inkwell.vue.63 : Ben Fong-Torres
permalink #0 of 120: David Gans (tnf) Sat 15 Jan 00 11:22
    

Ben Fong-Torres was one of my role models as a rock journalist.  Long before
I had any aspirations to follow him down that path, I was an avid reader of
Rolling Stone -- and Ben, with the exotic multi-cultural name and the clear,
personable prose style, was one of the magazine's more accessible voices.
Other writers may have had higher profiles with their more critical,
opinionated, ideological, and/or outrageous tones, but Ben's profiles were a
sort of bridge between the way-new journalism that put the writer in the
middle of the scene and the more traditional style in which the writer stood
aside and let the subject speak for himself.

In the mid-'70s, Ben was also an easy-going voice on KSAN, still very much
the central bulletin board of the counterculture here in the Bay Area.  So he
wound up being a role model for me there, too: in 1985 I wandered into the
radio business as host of the Grateful Dead Hour, and Ben's on-air style was
very much part of my consciousness as I forged a persona for myself.

I first met Ben in the mid-'80s, when we crossed paths in various profes-
sional arenas, and I was delighted to discover that he was as pleasant and
accessible in real life as he was in print and on the air.

I first learned of the existence of Ben's new book, "Not Fade Away: A Back-
stage Pass to 20 Years of Rock & Roll," when someone in the WELL posted an
excerpt from a story that quoted me.  In a 1980 Rolling Stone piece titled
"Fifteen years Dead," I appeared in a two-paragraph passage as an  "avid tape
collector" with some odd comments on the nature of the Grateful Dead subcul-
ture.  Asked by the poster what I meant by the quoted remarks, I could only
reply, "I have no idea what I was thinking back then."  I cringed when I read
the passage for myself.

But never mind that.  "Not Fade Away" is a terrific compilation of Ben's
stories, from Rolling Stone and elsewhere, covering, among others: Sly Stone,
Janis Joplin, Paul  McCartney, Steve Martin, his colleague Hunter S.
Thompson, Neil Diamond, Diane Keaton, Ray Charles, Three Dog Night, Bob
Dylan, Rolling Stone's legendary photographer Annie Leibovitz, and many more.

Each entry is bracketed with some stage-setting remarks and autobiographical
notes, placing the story in personal, professional and historical context.
For example, setting up a 1973 story on the Rolling Stones: "I honestly can't
say that I was nervous, flying down to L.A. to write about the [Nicaraguan
earthquake] benefit and then to Honolulu, where I'd hook up with the band for
the first time.  Having grown accustomed to a regimen of several stories
every issue, mixing big names with small, long features with brief Random
Notes, I had some of the confidence -- others might have called it smugness
-- that came with being associated with Rolling Stone.  In his 1972 song 'If
the Shoe Fits,' Leon Russell probably spoke for more than a few musicians
whewn he sneeringly portrayed rock writers asking touse his phone, his car,
his pad, and more, reasoning, 'We're from Rolling Stone so it's OK.'"

Tragically, by the time I started writing for the music press, the era of
lavish junkets and  backstage debauchery was (mostly) gone.  I still managed
to enjoy my years as a rock journalist, though, and I still appreciate the
(journalistic!) example set by writers such as Ben Fong-Torres.

I'm very happy to welcome Ben to inkwell.vue.
  
inkwell.vue.63 : Ben Fong-Torres
permalink #1 of 120: David Gans (tnf) Sat 15 Jan 00 11:50
    

Ben, I want to hear more about your time at Rolling Stone, when rock stars
were the leaders of the culture and you guys were fellow travelers in that
heady realm.

I'd also like to hear about Gram Parsons, one of my musical heroes, whose
biography you wrote (and which came out in paperback last year).

AND, your personal memoir of growing up Chinese-American in Oakland, "The
Rice Room."
  
inkwell.vue.63 : Ben Fong-Torres
permalink #2 of 120: Ben Fong-Torres (fong-torres) Sat 15 Jan 00 12:41
    
Hi, David,
Yes, yes, and yes. I'll try to cover all the above (life at Rolling
Stone and on the road with rock stars; the book on Gram Parsons, named
after that great song, Hickory Wind, and my memories of growing up in a
string of Chinese restaurants, with radio, carrying music and baseball
games, as my only escape. 
In the course of this week, we'll get to those topics, and maybe even
more. In last week's reading at A Clean, Well Lighted Place for Books,
I did some stuff that I'll repeat at Cody's in Berkeley (Telegraph Ave.
store) this Thursday eve. The neatest thing, at least as measured by
the audience's response, was the playing of sound bites from my past
interviews. One featured Jim Morrison responding to my rather rude
question, "Jim, how'd you get fat?" (This was in 1971, just a couple of
months before he took off for Paris.) The other tape caught Marvin
Gaye serenading me in his living room at his home outside Detroit in
1972, doing three songs he'd written with Sammy Davis, Jr., in mind.
This, at the same time he'd produced "What's Going On"! 
I also talked about the next Cameron Crowe movie. It's based on his
own beginnings at Rolling Stone, when he was 15. Within a year, he was
on the road, writing cover stories on major acts. He made the magazine
a part of the movie, and cast actors to portray Jann Wenner, writer
David Felton, and me. The film should be out this spring.
I told how my first item for Rolling Stone, back in spring of '68, was
about Dick Clark producing a movie about the Haight scene, and how,
just a couple of months ago, I wound up doing my impression of Bob
Dylan on a syndicated TV show, "Your Big Break," which will air in
April and will be, I promise, surrealistic. The show is produced by,
who else, Dick Clark. And then, taking a page from Marvin Gaye, I did
the song the show assigned me to memorize, which was, what else, "Like
a Rolling Stone."
Hey, David, I SAID "surrealistic."
I see that I didn't get to any of the three topics you proposed. I
promise to tackle them, one-two-three, in my next postings.
In the meantime, thank you for inviting me back into The WELL. I say
"back" because I dipped into the WELL years ago, when modems were much
slower and I was much speedier. 
At any bitrate, I'll look forward to hearing from you, and all
visitors, in the week ahead. 
  
inkwell.vue.63 : Ben Fong-Torres
permalink #3 of 120: David Gans (tnf) Sat 15 Jan 00 12:53
    

Let's repeat that announcement:  Ben will read from "Not Fade Away" at Cody's
Books (on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley) Thursday, January 20.  I'd guess a
7:30pm start time.
  
inkwell.vue.63 : Ben Fong-Torres
permalink #4 of 120: David Gans (tnf) Sat 15 Jan 00 12:55
    

>Cameron Crowe

Crowe's foreword, in the form of an affectionate letter to you, his editor
at RS, is charming.
  
inkwell.vue.63 : Ben Fong-Torres
permalink #5 of 120: Ben Fong-Torres (fong-torres) Sat 15 Jan 00 15:04
    
Cameron Crowe has been kind, indeed. You mentioned that his foreword
for my book is in the form of a letter. It is, and here's how he
concludes his recollections of lessons learned at Rolling Stone:
"A long time ago, staying at your home in San Francisco, struggling
with my first full-length feature, you gave me a piece of advice: Be
informative, but also be personal. Write as if you were writing a
letter to a friend. And so I have..."

In the late Sixties and the Seventies at Rolling Stone, there were
many lessons to be learned. And looking back from our perch today is
instructive as well. I wrote a column for allmusic.com's new online
zine, in answer to a common response to the book. Here's the lede:

People who've read my new book...are shocked by the apparent access I
had to rock, pop and R&B stars back in the day, and by their openness.
I watched one major star sifting a bowlful of cocaine, took notes as
musicians ranted, raved, and in other ways misbehaved, and nodded
silently as Dick Clark -- Dick Clark! -- spat out the f-word. More than
once.

That's the way it was in the Sixties and Seventies, before the
onslaught of mainstream, multimedia attention on music stars triggered
a set of restrictive changes. Now, PR runs everything; publicists sit
in on interviews to monitor their clients' utterances; publicity firms
can dictate which writer gets to interview a star, under what
conditions, and for how long. The artists themselves, especially those
who've felt violated by criics or journalists, have become more
guarded. Or they save their best stuff for Letterman, Leno, or their
own inevitable tell-all book. It is a different world."

By the way, David, before we proceed with this interview on the WELL,
my publicist needs to see your questions...

Cheers,
Ben
  
inkwell.vue.63 : Ben Fong-Torres
permalink #6 of 120: David Gans (tnf) Sat 15 Jan 00 16:34
    

Your publicist is welcome to read over your shoulder and tell you what to
type, pal, but this is a FREE-FIRE ZONE!


Dick Clark!  I attended a taping of American Bandstand while working on a
story about the Romantics (what great hair they had!), and I was struck by
how cranky Dick Clark was when the red light went off.


The gradual professionalization of the musicians' relationship with the media
took place during my time as a journalist -- or at least it continued apace
in that period.  A lot of the fun went out of it -- but it was still possible
to make good contact with the artists.  I had two great interviews with Randy
Newman, which ranged way off his message into stuff we both found interesting
and amusing.  No publicist babysitting that one.

I went to Florida to interview Rod Stewart, and his handler (a legendary
character named Russell, uh, I forget his last name now) charged into the
room every ten minutes or so on one pretext or another, looking for a "get
the hook" signal from Rod.  Fortunately, it never came, and I was able to get
all I wanted from him.


Are you up for telling some tales out of school, Ben?  Some particularly
sick/funny encounter with an artist and/or his People?
  
inkwell.vue.63 : Ben Fong-Torres
permalink #7 of 120: Ben Fong-Torres (fong-torres) Sat 15 Jan 00 23:15
    
I'll try to answer anything anyone asks. But I'm not much into airing
dirty laundry, incriminating people, or opening myself up to lawsuits.
I'm just no fun. But, sure, in running with so many rock, pop, R&B,
country, comedy, TV and movie stars over the years, I've had some
pretty amusing encounters, and will no doubt recount some of them as we
go along. 

As it turns out, Dick Clark, he of the winning lines on his face, is
the center of one of the most amusante. It's in the book, but I'll tell
it again this week. 

Random Note: Just saw "War Room," the Pennebaker doc of Bill Clinton's
first Presidential campaign. Near the end, as the campaign staff,
flushed with triumph, plan for the victory gathering and acceptance
speech, and head through the crowds toward the stage, feeling pumped
and important--that's how it felt, being in the thick of a rock
entourage--every time out. 
 
  
inkwell.vue.63 : Ben Fong-Torres
permalink #8 of 120: David Gans (tnf) Sat 15 Jan 00 23:47
    

Cool.

How about Gram Parsons?  What drew you to him as a subject?
  
inkwell.vue.63 : Ben Fong-Torres
permalink #9 of 120: Ben Fong-Torres (fong-torres) Sun 16 Jan 00 10:17
    
If there's one thing that's been remarkable about my career, it's how
often jobs have come to me. That's essentially how I got my first book
assignment (the main text for The Motown Album: The Sound of Young
America), how I came to write my memoirs, how I got the gig as managing
editor of Gavin, how I became co-host of the Chinese New Year Parade
broadcast. 
As for Gram Parsons: Sarah Lazin, a former Rolling Stone editorial
assistant who'd become a book packager and agent in New York, and who'd
called on me for the Motown book, heard that the President of Pocket
Books was asking around about Parsons; he'd heard that GP was some kind
of a musical cult hero, and that, bottom line, he might make an
interesting book. In other words, he'd welcome a proposal. This was
around 1990. Sarah asked whether I had any interest. As it turns out,
I'd done a piece on Gram for Esquire back in '81, when he'd been
recognized as a strong influence on THAT generation of country-rockers.
Dead since 1973, he continued to inspire musicians with his vision of
a blend of country with rock and soul--"Cosmic American" music, he
called it. 
In the Seventies, at KSAN on those Sunday afternoon shows, I played a
lot of Gram--as part of the Byrds, as a founder of the Burrito
Brothers, and, pre-Byrds, as the center of the International Submarine
Band. And don't get me started on his duets with the stunningly
talented Emmylou Harris. Couple my appreciation for his music with a
reporter's curiosity about his life--and why it expired so quickly, and
you've got a book proposal.
  
inkwell.vue.63 : Ben Fong-Torres
permalink #10 of 120: David Gans (tnf) Sun 16 Jan 00 10:35
    
IO love it when it works like that -- I have had the same sort of good
fortune with my book contracts.

So, tell us about Gram.  I, too, am a sucker for his duets with Emmylou.

What was the deal with Gram and Mick Jagger?  There were rumors that Mick
wrote songs for him -- was it "Angie"?  "Wild Horses"?
  
inkwell.vue.63 : Ben Fong-Torres
permalink #11 of 120: David Gans (tnf) Sun 16 Jan 00 15:04
    

You and I have a book title in common, Ben: "Not Fade Away" is the title of a
book of online tributes to Jerry Garcia that I put together in 1995.

That's not what I wanted to call the book, but the publisher insisted.  I
understand "Not FadeAway" wasn't what you wanted to call your book, either.
What did you want to call it?
  
inkwell.vue.63 : Ben Fong-Torres
permalink #12 of 120: Ben Fong-Torres (fong-torres) Sun 16 Jan 00 22:16
    
Re question #10: The Stones dudes never wrote a song for Gram Parsons,
as is sometimes rumored. Keith & Mick wrote "Wild Horses," which Gram
recorded with his Flying Burrito Brothers before the Stones themselves
got it onto vinyl (remember that substance?), and it's been said that
Gram, who hung with Keith (and the rest of the band, but he was
particularly pals with Keef) in the South of France circa 1970, was the
inspiration for the song, but I don't believe that to be the case. The
particulars of the song, such as I have them, are in my book, "Hickory
Wind."
Now, to #11, and the ever-popular book title, "Not Fade Away." As you
know, we share that with Jim Marshall as well. 
My first choice was an obvious one: "Like a Rolling Stone," a title I
used for my column in Gavin for several years, and one I associate with
Dylan as much as, if not more than, the magazine. 
But when Jann Wenner, founder-publisher-editor of RS, got wind of my
plan, he balked, saying the title would confuse readers into thinking
it was a product of Rolling Stone Books. 
No matter that the original idea for the compilation was from RS
Books, which had hoped to do a series of collections from RS writers.
To that end, I'd come up with a proposal, and "Like a Rolling Stone"
was the working title. When the series didn't jell, and when Miller
Freeman Books, which had published my history of Top 40, expressed
interest in the collection, I got permission from Jann to go with MF,
and to use whatever pieces from Rolling Stone that I wanted.
To keep the project from falling apart, I agreed to change the title,
and after numerous meetings over dozens of titles, we settled on "Not
Fade Away," which I had proposed, with the notation that it had been
used recently. But enough people loved it--and felt that the subtitle
(backstage pass to 20 years of R&R) would help differentiate it--that
they went for it. 
Sorry for the confusion. We're probably helping each other sell books!
  
inkwell.vue.63 : Ben Fong-Torres
permalink #13 of 120: David Gans (tnf) Mon 17 Jan 00 09:32
    
If it's okay with Jim marshall, it had better be okay with us!
  
inkwell.vue.63 : Ben Fong-Torres
permalink #14 of 120: David Gans (tnf) Mon 17 Jan 00 09:37
    

The topic is now open to the public.  Welcome, WELL members and readers on
the web!

If you're reading this from outside the WELL, you can join in by sending a
question or comment to  inkwell-hosts@well.com

If you're reading this from inside the WELL, please feel free to ask a
question or make a comment.
  
inkwell.vue.63 : Ben Fong-Torres
permalink #15 of 120: Steven Solomon (ssol) Mon 17 Jan 00 14:20
    
"Hickory Wind"? Parsons and Richards? Would it be a distraction to ask
you to delve into particulars?
  
inkwell.vue.63 : Ben Fong-Torres
permalink #16 of 120: Ben Fong-Torres (fong-torres) Mon 17 Jan 00 15:08
    
Hi, Steven,
"Hickory Wind" is the title of my book on the life & times of Gram
Parsons, godfather of the fusion of country with rock & soul music. He
numbered the Stones, chief among them Keith Richards, as his pals. The
book and that relationship are introduced in response #s 9, 10, and 12.

At almost every one of my readings--including last week's at A Clean
Well Lighted Place for Books--someone identifies himself as a Parsons
fan, or brings Hickory Wind for me to sign. Twenty-seven years after
his death, his reach is endless. And the tributes just keep on coming;
on the heels of Emmylou Harris' excellent CD, Rhino Records is planning
a hefty compilation of GP tracks, dating back to International Sub
Band, and including all his best work with the Byrds, Burrito Brothers,
Harris, and his last band, the Fallen Angels.
Cosmic soul continues to roll...
  
inkwell.vue.63 : Ben Fong-Torres
permalink #17 of 120: Lenny Bailes (jroe) Mon 17 Jan 00 17:16
    
I always thought "Wild Horses was written in 1969, when the Rolling
Stones stayed with Gram Parsons on their U.S. tour.  I even almost
remember reading a review of "Burrito Deluxe" in Rolling Stone that
said so, but I might be hallucinating that.  I know I used to see
Gram Parsons do the song at the Troubador long before "Sticky Fingers"
was released.
  
inkwell.vue.63 : Ben Fong-Torres
permalink #18 of 120: Ben Fong-Torres (fong-torres) Mon 17 Jan 00 18:51
    
Lenny, I'm not really into this kind of trivia, but, since you asked:
I believe the Stones did do "Wild Horses" after their 1969 tour, in
Muscle Shoals Studios in Alabama. I'm not aware that they stayed with
Gram; it may have been the reverse, with GP popping in on whatever
homes they'd commandeered. 
As for how the song got to Parsons, here are the relevant paragraphs
from "Hickory Wind:"
A few days later (following the session), Keith sent a copy of the
tape to Gram. The Stones wanted to see if Sneeky Pete (Kleinow,of the
Burritos) might add a pedal steel to the track. 
Sneeky Pete might, but once Gram heard the song, he knew he wanted to
sing it himself...before long, Gram's way with fantasy had turned "Wild
Horses" into a song that the Stones had written just for him...the
more accurate story is that Keith wrote the song about his reluctance
to go on the 1969 American tour, leaving his newborn son, Marlon,
behind with his mother, Anita Pallenberg.

Update: Other tellings credit Gram with having helped Keith on the
song, and/or playing guitar in a jam version that was never released,
but is out on bootleg Stones tapes. Regardless, both the Stones' and
the Burritos' versions were painfully beautiful. But the Stones' single
of the song flopped. Which seemed to be the case with any recording
with which Gram Parsons had a connection.
 
  
inkwell.vue.63 : Ben Fong-Torres
permalink #19 of 120: Linda Castellani (castle) Mon 17 Jan 00 18:56
    

Hi Ben, welcome to inkwell.vue.  I just wanted to say that I am enjoying
these stories very much and looking forward to more.  

Yesterday I ran across a copy of Rolling Stone from 1975.  Britt Eklund
and Rod Stewart on the cover.  I had it because it featured an interview
with Phil Dick, but yesterday I noticed that the cover also mentions an
interview with Garcia and friends.  When I go home tonight I am going to
look at it again for anything with your byline, and then we shall have a
quiz!
  
inkwell.vue.63 : Ben Fong-Torres
permalink #20 of 120: Fuzzy Logic (phred) Mon 17 Jan 00 21:28
    
It's interesting to hear these bits of history.  In 1976 I put on a concert
at my school (Catholic University) with the *band* called Hickory Wind,
a somewhat obscure outfit from West Virginia with people like Sam
Bush and Bela Fleck.  People called them "bluegrass" but that was
only one part of their approach and, obviously from the name, they
were heavily influenced by Parsons and others who were trying to
go beyond both the traditional bluegrass sound and the already
at that time cliche-ridden "newgrass".  I highly recommend their album
"Fresh Produce" if you ever get a chance, it's a stormer.

This brings to mind the kind of read that RS was back in those days,
when I was the concert committee head at my college and on the
radio there and read things like Billboard and RS regularly.  (Yes,
I remember when Kurt Loder was actually a pretty good writer!)

But what I would be more interested to hear, because it predates that,
is the early days of RS particularly the role of Ralph Gleason.
  
inkwell.vue.63 : Ben Fong-Torres
permalink #21 of 120: David Gans (tnf) Mon 17 Jan 00 23:12
    

>But the Stones' single of the song flopped. Which seemed to be the case with
>any recording with which Gram Parsons had a connection.

What's up with that?  Was he just one of those guys who all the musicians
loved but who couldn't make the Industry understand him?
  
inkwell.vue.63 : Ben Fong-Torres
permalink #22 of 120: Moist Howlette (kkg) Mon 17 Jan 00 23:12
    
Welcome, Ben!  it's great to see you here.
  
inkwell.vue.63 : Ben Fong-Torres
permalink #23 of 120: Moist Howlette (kkg) Mon 17 Jan 00 23:13
    
Woops, David slipped.

Welcome anyway.
  
inkwell.vue.63 : Ben Fong-Torres
permalink #24 of 120: Linda Castellani (castle) Tue 18 Jan 00 13:11
    

Okay, Ben, here I sit with my Rolling Stone in hand, ready for the quiz.
I want to give you some time to respond to what others have said, first,
so I will start with an easy one.  (Easy for me, that is, since I have the
mag [tabloid?] here to look at!)

What well-known WELL person's album is featured in a full-page ad on the
inside back cover?  For extra points, name the album and the other person
with whom the album was made.  This ad includes a tour schedule that
starts at the College of William and Mary and ends two months later at
H.I.C. Hawaii.

And just for fun, the ad that appears on the inside front cover:  An ad
for the Teac TASCAM series:  The half-inch 8-track.  Less than $3500.  The
half-inch 4-track.  Less than $2000.  
  
inkwell.vue.63 : Ben Fong-Torres
permalink #25 of 120: Ben Fong-Torres (fong-torres) Tue 18 Jan 00 13:31
    
"Moist Howlette"? "Fuzzy Logic"? Can we have a battle of the band
names here?
Speaking of which, Hickory Wind, the band Mr. Logic saw circa '76, is
a name I came across during research for the book of the same title. A
fellow in Waycross, Georgia has cut a couple of DIY CDs under that
name. He was also instrumental in getting Gram Parsons nominated for,
and inducted, into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame. 
As to why Parsons, despite his notoriety in life and death, never had
a big pop hit--it was just one of those things. Think of all the greats
who never scored big--Randy Newman (except for a novely record), Dr.
John, Captain Beefheart, Mickey Newbury, Townes Van Zandt, Joan
Armatrading...and the list goes on.
Some never AIMED at the charts. In GP's case, that's not true. I
believe he sought stardom and all the glitter that would come with it.
But he didn't compromise his music; he sang from the heart, and, with
his particular voice, that didn't translate into something radio could
easily embrace. Of course, you think of people with
not-ready-for-drive-time voices, like Van Morrison, or Willie Nelson,
or even Springsteen, and you wonder. I certainly do. 

Now, back to Fuzzy and his question about Ralph J. Gleason. Yes, he
was a major reason for Rolling Stone starting off the way it did. (For
one thing, Jann Wenner's original idea was to call the publication The
Electric Newspaper.) There's so much to say about Ralph that I'm going
to refrain for this moment--especially since I'm supposed to be working
here at myplay.com. I did talk about him at some length for a New
York-based zine, Fishwrap, a coupla years ago. I'll try and find that
piece and enter some quotes into the WELL when I get home tonight.
Also: You're aware, I hope, that Ralph's seminal TV show, Jazz Casual,
is coming out in video form from Rhino. About 8 of the shows are out so
far, I believe. His books are also being reissued. I'm working with
Miller Freeman Books on a new line that I'm calling Lost Treasures, and
we hope one of our first titles will be Mr. Gleason's paperback on the
Jefferson Airplane and the San Francisco Sound, with additional
chapters on the Dead. We shall see...

Finally, to Linda: Have mercy! My memory is shot. You could face me
with an article with my byline on it, and I may not remember having
written it. Of course, I can pull an issue from my shelves and
cheat...Oops: Just got your latest posting: I'm not well-acquainted
enough with the WELL to know who's well-known AND WELL-related, so I
have no idea. 
But that's not my final answer.

'Till next time,
Cheers,
Ben

PS: A quick reminder: Thursday, I'll at Cody's on Telegraph in
Berkeley, trying to remember stuff.
  

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