Ben Fong-Torres (fong-torres) Sun 23 Jan 00 09:49
Thanks, Judy. I looked at my log of Rolling Stone pieces, and see that 1972, the year of my brother's death, turned out to be my most prolific. In short, I dove into work. First with a piece on the Miracles, headlined, coincidentally, "What's So Good About Goodbye," then lengthy profiles of Three Dog Night, Santana, and Ray Charles. Then a tour with the Rolling Stones, including a stop in Honolulu and a sailboat ride with Jagger at the captain's wheel, visits with Al Green and the foxiest of the Ikettes, Claudia Lennear, a column on the wondrous Jane Dornacker (whom I knew at SF State, and who went on to some fame as Leila of Leila and the Snakes), a feature on Stevie Wonder, and, finally, the beginning of a series of reports on payola/drugola charges at Columbia Records, centered on the one and only Clive Davis. He was finally cleared of all charges, but by then, he was out. He, too, rebounded. Anyway, those were some of the stories that helped--or forced--me out of the darkness in the year following our family's loss.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Sun 23 Jan 00 19:40
Very sorry to hear about your brother's death, Ben, even though it was so long ago. Flippo's wife Martha was TA for a copy editing lab I was in, I think in '72. Bill Graham came to town for a special set of seminars that the University of Texas set up, and when I went to hear him speak at the Armadillo World Headquarters, I was sitting with the Flippos. I recall Chet bounding away to interview Graham...the interview was for Chet's dissertation on (of course) Rolling Stone. Wonder if that dissertation's online anywhere? Blasts from the past...
David Gans (tnf) Sun 23 Jan 00 23:28
Ben, of all your interview subjects, can you tell us about one or two who surprised you by being smart, funny, or otherwise wonderful?
Ben Fong-Torres (fong-torres) Mon 24 Jan 00 12:17
Thanks, Jon. Re Chet Flippo: That dissertation he did on Rolling Stone is what led him to a job at the magazine. Martha Hume is still with him (now in Nashville), and still writing and editing. David: I won't say I was surprised to learn that they were smart, but the interview subjects who struck me as brighter than some might have expected were Linda Ronstadt, Steve Martin, David Crosby, Sly Stone, and Michael Nesmith. As for funny--and I'll try and offer specifics in a later posting--I remember lotsa laffs with, among others, Mick Jagger, Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Chris Isaak, Brian Wilson, Tom Hanks, Rodney Dangerfield, Bonnie Raitt, and Grace Slick. I remember asking Brian what made him laugh, and he said, "Arguments." Least funny: Art Garfunkel. Gee, what a surprise...
Judy Bunce (judyb) Mon 24 Jan 00 13:01
What a great list. You really have had a dream career!
Ben Fong-Torres (fong-torres) Mon 24 Jan 00 13:45
I agree, Judy, that I've had a dream career. And that short list of smart, funny & wonderful people didn't include the guests I had on "Fog City Radio" during its too-short run on KQED-FM...people like Maya Angelou, Steve Allen, Kris Kristofferson, Tracy Nelson, Amy Tan, Herb Gold, Joan Chen and Ramblin' Jack Elliott. Not to mention the fabulous Bud E. Luv. Or the people I've interviewed on stage for the Mill Valley Film Festival, including Amanda Plummer, James Woods, Edward James Olmos, and, just the other month, Robin Williams. Anyway, I promise: Funny lines from the people listed in #79 the next time I post.
David Gans (tnf) Mon 24 Jan 00 14:57
Lookin' forward to that! I remember "Fog City Radio." Too bad about KQED... I was also surprised by Michael Nesmith when I interviewed him. Not that I expected him to be a moron or anything, but he came across as a very smart and articulate man who had some very interesting ideas about the then-nascent home video industry. Just the other night I was raving at some people about the brilliance of "Elephant Parts."
Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Mon 24 Jan 00 15:20
Who was your most difficult interview, Ben? Have you had interview subjects that just won't open up, who give monosyllabic responses and appear to wish they were anywhere else but in an interview?
Linda Castellani (castle) Mon 24 Jan 00 16:09
And what about the just plain weirdest?
Ben Fong-Torres (fong-torres) Mon 24 Jan 00 19:25
Mike Nesmith, as most WELL dwellers know, was a Monkee. I fact, I think he got labeled "the smart Monkee," as in "John Lennon, the smart Beatle." Which left Davy to be the cute one. Peter, I guess, was Spicy Monkee... Anyway, Nesmith was a true pioneer of music videos, making them long before MTV came along, and, in fact, once proposing that a network be devoted to videos...he also produced the classic indie film, "Repo Man." I think he worked extra hard to validate himself after being a Monkee, and after the news got out that his mother made a fortune as the inventor of white-out, which became Liquid Paper... As for who my most difficult or weird interview was, if you ask the people who witnessed it, they'd say it was Amanda Plummber at the Mill Valley Film Festival two or three years ago. I don't have any tape of it, and, being onstage, I wasn't taking notes, but she is, how you say, surrealistically flighty. She'd scrunch up in her chair, or lean forward and spread her arms, as if to take wing to illustrate an answer. I asked about whether she was OK with taking direction from directors, and she launched into a heartfelt, but spacey response that left the audience with its collective mouth agape. When she finished, I looked at the crowd. "In English, that'd be a 'Yes,'" I said, and Plummer joined in the laughter. I found her an absolute delight, but to this day, people who were there tell me how sorry they felt for me. I had a blast, and so, I believe, did Amanda. On good old "Fog City Radio," I was excited when we booked Steve Allen, a boyhood idol of mine. Then I heard that, at age 70-something, he'd become cranky, and had walked out of interviews he wasn't enjoying. I lucked out. He appeared on the same show with Richard Olsen's big band, and Richard, also a big fan of Steverino's, played "Memories of You," in salute to Allen's portrayal of Benny Goodman in "The Benny Goodman Story." Then he and the band brought Allen on with his theme, "This Could Be the Start of Something Big." Between that and my questions, which indicated to him that I'd dug back to books he'd written in the early '60s, he was thoroughly at ease. We even did synchronized "SMOCK-SMOCK"'s...The interview, in which Allen may have been asked for the first time in his life about his experience with LSD (he did it as a college study on genius) is one of my most prized tapes... I've typed myself silly, but a promise is a promise. Here, now, from "Not Fade Away," the book I'm flogging, are bits from some of the artists I said, back in #79, were funny. WOODY ALLEN was saying how he became smitten with Diane Keaton--in part because of the way she dressed as she arrived for work in Allen's play, "Play It Again, Sam." First, remind yourself how Allen dresses. Now, from the book: "She'd come in every day with an absolutely spectacularly imaginative combination of clothes. They were great." Asked for an example, Allen himself gets imaginative. "Oh, she would--she was the type that would come in with, you know, a football jersey and a skirt...and combat boots and, you know"--he is cracking up again--"you know, oven mittens..." Keaton herself was a kick. Allen had listed her sense of humor as another attractive quality. From the book: "At her kitchen table, we talk about being Capricorns and being pigeonholed in all the astrology books as humorless. I note that Keaton doesn't seem to mind a laugh now and then. "Just occasionally, you know," she says. "Not very often. I have a severe life." Bonnie Raitt has a slightly less dry sense of humor. From "Not Fade Away," circa 1975: Onstage in Arlington, Texas, she shook off countdown nervousness--walking toward the stage, she turned to a friend and remarked: "This is like the last mile and you're the warden"--and served up some stream-of-consciousness humor. Freebow, her faithful bassist through the years, posited himself behind a tuba for "Give it Up," as Bonnie announced: "Now here's Freebo on oral martial arts," teasing him: "A little more practice on that and you'll be ready for me!" And then there's Mick Jagger. Herewith, a partial transcript: BF-T: Pople always seem amazed to see you playing harmonica on 'Sweet Virginia.' It's lip-synced, isn't it? [Mick, laughing] Yes, I'm tolerable, but I've forgotten it all. You have to play every day for that--however, your mouth bleeds. That's the problem. You go home to see your old lady and you're bleeding. [Into a Manchester growl] "...'Ello, Dahlin'," and your mouth is all covered with blood... BF-T: I can just see Ralph Steadman doing your next album cover. [Mick portrays Steadman submitting his work] "I'm not sure if this is really gonna sell the album!" BF-T: So what's the cover going to be like? Mick: Aw, fuck, you know, some bullshit or other. [Brightly to the tape machine, to the public] It's what's inside that counts. 'Sgonna be quite a good album, folks. Finally, here's my lead from "Rodney Dangerfield: He Whines That We May Laugh": Rodney Dangerfield looks as if he needs about ten years' sleep. Sitting at a table in Room 304 of the Sunset Marquis in Hollywood, he's dressed in a blue robe, dark blue sheer stockings and black slippers. His eyes and chest are red, and he's looking forward to a nap before his evening show at the Comedy Store. It's his first L.A. concert, every set is sold out, his manager is trying to accommodate every studio and network in town...and Rodney's trying to relax. He's telling a story about getting no respect when he suddenly hears the sound of steady hammering, steel pounding against concrete. Outside his room, right under his DO NOT DISTURB sign, they've begun to tear up the carpet. Rodney listens for a second, as if picking up the rhythm. "It's something about me," he finally says in a thick, tired voice. "Guy says, 'Who checked in? Dangerfield? It's time to RIVET!'" Well, after a long day and an almost-as-lengthy posting, I'm pretty thick and tired myself. Peace out.
David Gans (tnf) Mon 24 Jan 00 19:32
Ben, I would love to have you come over to KPFA and play that Steve Allen tape on my show some Wednesday night!
David Gans (tnf) Mon 24 Jan 00 19:34
Wonderful stuff. Thank you! More questions from the peanut gallery, please?
(ideo) was I ere I saw (esau) Mon 24 Jan 00 22:03
Not a question, but I've been using "combat boots and oven mittens" for years without knowing where I got it.
Judy Bunce (judyb) Tue 25 Jan 00 00:08
Ben, thank you for that long post. I was wondering if you still get nervous when you're going to an interview, or whether you've done it so many times that you now take it as a matter of course.
Gordon Taylor (warfrat) Tue 25 Jan 00 08:43
Ben, besides your book, which I'm looking forward to reading, what would you like to see or do in your future?
Ben Fong-Torres (fong-torres) Tue 25 Jan 00 13:39
David, regarding the Steve Allen tape. I'd love to air it on your show, but wouldn't KQED start screaming "SMOCK! SMOCK!"?...Anyway, it'd be cool with me. Judy, I can't honestly say that I get nervous anymore. There's always an adrenaline rush before you do anything--going on-air, stepping onto a stage, beginning a speech or kicking off a panel discussion. But I'm pretty good (my wife would say obsessive) about researching a subject, or preparing a couple of opening lines, so that I'm quite relaxed about these things. With rapport quickly reached, an interview becomes what it should be: a conversation, with one side happening to be asking most of the questions and taking down the answers. There is, however, quite a difference between an interview for print, conducted privately, and an onstager, or one on the air. There, you're performing, whether you like it or not. There, you have to consider the audience, so that, as with Robin Williams at the Rafael for the Mill Valley Film Festival, I knew that, for long stretches, it was best to let him fly, and to hold off on natural followup questions. After all, he was following himself quite well. Gordon, thanks for asking about what I want to do in the future. Honestly, I'm doing it, mixing a wide variety of media--print, broadcast, and Internet, between books, columns, consulting a book line, and working full time at the hot new digital music service, myplay.com. I'm getting this nice award in March from the Oakland Chamber of Commerce, and was flashing back on some highlights--the ones related specifically to my hometown. They ranged from emceeing New Year's Eve and other concerts for Boz Scaggs and his Slow Dancer-ear orchestra at the Paramount Theater; pitching from the mound at the Oakland Coliseum (for a cystic fibrosis benefit), working with Tom Hanks at an educational video awards ceremony (I MC'd; he gave out the first Hanks Award to a group of teenagers who'd made a documentary about environmental issues in the city), and doing readings of my memoirs, with my parents in the audience finally getting a sense of what it was that their kid did all these years. I can't complain, and I can't be asking for much more.
Linda Castellani (castle) Tue 25 Jan 00 14:10
I'm positively swooning with admiration at all of these stories, these experiences, and you still leave me hungry to know more! I'd think it would be exhausting to spend much time around Robin Williams - or I'd laugh myself into exhaustion, I'm not sure which. Is he as much of a mensch as he seems?
David Gans (tnf) Tue 25 Jan 00 15:02
>David, regarding the Steve Allen tape. I'd love to air it on your show, but >wouldn't KQED start screaming "SMOCK! SMOCK!"?...Anyway, it'd be cool with >me. Great! Let's make a plan to get it (and you) on the air ASAP. How's next Wednesday (2/2) for you?
Linda Castellani (castle) Tue 25 Jan 00 17:51
Simultaneous webcast right here?
David Gans (tnf) Tue 25 Jan 00 18:16
KPFA webcasts at www.kpfa.org
Gail Williams (gail) Tue 25 Jan 00 19:07
Could post here while listening... but it might have to be an alternate universe from Ben & David's conversation. Unless you have a way of looking at a topic during a radio show for ideas & feedback loop purposes?
Ben Fong-Torres (fong-torres) Tue 25 Jan 00 19:50
You guys can figure out the technical details; I'll dub a copy of the show and send it to David. But someone has to get KQED's OK. it's probably in Joanne Wallace's court... David, let's talk on the phone about a date for this... Re Robin: He really is a sweet guy. On the occasion of the film festival, he --or his people--did let it be known that questions about past troubles would not be appreciated. Aside from that, anything went. After his performance--which it was, more than an interview--people realized that what he'd done was test out some lines and routines--including a hallucinatory, slo-mo recreation of his acceptance of his first Oscar -- for his anticipated return to standup. Of course, he's popped up at comedy clubs over the years, but it looks like a possible tour of theaters. Anyway, we were delighted to serve as his test lab, and it wasn't as if Robin isn't always on, anyway. My first interview with him was circa "Popeye," his first major film role. He was still best known as Mork back then, and, in my visit with him in LA for Parade, he was constantly joking--though never to the point of not being able to reel himself back in for serious pondering of a serious question. I guess he's just a 24/7 entertainer. Some comedians--like, say, Steve Martin, Richard Pryor, Woody Allen, Eddie Murphy, and Robert Schimmel--are off when they're off. As pros, they certainly can turn it on,and won't resist a good line if it comes to them. But offstage, doing an interview, they generally choose to focus on the work at hand. Which is what it is--even when you're a comic.
Ben Fong-Torres (fong-torres) Wed 26 Jan 00 11:34
Urgent message: DO NOT COME TO MY READING TONIGHT. That is, if you've seen the ones at the other book stores I've visited around the Bay Area. It'll be the same old thing at the Book Depot in Mill Valley at 7. Highlights from the book, a couple of soundbites from Jim Morrison and Marvin Gaye (singing, impromptu, in his living room), and arguing with the audience. I did that at Cody's in Berkeley and at A Clean, Well Lighted Place for Books in SF. So, if you were there, why bother? This has been a public service announcement in behalf of "Not Fade Away: A Backstage Pass to 20 Years of Rock & Roll."
David Gans (tnf) Wed 26 Jan 00 15:59
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Wed 26 Jan 00 20:14
deja vu all over again...
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