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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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
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?
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.
David Gans (tnf) Sat 15 Jan 00 23:47
Cool. How about Gram Parsons? What drew you to him as a subject?
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.
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"?
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?
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!
David Gans (tnf) Mon 17 Jan 00 09:32
If it's okay with Jim marshall, it had better be okay with us!
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 email@example.com If you're reading this from inside the WELL, please feel free to ask a question or make a comment.
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?
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...
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.
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.
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!
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.
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?
Moist Howlette (kkg) Mon 17 Jan 00 23:12
Welcome, Ben! it's great to see you here.
Moist Howlette (kkg) Mon 17 Jan 00 23:13
Woops, David slipped. Welcome anyway.
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.
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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