is proud to present the adventures of Ben
Fong-Torres, our very own Renaissance man: author, broadcaster,
and former senior editor and writer at Rolling Stone Magazine. This
guy's our hero! Ben was a featured character in the movie "Almost
Famous," the Oscar and Golden Globe-winning film by Cameron
speech at Thurgood Marshall College-part of the University of
California at San Diego-went over all right. Maybe it's because
I didn't moon the audience.
after picking me up at the airport, Michael Schudson, Acting Provost
of the college, told me about last year's commencement speaker,
Dr. Patch Adams, the unorthodox doc played by Robin Williams in
the film, Patch Adams. He skipped the traditional cap and gown,
wearing a T-shirt and cutoffs instead. And, at the end of his talk,
he invited the student body president of UCSD onto the stage, they
turned their backs to the audience, and dropped trou.
administration was not amused. I did not know any of this when I
got an email from the Acting Provost in March, informing me that
the commencement committee had recommended me for this year's gig.
I was on a short list with a Supreme Court justice, a U.C. higher-up,
and an ABC political correspondent whose first name conjures a soft
drink and a not so soft drug.
why me? Turns out many in the senior class of 750 had read my memoirs,
The Rice Room, and that an article I did back in the early
'80s, about why there are no Asian-American males anchoring TV newscasts
(a story sadly still relevant today) had been used in various courses.
(Thurgood Marshall, named for the first African-American Supreme
Court Justice, features urban, Third World, and ethnic studies,
along with a broad liberal arts program.)
an honor, for a guy who didn't even attend his own graduation (at
San Francisco State). But, hey, that was back in the Sixties! I
I accepted the invitation, got to LaJolla, where the 40 year-old
university is situated, met faculty members in the green room, put
on the robe, did my requested 12 minutes, and, most importantly,
kept my slacks on. I couldn't see the chancellor and the deans,
who were seated on stage behind me, but the only time I could imagine
their eyebrows lifting would be when I quoted Quincy Jones, the
legendary musician, telling me that he'd gotten into a little trouble
at Harvard when he told a graduating class, "Don't take no shit!"
the three or four thousand people in front of me laughed, I looked
over to a woman standing ten feet away from me, signing my talk.
"I wanna see how THAT'S signed," I said. She smiled, but her hands
Provost Schudson was pleased to know that, for my speech, I'd dug
up a quote from a 1978 commencement address given by Thurgood Marshall
himself, in which he beseeched students to "use your knowledge and
training for improving the lives of others."
also told the graduates-whose senior class began with the terrorist
attacks on America-that we'd gotten back to normal-a version of
normalcy, anyway, all too soon; that we were back to hatred and
violence, greed and selfishness, "all the things that remind us
that we are not always 'America the Beautiful.'" I continued:
fact is, we can be. When my parents, young people living, unhappily,
in China, thought about coming to America, they knew this country
as 'Gum San,' which means golden mountains, or 'Mai Gok,' beautiful
country. Through hard, hard work and a devotion to their culture,
they forged a life, and raised a family, that gave them reason enough
to believe that the United States was, in fact, golden, and beautiful.
Even if one of their sons DID wind up writing about rock and roll."
to seniors everywhere, in high school and in college. May you keep
on improving your own-and others' lives.
Sayer: Karaoke Makes Him Feel Like Singing
Sayer's biggest hits came in the mid-Seventies. You may remember
"When I Need You," "You Make Me Feel Like Dancing" (which wound
up in the Charlie's Angels movie), and "More Than I Can Say." But
when he lifts his voice in song these days, you wonder where all
those years went.
did the other day…at our house-Dianne and my home, that is, in San
Francisco. Leo was visiting from London, where he's working on a
series of reissues of his albums, and on a book. He was in California
to gather stories for his various projects, and wanted to talk with
me about the interviews I did with him, back in the day, for Rolling
Stone and for Evening Magazine, a TV show, and about the role San
Francisco played in his career.
career, he was happy to say, is still going strong, with tours in
Russia and China, Australia and New Zealand, and, most of all, Southeast
Asia. Little Leo is huge in Vietnam (where, in 1994, he headlined
the first public concert after the war). Throughout Southeast Asia,
Leo told me, his hit version of the Buddy Holly classic, "More Than
I Can Say," is the Number One song at karaoke bars. When Leo toured
South Korea and Vietnam, interviewers would take him to bars. Leo,
an outgoing sort, was more than happy to sing.
told him that I have a karaoke system, and it wasn't long before
he took the microphone, showing off his Buddy Holly voice, rocking
out on "Foxy Lady" and trading verses with me on Dylan's "Positively
Fourth Street." That's all good and fun, but when he finally tackled
one of his own hits, hours later, it was downright moving. Dianne
and I had taken Leo and a friend, Marianne, to one of our fave restaurants,
Andalu, where our fave server, Maya, was having dinner with her
parents and a bunch of friends, on the eve of her graduation from
S.F. State University. We invited Maya and several buddies over
for karaoke, and Leo performed his signature hit, "When I Need You,"
with Maya and two girl friends dancing behind and around him. He
got deep into the song, hit all the high notes, and took us back
in time. The girls didn't know about Leo, although Maya's parents
certainly did. But here, at our house, they swooned to the sound
of a classic love song, perfectly sung.
column is dedicated to the memories of Vincent Chin, who was murdered
June 19, 1982, and of my brother, Barry Fong-Torres, who died on
June 26, 1972. We will never forget.