sadat and Begin together.

But when I saw him speak at an event a few years earlier to promote an LP box set of spoken word speeches and news broadcasts (The Way it Was–The Sixties), he said, in response to an obvious question, that the most important story he’d been part of was the moon landing.

I was hugely disappointed. And I told him so at the party. He was clearly taken back, and sheepishly said, “Well, it’s like asking, ‘What’s your favorite soup?’”

I met Dan Rather, another CBS News hero, at another party, to promote James Carville’s 1996 book We’re Right, They’re Wrong: A Handbook for Spirited Progressives. I remember telling Carville of my growing concern about Whitewater, which was then getting play in the press, and what it would mean for Clinton’s presidency. He didn’t want to talk about it and brushed me off with something about how it was all politically motivated and wouldn’t amount to anything.

Carville’s wife Mary Matalin was there. I couldn’t stand her so I made a point of introducing myself. She was very sweet. I walked out into the rain just as Dan came in with his PR person, whom I knew when she worked in the record business. She introduced me and I told him what a huge fan I was. He said we should get together for coffee. I still hope it will happen.

I met Bob Simon many years ago walking down 8th Avenue. I stopped him and stammered how he was my hero, how I’d written to him after his capture and release by Iraqi forces in 1991 during the Gulf War–and how he’d written back.

He was quite tall in person, not very warm or humorous–not unfriendly, either, but serious. Pretty much like how he was on the news, throughout a career covering everything from the troubles in Northern Ireland from 1969 to 1971, to Vietnam in ’71 (he won an Overseas Press Club award—one of four of them, along with four Peabodys and 27 Emmys–for reporting on Hanoi’s 1972 spring offensive, and another for the fall of Saigon in ’75 when he was on one of the last U.S. choppers to leave), wars in Grenada, Somalia and Haiti; martial law in Poland; Israel during the Yom Kippur War and Egypt after the 2011 uprisings.

For me, his best work was after he was named CBS News’ chief Middle East correspondent in 1987. Jewish, he offered far and away the most even-handed accounts of any mainstream media, rather than the usual one-sided pro-Israel commentary. He had a cutting edge and tone to his reporting, and his brilliant writing—and on-air reading of it—reflected it. A humanitarian, he was fearless and cynical in his war coverage, and I was starstruck and humbled in the presence of a most towering figure in American broadcast journalism.

But sadly, he never did the one story I pitched him, and now never will.

It was at a DVD screening a couple years ago of the documentary Marley . It was sponsored by a big-time Hollywood PR gal, and I was quite surprised to have been invited. I was so insignificant that they never even followed up my interest in interviewing the director.

It was October, 2012, the night of the first Obama-Romney debate. After the screening I hung with Bob at the bar watching it. I also told him about Dengue Fever, my fave band from L.A., featuring Cambodian diva Nimol Chhom and five L.A. rockers who specialized in the little-known rock music originating or deriving from Cambodia in the ‘60s, by artists who perished during the Khmer Rouge genocide.

I told Bob that the remarkable story of this unique band was right up his alley, and he was interested; having reported from Cambodia and being so sensitive to other peoples and culture–and especially considering that this music was wiped out at least partially as a result of America’s wars in Southeast Asia–he immediately saw the value in an American band enlisting a Cambodian songstress and reviving her country’s rock music legacy.

The next day I emailed him a ton of info on Dengue Fever–much of which I’d written–and he responded: “Thank you. It sounds interesting. I am going on the road for a couple of weeks but will have my assistant look into it.”

Nothing further ever happened, sadly. I emailed him more things from time to time, most recently on Jan. 14, when I sent him the link to a great L.A. Weekly piece. So I’m confident that Dengue Fever’s story will now be told, sooner rather than later, but by someone other than just me.

But no one could have done it like Bob Simon. It’s the saddest thing that it won’t be him.