Ben Fong-Torres’ office bears all the markings of his life as a walking, talking rock ‘n’ roll encyclopedia. A wall of CDs stacked top to bottom, arranged alphabetically, stands adjacent to a wall of books. Scattered around are rock ephemera: vintage radio microphones, musical instruments, lanyards, framed records.
His corner work area opens up to a postcard-perfect view of San Francisco, from a high perch between Noe Valley and the Castro, but it’s the artifacts in his office that are truly impressive. Each reveals a link to the Bay Area. There’s framed Tower of Power album art with the famous Oakland Tribune tower (Fong-Torres was a Tribune paperboy). On another wall is a painting of the 1967 Monterey International Pop Festival, created by Grace Slick. Mingling with artists like Jimi Hendrix, the Grateful Dead and the Who is a long-haired Ben Fong-Torres. He didn’t attend, he insists, but appreciates that Slick included him anyway.
It’s clear his legacy as an author, radio DJ, journalist (including a stint as a Chronicle contributing writer and radio columnist) and Lunar New Year Parade host is set. But he’s resigned to the fact that he will forever be linked to “Almost Famous,” Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical film. In it, Fong-Torres, played by actor Terry Chen, is a Rolling Stone music editor who mentors a 15-year-old journalist riding shotgun with a band on tour.
In the 2000 movie, Chen affects a groovy demeanor with loud polyester shirts and helmet-head haircut and punctuates thoughts with “craaazy” (something Fong-Torres contends he occasionally did, but not as much as the film depicts). His full name is uttered multiple times in the film, ensuring moviegoers knew the weight and importance of a call from “BEN. FONG. TORRES.”
“It is so strange that this one movie that was not a commercial success just continues on, because it still gets played on various cable channels and on airplanes,” Fong-Torres said.
But he has a chance to reclaim his true persona now that he’s the subject of a new documentary, “Like a Rolling Stone: The Life and Times of Ben Fong-Torres.” The film peels back the layers of a man who grew up in his parents’ restaurants in Oakland’s Chinatown and Hayward (and Texas, where his dad dragged him to open a restaurant in Amarillo) before heading across the Bay Bridge to attend San Francisco State University. He became city editor of the college newspaper, the Gater, and fell into the student countercultural movement before landing at Rolling Stone as its first music editor.
The film is directed, written and produced by Bay Area filmmaker and journalist Suzanne Kai, and will make its Northern California debut on Oct. 10 at the Mill Valley Film Festival.
Kai knew Fong-Torres back in the early 1970s. As a reporter at KRON-TV, she was part of a burgeoning Asian American media contingent that included David Louie, Gordon Lew, Christopher Chow and Fong-Torres. Later, she saw him hosting Q&As and community benefits, and speaking as an authority on music panels and in documentaries.
“I said, ‘Ben you’re in everyone else’s rock ‘n’ roll documentary; why don’t you have one?’ ” recalled Kai. “And he said, ‘Why don’t you do it?’ ”
More than a standard rock ‘n’ roll biopic, “Like a Rolling Stone” serves as an Asian American immigration story. It follows Fong-Torres’ path from Oakland to San Francisco State to KSAN radio, where he worked the weekend DJ shift. It documents his journey to a series of small publications before landing at Rolling Stone, Parade magazine, radio trade publication Gavin, and his five-time Emmy-winning gig co-hosting KTVU’s Chinese New Year parade. It’s a story of a man finding and asserting his voice and identity through a unique intersection of radio, community, family and rock ‘n’ roll.
Fong-Torres was on the Rolling Stone payroll for just 11 years, but his landmark interviews with artists like the Grateful Dead, Ray Charles, the Doors, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Diane Keaton, Steve Martin, Elton John and others captured them at the precipice (and often in the crucible) of fame. He was in the right place at the right time and was a keen observer as much as an interviewer. He coaxed out his subjects’ vulnerabilities, helping to propel the publication to must-read status during the late 1960s and ’70s.
Fong-Torres credits his Chinese heritage and unique surname with helping break the ice with high-caliber artists, believing they felt a kinship when he appeared at the door, recorder in hand.
“When I met these people, we were suddenly bound by the fact that we were different,” he said. “They were performers, artists or a traveling band. So with me walking in, and the fact that I’m Asian, just adds to that otherness. I felt like there was definitely a bond due to my being what I am.”
Fong-Torres recalled the time Gaye offered him a joint. “I said, ‘Marvin, had I been from Time or Life magazine, would you have offered me a joint?’ He said, ‘No, I’d offer you a gimlet.’ ”
On the subject of drugs, Fong-Torres admits that during the mid-’60s he and his roommates smoked pot, especially when a new Beatles album came out. He tried acid once, he said. But despite easy access to mind-altering substances (remember that Hunter S. Thompson was a colleague), Fong-Torres wasn’t interested. He was focused on the editorial task at hand, and his colleagues, including Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner, vouch for this as much in the film.
“When they said they were going to hang out at Jann and Jane’s, I knew what that meant,” Fong-Torres said, referring to after-work soirees. “I might go and hang out, but that didn’t mean I had to do much more than that.”
Being sober at concerts and interviews meant he was a reliable witness to rock history in the making. And if a performer had an off night or the audience was losing interest, as the documentary shows happened with George Harrison, he’d call it out.
But his honesty and earnestness earned him respect. As Rolling Stone ascended to the status of a music industry bible, Fong-Torres’ words carried the weight of a prophet’s.
“Ben seems to have a good handle on all kinds of music. If he trashed us, we probably had it coming,” said Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir, in the film.
Fong-Torres’ interview style germinated when he was a youth. As a Chinese American boy in glasses who moonlighted as a restaurant worker, he found it easier to let others talk rather than talk about himself. It’s a skill that he honed along the way as student body president at Oakland’s Westlake Junior High, and newspaper reporter/columnist and commissioner of assemblies at Oakland High School. He developed hard and soft skills that would lead to the newsroom and radio station positions he landed throughout his career.
“I blame my parents for everything, because my siblings and I were not really given the chance to be sociable — go to parties, hang out with other kids, do after-school activities, hobbies,” Fong-Torres said. “When I was able to be at a party, I found myself consciously asking questions because I felt I had nothing. What am I going to talk about, wrapping wontons? Dealing with a bad customer? Working late? I became the guy who kept the conversation going by asking the other person what they were thinking.”
Kai’s long, strange trip to document Fong-Torres’ life took 12 years. She followed him around wherever he went, keeping tape rolling in cars, at his home with his wife, Dianne, walking with him on errands, at events that he emceed, and at reunions with his rock star contemporaries.
Fong-Torres also allowed Kai access to his treasure trove of media — hours of cassette tape interviews, radio air checks and interview notepads.
In total, 120 interviews and meet-ups were conducted with Fong-Torres and some of his biggest fans: Ray Manzarek, Annie Leibowitz, Carlos Santana, Quincy Jones, Annie Sampson, David Freiberg and many more. Their interactions reveal just how much of an influence his byline was and continues to be.
“Many artists only wanted to be interviewed by Ben,” his former editorial assistant, Cynthia Bowman, says in the film. “That’s what gave us the access that we needed to make that magazine what it was. Jann was the boss, but Ben was the heart and soul of it.”
Fong-Torres speaks with a professorial tone, his timbre and timing guided by the radio DJs who kept him company at home and during long hours in the kitchen. His words come out in complete thoughts, neatly presented, with witty sidebar repartee and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it parentheticals.
Getting past her subject’s burnished, professional exterior was a challenge that Kai accepted.
“You can ask him questions and he will have the perfect answer,” said Kai. “But I wanted the Ben underneath the perfect answer. That’s why we had different ways of interviewing him, so I could catch him in a more relaxed way, so he’s not only in his professional voice. He allowed me to do that.”
As his writing and radio hours increased, so did interest in his surname. He has a framed collection of name misspellings (“Ben Fongue-Torres,” “Mr. Fang Doris”) pulled from envelopes, packages and letters. One inquiry in particular, sent from Lansing, Mich., stands out:
Please tell me frankly. Is Ben Fong-Torres
A combination of any of the above
The Fong-Torres origin story itself is almost famous.
When his father, Fong Kwak Shang, came to America from China in 1927, he circumvented the Chinese Exclusion Act by way of the Philippines, buying a birth certificate with the name “Ricardo Torres” for $1,200. His mother, Soo Hoo Tui-Wing (Americanized into Connie Fong-Torres) came through Angel Island. Following an arranged marriage, five Fong-Torres children were born between 1941 and 1949, including his older siblings Barry and Sarah and younger siblings Shirley and Burton.
As he grew older, his ambitions clashed with those of his parents. Fong-Torres remembers two incidents: one, his father berating him for the length of his hair; the other, his mother’s reaction after he was given two hours of coveted Sunday airtime on KSFO. She wanted to know if his restaurant shift was covered. He threatened to leave and not come back, but never could, due to filial piety.
“I just stopped talking to them about my ambitions and what I was actually doing in school, or with jobs that I had by that time,” he said.
Today, at 76, he is the only surviving member of his family. He points out the most prized item in his office: a simple handmade collage of the family and extended relations taped to the window that faces the San Francisco skyline.
In the film, Fong-Torres gets emotional talking about his eldest brother, Barry, who worked with at-risk youths for a San Francisco nonprofit. In 1972, he was killed in an alleged gang-related murder that remains unsolved.
As a reporter back then for KRON-TV, Kai remembers the impact that Barry’s death had at the time. People were intimidated and afraid to speak out.
“It devastated his family and our community,” Kai said. “Barry was an innocent person trying to help kids. That tragedy shut down the Asian American movement for the time period.”
In an interview with The Chronicle, Fong-Torres pauses when the subject of his older brother comes up. His face stiffens, his mouth quivers, and tears well up.
“I don’t know why it still happens 50 years later,” he said, with an air of frustration. “It makes me think of families losing their people. Whenever I see a story — whether it’s Afghanistan or Stockton — it hits me like a tragedy. I’ve gone through that loss and I expect to go through it for the rest of my life, so when it’s brought up, even though I’m trying to be distant and detached, you don’t get over it.”
The moment passes and he composes himself.
“Considering that I’m seen as a guy with a good sense of humor and I enjoy generating laughter as much as anybody, whenever certain subjects come up, then the faucet comes on,” Fong-Torres said. “There’s no explaining it. … There probably should be no need to explain it to anybody who has suffered a major loss.”
Along with his long-standing work in the Chinese American community, Fong-Torres remains best known as an ambassador of rock ‘n’ roll history, with firsthand knowledge of its most famous and notorious subjects.
Upcoming events around “Like a Rolling Stone” reflect his twin relationships with rock ‘n’ roll and Chinatown. After the Mill Valley Film Festival screening on Oct. 10, he plans to host a concert at Sweetwater Music Hall, featuring friends and acquaintances playing classic songs of his choosing with the Austin DeLone House Band. (The documentary is one of four films paired with concerts during the North Bay festival.)
On Oct. 30, the documentary gets another screening, this time for the Decibels Music Festival at the Great Star Theater, the last remaining movie theater in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
But before Fong-Torres can get too comfortable with any personal rebranding that the documentary might bring, a musical version of “Almost Famous” is on the horizon for Broadway, ensuring that another generation will equate Fong-Torres’ name with loud shirts and the “craaazy” catchphrase.
In the meantime, he’s OK with his current civilian status. He recalls a Super Bowl Sunday when Chen, the actor who played him in “Almost Famous,” paid him a visit. They went out for tacos on Valencia Street when suddenly they heard shrieking. Two women — one wearing a T-shirt with the fictional “Almost Famous” band Stillwater on it — came up to them gushing about the movie.
Turns out they were more enthusiastic about taking pictures with the fictional Ben Fong-Torres than the real one.
“I just went on with my tacos,” Fong-Torres said.
“Like a Rolling Stone: The Life and Times of Ben Fong-Torres”: Mill Valley Film Festival. 5 p.m. Oct. 10. CineArts Sequoia, Mill Valley. $14-$16.50. Post-screening music show at Sweetwater Music Hall, 19 Corte Madera Ave, Mill Valley. $25-$30. www.mvff.com; Decibels Music Film Festival. 3 p.m. Oct. 30. $14 in advance; $15 at the door. Great Star Theater, 636 Jackson St., S.F.
Article by Todd Inoue for Datebook