Danny Fields: the coolest guy you've never heard of – until now

He managed the Ramones, helped launch the Doors, and hung around with Warhol. A new documentary puts the man behind the scenes front stage

In his diary, Andy Warhol wrote that he would love to film Danny Fields’ life story. The artist died six weeks later, but now Fields’s life has finally arrived the screen in a new documentary called, Danny Says.

You may not have heard of Danny Fields, but you definitely know his friends. As well as hanging out with Warhol, Fields helped launch the Doors into superstardom, palled around with Nico, Edie Sedgwick, and Alice Cooper; was the first person to play the Ramones to Lou Reed; was friends with Linda McCartney despite helping end the Beatles’ touring career; introduced Iggy Pop to David Bowie, and was immortalized in the Ramones tune Danny Says.

For decades, Fields has operated behind the scenes of the music world, forging connections and making stars. “If it weren’t for Danny the world might not have ever heard the Stooges and the Ramones, and we definitely wouldn’t have heard Nico as a solo artist,” said Gillian McCain, co-author of the definitive punk oral history, Please Kill Me, a book dedicated to Fields as “forever the coolest guy in the room”.

As the self-described “label freak” at Elektra Records, Fields was almost single-handedly responsible for ushering in the punk era in the US. He managed the Ramones’s early career, and got both the Stooges and the MC5 signed to his label. Despite these impressive credentials, Fields’s name is barely known outside the music business. That might all change thanks to the new documentary, which premiered at SXSW last year and is now open in select theaters and available online.

The film was directed by Brendan Toller, who worked on the film for almost seven years, finishing it mere weeks before it was slated to premiere. He first came across the legend of Fields in the books Please Kill Me and Edie (Jean Stein’s book about Sedgwick, the Warhol muse), but he had a hard time sorting out the fact from the hyperbole. “Danny Fields at Harvard stealing crystal with Edie Sedgwick couldn’t possibly be the same guy being the publicist for the Doors or managing the Ramones,” says Toller. Turns out, though, when it comes to Fields all the rumors are true, which Toller illustrates in the film.

The documentary pieces together interviews with Fields and many of his friends including Pop, Cooper, Tommy Ramone, Jonathan Richman, legendary record boss Seymour Stein, Ramones logo designer Arturo Vega, folk singer Judy Collins, MC5’s Wayne Kramer and many more, all interwoven with archival footage, audio recordings, and animation that blends together to help tell the story of this musical influencer.

Fields gave Toller access to his personal archives and Toller spent months going through the files, phone recordings, cassette tapes, ephemera, and photographs that Fields had collected over his long career. Professionally, Fields played a variety of roles in the music industry – he was a journalist, editor of 16 magazine and Datebook. When the latter magazine published John Lennon’s quote about the Beatles being bigger than Jesus (from an interview which had passed without comment in London Evening Standard a few months before), it caused outrage throughout America, the pressure nearly breaking up the band and spelling the end of their touring career. Fields also gave bands like the Velvet Underground and the Who some of their earliest press.

He also worked as a publicist, manager, DJ, A&R rep and a photographer who documented the scene he was helping create. He was a noted provocateur who loved swapping bon mots. “When I think about Danny, I think of sitting and laughing with him,” says Lenny Kaye, writer and longtime member of the Patti Smith Band. “He liked to cause a little trouble. He’s a little mischievous.”

“There are so many Danny stories, many not fit to print,” says Justin Vivian Bond, the longtime downtown fixture and star of Kiki & Herb, proving the point with an anecdote sadly unsuitable for a family website.

Fields at the re-presentation of Joey Ramone’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction award in 2009.
Fields at the re-presentation of Joey Ramone’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction award in 2009. Photograph: Joe Kohen/WireImage.com

Whatever his role, Fields’s over-arching goal was to bring people together. “That was one of Danny’s things,” says Kaye. “He was a matchmaker, whether it was bringing a band to a record label or putting creative people in the same room – and most of the time that room was Max’s Kansas City’s back room.”

“Danny’s a connector, he’s a fuel line, a place where things are liable to erupt,” says Iggy Pop in the documentary. “I imagine that Danny’s legacy, aside from the brilliant way he’s chosen to live his life, is how he has enhanced the lives of others by being a connector.”

“I’ve met so many brilliant and amazing people through Danny,” adds Bond. “I like to think that through these threads and connectivities we have all become better people, artists and contributors to the ongoing conversation. Hopefully these threads will continue to raise human consciousness through art and ideas long after we’re gone.”

The film features an incredible cast of characters, which is no real surprise when looking back at Fields’s circle of friends. “Danny’s set are really the people that created the world we live in today,” says Toller. “At least all the good stuff of art, music, and film. These were the revolutionaries of the 60s and 70s that brought about what we know as alternative culture.”

While the documentary looks back at Fields’s career and has the feel of a retrospective to it, according to McCain, who got to know Fields while working on Please Kill Me, Fields is not particularly the reflective type. “He always looks ahead and doesn’t dwell on the past,” says McCain. “Danny’s attitude is ‘the best is yet to come’.”

Contributor

Melissa Locker

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

The 10 best music documentaries

Michael Hann picks his favourite movies in which film-makers focus on the drama behind the songs

Michael Hann

18, May, 2013 @3:00 PM

Top 10 music movies

From wild-haired rockers to joyful bolero singers, films with or about celebrated musicians have played a key part in the movies. Here, the Guardian and Observers' critics pick the 10 finest

20, Dec, 2013 @4:57 PM

Article image
Danny Fields' best photograph: the Ramones prowl round the US supreme court
‘Hey, it’s Washington! Let’s run around!’

Interview by Michael Hann

19, Apr, 2018 @5:00 AM

Article image
Cult heroes: Danny Fields – the 60s and 70s scenester who made punk happen
The former Doors publicist and Warhol Factory member who got the Stooges a record deal and managed the Ramones was there during the most epochal moments of rock history. You can blame him for the Bay City Rollers, too

Caroline Sullivan

10, May, 2016 @3:27 PM

Article image
'They wanted to be as big as the Beatles': revisiting the Ramones' legacy
A new exhibition in Queens celebrates the history of a band that left an indelible mark on modern rock and New York City

Edward Helmore in Queens, New York

08, Apr, 2016 @12:00 PM

Article image
Shirkers review - paean to never-finished film is love letter to Singapore
Director Sandi Tan puts together a magical documentary about an unrealised film project that celebrates the power of youth and friendship

Charlie Phillips

25, Jan, 2018 @2:58 PM

Article image
Joe Berlinger and Tony Robbins: 'You're never going to convince a cynic'
The film-maker had had enough of making – and watching – documentaries about social ills, so decided to make a ‘feel-good’ movie about one of America’s most famous motivational speakers

Nigel M Smith

21, Jul, 2016 @9:16 PM

Article image
Nick Broomfield on his damning Whitney Houston film: 'She had very little control over her life'
The director spoke to the bodyguards, backup singers, hairdressers and promoters who formed the star’s inner circle. The result is a tragic, uncompromising portrait of a woman forced to conceal her true self

Jim Farber

26, Apr, 2017 @6:37 AM

Article image
Gaga: Five Foot Two review – pint-sized music doc wallows in self reflection
Despite artful direction and meticulous curation by Gaga herself, the documentary never quite shakes the feel of a longform advert for the singer’s new phase – one that’s preaching to the converted

Bryan Armen Graham

22, Sep, 2017 @6:51 PM

Article image
Sharon Jones: 'Before I get on stage something comes over me and the pain goes away'
The soul star has survived cancer and now a new documentary charts her progress. Oliver Wang caught up with her to talk about chemo, performing and what it’s like letting a film crew capture your most vulnerable moments

Oliver Wang

27, Jul, 2016 @1:11 PM