By Charles Curkindec December 26, 2014
This month, a private screening was held for a rough cut of “Danny Says,” a documentary about the New York rock music legend Danny Fields. The theater was full of old friends of Danny’s and potential investors, but Mr. Fields was not in attendance.
Afterward, the director, Brendan Toller, who hopes to debut the film in March at the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Tex., answered questions from the audience. The actor John Cameron Mitchell, who in the film refers to Mr. Fields as a “handmaiden to the gods,” asked if Mr. Fields would ever see it.
Mr. Toller, he later confessed, had been dreading that question. He hesitated. “Well —— ” he said.
“I’m never seeing it,” Mr. Fields, 75, wryly declared a few days later, sipping some microwaved sake in the living room of his West Village apartment. The man who introduced Jim Morrison to Nico, Iggy Pop to the world, and cocaine to Iggy Pop, simply doesn’t want to. “That’s Brendan’s thing,” he said.
Danny’s thing — and he is known to people in the business as “Danny” — was music. For roughly two decades, Mr. Fields found himself at the center of a revolution. He broke into the industry working for Elektra Records, first doing publicity for the Doors, then signing both Iggy Pop’s band the Stooges and the MC5 (on the same day), which would ultimately lead to his managing the Ramones. You could make a convincing case that without Danny Fields, punk rock wouldn’t have happened.
“Danny Says,” which took Mr. Toller five years to make — and takes its name from a Ramones song about Mr. Fields — is dominated by Mr. Fields’s tremulous monotone voice-over. But though he may claim that “Danny Says” holds little interest for him, the source material of the movie, his obsessively cataloged archives, certainly does.
Mr. Fields inhabits a cramped apartment filled with more priceless art and artifacts than its few walls can accommodate. As a proudly gay and puckish music industry executive, photographer, D.J. and journalist, Mr. Fields has lived a life most textured, and he has been re-examining it as Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, which recently acquired a portion of his archives, comes to collect it one box at a time.
Timothy Young, curator of modern books and manuscripts at the Beinecke, is very excited about the acquisition. “My colleagues looked at me in silence after I pitched them Danny’s archive,” Mr. Young said, affirming Mr. Fields’s renown even in academic circles. “It’s such important material of such an important person.
He also noted that the circumstances for the acquisition were strange. “It’s a new experience for me to work with someone who’s alive.”
Andy Warhol’s manager, the filmmaker Paul Morrissey, knew Mr. Fields well but lost track of him over the years. “Is he still alive?” Mr. Morrissey asked, over the phone. Mr. Morrissey, who was interviewed for “Danny Says,” recalled the many times Mr. Fields would stop by his office — what is referred to in popular culture as the Factory — with some friends in tow. “He was a really fun and intelligent guy,” Mr. Morrissey recalled. “I liked him a lot, but I never really knew what he did.”
Though it has been some time since Mr. Fields was influencing the culture, he is very much alive.
Today, Mr. Fields jokes that he doesn’t even like music, but then he’ll insist that it is the greatest of all the things that matter to him. He also considers himself an equally ardent cinephile — he speaks passionately of classics like “The Thief of Bagdad,” a Technicolor adventure from 1940 that still brings him to tears upon repeat viewings; its score, he says, is the first music he ever loved.
Mr. Fields likes to speak, and does it naturally, openly, and with great brio; it’s his talent. For stories, he’s an endless fount, with enough material to fill a few tomes. Those bites of oral tradition are his legacy. The people he knew, the things he saw, the places he has been: That is the gestalt of Danny Fields. They’re alive in his reminiscences, and in the surfeit of audio recordings, photographs, paintings, books and magazines he lives among.
Born Daniel Feinberg in Queens in 1939, Mr. Fields was raised Jewish and is the older of two children. He was a bright kid, graduating from high school at 15, then the University of Pennsylvania at 19, and then dropping out of Harvard Law at 20. “I didn’t want to be a lawyer,” he said. “I thought Harvard was where all the beautiful boys went.”
After Harvard, he moved back to New York and became a regular at the San Remo Cafe in Greenwich Village, where he befriended fellow patrons like Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Edward Albee.
Though he found himself surrounded by artists, his own talent was publicizing them. He became an editor at the teen magazine Datebook, where during a fabulously short tenure he managed to ignite controversy by publishing a quote from a 1966 interview by Maureen Cleave with John Lennon who had humbly declared that his band at the time, the Beatles, was more popular than Jesus Christ. (In “Danny Says,” it is asserted that Mr. Fields’s decision led to the band’s eventual dissolution.) He certainly had a yen for stirring the pot. When speaking about his mission statement at Datebook, he said: “I wanted to introduce the Velvet Underground to girls aged 11 to 14.”
From Datebook, he was hired by Elektra Records, which marked a turning point in his career — the observer became a participant.
Mr. Fields surrounds himself with mementos from his life. Some he is parting with now, and the rest he is keeping until he shuffles off: art by the notorious cartoonist Mike Diana, who was convicted of obscenity; hundreds of black-and-white photographs — shots by him and of him and his old coterie including Warhol, John Waters’s drag collaborator Divine, David Bowie and Paul McCartney.
“I’m so happy my things are getting a better place to live,” Mr. Fields said.
In January, his first shipment went out to the Beinecke. It was made up of materials largely relating to the Ramones. The second installment, which was collected in July, was mostly audio recordings newly digitized from cassettes, a task that Mr. Fields personally oversaw and underwrote.
The recordings are of his conversations with people he knew or encountered, like Leonard Cohen, whom Mr. Fields took to the Chelsea Hotel to meet some of its tenants, including Edie Sedgwick. “He called me his Virgil,” recalled Mr. Fields, referring to his role as a guide through hell in Dante’s “Inferno.”
The big names he recorded have salience for a lot of music fanatics, but for Mr. Fields, it’s his conversations with the theater critic Donald Lyons (whose estate was also acquired by the Beinecke) and Steve Paul, who owned the Scene (the nightclub where Jimi Hendrix played his first New York show), that he considers highlights of his collection. “Everyone’s heard Lou Reed,” Mr. Fields said, “but no one has tape of Donald screaming, and Steve just being cosmically wonderful.”
Also part of his archives, which he hopes Mr. Young of the Beinecke will acquire, is his pornography: Polaroids of hustlers and videocassettes of blue movies he directed. “I have drawers full of mini-videocassettes of homemade porn,” Mr. Fields said. He described them as fabulous. So far, Yale has not disclosed exactly how much of the pornography it will be taking.
It has been a somber year for Mr. Fields, with the deaths of the punk photographer Leee Black Childers; Arturo Vega, designer of the Ramones’ logo; the poet Rene Ricard; and Tommy Ramone, the original Ramones drummer.
Mr. Fields wistfully acknowledged, “I got more than I deserved,” referring to a career as an important operator in the history of rock ’n’ roll. “I never put my stamp on anything,” he said. “I’ve tried, but never succeeded. I was just a witness.” One could get the impression that Mr. Fields’s self-deprecation belies how he truly feels about himself.
As he takes stock of a storied, tumultuous past, he makes his expectations for the future perfectly clear: He wants more great bands and people in his life to fall in love with. “That’s ‘The Thief of Bagdad,’ ” Mr. Fields said. “To be in love with the princess. Or the prince.”
A version of this article appears in print on December 28, 2014, on page MB1 of the New York edition with the headline: Iggy, Lou, Joey — and Danny.
HorizonVU Music is proud to have donated to the “Danny Says” project.