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
One recent Saturday,
I emceed a lunchtime fundraiser for Oakland High School, featuring
fellow alumnus Sheila E, did a reading as part of Litquake in San
Francisco (one author every ten minutes-kind of like a Wordstock),
then raced up to Marin County to conduct an onstage interview with
Dianne Wiest for the Mill Valley Film Festival.
And I didn't
have a heart attack. Woo-HOO!
Sheila was great,
improvising on timbales with a swinging Oakland High School Band
at Yoshi's, the jazz club in Jack London Square. Litquake, taking
place in two theaters in Civic Center, was hopelessly behind schedule
when I arrived at 4:30 for my 5 o'clock spot, and I wound up following
a bright hip-hopper from Youth Speaks. Fortunately, I chose short
excerpts about three artists who are hipsters in widely differing
ways: Rickie Lee Jones, Rodney Dangerfield, and the Rolling Stones,
and the audience members held back their rotten tomatoes.
At the Rafael
Theater in San Rafael, Dianne Wiest, Oscar winner for Bullets
Over Broadway ("Don't speak!") and Hannah and Her Sisters,
swept in just before our 7 p.m. start time. We said hello as I escorted
her into the theater, and, minutes later, there we were, chatting
away in front of a packed house. Well, "chatting" is not quite accurate.
Overcome by nerves, she giggled her way through her first answers.
We'd begun by showing clips from several of her earlier films, including
Footloose. Saying that she doesn't watch her own films, Dianne
claimed that she couldn't even remember some of the scenes we'd
just seen, and laughed some more. Much more, actually. I told her
not to worry. Willie Nelson, who I interviewed earlier this year,
told me he forgot entire films.
with Diane Weist
I mentioned Bigfoot, a 1987 TV-movie that's part of her filmography,
she drew a blank. She had no recollection of being in such a film.
"Oh my God," she cried. " I am Willie Nelson!!"
If you're wondering
why she's no longer on Law & Order, on which she played the
D.A. for two seasons, Wiest responds: "I failed to fulfill what
should have been an interesting role. I couldn't take their formula
and bring what I had, my humor, my ideas and make it my own. It's
not an 'actor-dependent' show ˇ¦ The formula is the star. I couldn't
work inside that formula."
Far more fulfilling
is her latest film, Merci Docteur Rey, in which she portrays
an opera diva. Her co-stars include Jane Birkin and Vanessa Redgrave.
Emeril Lagasse, who's been doing specials on various cities, came
to San Francisco not long ago, hit Chinatown, and gave us not a
"BAM!" but a splat. Praising Chinatown as one of the best in the
United States, his report consisted entirely of a visit to a restaurant
he called "Yowt Lee." He was actually in Yuet Lee, which he said
he's been going to for 20 years, but he called it "Yowt" about a
dozen times, and no one thought, or dared, to correct him. However,
the calamari dish did look spectacularˇ¦
Would-Be Writers: Read On, Write On
The other day,
I got a letter, through Asian Connections, asking for some advice.
I told the writer I wouldn't answer him. Instead, I'd write an open
letter to all the people who've written over the years, or who've
asked similar questions wherever I've given talks about journalism
or the music industry. Now, I'll be able to direct all future inquisitors
to this letter. I'm such a lazy guy. Here's the letter I got:
My name is Jonathan Sanders, I am a journalism major at Indiana
University in Bloomington. I have been a long-time reader of
almost everything on music that I could get my hands on, and
music is my life. My goal is to be able to spend my life being
a music journalist.
read a lot of your early works with "Rolling Stone,"
and I respect your opinions as a writer and a music fan. I'm
still in my junior year, but I'm looking to start freelancing
before graduation, in hopes of jumpstarting my career. So far,
I've written for the Indiana Daily Student for a year, and I've
been a staff writer at the independent music site Gods of Music
where I'm the first person to become a site editor in less than
to make a long story short, I felt I should write to you and
see what you thought might be a good path to take if I want
to be a freelance journalist in the music world. Is there any
good way to get my writing out there for editors to see it?
I appreciate any comments you can send me, as someone who has
done so much in the world of music journalism, I felt you'd
be a good writer to contact for advice.
I've told others who share your goals: The best advice I can give
to young people who want to be writers is to read, to read widely
(and not just about music and entertainment), to absorb reporting
and writing styles, to be able to identify favorite writers without
copying them, and to be able to learn story structure from them.
Read not only books, magazines, newspapers, and online publications,
but good, short-form writing as well, whether they're gossip items
or advertisements. I learned the importance of hooking readers with
sharp lead paragraphs from clever ads; they also helped me when
it came time to write headlines in newspapers and magazines I edited.
If you're writing
for whoever will have you, you're doing the right thing. It doesn't
matter whether it's a school paper or a bowling alley newsletter.
If you're accumulating experience, feedback, and clippings, you're
on the right track. Years ago, I would've cautioned against sliding
over into writing public relations material-press releases, biographies,
ads. Now, with the entertainment industry so perforated, with so
many people jumping between and among media, working both sides
of the journalism/PR fence-I'm thinking it may be useless to advise
avoiding the PR side. Early in your career, you can pick up useful
experience writing from the artist's and record label's perspective.
You can learn the tricks they employ to get attention from the press.
You'll also learn that working on publicity pays better than interviewing
artists for the media. Decide which side you want to be on -- and
pay: I wouldn't advise anyone to set, as her or his goal, freelancing.
You are asking for low-rent trouble. It's a tough existence, scraping
by on assignments from here and there, fighting to get paid, dealing
with rejection. It's like choosing to be an actor or a musician.
Prepare to maintain some other kind of employment while you bang
out your articles in off-hours. Get reference books on publishers
and editors and write to everyone. Come up with sharp, unique story
ideas, and understand that celebrity profiles are being done by
everyone else already; that many magazines rely on staff writers
and a few favorite independent contractors; that most magazines
haven't upped their writers' rates in decades, and that some of
the most prestigious publications believe they're doing you a favor
by letting your writing onto their pages. One fledgling freelancer
I know wrote a profile of a well-known comedian for a local paper
for $25. She then sent it to various newspapers around the country,
where the comic was touring. Three papers bought it, giving her
a total of $450. It's an insult, but this is how you start.
established, it's another story. Now you're talking a buck or two
a word. The trick is to get established before you can no longer
afford postage. Get a job at a paper, magazine or site. Get on the
masthead, whether it's as an intern or an editor. Write like crazy.
Attend media and music conferences and network whenever possible.
Keep track of the editors you do work with as a freelancer; many
do go on to bigger magazines, and you may be able to go along.
And enjoy yourself.
Whatever you're writing, think of why you got into it in the first
place. Put some of that feeling, that passion, that fun, that interest
in illuminating a subject, of enlightening a reader, into your work,
so that it never becomes just work.
Whenever I talk
about my career, I say how lucky I've been, to have gone to a liberal
college like San Francisco State, to be in a position to get into
Rolling Stone early on, and to go from there to just about
wherever I wanted. But I know it wasn't just luck. There was a lot
of work-work that hasn't stopped yet-and of grabbing and taking
advantage of opportunities.
So here's wishing
you luck. And a lot of work.