in My Heart
is proud to present the adventures of Ben Fong-Torres, our Renaissance
man: author, broadcaster, and former senior editor and writer at
Rolling Stone Magazine. This guy's our hero!
was a featured character in "Almost Famous," the Oscar and
Golden Globe-winning film by Cameron Crowe.
- AC Team
I saw Dan Rather
break down and cry---twice---on Letterman the other night. After
the first time, he apologized, saying he was supposed to be a "pro,"
paid to not cry.
I, for one, was glad to see him weep, to let his emotions show.
As Letterman said, "You're a professional, but, good Christ, you're
a human being."
So is David Letterman. Back for the first time since the attacks
on his beloved New York City, he himself was on the verge of tears
as he spoke about what had happened, and how he felt. In his sadness
and anger, he spoke for all of us. And with his tears, which fell
first as he spoke about the heroic firefighters of New York, and
again as he quoted a line from "America the Beautiful," Rather cried
for all of us.
Not that we
haven't been doing enough wiping of our own eyes. As another song
goes, let it rain.
(related story - click here for Amy Tan at Ground Zero)
to the AAJA (Asian American Journalists Association) on a great
20th convention in San Francisco. About 1,000 reporters and broadcasters
gathered for several days and nights of panels, speeches, workshops,
mentoring sessions, award banquets, and, of course, partying and
this before -- 13 times, in fact, in various cities where the 1,700
member group has chapters (last year, New York; next: Dallas). But
this year, I noticed a shift. The AAJA has gotten young. Maybe it
was just me, I thought, but, checking with a few fellow attendees,
I found general agreement. On stage and on the dance floor at the
post-banquet karaoke party (which I emceed), and all around the
Hyatt, it was obvious-and encouraging.
For better reporting
on racial and community issues, and for the media to best reflect
their audiences, we've got to have more minority representation
than we do now. To see so much youth-whether at the AAJA-sponsored
Boot Camp By the Bay at USF (which I had the pleasure of keynoting)
or at any number of convention events-was to see a brighter future.
I also had
fun being part of an authors reception, with about a dozen AAJA
members who've published books, among them Bill Wong (Yellow
Journalist), Phoebe Eng (Warrior Lessons), Emil Guillermo
(Amok), Cynthia Chin Lee (A is for Asia), Fred Katayama
(Japan: A Living Portrait), Jeff Yang, publisher of A. and
author of My Name is Jackie Chan, Dalton Tanonaka, in from
Hong Kong and happy to offer three books, including Dateline
Tanonaka. It was also good to see, again, Helen Zia (Asian
American Dreams), whose upcoming book with Wen Ho Lee has been
and will be hot news.
Thanks to Rosy
Chu of KTVU (the Fox station for Oakland-SF), who MC'd the gathering;
to Helen, who organized it; to Lisa Chung of the San Jose Mercury,
who got me to handle the hordes at the karaoke bash; to Culture
Shock, a phat hip-hop dance troupe that got the crowd rocking
that night, and to Denise Castaneda, who organized the karaoke and
two other convention events, and worked 24/7.
But, hey, she's
Fong-Torres and Mimi Farina
got the sendoff she deserved the other morning at Grace Cathedral
on Nob Hill in San Francisco. More
than a thousand friends, family, and people who benefited from her
work jammed the beautiful church to say farewell with music and
stories, sung and said by Boz Scaggs, Judy Collins, Jackson Browne,
Holly Near, Maria Muldaur, the Oakland Interfaith Choir, and Joan
Baez, Mimi's older sister.
As Boz said,
Mimi reminded popular artists that they had been gifted, and that
they should give back to their community. Mimi was the guiding force
behind Bread & Roses, which provides musicians and other
entertainers for free shows at institutions throughout Northern
California-hospitals, senior centers, prisons, brightening untold
thousands of lives over 20 years.
(The idea has spread to various cities around the country.)
Mimi began as
a singer, guitarist, and dancer, and recorded two albums with her
late husband, the novelist Richard Farina. But she truly found her
life's calling with Bread & Roses, and I had
the honor of being tapped to co-host a couple of the organization's
legendary acoustic, all-day fundraising concerts at the Greek Theater
at U.C. Berkeley in the early '80s.
One year, I
hosted a live broadcast of the festival for NPR, and Mimi
dropped by to our backstage studio for an interview. As you can
see, she was mesmerized by my questions. Beauty, music, laughter,
love, life-that was Mimi Farina.
Connie Chung. You did us proud, going after Gary Condit the way
you did. It was next to impossible to get him to depart from his
tight, scripted responses, but Chung never stopped trying. Just
as the ABC Primetime session was a textbook for how
disgraced public figures should not do an interview, it's a lesson
for journalists on not giving up.
Shirley Wong, managing editor of the Spartan Scroll, the
paper at Schurr High School in Montebello, Calif., wrote a nice
article about me recently, and has agreed to let you see it.
I met her and classmates when I spoke at a national conference for
high school journalists -
then ran into her again at the David Hwang Theater in L.A., where
we saw Philip Kan Gotanda's play, Yankee Dawg You Die!…Anyway,
the article is right below here?
By Shirley Wong
a point when I just want to give up and relinquish the tape recorder
to my interviewee, that point being the beginning. After all, this
is the Ben Fong-Torres, the famous Rolling Stone editor
portrayed in Cameron Crowe's autobiographical Almost Famous.
He's been doing this sort of business longer and better than I have,
mingling with music and film legends
like Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, Jim Morrison and
And I just
have interviewed this man; he even graced the cover of BAM Magazine,
the famous Bay area music publication. He has one of the most recognizable
bylines in the music industry, though that may also be partially
caused by his unique name. (Fong-Torres is full Chinese. Because
Chinese immigration was previously restricted, his father purchased
the name "Torres" so that he could enter the United States by declaring
himself to be Filipino.)
In 1973, Fong-Torres
discovered the then 15-year-old Crowe, who would become the youngest
Rolling Stone reporter ever. He later turned to movies, writing
Fast Times at Ridgemont High and, more recently, writing
and directing Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous. Fong-Torres
met the precocious Crowe at a Rolling Stones concert.
In the foreword
of Fong-Torres' anthology of interviews, Not Fade Away, Crowe
writes, "I read your articles in Rolling Stone, not even
realizing you were responsible for assigning and shaping all the
other music profiles too. I wanted to interview Crosby, Stills,
Nash & Young. I wanted to be you?The Rolling Stones were now taking
the stage. Mick Jagger ripped into 'Oh Carol,' but all I was thinking
was I just got an assignment for Rolling Stone from Ben
first heard of his role in Almost Famous when he asked Crowe
to write the piece for Not Fade Away. "He told me about this
movie he was doing," said Fong-Torres. "Cameron said 'It's kind
of autobiographical, and since you had a hand in [my career], would
you mind me using your character?' He's already mentioned me as
the starting point of his career in several interviews, and so I
So began the
movie Almost Famous, the same movie that would later win
an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. When Fong-Torres
dropped by Los Angeles, he saw the set that mimicked his original
office at Rolling Stone. "It was a strange sensation to have?
something like a flashback. But I didn't think 'Oh, this is exactly
how my old office was like.' It was 'Oh, it's a movie set approximating
what Rolling Stone was like,' " said Fong-Torres.
ask me if Almost Famous was accurate about life at Rolling
Stone then, if I was really like that in the movie. I just need
to remind them that this is a movie; it is exaggerated, romanticized.
It reflected best the kid's passion in getting involved in rock
and roll. I think it was best reflective of Cameron's life. We were
just supporting characters who helped drive a plot line."
joined Rolling Stone founder Jann S. Wenner in the magazine's
first year of publication when it wasn't even quite a magazine yet.
Fong-Torres describes the first Rolling Stone issue as a
"hybrid [of newspaper and magazine]?printed on newsprint in black
and white with a single splash of color on the Rolling Stone
As one of the
few highly respected music magazines in the 1970s, Rolling Stone
and Fong-Torres scored exclusive interviews with some of the industry's
brightest artists. Stars like Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, Marvin
Gaye and the Jackson 5, just to rattle off a few names, all graced
the cover of Rolling Stone under Fong-Torres' byline. However,
of all these artists, the one Fong-Torres deems his favorite is
Ray Charles. "It was probably the one that gave me the most overall
satisfaction because he was the epitome of a story that would not
be done today. He was not selling a huge amount of records; he was
not controversial. He was just, in my view, one of the greatest
artists in American music."
the interviews and good times in the world could not blind Fong-Torres
from the changes taking place in the music industry, and Rolling
Stone. The omnipresent deadlines placed Fong-Torres on the cliff
edge of stress. When the Rolling Stone headquarters moved
from San Francisco to New York in 1977, Fong-Torres stayed in San
Francisco as its west coast editor and found himself increasingly
alienated from where he thought was the heart of the magazine. Telephone
conferences and faxed assignments could never replace the Rolling
Stone home Fong-Torres felt when the magazine was in San Francisco.
So, in 1981, he moved on.
Now armed with
one of the most recognizable bylines in the music industry, Fong-Torres
easily found himself freelancing for magazines like Parade, GQ,
Esquire and his local paper, the San Francisco Chronicle.
But it wasn't
until Sarah Lazin, an editorial assistant at Rolling Stone who'd
become a literary agent in New York, suggested Fong-Torres for a
biography of country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons that a new chapter,
literally, began in his life. After writing Parsons' biography,
Hickory Wind, Fong-Torres' editor suggested that he write his own
life story. Fong-Torres left the Chronicle to work on The Rice
Room: Growing Up Chinese American-From Number Two Son to Rock 'n'
Roll, published in 1994 Though Fong-Torres was still asking
the questions, the tables were turned because they were directed
latest work is Not Fade Away. Intimidation flows through
the pages of the book. Flip a page and there's Paul McCartney. Turn
to the next chapter and up pops an interview with Santana. Go to
another page, and adorning it is a famous Annie Leibovitz photograph
of Mick Jagger. These names are so big, my spell check doesn't even
read them as wrong.
has made his living by being surrounded by the flame of fame, hovering
so close to it but ultimately, never touching it. Though Almost
Famous is certainly the story of Cameron Crowe, one has to wonder
if a little of Fong-Torres is reflected in that movie, and I'm not
talking about his own character. One has to wonder if a little of
Fong-Torres is in the incredibly precocious but inescapably na?e
16-year-old William Miller. Fong-Torres was only a young man when
he joined the ranks of Rolling Stone. He became ensconced
in the turbulent music world of decadence and emotions, artistry
and greed, money and, of course, fame.
It's a wonder
that Fong-Torres wasn't whisked away in this world to become a neurotic
writer like Hunter S. Thompson. But it's an even greater wonder
that Fong-Torres would ever be labeled as "almost famous" when he's
already great, already so accomplished. His place in the music world
is as important as those of the artists he has interviewed, for
where would stories be if there were no storytellers? And so my
hat is off to one of the greatest storytellers of Rolling Stone
whose story, I believe, should be told again.
And so it has.
long-time writer, broadcaster and former senior editor at Rolling
Stone magazine, is the author of four books, including his memoirs,
The Rice Room: Growing Up Chinese-American, and his latest, Not
Fade Away: A Backstage Pass to 20 Years of Rock & Roll.
Click to Ben
Fong-Torres Articles Index
Visit Ben's official site: www.BenFongTorres.com