The Interview: Ben Fong-Torres

by Janet Reilly

Ben Fong-Torres, almost famous

It was an unusually balmy Tuesday evening in March when my girlfriends, Betty and Donna, and I made our way to El Rio in the Mission. For those of you unfamiliar with this local watering hole, El Rio is a no-frills, neighborhood bar featuring cheap drinks and live music. On this particular girls’ night out, there was a little business (research for this month’s column) wrapped up in a whole lot of fun (see description of El Rio above). We were there to see famed former Rolling Stone writer and editor Ben Fong-Torres perform at open mic night.

As Betty, Donna and I shouldered our way through the crowd, Fong-Torres took his turn at the microphone. It was a familiar tune, Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill,” but the lyrics Fong-Torres sang were all his own—modified just for us:

I had a thrill/When I saw Nob Hill/The city’s Nob Hill/From dawn until dark/Say what you will/I’m diggin’ Nob Hill/The Fairmont Hotel/The Top of the Mark/And when I am craving news/About the jet set/There’s only one source to choose/The Nob Hill Gazette

I’m not sure what the rest of the crowd thought of this new rendition of an old classic, but the three of us hooted and hollered for more.

Recently, I sat down with Fong-Torres in the Castro Street home he shares with his wife of 36 years, Dianne. (Sidenote: His friend Annie Leibovitz photographed their wedding.) Sitting in the living room with a stunning panoramic view of the city, we talked about growing up in a traditional Chinese family in Oakland, Fong-Torres’s enduring love for radio and what it was like to work for a legendary magazine that defined an entire generation.

Enjoy the ride!

I’ve always wondered about your last name. I read your father changed his surname to Torres in order to pass as a Filipino when he immigrated to the United States. Is that true? He didn’t exactly change it. He was told by family members and friends in China that one way to skirt the Chinese Exclusion Act was to get a new name and pose as another nationality. They were excluding Chinese, but not Koreans and Filipinos. They said, “We can get you a birth certificate making you another person. Ricardo Torres happens to be the one.” My father had spent a year as a teenager in Manila working. So he knew enough of the language to pass on the ship. … They landed in the Pacific Northwest. Then, he journeyed down toward San Francisco and Oakland.

In the 1960s, you had one foot in two different worlds: one, as a son of immigrants who ran a restaurant in Oakland, and the other, as a Bay Area kid immersed in music and the counterculture. I was in college and pretty much away, except I would come home on the weekends to chip in and still work [at the restaurant]. … It helped that I couldn’t speak to my parents and they couldn’t speak to me. [My siblings and I] were born into a family in which they spoke a dialect of Cantonese. We sort of understood enough to do baby talk, but my parents didn’t really learn English ever. Because of [their limited English], there was no way for my mother to quiz us much about what we were doing. That was good.

You have written a radio column since 2004, refer to yourself as a radio nut and talk nostalgically about the influence radio has had on your life, particularly as a young boy. Can you tell me about that? As a kid before age 10, we were in this rice room in the back of the restaurant on Webster Street and the radio was “it.” It played comedy, quiz shows, serials, adventure series, music before rock ’n’ roll—and then when pop music, rock ’n’ roll, R&B came to the fore, that became the main entertainment for us kids. I don’t know why, but it seemed like it was as simple as hearing this and wanting to do it. As I grew a little older into my teens I realized that’s not too realistic because—even into the early ’60s—there were no Chinese Americans doing any of that. There was really nobody out there saying, “Hey kid, come on in. The water is fine. You can do this.” I was just very lucky to be in Oakland and San Francisco, in areas where there were not necessarily open doors but they were ajar. If you knocked and said, “Hey, I’m interested. Can I try?”—you could do that.

So, how’d you break in? After college I got a call from a fellow Oakland High School student who had become program director of KFOG, which was then a beautiful music station at Ghirardelli Square. He said, “Hey, I have an opening. It’s the all-night show. Do you want it?” And I said, “Hell, yes.” Little did I know that it was to run tapes of a show that was on all night long from Holiday Inns, so they provided all the music. All I did was change tapes and every half hour go on and say, “This is KFOG. Kaiser Broadcasting in San Francisco. Stereo for the good life.”

But you say that so well! [Laughs.] Yes, I also ripped and read wire service copy—I think every hour we did a newscast of about five items from the wires. Then, during the rest of the time while the tapes were playing, I’m writing commercial copy for local sponsors. Just a little typewriter in the studio. I’m writing away. I’m doing secretarial work. I’m doing ad agency work. This was, by the way, during the Summer of Love. There was a weird contrast to my day and evenings, where I’m just hanging out and going to parties.

So, would you say you were in a little bit of a fog most of the time? Well, I’d be at the Fillmore, Avalon, somebody’s house, listening to music, just kind of digging the scene. Then, about 11 or 11:15, I would jump into the car and head toward Ghirardelli Square to play Henry Mancini.

Then, I got a job at the phone company as an editor and writer for the employee magazine. That’s what I was doing when Rolling Stone came up. My roommates and I just went crazy over this publication. We started reading it and within a few issues, by early 1968, I got an idea from one of my roommates about a story tip, so I called it in to Rolling Stone down on Brannan Street. They said, “Yeah, we haven’t heard about that. Go ahead and write it up and see what happens.” So I did.

What was the story? It was about a free concert at a park on Steiner Street, featuring a band from Chicago that was promoting a movie that was being made by Dick Clark about the Haight-Ashbury. As soon as I heard that, “Dick Clark American Bandstand” and the “Haight-Ashbury,” I just said, Wow. This is perfect for Rolling Stone for that little column they had called “Flashes.” That’s how I got in to Rolling Stone. Without bylines, just a few paragraphs, but that was it. … Then, by spring of 69, I had done probably 10 or 12 pieces for them on a freelance basis.

How did it become a permanent gig? So,

Jann Wenner wrote a note on one of my little measly paychecks and said, “See me.” I called and made a lunch date with him, and he said, “Hey. We need to have [a writer], so you can come in and figure out what you think needs to be done and do it,” and offered me a decrease from my phone company salary. You know, I just bailed immediately. I had just had a chore of Pacific Telephone’s offices where one of the managers, vice president, somebody, told me, “One day kid, you could have this watch for yourself. This is my 20-year watch.” Just a rubber band will be fine. I’ll tell my own time.

What a transition going from the telephone company to Rolling Stone magazine! It was not a difficult decision.

I bet it wasn’t. While at Rolling Stone, you interviewed Paul McCartney, Elton John, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan and many more. Who was your most memorable interview subject? That’s a hard thing. I’ve always said three names. One is Marvin Gaye. One is Ray Charles. One is Diane Keaton. The irony is there’s no rocker in there.

But hey, you follow the stories where they go and these are the ones that kind of float to the top in my memory bank. Ray Charles because he was symbolic of what Rolling Stone was like back then in the early 1970s. We could come up with story ideas not based on popularity, heat factor, sales, sensationalism, glamour, and we could raise a hand and say, “Hey, Ray Charles is in town. We haven’t ever covered the guy and he is really a good part of the foundation of what we do here musically.” So they said, “OK, let’s see what he’s got.” So I went up to meet Mr. Charles, following him around LA, and Washington DC and wherever the hell he was going those days. I caught him at a time when he was a little angry. He had been bypassed. He might be called up to do a cameo with Aretha Franklin at the Fillmore or Winterland, but by and large he was considered passé, while people who emulated him, white people like Joe Cocker, were top of the charts.

He was a little proud and a little angry, so he gave me an incredible interview, in which for the first time he addressed his issue of kicking heroin. He had not done that with Playboy. We won an award for that, which I always say was his. I just typed, but still.

Marvin Gaye because he was just so honest and so vulnerable even at the top of his game. He had produced his landmark album, What’s Going On. Yet when I met him at his home outside of Detroit, he was just in fear of what was going to be expected next of him. He had no idea what might follow up this incredible work, which I guess he maybe didn’t know was incredible until the reaction came in. So many artists are so insecure about their work and about themselves.

During our interview and visit, Marvin Gaye told a story about how he had heard from Berry Gordy that Motown was signing Sammy Davis Jr. Marvin got all excited because he loves all kinds of music. He said, “Oh, I’m going to write some songs for Mr. Davis.” So he did. He wrote a handful of songs, then, being Marvin Gaye, he decided to go a little further. He hired an arranger, a conductor, an orchestra and a studio and created these incredible orchestral background tracks for Sammy to sing over. Then, Berry Gordy said, “Sammy is not coming to Motown.” Then, instead of pursuing it, [Gaye] just eats the tapes and the costs. “Man, that cost me like 40,000 dollars. Oh, but hey, you want to hear the songs?” Yes. So he goes and gets the tapes and puts on the reel-to-reel machine and then sings to me in his living room.

What about Diane Keaton? Just because I was in love with Diane Keaton from her deodorant commercials. … She would be in this tracksuit running. I just thought she was the prettiest woman ever. She started to make movies with Woody Allen, so I raised my hand. “Diane Keaton. She has this incredible new movie coming out called Looking for Mr. Goodbar.” It worked out for a nice cover story and I had the chance to meet her. She was delightful and she lived in an apartment that was all white. Everything was pristine and white. We had talked for about an hour or two and she says, “You know, I’m not really good at talking about myself.” She gets on her white phone, calls Woody. I jumped into a cab and went and saw Woody Allen. He was incredible and he lived in a space that was more like this. Decorated, pillows, color. I said, “Woody this a beautiful space. Who decorated this? Who helped you decorate this?” Diane. Ms. White woman.

Jann Wenner once said Rolling Stone wasn’t just about the music, but about the things and attitudes the music embraces. What was it like to be the “voice of a generation”? A lot of pressure? I didn’t feel the pressure at all. Our only pressure was that Jann had this ridiculous notion that he could put out a national magazine twice a month or once every two weeks. We would look at Look magazine, or Life, or Esquire, or anything, and it’s once a month except for TV Guide. We were not a straight music magazine at all. It was evidenced by the fact that the very first issue was covering a film that John Lennon was in and there was political coverage very early on. The music coverage went right to Aretha Franklin, and B.B. King, and Johnny Cash early on. Muhammad Ali was a fairly early cover, as well as coverage of the Chicago Eight, and People’s Park. We all knew that our beat was way, way more than music.

Even though I was kind of music-centric and was a music editor, I found myself writing about drug busts. I covered media, FCC rules on obscenity and drug lyrics and the impact on radio stations. The growth of FM and the death of Top 40 on AM.

Not only were you covering the 1960s, and the Summer of Love, but you were living it. Was it all a haze? We had our fun, although some of the staffers would say, “I could write in any condition.” But I tended to play it pretty straight, especially on the job, because the deadline pressures were such that sometimes you were writing on the airplane. On the way back to San Francisco from covering Dylan in Chicago and Philadelphia. You didn’t have a laptop. You didn’t have anything. You were just writing on a pad, then running back to your office. There was no margin for, “I think I’ll go ahead and have a smoke and I can get to this by midnight.” That might have happened once or twice with me, but by and large [I played it straight], and this came from my upbringing in a Chinese restaurant, probably. Doing the chores and the responsibility and the family ethics. I think I probably carried that in.

What was it like to work alongside Hunter S. Thompson? He just had tremendous energy and brains and talent. If any writer had us in awe, he was the one because he carried himself like a rock star without necessarily being brazen about it. When he showed up to Rolling Stone, he had this humongous duffle bag, like a giant gym bag, that had an IBM electric typewriter in it. It was a heavy mother. And a little sound system and all the other stuff that you needed to get through a day and night, I suppose. He would just put that in and march into Jann’s office and take it over. He knew Jann wouldn’t be in until maybe afternoon and just start working. Crank up the sound system and go to work. Who knew what he had been drinking just before or during?

Brilliant writer, then the flip side is you’ll see him in a social situation and he’s the shy guy. Yeah. I remember seeing him at parties where he was the wallflower. You know? He doesn’t go walk around, “Hi, I’m so and so.” … When the time came that he was famous enough that he was booked for these gigs where he spoke, then he knew there was a character expected of him. These people had paid 30 bucks to see somebody, not just some guy sitting on a chair answering questions. He knew. He would bring a bottle with him or his long cigarette pipe. He knew he had an image to live up to and uphold.

The 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love is upon us. Do you look back on that time with great fondness or a sense of dismay? Oh, I have a bit of each. Because there was so much fun, and there was so much energy, and there was so much hope, and the music was great. When you think back to the Summer of Love and also to the eve of the summer when San Francisco still had that feeling to itself, before the media onrush. That was a great time. Those were the best days. More pure. It was fun. It was optimistic, and then real quickly, it subsided and became dark and dangerous. Living here, we saw both sides. The fact is, we weren’t ready. No city could be ready for the great unknown. The media, Time magazine, Newsweek, and others are saying check it out—they’re not saying check out San Francisco, they’re saying it by featuring hippies and drugs and groupies and rock stars on their covers for probably the first time. One reason Rolling Stone came to be was because it had the field to itself. Mainstream media not only did not cover it, it detested the music scene for many, many years, and mocked the Beatles and the Stones. It described more what they had looked like than what they sounded like. Media were just ignorant about the Summer of Love, except for scare stories. As it turned out, the scare was real. We have to give them that.

Last question: If you were exiled to a desert island and you could only bring the music of three artists or bands with you, who would they be? Boy that’s tough. That’s real tough. I think the Beatles. I always preferred them over the Stones. Sorry. … I think Ray Charles. … Then, I think, it’s a hard call, but K.D. Lang.

K.D. Lang? Interesting. Have you interviewed her? No. Never met her, but there are a number of women whose voices are so singular and also their vocal skills are so unique that you know it’s them and you love them. K.D. is one of them. Shelby Lynne is one of them. Adele is one of them. Dusty Springfield is one of them. Aretha, of course, is one of them. There’s so many. I could populate an entire island with women.

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