Danny Fields talks about his years managing the Ramones, the stories behind the stunning photographs featured in his book My Ramones, why pink is a punk color, and the rules for being in a ‘kissy pic’
When I talked to Danny Fields, he was sitting in the exact place where he wrote My Ramones, the limited-edition collection of photographs and recollections out now on Reel Art Press.
“I’m sitting at the table in London where I finished writing the last word for the book in January, three years ago,” said Fields over the telephone. “You should put that in: ‘When I talked to him, he was sitting in the exact place where he wrote the book.’”
Fields is a largely humble raconteur given to deflecting credit for his role in bringing so much of the music you and I love to the people, even if too few of those people actually went out and bought the resultant records.
There’s an old quote by Brian Eno from a 1982 interview in Musician Magazine where he said Lou Reed lamented The Velvet Underground & Nico only having sold 30,000 copies in its first five years: “I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band!” Eno joked, though there was probably a kernel of truth in there, too.
Fields didn’t just get the Velvet Underground before you or me or anyone else did, he got everyone and everything that has ever been cool. I’ll spare you the lengthy list, but if you haven’t already, check out Danny Says, the Brendan Toller-directed documentary about Fields that’s currently streaming on Netflix, and you’ll see what I mean.
“Why don’t we just wear what we like to wear? It’s classic. And all we have to do is change our T-shirts and occasionally our socks. Barely. And that became their uniform, and it was perfect.”
Fields, naturally, downplays his impact and influence.
“I’m not them,” he said. “They were who they are without me. I was just quick on the bus. I didn’t make the art of any artist. If an artist needed me to fill in any blanks, I wouldn’t be interested in them in the first place. I don’t want anyone who wants me. I spot them early on. Or I did then. And I guess it starts with the Velvet Underground.”
Speaking to Danny Fields, which I’d been lucky enough to do on one earlier occasion when I visited his home with Legs McNeil about five years ago, means laying back and letting the flow take you wherever it goes, which sometimes means following a different stream before hitting the river again. And because it’s Danny Fields, it always goes somewhere good.
“I just heard a commercial for the BBC last night in London, and what were they playing?” he asked. “‘Perfect Day.’ Lou Reed, and it’s children smiling or something, and someone is saying, ‘BBC Presents the World.’ And this is Lou Reed. I mean, my god.”
And then back to his impeccable track record for ensuring your record collection was cool.
“No one has a crystal ball,” he said. “I was impressed and attracted to and astonished by – mainly astonished because it always requires that – the talent of some people. But that’s all I did was tell another person.”
A week earlier, Fields packed Rizzoli Bookstore in Manhattan in support of My Ramones, having a conversation with Please Kill Me co-author Gillian McCain before fielding questions from the crowd. He joked then about how few of the influential artists he crossed paths with had commercial success until much later. The Ramones’ 1976 debut, he noted, “went gold 39 years later!”
Influence and success are two different things, Field stressed over the phone from London.
“Many other people are rich from doing this,” he said. “That’s what it’s about. I don’t accept the premise of that question. Because it doesn’t look to me like success until I can fly business class. Then I’ll be successful. And I won’t live that long.”
For his gorgeous taste in music, his generous intellect, and his killer sense of humor, this book is dedicated to Danny Fields, forever the coolest guy in the room. – Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain, from the dedication page of Please Kill Me
“I have good taste,” Fields said. “That’s what it is. I can thank my mother for that. She’s a hero for that, and maybe I got that from her.”
Fields’ mother helped him secure his management deal with the Ramones after the group gave him a single demand before agreeing to work with him.
“Johnny said, ‘Well, we need $3,000 for a drum kit. And if you can come up with that, you can be our manager,’” Fields said at Rizzoli. “I went to Florida and asked my mother for $3,000 to invest in a band I really believed in, and she did it. Because of my mother, it was the Ramones and me together as a team…and we were off.”
Before that, though, the Ramones had been trying desperately to get Fields’ attention, not as a manager, but as a tastemaker.
“I wrote a column for the Soho Weekly News in the 1970’s, and it was gossip and, if not music, gossip and anyone I liked,” Fields said. “And it was the early days of CBGBs. And I’d say, ‘Oh, you must go to CBGBs and see the wonderful band Television,’ or, ‘…the wonderful Patti Smith.’ And the Ramones were stewing there, coming from Queens to New York.”
Fields cited a famous set of photos taken by Bob Gruen that followed the young Ramones on their long subway journey from Forest Hills to CBGB. Dee Dee is seen carrying his bass guitar without any protection at all, while the more pragmatic Johnny has his in a paper shopping bag.
“That’s what they were doing, taking the subway and wanting to be famous,” said Fields. “They wanted to be part of the column I wrote when they were playing CBGBs, and they harassed and hounded and gave me no rest until I agreed to go see them. So I did. And I heard 17 songs in 12 minutes. It was a Tuesday night, and no one was there, and I thought, ‘Oh! These guys are perfect! They’re perfect. There’s nothing there that’s not perfect.’”
As was so often the case with the Ramones, they made an instant impression.
“The first thing I heard them sing was Joey singing, ‘I Don’t Wanna Go Down to the Basement,’ and I thought, ‘Wow, they’re smart, and they’re funny, and ironic,’” said Fields. “And afterwards they said, ‘So, did you like us well enough to write about us?’ and I said, ‘More than that, I would like to manage you.’ Now, I don’t know where that came from, because I’d had quasi-difficult, unpleasant experiences with babysitting-slash-managing, with Iggy, the MC5, Lou (Reed)…”
GILLIAN – Jim Morrison!
DANNY – I didn’t manage him.
GILLIAN – But you babysat him.
DANNY – Well, yeah.
The Ramones scored a record deal nearly as quickly as they did a manager. It started when he took Linda Stein to see the group at Mothers, a key, albeit short-lived club on 23rd St. that was open for a few years in the mid-‘70s.
“I think it was with Blondie,” Fields recalled. “And I took Linda there. Seymour was home, he couldn’t make it. And Linda came to see them, and she was a rock & roll person, and she ran to Seymour to have them audition for him two blocks from here, 19th and Broadway, and we were signed. It didn’t take long.”
GILLIAN: How long had you been their manager?
DANNY: A few months, a few weeks.
Which is around the time the photographs in My Ramones began, when the group was recording their eponymous debut at Plaza Sound Studios on the 7th floor of the same building that houses Radio City Music Hall. Fields began shooting the Ramones because he was bored. He shot them recording, and he shot them on the road. He shot them everywhere.
“I had nothing to do,” he said. “I don’t mean at all times, but if you’ve done your job and you get to the place where whatever you were working on is being executed, there’s nothing for you to do. Other people have booked hotel rooms and set up the stands and turned the knobs, and so I took out my camera and shot two rolls of film of them, and I thought, ‘This is a start. This should be documented.’ I shot my two rolls of film and left because there was nothing for me to do.”
Fields often shot the Ramones on rolls of film intended for his day job at 16 magazine.
“(16) was a magazine for teenage girl fans of cute boys,” Fields said. “It started in the ‘50s with Elvis and Fabian, and was run by a wonderful woman named Gloria Stavers, and it had pictures that girls would tear out of the magazine and hang on their walls and kiss. And we would call them ‘Kissy Pics.’”
In the mid-‘70s, Fields was juggling his work at 16 with managing the Ramones.
“I was photographing the Bay City Rollers,” he said. “I was on tour with them, and I would come home with dozens of rolls of film for 16, who never had to pay a photographer because I as the editor was taking all the pictures. I’d separate them from the Bay City Rollers, and the Bay City Rollers went into 16, and the Ramones went into here, eventually.”
But while 16 wasn’t a natural fit for the Ramones, Fields was also working at Rock Scene Magazine, which better suited their rough and tumble style.
“Rock Scene Magazine was mainly pictures of what happened at rock & roll parties this week, or backstage, with captions created by Lisa Robinson or Richard Robinson, and it was New York-centric,” said Fields. “People loved it. It was their look into the dark underside of glamorous New York…Rock Scene was photo stories: Two New York Dolls Go For Egg Drop Soup. Or Bob Gruen’s the Ramones take the subway. He followed them from Forest Hills, took the camera down to the train to 2nd Ave. and over to CBGBs, and that became eight pages. And kids loved it. Well, cool kids.”
The New York Dolls were an early influence in many ways, including, very nearly, the Ramones’ style.
“They saw the success the New York Dolls had and even wondered if they shouldn’t dress like that,” Fields said. “You could never do that. We’d need like a wardrobe person. Why don’t we just wear what we like to wear? It’s classic. And all we have to do is change our T-shirts and occasionally our socks. Barely. And that became their uniform, and it was perfect.”
The photographs in My Ramones were culled from a great many more Fields shot, and even those that didn’t make the cut show a group – a gang! – in little need of direction. For all the complexities of their relationships, the Ramones just fit together.
“They were fortunate to have an accomplished amateur taking their pictures and being their manager,” Fields said. “I said this is me, but in the future there might be other photographers who aren’t beholden to make you look good. So let’s just try. They were intuitive. Ask anyone who ever shot them. They just got into place. Tommy, as you see, was very aware of being height-challenged, and so was Joey in the opposite direction. He was so tall he stooped.”
Fields said his time at 16 did more than just provide him with film.
“As I learned from Gloria: make sure your hair is clean,” he said. “She would never photograph a fave – they were called faves – if they had dirty hair. That was the one thing. You had to have clean hair to be a kissy pic. (And) never get photographed with a girl, a cigarette or a drink. Good advice.”b
“The instructions were that no vehicle we’re in was to start until all the fans have been met…And they were given autographs or had their hands shaken. That was number one for them.”
While My Ramones largely shows the group behind-the-scenes, there’s very little of them on stage.
“It’s not really my thing and it never was,” Fields said. “I worship and admire photographers who can go into that maelstrom and get the picture. All getting the same picture, by the way. It was like the White House press corps. Awful. I didn’t want that. There was the audience. And I loved the audience. I’d get as much of the audience as possible. (The band) is the same four people. What are they going to look like, the same four people, over and over? So I’d turn the camera towards the audience. And you’d see people who were smiling or ecstatic or overwhelmed, or just happy.”
The Ramones, even when they hated one another – which was most of the time – loved their fans. They’d put up with label reps or radio DJs or local lawmakers, but they always made time for their fans.
“They put a great deal of pent-up energy into the formation of the architecture of the set itself,” Fields said. “It was very intense. And they hated each other a great deal. So after the show they would go to the dressing room and they would have their one beer of the day, which was all the drugs they were allowed on the road, and beat each other up! And yell! And standing outside would be the mayor and promoter, and then the door would open and they were perfect gentlemen.”
Once they’d press the flesh with dignitaries, they’d head outside to meet their fans. Fields’ photos of these moments beautifully capture that symbiotic relationship.
“The instructions were that no vehicle we’re in was to start until all the fans have been met,” he said. “And they were given autographs or had their hands shaken. That was number one for them. They’d say, ‘Where did you sit?’ ‘The balcony.’ ‘How was the sound?’ ‘I don’t know, the bass was a little…’ ‘Get me the sound guy!’ And then we’d dress down whoever messed the sound up. People who work for you are not going to tell you the truth. You would only hear it from the fans. So we would find out how it went from the audience.”
At Rizzoli, Fields lifted the curtain on loads of Ramones trivia, like the pink color that adorned both the group’s third album, Rocket to Russia, and the cover of My Ramones.
“The first album was…the four of them standing against a brick wall, a wonderful photograph by Roberta Bayley, and when people saw the album they picked it up and looked at it just because these guys looked cool, okay?” Fields said. “But the second album (1977’s Leave Home)…is kind of not about them, it’s about the architecture and the beams and perspective. I wanted to go back to what the image that people loved (for Rocket to Russia). I said, ‘Let’s do that, against a brick wall, but we have to change that logo. Let’s do it really pink! Like, super pink! But super pink was expensive. It’s not just like red or black. Warner Bros. did not want to go for it, but they did eventually because Linda Stein, who was my partner in management, and her husband Seymour Stein of Sire Records, said, ‘You’ve got to give them that pink.’ And it’s wonderful.”
Fields also humorously confirmed what Ramones fans have long believed their personalities to be like, especially those of Johnny and Dee Dee.
“Johnny was a taskmaster, slave driver,” Fields said. “What’s the word? He was tough. It was his band. He was bossy and a fearsome kind of guy. He was tough and righteous. And in England we were invited to the BBC, and we had to start the day at 9 o’clock and be at the BBC. And we get in the elevator, and Dee Dee – who was a drama queen – collapses against the wall and said, ‘Ugh, do you know how many hours a day we work?’ And Johnny says, ‘One.’”
It was during that trip to England, with an iconic show at London’s famous Roundhouse on July 4, 1976, that Linda Stein, if only for a moment, had had enough of Johnny.
“Catering in England when you’re on the road is Indian food, from India,” Fields said. “And Johnny hated anything that wasn’t a hamburger. Everything and anything from anywhere. And he would grouse and complain…And he was a scary guy. And Linda said, ‘You don’t like the food, get your fucking guitar and get on the next plane and get out of here!’…And she immediately ran to the phone and screamed and called me in New York, and she was crying hysterically because she’d just told Johnny Ramone to go fuck himself.”
From London, Fields delved into the photograph on the cover of My Ramones, which sees the group, alone, walking away from the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.
“It’s a great image, and it’s an accident,” Fields said. “There I’m running backwards across that plaza in front of the Supreme Court. There was no one else there. And it would be impossible to get that now. I haven’t been back. There’s reason to go to the Supreme Court. There’s no reason to go to Washington, D.C. more than once in your life anyhow. We had a good reason that time. I’m sure it’s different now since all this horrible stuff. So I like it for that. And the architecture is so silly, and there they are. It’s classic revival of Greek-Roman architecture symbolizing justice or something? Our imperial might? It’s ironic. And their presence there is ironic. And that’s what I like about it. They’re four guys of different sizes walking. And there’s that thing behind them. And there’s no one else there. Everything about it, it’s a perfect picture. But again, it’s an accident. I didn’t say, ‘Let’s go out and get a picture of you guys walking towards me at the Supreme Court.’ I said, ‘We have some hours to kill before showtime, and anybody who hasn’t seen this ridiculous city should see it.’ That was it. And we had a story that could go in Rock Scene Magazine. Washington is the world’s most absurd place.”
Fields is fond of saying that artists like the Ramones would have turned out okay without him, and he was just fortunate to be among the first to get it with so many groups who’ve gone on to become icons. Maybe there’s a bit of truth there, but it’s also true that part of what makes looking through My Ramones so special is seeing the group through Danny’s eyes. It is at once an intimate and arresting experience. Their personalities were always there, but maybe no one found the nuances, brought them so vividly to life like Danny Fields.
There are photos you knew you’d want to see, like the Ramones emerging from an abandoned truck amid the rubble behind CBGB, or Joey casually leaning against the railing of the Roundhouse in London, unaware or untroubled by finding himself on the verge of making history. But there are also photos you never knew you needed so much, like an almost cherubic Johnny sitting in the back of a car on the way to a gig, or Joey and Dee Dee sitting poolside on Hollywood, soaking up the sun in a rare moment of solitude in an otherwise noisy life.
If you thought you knew what Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Tommy were really like, My Ramones probably won’t change that. But what you see in the warm photography and recollections of Danny Fields is the cartoon version of the Ramones dissolve, and what you’re left with is what they were really like as people. It’s 3D without any need for special glasses.
GILLIAN: I love that in all the photos Dee Dee was the only one shown reading.
DANNY: Yeah. And he was also the most sociable. Tommy always said he was the most ‘au courant’.
GILLIAN: Did you have a favorite?
DANNY: Do I have a favorite Ramone? No! You would not ask a mother that about her children. I had totally different relationships with each of them.
Later at Rizzoli, Fields touched on the phenomenon of people who’ve never actually heard the Ramones wearing Ramones T-shirts.
DANNY: Many people wear the T-shirts because it looks cool. The logo looks cool.
GILLIAN: Like the CBGBs T-shirt.
DANNY: I once saw a CBGBs T-shirt on a kid and I said, ‘You like that band?’ And he said, ‘Man, they’re really great! I love them!
Fields also denied that “Danny Says,” the group’s lushly anthemic tale of the loneliness of the road, is about him.
“‘Danny Says’ I heard when it was ‘Tommy Says,’ because Tommy Ramone was their original manager,” Fields said. “They wrote ‘Tommy Says,’ and then after some years Tommy was replaced by Marky, but they didn’t want ‘Marky Says,’ or the name of an agent. So it was ‘Danny Says.’ It was kind of like the same thing. When I hear it’s about me, it’s not about me. It’s a love letter. It’s like a Beatles song, ‘kissing’ and ‘missing’ and all that. It’s a good song. It was produced by Phil Spector and is unlike a Ramones song. I shouldn’t be sexist, but I will be: It’s every girl, woman, female’s favorite Ramones song.”
Fields’ favorite Ramones song? “I Wanna Be Sedated.”
“Because it’s true,” he said.
Later, over the phone from London, Fields was even more reflective, noting that his initial impressions of Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Tommy were basically correct.
“My first impression was a lasting impression,” he said. “You get to know people better. Dee Dee and his girlfriend lived with me, because I had a large loft. Did I know him any better? Yeah, when you live with someone you get to know them better, but it’s not different. There were no revelations.”
Fields said digging through old photographs and the memories connected to those times wasn’t always easy.
“It was 40 years after the pictures were taken, and it’s hard,” he said. “I wasn’t looking at the pictures to stir up feelings. they had stirred up on their own. I was looking at the pictures to figure out what I was going to say about them. Or to say, ‘Let’s do this picture, or that one.’ I think they picked out 300 pictures and we narrowed it to 200-and-something.”
Fields’ management of the Ramones lasted five years, after which point he and Linda Stein did not have their contracts renewed because, Fields said, they never sold any records. And then the group fell off Fields’ radar.
“After I stopped working for them I stopped thinking about them very much,” he said. “I wasn’t keeping track of their career. I knew that they never sold any records, but they were selling out soccer stadiums in Rio and Buenos Aires and Mexico and Asia, and they were getting rich and famous. But that was all after my time. And they never sold any records. But they got rich in other ways, in ways nobody ever thought. Merchandising and TV commercials. Every time the audience goes, ‘Hey Ho! Let’s Go!’ the Ramones make money, or their estate makes money. And there are massive, massive income flows coming from that. And there’s a commercial where you see a garage door half-raised and you see four pairs of legs, and they’re playing a Ramones song.”
Rock and roll is here to stay, especially in brief bursts of advertising.
“Iggy got financially successful from Lust For Life,” Fields said. “The money is in commercials. But you don’t know that when you’re starting. You don’t think, ‘I’m going to write a jingle.’ You think, ‘I’m going to be a serious band and write songs that are rock and rollable.’ And the money comes from five seconds of your music in a TV commercial. And you’re a millionaire. No kidding.”
The Ramones of My Ramones are, of course, all gone. Joey passed in April 2001, and Dee Dee died in June of the following year. Johnny died in September 2004, and Tommy stuck around for another decade as the sole living original Ramone before he too died in July 2014.
“They’re all dead,” said Fields. “That imposes a very large and serious feeling. Anything else is minor compared to that. It’s negligible. They’re four dead guys and I’m responsible for once again presenting them to the public. They were public people. They were performers and recording artists. And here we go again. They put themselves on stages for 2,300-something performances. And this is another encore in a way. Except I’m in charge this time. And I was never in charge. I never told them what to do. Nothing. They were driven and they didn’t need another driver. They drove themselves.”