Jewish impresario behind rock legends gets his due in film

If you’re a rock fan, no matter your age, you’ve probably heard of bands like the Doors, the Ramones and the Stooges.

But chances are you haven’t heard of Danny Fields.

The Jewish guy from Forest Hills, New York, deftly made the punk scene happen. He helped sign now-iconic groups to record labels, get them on magazine covers and, ultimately, etch them into the rock ’n’ roll lexicon.

 

Danny Fields (center) with the Ramones photo/courtesy magnolia pictures

Born Daniel Henry Feinberg, Fields rose to prominence as the ultimate jack-of-all-trades. He was never a top executive, but with his myriad roles in the music business — publicist, artist liaison and manager, among them — Fields pressed all the right buttons. Many of the musicians he mentored took decades to make it, yet his forward-thinking taste is the stuff of legend among industry insiders.

 

Now this unsung hero is having his own moment in the spotlight. “Danny Says,” a documentary opening Friday, Sept. 30 at the Roxie in San Francisco, may be short on personal details but it’s full of the sex, drugs and music that Fields navigated during rock’s golden age.

“Danny is like the Zelig of punk — he’s everywhere and he’s so important with so many things,” said Steven Lee Beeber, author of “The Heebie Jeebies at CBGB’s: A Secret History of Jewish Punk,” referring to the chameleonic Woody Allen character. “We kind of live in Danny’s world today … [No one else had] his sensibility or the pulse of what was really coming.”

Fields graduated from high school at 15 and earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania. He enrolled in Harvard Law School, but left after a year, embedding himself in New York City’s hip Greenwich Village scene in the early 1960s.

Over the course of that decade and the next, he befriended Andy Warhol and Lou Reed, publicized bands like the Doors and Cream, introduced Jim Morrison to the singer-model Nico, discovered MC5 as well as Iggy Pop and the Stooges, and managed the Ramones.

Fields intuitively understood something about buzz. Before working in the music business, he was an editor of the teen magazine Datebook. There he was the first to publish John Lennon’s quote about the Beatles being “more popular than Jesus,” which spawned a massive backlash and discouraged the group from touring again in the United States.

“Danny Says” (named for a song about him written by the Ramones) details all this and, perhaps surprisingly, also offers a glimpse into how Fields’ Jewish identity shaped his view of the world and its music scenes.

 

Andy Warhol, Lou Reed and Danny Fields (from left) in New York, 1978 photo/getty images-ebet roberts-redferns

Fields grew up in a somewhat observant Jewish household and had a witty sense of humor about it. Among the several Jewish moments in the film, footage shows Fields watching a video from his bar mitzvah party and remarking, “Isn’t this mortifying?” An image of his Harvard yearbook shows that he drew blue Stars of David next to photos of his Jewish classmates.

 

While he may have embraced his Jewish identity, one of his biggest discoveries came from something Fields saw as the opposite. In September 1968, he traveled to Detroit to check out a new band called the Stooges and was knocked out by their visceral, heavy and, in his opinion, non-Jewish sound.

“Detroit is the most goyishe hub of civilization … That’s why I loved it so much,” Fields says in Beeber’s 2008 book. “[The guys here] were tall and big and butch, not like New York Jews.”

Fields, who is gay, called them “macho men.”

“I just thought the virility of it was something,” he said. “I mean, virility is not, shall we say, a characteristic of the Jewish community.”

Fields worked with the Stooges until the group’s first breakup in the early ’70s. A few years later he discovered the Ramones — a black-clad group of scruffy, fellow Forest Hills natives whom Fields found more haimish.

“They were like the MC5 and the Stooges except that they were funny and ironic,” Fields says in the book. “And, like Jews, they were steeped in the showbiz tradition.”

Singer Joey Ramone (born Jeffrey Hyman) and drummer Tommy Ramone (born Thomas Erdelyi to Hungarian Holocaust survivors) were both Jewish. As Michael Croland, author of “Oy Oy Oy Gevalt! Jews and Punk,” points out, the band also consciously toyed with Nazi themes and imagery, as evidenced in songs like “Blitzkrieg Bop” and “Commando.”

“While he laments this lack of virility and toughness, he also loves the braininess,” Beeber said.

“Danny Says” follows Fields’ exploits — from doing drugs with Morrison, the Doors lead singer, to nearly getting punched in the face by a co-worker at Elektra. Legends like Iggy Pop, Alice Cooper and Patti Smith’s Jewish guitarist Lenny Kaye offer amusing personal anecdotes.

However, the film omits Fields’ post-Ramones life. He eventually fell from the industry’s inner circles and returned to journalism. Now 77 and still living in New York, Fields earlier this year released a book of Ramones photographs. He had vowed never to watch the final cut of the film about him, but wound up viewing a DVD that director Brendan Toller left him.

Though his peak years in the industry have passed, praise is still heaped on Fields. One could “make a convincing case that without Danny Fields, punk rock would not have happened,” the New York Times wrote in 2014. The dedication of rock journalist Legs McNeil’s 1996 book “Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk” reads: “This book is dedicated to Danny Fields, forever the coolest guy in the room.”

As Beeber puts it, Fields remains “forever at heart a nice Jewish boy who embodied punk’s simultaneous reaction against yet embrace of New York Jewishness.” Not a bad reputation to have.

“Danny Says” opens Friday, Sept. 30 at the Roxie Theater in S.F. and is available on demand, Amazon and iTunes (Not rated, 105 minutes)

Gabe Friedman

Gabe Friedman is deputy managing editor at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.