With ‘Danny Says’, Documentary Filmmaker Brendan Toller Reveals One of Rock’s Essential Trendsetters

In Cover Stories, Music Stories, Q&As by Coury Turczynleave a COMMENT

DFields_IPop_LRobinson_DBowieDanny Fields has probably had a more lasting influence on contemporary rock ’n’ roll than most record-label executives, producers, critics, and, for that matter, rock stars. Yet he’s probably one of the least-known figures in modern music history, and it’s highly doubtful he’ll ever be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He didn’t so much try to shape the industry through force of will as through his taste for truly rebellious music—and by being in the right place at the right time.

Even from his earliest years as a journeyman editor at teen rag Datebook in the mid-’60s, he caused waves: It was Danny Fields who published John Lennon’s quote that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus. In the same period, he was inducted into Andy Warhol’s Factory scene, becoming friends with Lou Reed, Nico, and other tastemakers. He talked his way into becoming the Doors’ press agent, and then in turn talked his way into becoming an A&R rep for their label, Elektra. He traveled to Detroit, where he signed the MC5 and Iggy and the Stooges. Later, he championed the New York Dolls and Jonathan Richman’s Modern Lovers. In 1974, he went to CBGB’s, witnessed the Ramones, and asked to be their manager. They said he’d have to buy them a new drum kit first. So he borrowed the money from his mother. And got them signed to Sire Records.

It is highly unlikely any of those bands would’ve gotten anywhere except for Danny Fields’ ability to persuade record labels to take a chance. They are now recognized as elemental forces in rock history, if not exactly mainstream successes. Meanwhile, Fields turned down bands that could’ve made him rich, but who he just didn’t care for—Johnny and Edgar Winter and Aerosmith, among others.

While Fields has been mentioned in rock-history books before, he’s never been the focus of study until now. Documentary filmmaker Brendan Toller met Fields in the course of shooting his 2008 film, I Need That Record!, a look at the death and (possible) resurrection of the independent record store. While he didn’t use his interview, Toller decided Fields would make a great documentary subject himself—so he kept asking him until he said yes. That was over five years ago, and now Danny Says (named after a Ramones song) is being featured at the Scruffy City Film and Music Festival.

Were you fully aware of who Danny Fields was before you met him, or did you learn as you interviewed him?
Oh, I don’t think anyone has been fully aware of who he is, exactly. He’s sort of like the mystery man in the shadows of rock n roll, post 1966. I had obviously known of him as this punk Svengali in Please Kill Me, and then he’s a Harvard rebel in Edie: American Girl, and then he’s the Doors guy in No One Gets Out of Here Alive. So if you read these rock ‘n’ roll books, you see his name popping up again and again—but no, I didn’t know that he had published John Lennon’s “We’re more popular than Jesus.” quote in ’66. To me, and I know I’m biased, I just think he’s lived the most interesting life of the latter half of the 20th century.

How would you describe Danny Fields’ role in the rock scenes of the ’60s and ’70s?
There’s not a word for it, and there’s not any people really doing what he did today. He created a context for a lot of artists to exist. There was no one else who was going to bring Joey Ramone or Iggy Pop into the spotlight or onto the mainstream. There were no bidding wars for the Ramones or the Stooges. His oeuvre was the American underground that informs every band that plays today. I think he was driven by his brilliance. And the people driven by their brilliance today, if they drop out of Harvard, they do it to start an app. I wish more people that are as brilliant as Danny would find their way into the realm of pop music again.

How much interviewing with him did you undertake?
Our deal was, we would go to his house and sort of wake him up, get him coffee, and we’d do two hours. And that was going steady for about three years, then I moved out of New York to New Haven, Conn. so it was a bit more sporadic. But, gosh, I was doing interviews two weeks before we headed to Final Frame in New York City to finish up the film. A lot of this was just listening and finding the source material because it hadn’t been talked about or written about or discovered yet outside of Danny’s experiences.

Did you ever feel the need to fact-check some of his stories?
You know, I did with a lot of people that are living and sometimes it was more of a Rashomon tale, but I trust Danny. He is maybe one to exaggerate sometimes, or embellish, but it’s always for the right reasons. I never came across a story that was absolutely not true. Maybe when Tommy Ramone said he didn’t actually say he wanted to be their manager the night he saw them. He did stick around on the sidewalk, but Tommy remembered it differently—I think he said that Lou Reed convinced him, and now I’m wondering if that Lou Reed tape was the crux for Danny to say, “Hey, I should bring these guys into the light for everyone.”

Did you have to leave a lot of material out of the film?
I think we probably collected somewhere around 250-300 source material interviews. Then were there were all the cassette tapes. I mean, there was just so much that had to be left out. We’ll see where we’ll take it from here. At the very least, there’ll be some great online and DVD extras. But I’ll have to see how it all plays out this year.

Were you rejected by any of these rock n roll interview subjects?
That’s another reason why this took so long. I did I Need That Record! in two years, and I thought this would take me two years. But then when I would call people in this crowd, they would have me on the phone and they’d say, ‘I don’t want to do an interview today, it’s cold outside.’ It was a totally different crowd. Some people took us years to get, and some we didn’t get. We would have loved to have Lou Reed; I think he personally said yes to Danny, and then his manager sort of fended us off after a while. But it’s fine—Lou is in the movie plenty, he’s on that Ramones tape. Then there are some people who are gone—I would have loved to have spoken with Joey Ramone or Andy Warhol. We interviewed 60 people so we certainly got a round picture of who Danny is and the times and what shaped them. We definitely played a lot of phone tag.

Why do you think he recorded all those conversations—was he consciously aware that this was history in the making?
I think a lot of times he saw it as, oh I have a fabulous person on the other end here and this would be funny to listen to. There are plenty of tapes that are so arcane and bizarre and weird, you’d have no context for them if Danny weren’t filling you in on what they were talking about. Especially like the early New York crowd, they all had different names, like Eudora, and all these drag names so if you didn’t know, you’d be totally lost. But I think it was because Brigid Berlin— she was Andy Warhol’s right-hand gal—was really into instantaneous forms of documentation. She was the one who recorded Velvet Underground Live at Max’s Kansas City. And it was Danny who brought that tape to Atlantic Records. So I think they all thought it was kind of funny to be taping one another, so Danny did it, and assumed other people were taping him as well. One tape we weren’t able to get, apparently Brigid Berlin has 20 minutes of Danny and Andy Warhol talking about rimming on the phone. Even if it didn’t make the movie, I would have loved to have heard it. This was actually what Guy Pearce listened to to become Any Warhol for Factory Girl.

Did you come across any other really historic conversations like the Lou Reed tape featured in the film, in which Reed professes his admiration for the Ramones?
If you consider Iggy Pop crying about his dead parakeet in 1970 as historic, yeah. There’s also a full play of Fun House over the phone to Danny, and there’s a track-by-track impression breakdown of what he thinks. Iggy’s just super proud of it, one of the greatest records of all time.

What about his paper archives?
Thousands of pictures of the Ramones. Danny got a camera in 1970, so there are great Max’s shots, he’s got rolls and rolls of the Stooges at Max’s when Iggy accidentally rolled around in broken glass and had to get stitches. There’s letters, there’s writing, drafts of aborted memoirs, there’s just so much. So it was a blessing and a burden to have all this stuff. That also took me three years of just sitting down and digitizing tapes and scanning documents. And now it’s all at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library along with Mark Twain, Eugene O’Neal. Pretty amazing.

One thing I wanted to know more about after watching the film: What’s Fields doing now? Does he still look for talented musicians?
I don’t think he’s looking, but he’s supporting the artists that he knows, just as friend and confidant. I’m an example of that. He could’ve gotten any documentary filmmaker to do this movie—Andy Warhol wanted to write his biography in the late ’80s, and then Andy passed away. I think the music business has obviously changed, but Danny is still falling in love with bands—he’s really into this band called Fat White Family, who just moved to Brooklyn. He’s always telling me about things that three years later are going to blow up big.

What do you think motivated him through his eras of rock music?
I think it was: You’re smart, you’re a wit, and you’re a cute boy or girl. I think in terms of people, that’s what attracted him. And definitely people with a rebellious punch, too. There’s a reason he dropped out of Harvard law.

Could you have produced Danny Says without Kickstarter, or has that become a necessary tool for independent filmmakers?
Kickstarter has certainly changed the landscape for fundraising and possibilities. It’s not easy—I mean, it’s not like you just put your project up and money comes your way. You have to actively be promoting yourself and doing the ask every day. It was great, and it really forced me to put a lot of materials together and get the project out there so it wasn’t just me in a room editing on a computer, or me interviewing Danny and his friends. It opened it up to other people to lend their support or get in touch about photographs or archives they might have. Yeah, it’s totally an amazing way for artists to be able to gain support and get the ball rolling.

Scruffy City Film and Music Festival: Danny Says • Scruffy City Hall (32 Market Square) • Friday, May 1 • 7 p.m. • $10 • knoxvillefilms.com

Musical Highlights at Scruffy City’s Film Fest
The Scruffy City Film and Music Festival, organized by Michael Samstag of Knoxville Films and running April 28 through May 3 at Scruffy City Hall, has always thrown together filmmakers and musicians for a multi-day party. But this year, the festival has honed its focus with programming that truly exemplifies the union of the two mediums. Its Film Score offers a schedule of movies (as well as seminars) that delve into music in some form or fashion and are not available for viewing elsewhere:

Butch Walker: Out of Focus: This documentary on Butch Walker and his band the Black Widows takes a behind the scenes look at the musician. Co-director Peter Harding will be in attendance, and a short Q&A will follow the screening. Tuesday, April 28, at 7 p.m. $10.

A Film About Kids and Music: Conducted by Joan Chamorro, Barcelona’s Sant Andreu Jazz Band brings together children between 6 and 18 years old around a classic jazz repertoire with lots of swing. Thursday, April 30, at 9 p.m. $10.

Danny Says: See above! Friday, May 1, at 7 p.m. $10.

East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem: In early 2013, Israeli singer-songwriter David Broza arrived in predominantly Palestinian East Jerusalem with Grammy winner Steve Earle to record songs with musicians from Palestine and Israel. Saturday, May 2, at 7 p.m. $15

Made in Japan: The remarkable story of Tomi Fujiyama, the world’s first female Japanese country-music star. Sunday, May 3, at 5 p.m. $10

Plus many more films and live performances. More info: knoxvillefilms.com

Editor Coury Turczyn guided Knoxville's alt weekly, Metro Pulse, through two eras, first as managing editor (and later executive editor) from 1992 to 2000, then as editor-in-chief from 2007 to 2014. He's also worked as a Web editor at CNET, the erstwhile G4 cable network, and HGTV.

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