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A History of Hype: The Cockettes Conquer New York

Cockettes in New York: A History of Hype
November 25, 1971

New York is dead, everyone complained. The last thing to hit town was Jesus Christ Superstar, and it was so unbelievably crass. The major art openings were over, and the holiday parties hadn’t yet begun. Dull dull dull. But didn’t Rex and Truman rave about some divine hippie drag queens from San Francisco who actually wear glitter on their “private parts” as well as their eyelids? Right. “The Rockettes like rocks, and the Cockettes like—” How utterly outrageous! And weren’t they opening down in the slummy crummy East Village along with Sylvester, a black rock queen who sings falsetto? How off off can you get? And isn’t this the Year of the Gay? — it’s all right for men to dig other men in public. Everyone understands now. And hasn’t the underground press been covering the Cockettes favorably for over a year, even though the regular San Francisco press accepts their ads but doesn’t review them? Isn’t it time for something different? Let’s discover the Cockettes!

Not since Andy and Edie had New York made a group of society’s freaks its very own darlings in one short week — seven days to scale the highest media peaks, only to fall opening night with a great dull thud. How come? One reason is that the media-heavy audience came opening night expecting to see some sort of new art form and got comatized instead; but more importantly, the Cockettes were victims of the Big Hype — that peculiar New York phenomenon whereby people and things are declared hot, cool, in, out, under, and over. The poor little gold differs of ’71 from San Francisco made a big mistake — they believed it.

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Reality is fantasy and fantasy is reality to the Cockettes. Their life style is carefully contrived to blur if not actually diminish the distinction between the two. So when the Big Apple gave them the Hype they were ready for it. “Darling, we’re the toasts of the town, they love us to death!” said Big Daryl, a Cockette leader. Never mind the hassles with the producers, the el cheapo production, the lack of a sound system to rehearse with, the cockroaches and the broken plumbing in the hotel, or even the parties the nights before that made rehearsing almost impossible, because the Tinsel Tarted Broadway babies were having their pert little behinds kissed bought up and downtown and Ziegfield wasn’t around to ask if they could sing or dance. Nobody did. “I’m Goldie Glitters, and I go to all these ritzy penthouses every night, and these photographers keep wanting to take my picture.”

Performance for the Cockettes is mostly an excuse to live a freaky life style. Why be a hairdresser or work in a third-hand store if you can be a Cockette and spend all day getting dressed up like your favorite movie star? The drag’s the thing — the Tinsel Tarts spend a lot more time on themselves than they do on the shows. In San Francisco the Cockettes are pure hippie-nostalgia street theatre with rinky tink piano, clever lyrics, and tons of glitter thrown in for good measure — gay hippies plus women who love to show off for their friends. There are far too many freaks in San Francisco for them to be considered avant garde, political, or revolutionary. It’s a $2.50 midnight show at a funky old Chinese movie house where you can watch Betty Boop festivals and dig the spectacle. Stoned at 2 in the morning, you don’t care if it moves. The indulgent audience is half the show, and knows it.

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But the Big Apple declared the Cockettes media myths, the “fashion and faggot aristocracy” came out en masse to view their drag for inspiration, the ticket price shot up to $6.50, and Time, Life, Women’s Wear Daily, etc., all showed up to review them. The opening night’s theme song should have been “Please baby,” pant pant, “give us some new freaks to love.”

It’s easy to love the Cockettes. Their zany behavior turns on even the most hostile people, and every personal appearance is a major production. Integral to the making of the myth were the word-of-mouth reports spread around town by key writers, editors, or celebrities who saw the Cockettes behave outrageously at the Whitney, in Max’s, and at all the posh parties where they were honored guests. Everyone expected they’d be better on stage, but that’s a misconception. The Cockettes are much better in real life. I traveled with them for 10 days, and it was pure insanity all the way.

***

At the San Francisco airport pandemonium reigned from the moment the Cockettes stepped off their chartered bus, along with three tons of luggage that was heavy on the cardboard and tinsel. “Remember, girls,” Pristine Condition yelled, “The password for New York is Sugar Daddy.”

“Did you see that?” Mr. whispered to Mrs. Iowa at the baggage check as Link floated by in a one-piece latex bathing suit with a beauty queen banner of girl scout badges pinned to the front. And when Wally — in six-foot plumes and a pair of plastic Halloween pumpkins filled with gold tinsel suspended over his breasts — began beating his tambourine and asking for “tricks or treats,” four people canceled their flight.

Bystanders were treated to a wacked-out visual feast. In addition to 35 Cockettes, Sylvester’s musicians came with their old ladies, groupies appeared bearing gifts (Grasshopper, a favorite Cockette groupie, even flew to New York), several dozen awestruck airline employees gathered to gape, and one uptight tv cameraman was furious. “This is worse than a double X movie.” Nobody’s mother came to wave goodbye.

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The “Cockette party” of 45 had to sit in the back of the huge 747, along with a few straight passengers who got mixed in. They either opted for stereo headphones and tuned out for the duration of the flight or slumped way down in their seats behind books on California redwoods.

The stewardesses couldn’t handle the commotion. One dropped her oxygen mask when the Cockettes applauded her act, and her partner, a blank-looking blond in a pinafore, just stood watching quizzically as one of the Cockettes called out, “Hey, we made a movie about a girl whose drag looks just like yours — Tricia’s Wedding.”

The Tinsel Tarts spent the rest of the flight “ritzing” around the economy lounge of the 747 where they allowed curious passengers and shy closet queens to buy them beers. One little old lady in an orlon sweater set and mink hat squinted at Wally. “Are you girls in high school or college?” “Neither. We’re Miss America contestants.” A belligerent drunk confronted Lendon, resplendent as Carmen Miranda: “Are you a man or a woman?” “We’re both, honey, and that’s just for starters!” By the end of the long flight everyone was getting very cozy. The Cockettes were singing show tunes for fellow passengers, who joined them, happily posing for one another’s Instamatics and Nikons just as if the Cockettes were some stray Indians they had found in the Grand Canyon. Smile click. Smile click. “My wife won’t believe this. Heh heh. Thanks a lot.”

The flight marked the culmination of more than three months of broken promises and tight money while trying to plan the New York tour. The New York people had originally come to them. The Cockettes were not actively seeking an eastern tour. Two New York producers had strung the Cockettes along from July to October, promising a Halloween opening at the Fillmore East. The Cockettes — most of whom are on welfare — stopped doing new San Francisco shows, and when the rent fell due at their three communes, they couldn’t pay it. One of Bill Graham’s yes men, after taking a month to make the decision on the Fillmore, decreed “The Cockettes will diminish the Fillmore East’s reputation as a rock palace,” which ought to be news to the neighborhood junkies.

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Finally a San Francisco rock lawyer got them the Anderson Theatre, a block down from the Fillmore. Harry Zerler, a young, former talent scout at Columbia Records who had never produced a theatrical show before, but whose father, Paul Zerler, had been around the business for years, flew out to California and saw the same wild and funny Cockette show that Truman Capote loved and that sent Rex Reed to wondering enthusiastically, “Will the Cockettes replace rock concerts in the ’70s?” The Cockettes were thrilled. Long snubbed by the local aboveground press, they had at last been discovered by the big-time New York media. Zerler promised to bring the Cockettes to New York, and the myth began.

Even though the Daily News wouldn’t print Reed’s raving review, the Washington Post and many other papers throughout the country did. I wrote a favorable piece on the Cockettes for The Voice, and Rolling Stone published an article a short time later. Those three articles became the basis for all the hype in the Cockettes’ ads: “This is the most outrageous thing I’ve ever seen” —Truman Capote. “Insanity becomes reality, fantasy becomes truth, etc.” —Village Voice. Both quotes were taken out of context, but that sort of hyperbole is justified by the producers in terms of the amount of money it takes to transport 45 people across the country and put them up for three weeks, especially people who sign the hotel register “Miss Creemah Ritz,” “Eatapuss Rex,” and Scrumbly. Paul Zerler figures it cost him $40,000. The Cockettes didn’t think setting the ticket price at $6.50 was fair, but they didn’t fight it — after dividing the money 40 ways they were only making $75 a week each plus lodging. The Cockettes have also yet to see a penny of the profits from their film, Tricia’s Wedding, but they are usually too engrossed in fantasy to seriously worry about finances.

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Until the moment they landed, the Cockettes had no idea where they were going to stay. Rumor had it they were going to be put up in a one-bath, three-bedroom house in Connecticut with 25 cots set up in the basement. They got the Hotel Albert instead, in the Village, where on a good day the hallways smell somewhere between old socks and vomit. Miss Bobbie, 17, the youngest of the Cockettes and so beautiful he was offered a modeling audition at Harper’s Bazaar, cried upon seeing the Albert. She expected maybe the Plaza. The rest of the troupe amused themselves with cockroach counting contests in their suites. There was no room service. Pretty tacky for swishy West Coast queenies, but not so different from the Haight either.

It was very difficult to reach any of the Cockettes by phone at the Albert since several had changed their names when registering. Big Daryl vacillated between Harold Thunderpussy and Miss Creemah Ritz and confided his fears of being typecast forever as the whorehouse madam, especially after two janitors mistook him for Mae West on Halloween night.

If the hotel wasn’t “fabulous enough,” the Cockettes’ arrival at Kennedy had more than made up for it in advance. Danny Fields, the skilled rock PR man, had everything arranged. About 100 freaks were on hand, including two third-stringers from the Factory, and Superstar Viva’s husband, Michel, shooting videotape. Few of these people had actually seen the Cockettes perform, but that didn’t seem to matter. The rest of the New York airport crowd watched silently bemused with a so-what-else-is-new expression that contrasted sharply with the jovial hilarity at the San Francisco airport. I sensed New York would be a lot more difficult for the Tinsel Tarts and wondered if the Cockettes felt it too, but they were surrounded by local admirers, including suave Errol Wetson in total black velvet, the “fabulous millionaire hamburger king” as Dennis Lopez, Sylvester’s manager, referred to him. Suave Errol had wined and dined Dennis one night along with Warren Beatty and Roman Polanski. Dennis, used to paying for his own meals with fellow record company flacks, was properly impressed. (Actually Wetson is part owner of Le Drugstore and heir to a chain of 153 hamburger joints.) Suave Errol was dying to introduce the Cockettes to New York — there’s more to life than burgers — and thereby launch himself as the arbiter of a new social phenomenon in the process. “I heard about the Cockettes from my friend Truman, and New York’s been so quiet, so dead, something’s gotta happen. No, I haven’t seen the Cockettes perform. I don’t have to. I can feel their vibrations.”

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Later that night Wetson hosted the Cockettes’ first New York party at this empty East 62nd Street townhouse. Diana Vreeland, grande dame of Vogue, designer Oscar de la Renta, and executives of the hamburger corporation came along to catch the action. The Cockettes gave it to them — in wild costumes they uninhibitedly danced, sang, romped, and stomped. Wetson’s comptroller, perhaps sensing his young boss’s enthusiasm could have some future financial implications, commented, “They’re great at a party, but can they act?” Diana Vreeland was much more positive. She was truly impressed with the originality of the Cockettes’ drag and felt they had put on the best fashion show she had seen in a long time. “What’s so marvelous is that they look happy, truly happy, and that’s so rare these days, don’t you think?”

Meanwhile the Cockettes were digging the plush surroundings, their usual milieu being a couple of joints or a bottle of Cold Duck in the Haight. “Wow, we’ve never been treated like this before, with champagne and all,” said Lendon. After Suave Errol’s bash the group made a pilgrimage to Max’s Kansas City and turned the place upside down. In two days they completely revitalized the sagging dragging atmosphere at Max’s, and according to the regulars, “brought the place alive again.” After the third straight night there the Cockettes were allowed to charge hamburgers and Harvey Wallbangers, which was fortunate since they hadn’t been paid and were actually going hungry — but they were getting lots of attention, hype hype. The first night at Max’s, Pristine Condition fell out of her chair when she saw Trash star Joe d’Allesandro. She swiped his bread roll, brought it back to the Albert, shellacked it, and sewed it on a hat. That night rock critic Lillian Roxan told Prissie, “I always wondered what it was like to take New York by storm, now I know.” That was the sort of comment that got passed around town by word of mouth to turn on the general populace.

During the week before opening night I must have gone to 27 parties with the Cockettes, on the East Side, on the West Side, in the Village, in penthouses, lofts, museums, and basements, gotten a total of 15 hours sleep, met two thirds of the freaks of New York, and began to suspect that all of Manhattan was gay. New York was bored and the Cockettes were so joyous they were almost wholesome. The Tinsel Tarts became the hottest numbers in town. They got a standing ovation at the Brasserie on Halloween night, then a ride home to the Albert in Marlene Dietrich’s silver limousines, which stretched the fantasy beyond all imagination. “The chauffeur, who evidently just cruises around picking up freaks, told us she’s out of the country and doesn’t own a television set. Honey, it was outrageous, and lucky, because we didn’t have the money to pay for a cab.”

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The fantasy hardly ever stopped. Robert Rauschenberg flipped for Pristine Condition, John Rothermel, and Goldie Glitters at a Whitney opening and gave them $1000 when he found out they were hungry and broke. “The only people who support artists are other artists.” “Honey, that was Bingo with a B,” Prissie said. Taxi drivers usually turned off their meters and often gave the Cockettes drinks and joints. After Goldie Glitters offered to put one particularly polite cab driver on the guest list for opening night, he declined, saying he had a “very square wife.” “That’s okay,” said Lendon, dressed in a girl scout uniform with saddle shoes, “so do I.” Candy Darling acted like a perfect lady and invited them to her press conference. Holly Woodlawn taught them how to scarf dinner from fancy hors d’oeuvre trays. The Fontainebleau wanted the Cockettes for December!

Throughout this madness the Cockettes starred, wherever they went — at the erotic film festival party, the Screw anniversary party, Le Drugstore, where Suave Errol gave them another party and fed them, and in front of the clicking camera phalluses of scores of photographers who invited them to pose. David Rockefeller, shy about attending opening night, sent his chauffeur down to the Anderson to buy 11 tickets for the second night’s performance. Rex Reed, given 30 free tickets by Paul Zerler, was organizing a busload of celebrities to attend opening night and Suave Errol was throwing the after-the-opening party at guess where?

Days began at 2 p.m. and ended at dawn. The Cockettes were living just like the girls in the ’30s musicals they parodied. Stage door Johnnies that would have freaked Busby Berkeley were saying goodnight early in the morning. One evening at Max’s, after underground star Taylor Mead’s boyfriend stood on a table, sang to Taylor, and simultaneously stripped for the benefit of the Cockettes, I asked John Rothermel, “Madge the Magnificent” in “Tinsel Tarts,” and Big Daryl, in Eleanor Roosevelt drag for the evening, what they thought of New York. “I know we’re degenerate,” said John, flipping her boa, “but we weren’t prepared for the nihilism of New York.”

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Early on in the week the New York establishment press began to get very interested. The Post ran a story saying the Cockettes were to drag shows as Niagara is to wet. Life’s entertainment department was dying to cover them, “but we’ll never get it past our managing editor.” They sent a photographer opening night anyway. Esquire decided to go ahead with a story, after having been told about the Cockettes over a year before. A Harper’s Bazaar editor was ecstatic. “That sounds just like the sort of thing we want to get involved with.” Time and Newsweek were coming to the opening, as was the Sunday TimesWomen’s Wear was really in a tither. They wanted to run something but felt uncomfortable using the word Cockette in print, especially since they had recently run an interview with rock star Sly Stone and quoted him as saying he was “happy as a motherfucker,” and a big Chicago garment mogul had canceled his subscription. The Washington Post, already hipped to the Cockettes from Rex Reed’s review, sent the same reporter to cover opening night who had just returned from writing about some other queens at the Shah of Iran’s 2500th anniversary bash. Even the local tv news, usually much too conservative to cover drag shows was sending a crew to film at the Anderson. I was approached to revive a Cockettes film project I had begun and then dropped. We decided to go ahead, and got the Maysles Brothers to shoot opening night.

The producers were spending an inordinate amount of time hyping instead of insisting the Cockettes rehearse, but Harry Zerler still wasn’t satisfied that the Cockettes had done enough to promote the show(!). “I haven’t seen any handbills passed out on the streets of New York,” he yelled at Sebastian, the Cockettes’ mild-mannered manager, “and why are they so filthy? All the front rows are littered with bottles of Ripple. Next time I’m going to produce a bunch of compulsive anal retentive people.”

Danny Fields said the Cockettes were the easiest act he had ever promoted. “I haven’t seen such enthusiasm from the press since the Rolling Stones’ tour of the U.S. in 1969.” Opening night was over-sold and everybody was clamoring for tickets. “No,” barked one of the theatre staff. “I don’t care if John and Yoko come to opening night. There’s no excuse for mediocrity.”

Every once in a while reality would rear its ugly head. Dusty Dawn felt terrible. It was bad enough that New York laws prevented her from dancing on the stage with her son, 16-month-old Ocean Michael Moon, “the world’s youngest drag queen,” on her back, but Ocean had developed a terrible rash. Eight-and-a-half-month-pregnant Sweet Pam’s baby dropped. And Wally, still wearing the plastic Halloween pumpkins, had had an emergency appendectomy five days before leaving San Francisco and was afraid he had glitter in his incision.

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The producers didn’t have time for such mundane details. They were trying to cope with an inadequate budget — the Cockettes had kicked out 24 footlights and the soundmen were scrounging around for $25 mikes — but the Big Hype continued, so I took Wally and Dusty to the emergency room of Columbus Hospital for a check-up. Nonplussed would hardly be the word to describe the good sisters upon Wally’s arrival, but they remembered charity begins at home — they let him keep his 47 bracelets on. He had to leave his gold tinsel outside with me, however. The doctor told Dusty she obviously didn’t bathe her baby. She was indignant. “I bathe Ocean twice a day — it’s just in New York when he rolls around on the sidewalk he gets a lot dirtier.”

By the end of the week the Cockettes had barely rehearsed. The sound system hadn’t been installed and the Tinsel Tarts insisted they needed a different set. Harry Zerler balked, so the Cockettes stayed up all night Friday anyway, building a new, special-for-New-York cardboard set. On Saturday they could barely keep their eyes open. At dress rehearsal Saturday night the hastily put together sound system broke down completely. Such was the power of the Sunday Times, however, that three Times photographers interrupted dress rehearsal for over an hour to get “exclusive” pictures.

Meanwhile, Sylvester’s three back-up singers had left for Washington to sing the Black National Anthem at the White House. From the Cockettes to Nixon? I would have believed anything at this point — but the girls didn’t return and nobody knew where to find them. “They were last seen with the President.”

Dress rehearsal was really the first full rehearsal. The Cockettes didn’t know how to use mikes or project their voices and on the big Anderson stage they came across like a parody of a parody, only it wasn’t funny — it hurt. Obviously opening night would be a painful experience, but the Cockettes didn’t understand.

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They consistently refused to deal with reality. Sebastian, worried about technical difficulties, pronounced the show “great.” Suave Errol didn’t think so. What a dilemma — hundreds of people invited to his big party and his social standing was on the line. Where was Truman now that he needed him? Out in California.

The Cockettes declined rehearsals Sunday and toddled off to one more press party, at John de Coney’s, a hip barber shop on Madison Avenue where scores of reporters and photographers were invited to watch the Cockettes get their hair done. Before leaving I asked Goldie if she didn’t think it would be better to spend the time rehearsing, but the PR girl from the barber shop had arrived, not about to be thwarted. “But they’re waiting for you and Jacqueline Susann will be there.” Miss Susann never showed, but the Cockettes sipped wine under the dryers, posed endlessly for the 20 photographers present, and answered reporters’ questions that were definitely a case of life imitating Grade B flicks.

The Crawdaddy man: “Is it true the Cockettes had an orgy via closed circuit tv?” Answer: “No.” “Well then, what do you expect to get out of tonight’s performance?” “Enlightenment.”

Then Goldie divinely ensconced under the dryer, started telling her dreams to the film interviewer. “I dreamed I was an olive in a martini glass, but no one would swallow me — oh hello dahling, come be in my movie.”

Opening night was everybody’s movie, from Footlights Parade to Phantom of the Opera. According to Rex it was the “craziest, wildest in New York’s history.” The Big Hype had really worked. The Anderson was jammed. Hundreds of fashionables pushed and shoved their way through the one open door. Beautiful People and big-time celebrities had to plough through just like the hoi polloi. Literati, glitterati, and culturati rubbed shoulders with dreaded freaks and every important drag queen in town. Some groupies had sprayed their bodies completely silver, others carried teddy bears, one even brought a whip.

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The WWD photographer was beside himself. How could he shoot Gore Vidal, Allen Ginsberg, Angela Lansbury, Alexis Smith, Robert Rauschenberg, Rex Reed, Peggy Cass, Diana Vreeland, Nan Kemper, Clive Barnes, Sylvia Miles, Kay Thompson, Bobby Short, Elaine, Bill Blass, Estevez, Tony Perkins, Dan Greenburg, Nora Ephron, Mrs. Sam Spiegel, Jerry Jorgensen, Ultra Violet, Candy Darling, Taylor Mead, Gerard Malanga, John Chamberlain, Cyrinda Fox, Holly Woodlawn, Jackie Curtis, the entire cast of Jesus Christ Superstar, the President of Gay Lib, a dozen Vogue editors, two real princesses, and the night clerk at the Hotel Albert?

At 8:30 Sunday night, when the doors to the Anderson were supposed to be open, Sylvester was still on stage rehearsing. His backup singers had suddenly reappeared at 7:30 and now he was arguing with one Sweet Inspiration and one Supreme who he had hired to take their place. The Cockettes, dead tired and not yet dressed, were quietly munching turkey sandwiches in the front row while half the “ritzy penthouse” people of New York were shrieking and fighting to get in the door. Truman sent an encouraging telegram — “keep it gay light and campy” — and the delighted Cockettes dedicated the show to him.

The audience came to get wrecked and thrilled by a fantastic new set of freaks. But as soon as the curtain went up it was all downhill. The audience was dying to be surprised, outraged, anything. They loved Sylvester, even after 45 minutes, but the Cockettes were hopeless. The sound system was terrible, the show was too slow to crawl, and the Tinsel Tarts were even too tired to be themselves. They forgot lines and bumped into each other, all this for the media heavies and literati. “My god, how could they disappoint us like this?” After 40 minutes, when Taylor Mead shouted “Bring back Jackie Curtis,” people began to get up and leave. (Jackie should love the Cockettes. After being panned everywhere when Vain Victory opened, he’s suddenly hot stuff in all the comparative reviews.)

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One man in the audience, who had slept through the entire show, awakened and promptly vomited all over Princess Delores Rispoli, one of Rex’s guests. The usher was indignant. “What are you, some kind of vomit freak?” It was a fitting climax.

The critics were unanimous. “Having no talent is not enough,” declared Gore Vidal. “Dreadful,” pronounced Women’s Wear. The Sunday Times headlined, “For This They Had to Come From Frisco?” Lillian Roxon wrote the only favorable review, for the Daily News. She said the Cockettes were 15 years ahead of their time.

The party later a Le Drugstore was the expected mob scene. Inside Wally was trying to explain to an unsmiling woman reporter from Time, “But you don’t understand, we’re not professionals, we’ve never been professionals.” And outside, late-arriving Cockettes were barred from entering because too many people were already inside. “But it’s our party, let us in,” pleaded Reggie.

By the next morning Suave Errol had dropped the Cockettes forever. Ironically the strong dose of failure reality opening night was like a shot of adrenaline for the Cockettes. By the second night they had improved considerably, and the audience loved them, but none of the hypesters were around to see it. The Cockettes blew it. They had embarrassed the media moguls and weren’t about to get a second chance.

Harper’s Bazaar no longer wanted to get involved. Dick Cavett made them sit up in the balcony, and David Frost’s producer, alienated by Sylvester’s “being nothing but a queen,” canceled them one hour before showtime. The Big Hype was already looking for something new to swallow whole — and then spit out.

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Punk ’77: Danny Fields Is a Number-One Fan

We are sitting in the lower Manhattan loft of Danny Fields, friend of Lou Reed and Andy Warhol, former editor of 16 Magazine, and manager of America’s premier punk band, the Ramones. Danny’s loft is raw. It has 12-foot ceilings, magnificent views of the Hudson through un­washed windows, a nude portrait of Iggy Pop, and a pair of handcuffs dangling from the pull-cord on the kitchen light. We are discussing violence, which Danny finds intriguing as an idea.

“But I can’t take violence seriously as an issue in punk rock,” Danny is saying in his flat, nasal sing-song. “I’ve never seen it in my life, except for Wayne County hitting Dick Manitoba over the head with his mikestand that night at CBGB — but that was such an isolated instance. And then you hear all this thing about that girl in England who lost an eye at a punk concert.” Danny’s features assume a look of acute exasperation. “I mean big deal, you know — one girl, one eye, one concert. That’s the worst thing that’s ever happened in the U.K.? Sports fans are much more violent than that. They do terrible things. They destroy the grass and all those things like that. They should go after sports if they’re really worried about violence.”

Even as Danny speaks, a frantic effort is underway to find Dee Dee Ramone, the bassist of the group, who was last seen two days ago. This evening Danny will even resort to phoning Dee Dee’s mother, but that will only make things worse. When Dee Dee finally does turn up — that night, at his apartment — he will tell Danny he was walking down the street when these guys beat him up and then the cops took him away and wouldn’t let him make a phone call. He doesn’t know his assailants. “I think they were folkies or something,” Danny will say, deadpan.

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“It’s so ridiculous,” Danny says. “If they wanted to fight, they’d be in the army.” Danny was at Altamont. He called friends in New York from a phone booth to tell them about it. He’s been in weird scenes with everybody from Jim Morrison to the Bay City Rollers. He doesn’t need the Ramones for violence. Besides, his hobby is death.

“Death is one of the only things that can still make you wonder,” he says. “It’s good show business. It’s the longest-running show of all time. It has a very high audience participation rate. And it’s happened to so many people who were friends of mine. I guess when that happens it has to have a hold on you. People live fast and die young, and a lot of beautiful corpses are left lying around. There was a time when people I knew were dying at the rate of one a month. They took too many drugs or whatever. But that doesn’t make them any less fabulous… Anyway, most of my favorite people are dead. Martha Mitchell… Carmen Miranda… James Dean.… I mean, think about it. Almost everyone fabulous is dead.”

Death and violence are naturals in the world of Danny Fields. Since 1966, Danny — everybody always calls him “Danny,” the same way they call Andy “Andy” — has been involved with some of rock’s most historic fringe. He is a catalyst. Without him, important events — signposts for the current new wave — might never have happened: the Velvet Underground performing at Max’s in 1970, or Iggy and the Stooges being allowed into a recording studio. Danny likes music that is sexy and scary. For this, you have to expect a little death and violence.

Never mind. Mickey Ruskin, the man who presided over Max’s Kansas City when it was the acme of hip, considers Danny “one of the most important people in the world.” More than anyone else, Danny was responsible for the collision of rock and art that began at Max’s in 1966 and continues today on the stages of CBGB and Mickey’s new place, the Lower Manhattan Ocean Club. By exposing people like Jim Morrison, the Cream, Brian Epstein, Lillian Roxon, Janis Joplin, the Buffalo Springfield, and the Stooges to artists, art dealers, and the Warhol menagerie, he has assisted in what Mickey calls the translation of art to music — which is to say, channeling art into a mass medium. But in order to fully explain Danny’s significance, Mickey has to find an art world counterpart. “There are one or two art dealers who I would say are artists. Leo Castelli is close to that. That’s Danny, too. He’s an artist in his own right, and what he does, he does out of a sense of integrity to his art.”

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As with any dealer, Danny’s greatest asset is his taste. Danny’s taste is a fine instrument. Years of judicious exercise have honed it to a razor edge that can discrim­inate swiftly and surely, signaling his choice with the subtlest of gestures — a barely raised eyebrow, or the merest suggestion of sarcasm. “I think it’s magnificent taste,” Danny says proudly. “It’s just superb taste. But then, what else have I got?”

One thing about Danny’s taste: It is broad. He likes heavy romanticism — Van Gogh, Miklos Rozsa film scores, Joan Baez’s voice on “Farewell Angelina.” He’s very big on fantasy and the macabre — underground comics, the 1940 Thief of Baghdad (“the greatest work of art of the 20th century”). And he is fascinated by “primitive-evolved art” — ancient Egyptian pottery, the early films of Andy Warhol, the music of the Ramones. Especially the music of the Ramones.

Danny’s taste has focused on one particular form of primitive-evolved art: hard rock music. What does he like about hard rock music? “That it’s hard — like a Bach fugue is hard. There are no loose ends. It’s a charge — like taking off in a plane. It’s a thrill, and the longer and harder it is the more of a thrill you get. Sometimes I cry… I think it’s so beautiful that I cry.

“When I first saw the Ramones I said, ‘This is the best band in the world.’ You know, I’m their biggest fan, I guess in the world. I think—” Danny’s face, normally poker­-straight, is stricken by concern. Only with great effort does he subdue the notion that somewhere in the world a bigger fan may lurk. “I guess every real fan wants to feel he’s the number-one fan in the world. Well, that’s the way I feel about the Ramones.”

Broad as it is, however, Danny’s taste does know limits. “Do you want to know what I hate? I hate blues and jazz. Those are about the only two things in the world I hate. That’s like people who can’t write melodies who do blues and jazz. It’s just noise to me.”

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***

“Danny is one of funniest, smartest, most creative people I ever met,” says Susan Blond, the rock publicist and Warhol actress (she threw the baby out the window in Bad) who starred with Danny in Anton Perich’s X-rated cablecasts back in 1973. “He’s a great talker, and it’s always fun to do anything with him. He has a great sense of what’s going to happen before it happens. He’s always believed in certain acts that, even if they didn’t become successful commercially, were real important to the history of rock & roll. And he’s very powerful. He has power with important people. But to explain how great he really is — I mean, to capture the greatness that is Danny Fields…”

The greatness that is Danny Fields began to take shape in the early 1960s, when a precocious 20-year-old Danny dropped out of Harvard Law School and started hanging out with one of Cambridge’s bohemian crowds. Born in Brooklyn, raised in Queens, educated in the New York public schools, Danny graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Pennsylvania with a major in English lit and a minor, as he puts it, in Brooks Brothers. The arbiter of his Cambridge scene was Ed Hood, the intellectual son of a Mississippi cotton planter, a man who has nested in the twilight groves of academe. Hood’s friends — Edie Sedg­wick, Donald Lyons, Paul Morrisey — were people so dazzling, so extreme, and so unique they would soon be added to Andy’s personal collection at the Factory.

Danny was one of the first to arrive in New York — he came to study literature at New York University — so his Chelsea loft became the local crash pad for visiting Harvard hipsters. He began to frequent the Factory, too; there he met Nico and Lou Reed and Andy himself. “My favorite people hung out there,” he says, “and everything they did was my favorite thing.” NYU was dropped; in its place came a series of jobs — production manager at Liquor Store magazine, staff writer at an outfit that packaged crib books (he managed to sneak Carmen Miranda into The Dictionary of Biography). In 1966 he entered the world of rock & roll as an editor at Datebook magazine, a now-defunct service publication for teenage girls.

Danny didn’t fare too well at Datebook: He wanted the Beatles and the Stones; the publisher wanted the Beatles and Paul Revere & the Raiders. But it didn’t matter. He went to L.A. when he got fired, sat at the feet of superstar press agent Derek Taylor, met the manager of the Doors. On his return he appeared at the doorstep of Elektra Records to volunteer as the Doors’ press agent. The New York rock press consisted of only about five people, but then Danny wasn’t getting paid, either.

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Other gigs came his way. Robert Stigwood and Brian Epstein hired him to do publicity for the Cream on their first American tour. He worked with Murray the K on his disastrous 1967 Easter show — disastrous because nobody bought tickets, despite a line-up that included Wilson Pickett, Simon & Garfunkel, the Cream, and the Who. He became a part-time D.J. at WFMU, and made it the first station in the country to play Pink Floyd. Then Elektra offered him a salary as publicity director. When he moved in that spring, Danny became one of the record industry’s first company freaks.

There were strains from the beginning, and not just with the company. Danny didn’t get along too well with Jim Morrison either. Morrison was extremely smart, Danny recalls, but he used to do “pricky things,” like going out to dinner and refusing to speak. Janis Joplin used to refer to Morrison as “that asshole.” “But I know why he hated me,” Danny says. “It’s because I kidnapped him once.”

It wasn’t kidnapping exactly; it was more like protective custody. Danny got a call from Nico and Edie Sedgwick, who were staying in this decaying mansion in the Hol­lywood Hills. They wanted Danny to keep them company, and Danny suggested that Morrison come along. (The Lizard King meets the Moon Goddess — it would be interesting.) Morrison consumed so much acid and vodka that Danny got nervous about giving him the car keys. So he hid the keys and went to sleep in a spare bedroom — only to be awakened by Nico as she flung herself across the bed and shook him furiously while the Lizard King perched naked on the window ledge. Danny went back to sleep. When he woke up, the two of them were standing in the courtyard: He was pulling her hair, she was was screaming.

In 1968, Danny started going to Michigan to see the MC5. The MC5 were the high-energy house band of John Sinclair’s White Panther Party. They lived in Ann Arbor with Sinclair, a “minister of defense” who carried a rifle everywhere, some tie-dyed rank-and-file, and women who cooked and cleaned. “Butch America,” Danny calls it; he went to charge up his batteries. Before long he talked­ Elektra into signing not only the MC5 but also some of their friends — a less political but equally aggressive outfit called Iggy and the Stooges. If the MC5 were high-voltage broadsides for the Revolution, Iggy was likewise for suicide.

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The vice-presidents at Elektra were put off by these bands, with their talk of offing the pigs and their compulsion to smoke dope in the office; but that was nothing compared to David Peel and the Lower East Side. Peel had been discovered chanting revolutionary nonsense syllables in Washington Square Park. Danny persuaded Elektra to call his album Have a Marijuana. “I knew it would sell,” he says. “I knew that if you put a title big on the cover, every kid in America would want to bring it home and give his parents a heart attack.”

On January 20, 1969, the day Nixon was inaugurated and Danny’s parents were hijacked to Cuba, Danny was fired. Elektra dropped the MC5 forthwith, but by summer Danny had gotten them signed to Atlantic. He got himself a publicity job there soon afterward. Unfortunately, the only acts he liked were Loudon Wainwright, the Allman Brothers, and the Velvet Underground, who broke up just as their Loaded album was released. “Atlantic wanted me to take Emerson Lake & Palmer records around and play them for my influential friends,” he says, incredulity creeping into his voice. “I wouldn’t do that. I mean you can’t pay me to do that! So naturally, I got fired.”

The last straw came when Danny decided that Atlantic had to have a hospitality suite in Washington for the 1971 May Day action. Working on the premise that Aretha Franklin might perform (she didn’t, but she might have), he took a room in the Howard Johnson’s across from Watergate; which was famous then as the residence of John and Martha Mitchell. Danny returned to New York before anything actually started — he’d heard there would be mass arrests and he had no desire to end up in a concentration camp — but he left the room with Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, signing the bill in advance. When the tab arrived at Atlantic, it boasted phone calls to Hanoi and a balance of thousands.

After that Danny did publicity for the Cockettes, San Francisco’s theatrical transvestites, and tried briefly to manage the Modern Lovers. He also tried managing Iggy and the Stooges, but the strain of keeping that band alive — “literally alive,” says a friend — was too great. When they drove a 14-foot truck onto a bridge with a 12-foot clearance, drawing three lawsuits as a result, Danny, decided to bail out.

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Before long he had a job helping his friend Gloria Stavers edit 16. Although it was only temporary, he stayed five years. Danny may seem like an unlikely purveyor of bubblegum, but he did have an undeniable flair. He kept notebooks filled with hard-sell coverlines: “Donny Osmond — The Story of His Feet!”, stuff like that. If there was any conflict between his role in the underground rock world and his job spinning teen dreams, he didn’t detect it. “I was just channeling something towards who it was supposed to go to,” he says. “And besides, the Bay City Rollers are much better than ELP.”

In 1974, Danny started a gossip column that turned the Soho Weekly News into an instant must-read in the music industry. That’s how he got involved with the Ramones. They pestered him for months to come down to CBGB to catch their set. He admired their persistence, but not enough to reward it. “I wasn’t sure what they did,” he says. “And the name… I thought they were a cha-cha band or something.”

The Ramones are four guys from Forest Hills who more or less invented the state of being we now know as punk. They were wearing ripped jeans, dirty T-shirts, and black leather jackets more than three summers ago — before Danny ever saw them, before CBGB became a shrine, before any of the bands that played there had record contracts, before the Sex Pistols had been formed in London, before the term “new wave” was ever applied to rock & roll, before safety pin first pricked adolescent skin. Nobody else was acting punk then except Patti Smith, and she was doing it different from the way the Ramones did it. She did it poet-like, and the Ramones did it rock & roll.

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When Danny did see them, it was at the insistence of Lisa Robinson, a close friend who edits Hit Parader and writes a syndicated column called Rock Talk. Lisa went to see them because Lenny Kaye, Patti’s guitarist, had told her they had more energy than any band he’d seen since the Stooges. The next morning she placed a frantic call to Danny, informing him that not only were they incredible but that he of all people would love them. She was right. “My whole theory is that it takes me five seconds to know if I’m going to really love something,” Danny says. “The Ramones were just ripping hard, you know — machine — RRRRCHCHCHCHTTTT!” Danny vi­brates. “I went up to them after the set and — ‘You guys are great! You guys are great!’ That’s all I could say.”

Still, Danny had no desire to manage them. He had no desire to manage anyone, ever. He did advise them, however, and in the process he began to realize that this band was different. The Ramones were not merely brilliant, they were professional. They understood not only what their antecedents had been doing but why they had failed: the disorganization and lack of discipline of the Stooges; the political overkill of the MC5; the unfortunate transvestism of the New York Dolls. Lisa says Danny came to think of the Ramones as “just like the Stooges, only without the curse that was Iggy.” He calls them “the vindication of everything I’ve ever done.”

This summer, Danny finally quit 16 and assumed full managerial responsibilities. These include providing lo­gistical support for the band’s day-to-day activities and coordinating the efforts of accountants, lawyers, travel agents, road crew, booking agent, and various depart­ments in two record companies. “I free them from all these things,” he explains. “I take all this tangential stuff off their hands. I mean, what if they had to book their own hotel rooms?”

Sounds like a big job. “Oh, it is. It’s certainly the most grown-up thing I’ve ever done — the most responsible thing. It’s… well… I don’t know. It’s better than working at a record company, I suppose… But I’m proud of them! When a record they make is great or a show they put on is great, or when a look on a kid’s face who’s just seen them is great, I just feel proud to be part of this thing that’s so terrific.

“…Parental? I was thinking that, too, that I really sound like a proud parent. We’ll… yeah, I guess. I guess that’s one way it could be perceived. I don’t particularly like that image. I like to think of it as more like a coach — or like someone who owns a race horse. Of course, I don’t own them and they’re not a horse, but… that’s really perfect. You’re not its parent. I mean… there’s no question that you’re not its parent…”

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***

Linda Stein is Danny’s business partner and a dedicated proponent of punk rock: “It’s so hip to be punk,” she declares, pointing out excitedly that punks have been turning up at all the gallery openings and fancy parties in New York, London, and Paris. Every 57th Street opening has punks in attendance, and wherever the lords and ladies of England go, punks go with them. Why, punks even attended the wedding party Yves St. Laurent threw for Lulu de la Falaise in Paris. There were French punks on hand, and some very important English punks. “Even central casting has a punk department now,” she de­clares. “They’re all over the place.”

“Oh, that’s just a joke,” Danny says tiredly. “It’s an attractive style for young people who are sexy.”

“But it’s the style,” Linda asserts. “It’s everywhere.”

“It’s sexy,” Danny says, sounding very final.

Linda is married to Seymour Stein, general manager of Sire Records, the Ramones’ label. Danny describes Linda and Seymour as “the first couple of the new wave.” Linda, 32, is a longtime friend of Elton John and has performed various jobs for Sire since meeting Seymour seven and a half years ago. Seymour, 35, formed Sire in 1966 after several years with Sid Nathan’s King label in Cincinnati. His aim then was to imitate the approach of the independent record men of the early the ’50s — people like Sid Nathan, Jerry Wexler at Atlantic, Jac Holzman at Elektra — who couldn’t compete with Decca, Columbia, Capitol, and Victor for the big pop acts but could record rhythm & blues and country & western and jazz because nobody else was interested. “What the big companies didn’t realize,” says Seymour, “is that the esoteric music of today is the pop music of to­morrow.”

Although it is largely built on the success of Focus, a Dutch group that sounds remarkably like ELP, and although its two biggest-selling acts right now are Renaissance and the Climax Blues Band, Sire has moved into esoterica in a big way with the new wave. So far, Seymour has signed an Australian punk band called the Saints and four CBGB acts: the Ramones, Talking Heads, Richard Hell, and the Dead Boys. All but the Ramones have just released their first albums; the Ramones’ third, Rocket to Russia, is due out shortly.

Unfortunately, radio remains resistant to the charms of the new wave. Programming directors complain that the music is too violent. Linda Stein says the Ramones’ second single, “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker,” failed to crack the airwaves because it had the word “punk ” in the title. The suspicion at Sire is that most stations won’t play anything by anyone who wasn’t on the scene in 1969. “I think within the next nine months this will all be behind us,” Seymour says. “But right now we need people in radio who are willing to take chances. What Alan Freed was to the ’50s, what Tom Donahue and Scott Muni were to the ’60s — that’s what we need today.”

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So far, no one like that has appeared. Jerry Wexler agrees with Stein’s nine-month prognosis for a radio breakthrough — and he hates punk rock. The form is calculatedly offensive to adult sensibilities, and radio people do tend to be monotonously adult. Hence Danny’s attempts to downplay the violence. Danny thinks punks are sexy. Unfortunately, he thinks violence is sexy, too: “You know, like Philip Marlowe slapping someone up — that’s always sexy. As long as no one gets hurt.…”

When the Ramones finished their set during the Ramones/Iggy Pop double bill earlier this month, Blanche Boyd, the novelist whose latest book tells of insanity, lesbian incest, and death by wasp sting, turned to me and said, “I feel like I finally understand the meaning of assault.” All around us the audience was in uproar: Shocked, confused, and tingling, it gasped and begged for more. The Ramones had withdrawn after a mind-numbing performance that ended with the audience chanting, “GABBA GABBA HEY!” in high frenzy while Joey Ramone held aloft a six-foot placard bearing the message and Johnny, Tommy, and Dee Dee all vibrated with the rhythm of the pneumatic pelvis.

You see what Danny means when he calls the Ramones “a great construction that works.” Unlike other bands he has worked with, the Ramones are in total control. They understand that in order to discipline others, they must bear the mark of discipline. Not for them the Day-Glo anarchy of the MC5 or the carnal gluttony of Jim Morrison. The Ramones are ready.

It’s easy, too, to understand Danny’s desire to be their number-one fan. “I say I work for the Ramones,” he says. “The word ‘manager’ makes me shudder. It sounds like a puppet-master or something.” Danny’s position must be secure; his wish to serve is so much stronger than the average fan’s. It comes with the promise to bend his power to their purpose.

That power can be considerable. Lisa Robinson says Danny’s influence with Lillian Roxon — now dead, like so many others — was so great that she once rose from her sickbed to see a guy who jumped out of a frying pan dressed like an egg because Danny had told her he was the wave of the future. “I think he did it to be perverse,” Lisa adds. But Lisa also points out that Danny only now is being accepted in the record industry as the legitimate manager of a legitimate band that’s with a legitimate label and a legitimate booking agent (Premier Talent, the heaviest in the business). This is apparently due less to any shortcom­ings as a businessman than to his willingness to explore territory other people are afraid to consider. But perhaps this could be his time. In 1966, when the Velvet Underground introduced S&M to rock & roll, people were more eager to wrestle the boot than to know it. Everything seems so different now.

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BOOKS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Talking to Danny Fields About the Ramones’ Gabba Gabba Heyday

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.

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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.

Ramones on Park Lane, during a guided walking tour of early morning London.

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.

Dee Dee, Johnny, and Tommy flicking through bins of vinyl at Free Being Records on Second Avenue.

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.

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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.

Joey on the steps of the Roundhouse in London in 1976.

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.

Dee Dee and his spare Rickenbacker guitar

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.

Recording “Ramones,” the first album

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.

Ramones perform at The Club in Cambridge, MA.

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?

Ramones’ first video shoot at M.P.C.’s TV studio. The video contained eight songs in seventeen and a half minutes and has never been officially released.

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.

No!

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.

Shooting pictures for Rock Scene Magazines in the alley behind CBGB, now named Extra Place.

My Ramones: Photographs by Danny Fields
By Danny Fields
Reel Art Press
176 pp.

Categories
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On Bruising Debut, Beechwood Nod to Their Heroes

Beechwood’s Gordon Lawrence, 24, looking not unlike a young Thurston Moore, hair covered by a plaid cap, sits with his bandmates in a back booth of stalwart East Village bar 2A. They’re directly above cool-kid underground venue Berlin, where, a few weeks prior, Beechwood held an album release for their debut LP, Songs From the Land of Nod (Alive/Naturalsound Records), a darkly shimmering rock ’n’ roll record of bruising timelessness.

Drummer/vocalist Isa Tineo, 25, a dark beanie obscuring his head/face tattoos, perches on a stool. His visual counterpoint is Beechwood’s newest, member Sid Simons, 21. The bassist’s blond shag is straight off a Sweet album cover, and his faint Australian accent and easy demeanor make him an effective foil for his more formidable-seeming Jersey-bred bandmates.

The allure of Beechwood’s powerful onstage rock star insouciance — which is only somewhat less pronounced offstage — can come across as slightly studied, an assertion the band contests, bolstering the denial with tales of their shambolic misspent youths. But at least they’re studying the right bands. Over two-for-one happy hour beers, the trio share teen tales of skateboarding over the George Washington Bridge to see bands in Manhattan; then, a few years later, being escorted out of Arlene’s Grocery during one of their own gigs (“We started rolling around, and things got knocked over, broken. We were just younger. Honest aggression. We’re more composed now”); and various other angst- and substance-fueled shenanigans.

While Beechwood exude an honest cool that can’t be bought, any hipster factor is shattered when Tineo leans into the tape recorder and shouts: “We’re going to take over the fucking world!”

If the heady, garage-y, spooky compositions on Songs From the Land of Nod are any indication, Tineo could be right. Of the provocative title (the song “Land of Nod” closes the record) Lawrence explains, “There are biblical, childhood, and drug references. There was a two-year period that led up to that album. I went through a lot of stuff, physically, emotionally.”

“I put myself through something that I’m through now. But at the time…the biblical reference, East of Eden…” he says haltingly. “I could see what Eden was and where I wanted to be, but I felt I was constantly outside the gate looking in. I felt that way, honestly, my whole life. Outside. Trying to get in and not knowing how. Eden was being happy. Being OK. Not waking up every morning and wanting to die. Or not waking up at all. Not being able to fall asleep.”

The lanky singer, polite and soft-spoken, declines to elaborate on his issues, but the hazy melancholy and changing tempos of “C/F” — referring to the guitar chords — was one written from the depths. (On the lighter side is a more jaunty entry, Beechwood’s most popular song on Spotify, the two-minute pop-dream “Heroin Honey,” written and sung by Tineo, which, he clarifies, is “about a girl, not drugs!”).

Beechwood seem to possess the rock ’n’ roll knowledge of their combined ages, which is 70. They easily cite Brian Eno, Jim Carroll, and other darkly creative underground icons. Names are not dropped, but leak out. Actor (Last Days, Boardwalk Empire)/musician Michael Pitt insisted on directing the band’s surf-guitar-ish rave-up “I Don’t Wanna Be the One You Love” video after catching a Beechwood soundcheck at a small Brooklyn club. Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong met the group at Armstrong’s own party, and he asked to hear Beechwood music. “A lot of that shit finds you when you have good energy,” says Lawrence. “We’re just very intrigued. We resonate, on a certain level, with that stuff.” 

Beechwood began, as the best do: in the basement, and for all members, with a strong paternal influence. “My dad was a painter. He hung out, on the outskirts, with Steve Albini and Urge Overkill in Chicago,” begins Lawrence, who named the band after the street he grew up on. “We went to see Elliott Smith, the Stones, when I was a little kid. When I got a guitar, instead of lessons, he gave me the first Ramones record. From there, I found out about the Stooges and bands like that. He introduced me and took a step back and let me figure out shit. I was ten years old and going to see Gang of Four.”

Simons, who has been in the band about two years and was not on Songs From the Land of Nod, credits his dad (stage name Mike Lezbian), the singer for the Scavengers — “the first punk band from New Zealand” — for starting him off on the musical good foot.

Tineo’s father was an influence on his son — and countless others. “My dad (JuJu Gigante aka Jerry Tineo) played a really important part in music, in hip-hop. In the early ’90s he was a drummer in a famous group called Beatnuts. They were iconic. My dad started traveling with that group when he was 19, 20 and hasn’t stopped. He’s played every genre of music, I grew up with it all — there was no genres…”

Gordon jumps in… “It was ‘diggin’ in the crates.”

“I just knew what I liked and what I didn’t,” says Tineo. “But rock ’n’ roll specifically was the first genre of music that found me. I’m Dominican. Gordon grew up with rock, but rock found me. The shit hit me like a ten-ton truck. It fit my lifestyle, the way I wanted to live my life.” Tineo’s dad taught him beats, but the drum set “didn’t speak to me until rock. My dad also bought me a guitar, which I didn’t end up learning until years later.”

Beechwood’s founders “learned to play, more or less, with each other,” says Lawrence. “Isa and I met through mutual friends who all skated together. We’d all meet up at some local skatepark for the day and then hang out afterwards, try to find someone over 21 or with a fake ID to buy us some 40-ouncers from the bodega, and then go out looking for some party or whatever at night.” The pair’s first recorded endeavor, Trash Glamour (2014), was cut in Lawrence’s parent’s basement. “In my head, it was Exile on Main Street, but we were in a basement. It sounds awful,” Lawrence confesses.

Sartorially, musically, and interest-wise they’re from the Deuce/Vinyl era of NYC. However, they claim, vociferously, they were not born in the wrong era. “I’ll fucking answer for all of us,” Tineo jumps in. “Only because I have words of wisdom I want to pass down. It’s a great question for us, especially as far as what we like and our music. I’ll give you a little story. I stayed with [Ramones manager/punk author/publicist] Danny Fields for a little while. I posed that question to him, myself. I was a lot younger, I was 17, 18, a teenager, whatever.”

He notes my eyebrow raise.

“No, really, I lived with him. For real.”

“He likes having young little handsome boys around,”’ Lawrence adds, sotto voce. 

“I told him, ‘I have the Ramones tattooed across my stomach,’ ” Tineo says. “And this is Danny Fields. I told him I should have been born when the Ramones were around. And Beechwood — he’d never even seen us — I told him, ‘We’re the best!’ [Fields] said, to enlighten me: ‘You, know, you wouldn’t have been the Ramones, or you wouldn’t be as great as you are now, because there’s only you, only one of you, one of your band. Only you can do what you’re doing now.’ ”

Indeed, their septuagenarian fore-musicians are revered but not imitated. Live, Lawrence and Tineo switch instruments; they all write songs. Rife with prolific creativity, youth, and constant change, a next record, Inside the Flesh Hotel, is in the can and will be out this summer. It aurally showcases a happier headspace for the Lawrence, and marks Simons’s writing and recording debut.

As Tom Petty, Bad Company, and Joe Walsh play over 2A’s PA, Beechwood concur that “music is just as shitty today now as it was back then. There’s just as much need for a good band like as there was back then for the Ramones. The Ramones were listening to Styx on the radio, and I’m listening to…I don’t even know,” Lawrence laughs.

There’s one cover song on Songs From the Land of Nod, and it’s lyrically telling. The Kinks gem “I’m Not Like Everybody Else” resonates as much musically as it does lyrically for the band: “I don’t want to live my life like everybody else / And I won’t say that I feel fine like everybody else / ’Cause I’m not like everybody else.” Production on Land of Nod comes courtesy of Lawrence’s uncle in Chicago, who has a “Brian Jones/Brian Wilson vibe” that’s evident in the album’s intricate, creative layers, and the scary-beautiful intensity of dark, driving songs like “This Time Around.”

Reasonably apt comparisons to bands like Suicide and the Velvet Underground pepper Beechwood’s press kit. Those references, Lawrence points out, often come from older journalists. “When people listen to something, they want to put it in a certain context that makes sense to them. You experience through the filter of your past, a reference point,” he notes. “We’re not doing anything new, not starting some new genre. We’re just playing rock ’n’ roll music the best that we can. The guys writing these articles grew up going to the Ramones. When they listen to us, it’s a compliment, knowing that the same energy they felt as a kid going to see those bands is what they’re feeling when they see us.”

“I think we’re a really great band, and [comparisons are] OK for now. But you know what?” the irrepressible Tineo offers. “I think we’re going to make such a mark on music that other bands, any other great band, will be compared to us at some time.” 

 

Beechwood play Thursday, March 29, at the Kingsland, Brooklyn.

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Loved By Iggy Pop, Hated By Jim Morrison: The Life and Times of Danny Fields

From pulling needles full of dope out of Iggy Pop’s arm just before showtime and helping turn Jim Morrison into a sex symbol (becoming Morrison’s sworn enemy in the process), to unleashing the Ramones upon the world and later becoming one of the globe’s leading music journalists, NYC’s own Danny Fields has been a pivotal figure in nearly five decades of rock ‘n roll history, albeit mostly behind-the-scenes. But filmmaker Brendan Toller aims to give the 70-year-old Fields his due with a behemoth of a new project — the documentary Danny Says.

Along with writer Justin Skrakowski, Toller’s in the middle of crafting the most detailed look to date at Fields’ fascinating life and times — tight pal of Andy Warhol and regular at the Factory; publicist for the Doors; able assistant to Cream and the Velvet Underground; manager of the Ramones, the Stooges, and Lou Reed; discoverer of the MC5, Allman Brothers, Modern Lovers, Nico, Loudon Wainwright and myriad others; close friend, collaborator and biographer of Linda McCartney; and more.

“I would say he’s definitely aware of his influence and what his taste has done for the culture at large, but in terms of taking credit for it, I don’t think he was ever one to pride himself on the backs of artists,” says Toller. “But he’s a giant, and he’s just this great character, so I think it’s a story worth telling.

A 26-year-old graduate of Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, Toller’s a “tot” — as Fields likes to call him, Toller laughs — but he’s already got one documentary under his belt: 2008’s I Need That Record!, about the decline of independent record stores around the U.S., which featured Ian MacKaye, Thurston Moore, Noam Chomsky, and others (made on a budget of about $10,000, it was his senior thesis project; you can peep it on Netflix Instant). Toller met and interviewed Fields during the making of that film — introductions were made by the grandmother of his then-girlfriend, photographer Ariel Rosenbloom — though Fields’ clips ended up on the cutting room floor.

“But I was fascinated with him and we talked about so much stuff,” Toller recalls, “and afterwards I kept hearing from mutual friends that ‘Danny’s kind of upset that you haven’t been in touch….’ I was like, what? So I emailed him and we developed this friendship where every time I would travel from Western Mass to New York, I’d hang out with him. Then I moved to Brooklyn and I said to him, ‘If you ever need any help with a memoir or, God forbid, a documentary, I’d love to just help,’ and he said ‘Yeah, let’s get started.’ It’s something people have been trying to get him to do for 30 years, so it’s pretty incredible.”

Fields opened his impressive Rolodex to Toller and hooked him up with the 60-plus people who’ve sat in front of the camera over the past three years–a group that includes Iggy Pop, Alice Cooper, Tommy Ramone, Judy Collins, Jonathan Richman, and Loudon and Rufus Wainwright.

But Fields has otherwise been entirely hands-off, says Toller. “He was always worried that he was gonna be really impossible to work with, but he hasn’t. He’s not at all peeking over my shoulder in the editing room. He wants people to speak truthfully about him. He’s told people this. People have called him [prior to Toller’s on-camera interviews] and asked him, ‘What can I mention?’ And he says, ‘Tell them everything, I’m not watching any of this, I’m not editing it, that’s their job, I wanna be out of this.”

Toller’s so far gotten over 250 hours of footage from his interviews with Fields and others — in addition to digitizing exclusive photos and video from Fields’ own archives — and says it’s been a fun, surreal experience. Collins told him about talking Fields down from one of his first acid trips while hanging out at a hotel with Leonard Cohen, and both Iggy and Stooges drummer Scott Asheton recalled how Fields quit on them after Asheton drove a 14-foot U-Haul truck under a 13-foot underpass, shearing the top off the vehicle and ruining yet another drug-addled tour.

And just the act of talking with some of his own heroes has been a thrill. “It was crazy for me to be able to go to Iggy’s office-abode in Miami,” says Toller. “I asked him right before the interview, ‘I have to go to the bathroom, where do I go?’ and he goes, ‘Ehh, just pee in the bushes.’ I was like, wow, I peed in Iggy’s bushes! He was really, really gracious and open, and you could tell that Danny really helped his entrance into New York and, for lack of a better word, show business. He says that the Stooges owe a lot to Danny.”

“Early in my friendship [with Danny] I was nervous to ask him, like, ‘Let me hear your crazy Iggy stories’ or ‘I heard you and Jim [Morrison] hated each other?’ But he’s totally open to it,” Toller continues.

“Danny sort of summed up the Morrison thing on film — you know the famous picture that Joel Brodksy took, the one where [Morrison’s] shirtless with the necklace? Danny was there at the shoot and he says, ‘That picture sort of entrapped him because how can anyone look that great ever again?’ Jim wanted to be known as a poet and for his performances, and Danny’s whole thing with the Doors was promoting the image of Jim as this wild new sex symbol that the world had never seen, so that was reason to not get along. There were other escapades, too, like Danny taking Jim’s car keys away because he was too stoned or drunk. They did not like one another, and Danny swears that when he went to go console Morrison’s widow, Pamela, that there was a dog jumping on Danny and Pamela said, ‘The dog! It’s got something to say! It’s Jim [reincarnated]!’ and then the dog puked all over Danny’s lap. So he was like, ‘Yep, it’s Jim.'”

Fields being so hands-off the project includes the financial end, as well. So Toller — like so many other creatives these days — has turned to Kickstarter to generate $20,000 to put together a 20-minute sample cut to shop around for finishing funds. “I hate this part of the job, asking people for money,” says Toller, noting that the Kickstarter cash will go to hiring an additional editor and people to do motion graphics and animation “to give you a break from all the talking heads.” He figures the final budget for Danny Says might extend into six figures, with a big chunk of that going toward licensing fees for all the music in the film.

He also thinks the film could turn out to be significantly longer than your average 90-minute feature. “There’s just so much stuff there. You can’t really tell Danny’s story without telling the story of, say, the MC5. To understand where Danny was coming from with some of those bands, you have to understand certain details and certain stories why they didn’t make it big or why he quit as manager.”

“I also don’t want it to be a Gone With the Wind, that’s like five hours,” he laughs. “So we’ll have to see what it ends up as.”

However it turns out, he’s still not sure Fields himself will ever watch it. “He was originally telling everyone that this film wouldn’t come out until he was dead, that was the stipulation,” Toller says. “Now he’s receptive to the idea that it’ll come out when he’s still with us, but he was like, ‘I think I’m just gonna stand across the street and watch people come out of the theater. Maybe I’ll see it someday.'”

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ABBA ZABA

“I’m not a rock star,” Don Van Vliet (a/k/a Captain Beefheart) once corrected a journalist. “I’m a soft person. I’m not a rock.” Undeniably a true American original, modern-music innovator Van Vliet’s brash, bluesy avant-rock has influenced everyone from David Byrne to the White Stripes. Celebrate his contributions tonight at Beefheart Night at the Knit, which kicks off with a screening of rare Beefheart film clips and documentaries, followed by a reading of Van Vliet’s poems and some reminiscing, with Kurt Loder, Lee Ranaldo, Alan Vega, Roswell Rudd, Danny Fields, and Hal Willner, among others. While Van Vliet himself, who is busy these days with his career as a painter, isn’t expected to appear, fans will be treated to the next best thing—the long-awaited return of the acclaimed Beefheart instrumental cover band Fast ’n’ Bulbous, featuring ex–Magic Band member and guitar virtuoso Gary Lucas, known as one of the best interpreters of the captain’s surreal compositions.

Wed., April 9, 8 p.m., 2008