I just saw Danny Says, the new documentary about Ramones manager Danny Fields, and, while I enjoyed it immensely, I came away with the distinct impression that I was born at the wrong time.
Fields, for those who don’t know, is one of those people always who seemed to be at the right place and the right time for everything. (It also helped, of course, that he was extremely intelligent.)
As someone who likes to read biographies and see biographical films, there are at least two other people I can think of who seem to possess the same quality (coincidentally, they’re also music managers who were the subject of their own documentaries): David Geffen and Alice Cooper’s manager, Shep Gordon.
In the first chapter of his new autobiography, Supermensch, Gordon describes how, on his first trip to Los Angeles, he pulls into a hotel where Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin just happen to be staying. He eventually goes on to manage Alice Cooper (among others), and that, in turn, leads to a bunch of other careers.
In a similar fashion, David Geffen, after starting in the mailroom of the William Morris Agency in New York (after lying on his resume that he finished his degree), moves to Los Angeles and seems to fall ass-backwards into managing all the most influential southern California musicians of the seventies (Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young; Jackson Brown; Joni Mitchell), before going on to even greater success as a record label owner and movie producer.
As for Fields, he starts out as an editor for various publications (including teenybopper magazine, 16) while hanging out with the Warhol crowd, then becomes a publicist at Elektra Records (where he’s responsible for them signing Iggy Pop and MC5 in the same day) and later, after seeing them perform at CBGB, becomes the manager of the Ramones. He just seems to be at the center of everything that was happening in New York and Los Angeles in the ’60s and ’70s.
Why was Fields so successful, often in spite of his own self-acknowledged shortcomings?
Part of it is because, as the new book Love and Death on the New York Dance Floor, 1980-1983 says in its introduction, the real estate crash of the ’70s allowed artists to live in Manhattan cheaply. Furthermore, they were all clustered together in a few downtown neighborhoods (mainly Greenwich Village and Soho), and everyone, it seems, knew everyone else. New York was a smaller city back then. (The same thing, I suppose, could be said of Los Angeles in the ’70s, with its large musical community centered around Laurel Canyon and the open mic “hootenanny” nights at the Troubadour club, where many of them got their start.)
Part of it was because of the music industry itself, which has changed beyond recognition.
Nowadays, there’s essentially no music press (like everything else, a lot has migrated online) and record companies don’t exert nearly as much influence as they used to. Hell, people don’t even buy records anymore (or CDs, or mp3s).
I feel like I missed out on a golden age, just by virtue of being born too late.
Now, it seems, I spend most of my time grumbling about the good old days and how those days will never return.
Sure, maybe Danny Fields is old now, but at least he has something to show for his life (as do David Geffen and Shep Gordon).
There’s a line in the movie that I think sums up Fields’ philosophy pretty well. It’s when he says, referring to his job as a publicist: “It wasn’t a job. It was a role. Jobs can be replaced.”
Fields created his own career path.
And that may be the secret to surviving in these lean and boring times.
If, indeed, that’s even still possible.