Danny Fields is a punk legend’s punk legend. He’s not the most famous person to emerge from the creative petri dish of 1960s, ’70s, ’80s New York, nor the richest. He hasn’t been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, unlike many of the musicians he has worked with, including the Ramones, Iggy Pop, and the Velvet Underground. But if you are interested in this period in downtown Manhattan, when the city was bankrupt of money but teeming with talent — and many people are, as the phenomenon of Patti Smith’s 2010 memoir Just Kids confirmed — then Fields is your guy. Now 78, he has been a kind of Zelig, somehow involved with what seems like everyone who ever mattered in pre-MTV music.
Fields grew up in Queens, left for a while to go to school at the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard, and made it back to New York in 1960, settling in Greenwich Village, then the beating heart of counterculture in the city, if not the United States. He made friends with Andy Warhol and sort of lived with Edie Sedgwick, worked in and out as a music journalist, became for some time the publicist for Jim Morrison and the Doors, was the first person to give Iggy Pop cocaine, and helped Nico get a record deal with Elektra. “Danny’s a connector, he’s a fuel line, a place where things are liable to erupt,” Iggy Pop said in a 2015 documentary about Fields called Danny Says (named for a Ramones song they wrote about him). “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.” Thankfully for history, Fields had a journalist’s eye, too, and either documented this world or at the very least kept a memory bank filled with stories about it, which he will gladly share if you happen to randomly meet him, as I did one afternoon some years ago. Though our interview a few weeks ago for this piece was by phone, on that day we sat in his living room surrounded by photos of him with the gods and he’d tell amazing tales about any of them if prompted.
This spring, Fields is re-releasing My Ramones, a book of photographs he took of the Ramones at the beginning of their career, originally published in 2016 as a limited edition. The more than 250 photos in the book were shot between 1975 and 1977, during, among other scattered and wild moments, the band’s first tour. Fields became the band’s manager after seeing them live at CBGB in 1975 and, bored while they were busy recording their debut album, picked up a camera and started shooting. Here, the punk behind the punks tells us what they were like.
Today, everybody documents everything, but how did you know it might be of value one day to document your life with the Ramones?
I didn’t. I just started doing it for a lack of something to do, because when you’re a manager, you’re sitting at the recording session and thinking, “I’m redundant here.” I did my job — got them the record deal. The engineers turned a lot of knobs and set up microphones and things, and there was nothing I could do. So I took out my camera. I took two rolls of film — 75 pictures — of the early recording sessions. And because I was their manager, I could take candid pictures. I had a Nikon F2 and I used a 35mm or an 85mm.
The Ramones really defined what it looked like to be a punk, partly because of these early photographs of them. Were they image conscious? Was it something that they had to think about or did it just come naturally to them?
Well, both. There’s nothing they didn’t think about. And what they thought about was what will project naturally. They were big fans of the New York Dolls. They would look at them and think, “Oh wow, they’re glam, should I be glam?” And they tried it out for a while. Joey was a fan of the New York Dolls, and I think he was very proud of a tight pink leather suit he had. Johnny, before I met them, wore silver lamé pants. It was a phase. They said, “You know what, we can’t be like the New York Dolls because these clothes are so elaborate, and you’d have to have a wardrobe person with you. What if we just do something that we never have to think about again, which is what we look like every day?” The leather jacket and Levi’s and Converse. It was classic, and they knew that. Simple and classic suited them. They only thing they’d change was their T-shirt and the socks.
Did you think they would be a huge success?
No. Yes. I mean, you hope. But I couldn’t have predicted. They were in trouble because of their tempo, radio-wise. Too fast or too loud, or too comical. “I Wanna Be Sedated” — are they serious? That’s a single? It’s a cute tune, but it’s a little weird for a lyric. And yet, though they were “punk,” they were [really] pop songs. And now all music sounds like that. That rolling fast rock. Green Day popularized it and now TV commercials sound like that. It turns out that musicians don’t want to have to learn a lot of complex fingering. They just want to let it rock and let it roll — make it hummable. And it got called punk.
What was the first time you heard the word “punk”?
The first time I heard that combination of letters? 1930s movies, about a little gangster or someone like that. It’s been in the language for five hundred years, so I don’t know. And when it was applied to them you sort of go, “Okay, it’s a good word, it’s four letters, ends with a K.” Of course, wherever you went it meant something different. There was a style of mohawks and piercings and extraordinary hair, and that was punk. Requiring safety pins and all that. Those kids invented that look for themselves with a little help from Malcolm McLaren, who first saw a safety pin on Richard Hell in New York and went back to London with a fashion idea.
In England, the music had a more political aura. The Ramones were not at all political. In England there were some people saying, “You have some nerve calling yourselves punk, you’re not political, you’re fraudulent.” And what could we say? We didn’t call ourselves that! [Everyone else] called us that. It just became a word that means we don’t really have another better word for this, but it’s different so we’re gonna call it something easy to remember.
Tell me about life on the road with them.
I don’t know. Again, unless there was a major market, there was no need for me to be on the road. I didn’t tune the guitars and I didn’t carry things. I was there but I wasn’t into slogging. I wasn’t into sitting in a van with them. The few times I did, I thought, “I’ve got to take the train next time.”
The first times in Europe, all they could do was hate the food. I didn’t want to be around that. It’s food. How can you bother to hate it? You eat it if you’re hungry and leave it alone if you’re not. But they would get into big things about it during their tour in England, because backstage [in England] food is generally Indian. They didn’t like it, and they always wanted hamburgers. Then it’s, Where’s the ketchup? Ketchup wasn’t a common staple in England then. That’s what life on the road was. Who needed that?
Compared to some of the other people you’ve worked with, were they easy to work with or were they divas?
No one is easy to work with who is worth working with.
I’ve always been particularly fascinated by Dee Dee. There’s all these stories about him being a prostitute and nobody really knows for sure. What was he like?
He was more social than the other guys. He was more likely to make friends with people in other bands. Was he a prostitute? I don’t know. Every kid is a hustler at some point. Why starve if you’re good looking? You don’t have a lot of years to be good looking, and if you starve you won’t even get to live them out. So I don’t think he was majorly a hustler, but in times of emergency people do things. As long as they cause no harm, who cares?
Have you noticed how nostalgic people are for this era of New York? Why do you think that is?
There’s nostalgia for it everywhere. I think it was one of the last times when there were humans instead of the internet. Instead of Facebook. With people being really human, and having adventures that made you need to be alive, not to be on the other end of a monitor or keyboard.
People like Fran Lebowitz have said sometimes that New York now sucks in comparison to then.
We were all twenty years old or something, so of course the world was better. I think Fran once said something like this, too: Look in a mirror [when you’re young], you’re never gonna look better. Do I miss that, or would I trade with anyone [to get it back]? Of course. Who wouldn’t? But it’s not real, so why waste any time missing it.
You weren’t waking up every morning and saying, “It’s the Seventies! We’re lucky to be alive!” You’re going, “Am I gonna get laid? Am I gonna pay rent? What color socks should I wear?” You don’t think about it as a glorious era. People who claim they miss the Seventies are the people who weren’t born yet. They’re the ones who say, “It must have been so great.” That only happens when things change and you look back on it.
Was there a moment that you realized that the Ramones had become bigger than just a band?
Maybe during the fortieth anniversary in 2016. As I said before, in the midst of a moment happening, you’re not thinking this is momentous. You’re thinking, Can we live through this? I was only with them for five years. [Later] when they would play a huge city, the neighborhood would have to be police-barricaded because there were so many fans, and they’d play in a stadium for 100,000 people. It must have had its own headaches. You’re sort of restricted now. Wherever you go there’s armed guards around you or keeping people away from you. It’s sort of the opposite of what you loved about what you were doing in the beginning. This is what you wanted, to be so famous that you needed police barricades outside your hotel? No. That’s the price of it, though.
What did they want?
To make enough money to retire so they’d never have to work again. And at the end, when they started making a lot of money, they wanted to invest it well. I don’t know; they wanted to buy nice real estate. What does anyone want when they’re fifty years old?
Did your parents understand the kind of success you had?
No. I was a wretched rock and roll loser. “We thought we brought him up better!” But then my friend Linda Eastman married Paul McCartney, and my father would say, “My son is a friend of a Beatle!” Immense fame eclipses everything, doesn’t it?
Do you remember if John Lennon ever came down to see the Ramones?
I don’t know. You don’t keep track of that. Especially after you’ve stopped caring. Jack Nicholson was at the Whiskey to see Iggy — so what?
The real fans matter more.
I’m a real fan — that’s the thing.
I once came to your apartment because I was writing a story about a friend of yours, and it’s like a New York yearbook come to life, filled with framed photos of you with every cool famous person ever. What is it like to live with all these memories literally staring you in the face?
Recently the kitchen in my apartment was redone and I had to take out giant old appliances and bring in giant new appliances, and to do that I had to take down all the pictures.
Yeah. I went to Madrid for two weeks in February; when I came back it had been done. They are all stored in a carton. So I’m living with empty walls now. And sometimes I miss them. I’ll say to someone, “Let me show you this,” and I start walking to where they used to be, and they’re not there. Just nails sticking out of the wall.
People tell me to put them back up, but I don’t know, it’s kind of mummified. I don’t want to think about [the past]. It’s gone, it’s over. I’m happy that people think I was fabulous, but at any given moment one doesn’t feel very fabulous, and you only sort of get that when people see those pictures and go, “Oh my god, these pictures are so great, can I take a picture of the pictures?” So I guess I should hang them up. People expect you to play the greatest hits.
My Ramones: Photographs by Danny Fields
By Danny Fields
Reel Art Press