Whether boosting or buffeting the careers of the Beatles, the Doors and the Stooges, Danny Fields was the man behind the curtain. He remains so in Danny Says, a candid yet unrevealing documentary named for a song the Ramones wrote about Fields.
The movie will be a revelation for some viewers, but that's probably a small group: punk fans who know the music, but not Fields' role in it. Those already familiar with many of these anecdotes — perhaps from Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain's 1997 Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk — won't learn much. Others may find the subject overly cultish, or simply too ancient.
Daniel Feinberg was born in Brooklyn in 1939, into a family he says was devoted to amphetamines. He identifies as gay but is equally taken with beauties of both sexes, and asserts he is attracted to intelligence. "Smart is sexy," he announces.
Fields (the surname he adopted as a young adult) clearly was smart. He entered the University of Pennsylvania at 15, and Harvard Law at 19. But he dropped out of the latter, and at 76 he still doesn't seem to have settled on a career.
That's one of many narrative pieces director Brendan Toller never quite puts into place. Fields worked as a publicist and manager and was employed as "company freak" by Elektra Records. That label's founder, Jac Holzman, explains that Fields was useful because "he stayed up later" than anyone else.
Periodically, Fields edited teen magazines, whose outlook he tried to subvert. During a 1966 stint at Datebook, he reprinted a British interview in which John Lennon casually opined that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus. The subsequent furor nearly broke up the band.
Ironically, one of Fields' longtime pals was rock photographer Linda Eastman, who a few years later married Paul McCartney.
The pop-savvy Beatles weren't Fields' idea of fun. He preferred the Rolling Stones and the Doors — although he and Jim Morrison didn't get along — and later MC5 and the Stooges. At Andy Warhol's Factory, Fields met Nico, Edie Sedgwick and the Velvet Underground. It's no coincidence that MC5, Nico and the Stooges all signed to Elektra — or that the last two were produced by ex-Velvet John Cale.
Elektra made money on another Fields find, pro-pot troubadour David Peel. But MC5 and their White Panther Party proved too incendiary for the company, while Iggy Stooge (later Iggy Pop) and Nico both vanished into a heroin haze. "It's the worst drug in the world," says Fields.
Fired from Elektra, Fields returned to pop journalism before encountering the Ramones. He managed them for five years, a collaboration that was successful artistically but less so commercially. Since the band dumped him in 1980, Fields seems to have done very little, or at least very little this documentary finds noteworthy.
Long prized as a raconteur, Fields did interviews for the film over a long enough period that you can watch him age. Other notable interviewees include Holzman, Iggy Pop, Jonathan Richman and John Sinclair, the man behind what Fields calls MC5's "amusing politics." (Many of the other relevant figures are dead.) The 1960s and '70s are represented mostly by still photos, although Toller uses animations to illustrate some incidents.
What's missing is a sense of Fields' inner life. He talks about sex a lot, but never mentions love. He acknowledges chronic financial distress — Fields' mother paid for the Ramones' first proper drum kit — yet never discusses the psychic toll of that struggle.
What Danny Says portrays, perhaps simply because it's incomplete, is a man who existed only through others. It suggests that Fields had a lot of great adventures, yet never got a life.