is proud to present the adventures of Ben
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?
had a letter published in the New York Times, in the immediate
aftermath of Lott’s self-exposure. Wrote Bell Yung of Pittsburgh:
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
“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
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! …
Rivers and Ben Fong-Torres at Fred Segal’s restaurant in
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
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.
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.