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Ben Fong-Torres
The Facts on Larry Ching
May 2003

'Better Luck' This Weekend
April 2003

Old Memories, a New Museum
March 2003

'Twixt Teen and Michael Jackson
February 2003

In a Confused State of Mind
January 2003

In the Trenches with Trent, Jon Lovitz, and Johnny Rivers
December 2002

The Pioneering Performers of The Forbidden City
November 2002

A Letter to Writers, and How the Wiest was Won
October 2002

A Singing Career? I Think Not.
September 2002

Sheryl Crow: All She Wants to Do is Have Some Lunch
August 2002

Bruce Springsteen: Still the Boss
July 2002

Commencement Speech at Thurgood Marshall College
July 2002

A Senior Moment and a Reunion with a Pop Star
June 2002

We Love New York, Part 2002
May 2002

A Flick, a Rock Fantasy, and An Alternative to the Laptop
Apr 2002

March Madness, the Musical, and a Joint Effort with Willie Nelson
Mar 2002

Bringing in 4700 with a Parade of Wild Horses
Feb 2002

Taking a Q from Quincy Jones - It's His Party
Feb 2002

Asian American Males on TV: Old News is Bad News
Dec, 2001

Life's Lessons from a DJ and a Songwriter
May 2001

Gawk and Roll at the Hall of Fame
Apr 2001

Shakin' It Up at Harvard
Mar 2001

Creole Ladies and Crazy Times Down in New Orleans
Feb 23, 2001

A Parade of Dragons, Lions, Serpents -- and Strippers?
Feb 5, 2001

In the Trenches with Trent, Jon Lovitz and Johnny Rivers
by Ben Fong-Torres

AsianConnections 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 Crowe.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter whether Sen. Trent Lott is out—which he should and may well be, by the time you read this—or remains the majority leader of that private party we call “Republican.” What his remarks added up to was yet another reminder that we’ve always lived among racists, and always will. Just when you think, for example, that Asian-Americans have made a bit of progress, you run across one of the numerous Web sites that are devoted to Asian jokes. Every slur and stereotype you’ve been working to squash is there, available for people of all colors to laugh at.  Is that equality or what?

One Asian-American had a letter published in the New York Times, in the immediate aftermath of Lott’s self-exposure. Wrote Bell Yung of Pittsburgh:

“For countless immigrants like me and those Americans born after the 1960’s, the furor over Lott is indeed an invaluable national tutorial. Even more important, it clearly demonstrates how the practice of equality among all has been a constant battle that is still being fought today in America, more than two centuries after its declaration of independence.

“As the United States exerts increasing power over other nations and people, it behooves the administration to recognize this struggle at home, and to exercise patience and forbearance as it demands similar practice from other nations that may have a much shorter history of such a struggle.”

Random Notes: Speaking of the New York Times, I got mentioned the other Sunday. In a superb piece about Gram Parsons, the country-rock pioneer who was the subject of my first book, reporter Neil Strauss surveyed the continuing interest in Parsons, who died young, 30 years ago, and never had a hit record. He noted a film being made, starring Johnny Knoxville, about Parsons. “In the meantime,” Strauss wrote, “Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones recently bought the movie rights to the definitive biography, ‘Hickory Wind: The Life and Times of Gram Parsons’ by Ben Fong-Torres.” It’s true. He’s got a year or so to make something happen, and I sure hope he does, given the shape of my 401(k) … It sure has been a crazy year. Every day, it seems, I still get asked about being portrayed in the movie, Almost Famous. The other weekend, in Los Angeles with Dianne, my wife, I was in Beverly Hills when I ran into Jon Lovitz, late of Saturday Night Live (“The Liar,” “The Thespian”) and NewsRadio. Having just enjoyed seeing him being interviewed on Bravo, I introduced myself. “Say that again?” he asked. I did, and he smiled. “You sound just like you do in the movie,” he said, and proceeded to pepper me with questions about what was real and what wasn’t. Inquisition over, I asked what he was up to, and here you go: He’s scored another guest shot on Friends. (Lisa Kudrow, he said, happens to be a buddy.) And I am NOT lying! …

Johnny Rivers and Ben Fong-Torres at Fred Segal’s restaurant in West Hollywood.

Johnny Be Good: While in L.A., I had lunch with Johnny Rivers, who is remembered by long-time rock fans for such hits as “Poor Side of Town,” “Memphis,” “Mountain of Love,” “Baby I Need Your Lovin’,” and “Summer Rain.” These days, his best-known hit is “Secret Agent Man,” which got a new life thanks to the first Austin Powers movie. Back in ’66, when it first hit, I heard it as “Secret Asian Man.” It was partly Johnny’s Baton Rouge-flavored enunciation; part personal fantasy.

Anyway, we had lunch because Rivers is interested in writing a book about his life and times, and we’d met about five years ago. In fact, Elaine Vasko, the president of his fan club, whose members consider themselves “secret agents,” asked me to write a little something about Johnny for its newsletter. Here’s part of what I sent:

At my left was Johnny Rivers, and to his left was an array of legendary radio disk jockeys and programmers. We were on stage at the Museum of Television & Radio in Beverly Hills one December evening in 1998 for a salute to “40 Years of Top 40 Radio.”

I’d just published a book on the history of Top 40, called The Hits Just Keep On Coming, and the Museum agreed to host an event, if I could put together a decent panel. A few phone calls later, I’d managed to get Gary Owens, Casey Kasem, and Rick Dees to represent deejays. Two of Top 40’s major programming architects, Chuck Blore (“Color Radio”) and Bill Drake (“Boss Radio”), both known to be media-shy, agreed to participate.

Then, the Museum added a bonus. To offer an artist’s perspective on radio, they invited Johnny Rivers, who would not only join the panel, but also perform on the Museum’s rooftop garden afterwards.

I couldn’t believe my good fortune. And, looking back on that evening, it’s still hard to believe that it actually happened.

At the Museum of Television & Radio, Ben poses with, from left, Casey Kasem, Bill Drake, Chuck Blore, Johnny Rivers, Rick Dees and Gary Owens.

In my years of covering and interviewing musicians for Rolling Stone, I’d never met Johnny. But long before joining the magazine in San Francisco in the late Sixties, I’d been a fan. That evening at the Museum, moderating the panel, it was hard to get away from the stories being told by the radio people, but, soon enough, I asked Johnny to tell about his own connections to radio.

He told of growing up hanging around radio stations in Baton Rouge and going to New York City on vacation once, in 1957, and taking a guitar and standing in front of WINS at Columbus Circle to wait for Alan Freed, the pioneer DJ credited with coining the very phrase, “rock and roll.”  “Just like in the movies,” said Johnny. “And he came walking up with his manager, who was running his publishing company. I introduced myself. ‘I’m John Ramistella, I have a band and I write songs.’ He gave me his card and invited me to come up to his office in the Brill Building the next day, to play him some of my songs.” Johnny did and got a recording session out of it. He was on his way.

After the panel and a short reception, we hit the roof, where Johnny and his band made my book title come true. The hits just kept on coming. I’d invited my wife Dianne’s sisters, who live in Los Angeles, to join us. Along with Dianne, Robin Ward and Eileen Powers were among the first to hit the front of the stage, where they danced from “Maybelline” through “Summer Rain.” Three sisters dancing together; it was like American Bandstand all over again.

Johnny and I have kept in touch. He’s talked about writing a book about his amazing career and his unique perspectives on the music industry. Beyond his own vivid memories, he said, he could call on any number of “secret agents” (his fan club members) around the country for help. 

He can also count on at least one secret Asian man.

For more insights by Ben, visit his official website at www.benfongtorres.com


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