| Home | Interview with Ben Fong-Torres -- October 2001
September 18, 2014

Ben Fong-Torres, 56, was born in Alameda, California. In May 1969, he joined Rolling Stone magazine as news editor. His interview subjects included Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, Neil Diamond and Diana Ross. Fong-Torres left Rolling Stone in 1981, and has written for Esquire, GQ (where he was pop music columnist for three years), Playboy, and Harper's Bazaar. In 1983, he joined the San Francisco Chronicle, where he was a feature writer and radio columnist until 1992. He is the author of several books including "Not Fade Away: A Backstage Pass to 20 Years of Rock & Roll" (1999) and "The Hits Just Keep On Coming: The History of Top 40 Radio" (1997). He wrote the main biographies for People magazine's tributes to Jerry Garcia and Frank Sinatra, and is a contributor to two books published in 1998: "Rolling Stone: The Seventies" and "The Encyclopedia of Country Music." Fong-Torres was portrayed as himself in Cameron Crowe's movie "Almost Famous." In 1993, Fong-Torres won $99,000 on the game show Wheel of Fortune. He lives with his wife in San Francisco, and is vice president of content at Collabrys Inc, a company that specializes in brand marketing.

Fong-Torres with Paul McCartney, 1976. How was Rolling Stone magazine able to attract so many great writers in its early days?

Ben Fong-Torres: Rolling Stone was able to pull in a lot of talent in the early days partly because it was so unique. It was kind of the professional equivalent of what a lot of us had in college, which was more than the usual amount of freedom to do what we wanted to do. Aside from administrative and budget limitations, we could experiment. We could have fun and not worry so much about the restrictions imposed by regular journalism outlets. Rolling Stone was the alternative at that time and it was a unique alternative.

At the height of underground papers, here was clearly an "overground," a commercial effort that still was doing things in a different way. It offered writers and editors and artists and photographers a lot more latitude. It was covering a scene, a culture, that was being underrepresented in the mainstream media. If you were interested in exploring the new parameters of writing and other journalistic work and covering the new social, political, musical pop culture, this was "the" place to be. There were a few others. That was probably the main thing. [Rolling Stone publisher] Jann Wenner, a bit of his personality and drive and vision for what he was going to do, did a pitch job too. He explained to people what Rolling Stone was about quite articulately and passionately and that also helped draw people. You had to be given a pretty good sales job to take, in my case anyway, a steep salary cut without even thinking about it. That's how strong I felt about Rolling Stone. My early fellow editors were escapees from the likes of Newsweek, the Los Angeles Times and other established media. It was a chance to basically break out of the prison and go into an insane asylum. What is the one thing you can say you learned from legendary Rolling Stone colleague Hunter S. Thompson, if anything?

Ben Fong-Torres: It's best not to learn too much from him. If you thought Rolling Stone was loose, then we hadn't seen nothing yet until Hunter came along and redefined what you could do in terms of personal writing and unleashed humor and surrealism. That's not to mean that anybody else could do it. That's probably what happened to a lot of young writers who thought they could imitate Hunter Thompson and be a Gonzo journalist and make it career out of it. It's no easier to do that than to say, "I'm going to be Woodward and Bernstein" or anybody else who were singular or who had a particular style or approach. You had to do it your own way with some inspiration probably from certain models. Those models can range from someone as driven on a journalistic level from Woodward and Bernstein, to someone as loose and personal and unrestrained as a Hunter S. Thompson. You just pull the best from all of them. I hope I never fell into a thing where I tried to think how Hunter would describe this scene. You just can't do it. I didn't.

Fong-Torres with Carlos Santana
and KTVU-TV's Kenny Wardell, 1988. You've interviewed Paul McCartney, Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, the Grateful Dead, the Rolling Stones, among many others. What interview did you find the most interesting?

Ben Fong-Torres: I don't remember any of them. Who are those guys again? [laughs]. I'm about to give a speech next week at Northwestern University in which I go over some of the highlights of interviews. The ones that I'm highlighting are Marvin Gaye, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison. Ray Charles because he was wonderful, first of all, and he was completely candid. He was outraged by the lack of respect he thought he was getting in the business. Naked about his feelings, about where he stood, where he should be standing in the pantheon of music. He also was the perfect example of the freedom we had to suggest a story back then based on reasons that have nothing to do with commercialism. He was not at the top of the charts at the time. But I just felt like he deserved to be in Rolling Stone because of his meaning to American music...

Marvin Gaye was just a guy who was an interesting set of neurosis in the body of a genius musician, who had just done "What's Going On," and was completely uncertain what to do next and again was very open and vulnerable and made a wonderful story. The others, Janis and Jim, were completely improvised. Janis just happened to be interested in talking to Rolling Stone for the first time in the history of the magazine and called me, tracked me down to my office in Chinatown at the newspaper East-West where I was doing some volunteer editing. We chatted on the phone and I turned that into a story.

As for Jim Morrison, I just ran into him in Los Angeles while I was visiting somebody else. He was looking for his girlfriend who lived next door at this apartment complex. He was waiting around for her and I just pulled out a tape recorder and started talking with him and asked for an interview. He didn't know who I was, where I was from or anything. He completely improvised it. About an hour and fifteen minutes of a visit with Jim Morrison, it turned out to be his last interview in America before his trip to Paris and his death there. Those are the ones that stand out. You attended San Francisco State University. Did going to a school where the hippie movement and rock scene was strong influence your decision to become a rock journalist?

Ben Fong-Torres: I never decided to become a rock journalist. That's the strange thing. As far as my becoming one, yeah. But by a grip choice. At San Francisco State, it happened to be the time and place where all that was happening. The free speech movement, civil rights demonstrations, student strikes. We had bands that would materialize on campus. Chet Helms and Bill Graham, the main concert promoters, would be on campus to promote their shows by handing out and posting those now famous posters. Bands formed on campus, visited on campus, played on campus, rehearsed on campus. We also had what were known as folk festivals, but the folk festivals became electric in the mid-60s, so we were getting a lot of rock and blues as well.

Coming from that environment, having minored in journalism, having experienced both the campus radio station and the newspaper, I went out to the world from there. It happened that we had Rolling Stone magazine in San Francisco. I was a fan of the magazine, read it for the first six months or so and decided to throw in a phone call, when I had what amounted to a news tip. That was the beginning of it. Once Rolling Stone accepted the little article I wrote for them and expressed an interest in having more from me, then I began to do that and that led to a job offer from Jann Wenner. And that's when I became affiliated with them and as a profession, took on the tag as rock journalist. But it wasn't something I was aiming at.

On the set of Cameron Crowe's
"Almost Famous," second from left. What did you think about your portrayal in the movie "Almost Famous"?

Ben Fong-Torres: Terry Chen was the actor and I thought he did a fine job. He came to San Francisco and kind of studied me for a few hours. I gave him videotape of myself back in the day that was pretty close to the time frame. You can actually see me in my Rolling Stone office because I used to do intros for interview segments for the TV show called Evening Magazine [in San Francisco] from those offices. They saw me in my loud shirts with my legs propped up on my desk for no good reason, holding the phone in an odd way. He would see all that stuff and bring it with him to the set in Los Angeles a day or so later.

Then I decided to write a story about this experience, so I hopped down to L.A. to the set to watch him playing me. While I was there, Cameron Crowe was able to call on me and Dave Felton, who was also portrayed. He was the guy standing next to me at all times holding his cigarette holder, which is what he did in real life. He always stood by my side, gesturing his thumbs up, thumbs down, shrug, whatever. We both kind of lent on-set guidance to Cameron. In terms of the portrayal, I'm overall okay about it, although my friends and family all have kind of said, "That wasn't you." That's not Terry's fault. He did what he was directed to do and said the words that were written for him. Where I have dips with the movie is really the portrayal of the way Rolling Stone treated its writers. That is what happened to him in the movie was great for the movie, but it didn't happen in real life. In the beginning at Rolling Stone, what sort of access did you have to artists? Was it easy to get interviews?

Ben Fong-Torres: Rolling Stone had quite easy access to the great majority of artists because we were about the only game in town. This was before all of the explosion of media that covers pop culture. Mainstream press -- Newsweek, Time, New York Times, L.A. Times, television -- did not cover the pop scene at all. Radio, to the extent of playing the music, were offering shards of gossip. Same thing with newspapers. There was the occasional coverage of riots, drug busts, negative things, deaths, airplane crashes. They would write about this strange thing called Rock 'n Roll and kids who seem to like it so much. Rolling Stone was one of the very few serious chroniclers of the scene, so certainly the artists and representatives were happy to have the coverage. As we gained stature, then it because something to go after. As you well know, to be on the cover of Rolling Stone became the goal of many, many bands. Just to be reviewed was a big deal because the reviews became quite influential. There was rarely a case where someone said, "I don't want to be in Rolling Stone." As a journalist, you often got very close with your subjects, following them backstage and hanging out with them on the road. Were you ever concerned about your own objectivity as far as writing something that you know they wouldn't like? How were you able to straddle that fine line between getting the story and getting too friendly with your subjects?

Fong-Torres interviewing the
Jacksons for "Evening Magazine."

Ben Fong-Torres: Well, it's very tough. That's a complex issue. It varies with each of the subjects and your own make-up at the time. You want to get the story. That's exactly what was going on in the movie, where you want to be able to ingratiate yourself with the band primarily to get the story, to get them to open up, to see you not as an outsider, but not a friend either, but as someone friendly you can trust, someone you can open up to.

The ultimate goal for any journalist is to get those quotes. Have them spill their guts. Have them tell you something that they did not expect to tell you or anybody else... You want that scoop. You're always striving for that. The strategy does take you into the inner sanctum, or you somehow get way into the inner circle and try to become invisible so they begin to act and talk as naturally with you there with your notebook or tape recorder to get it all down. Once you get a great story with a quote that you know they would just assume not have appear in public, then you're wrestling with that, "Geez, if I do this, then they'll be pissed at me and I'm going to see them again. They're going to respond with an attorney, a bodyguard or a nasty letter demanding a retraction or threatening a lawsuit." Who knows what might happen when you upset someone who has that much to be concerned about. You do have to wrestle with that. I can't say how I did it because each case was quite different.

But for sure, there were times when I ran with a quote that caused grief, strained a relationship... They would say, "I thought we were friends and that you would not betray me by running something that you knew was personal." All you can do is say, we both knew this was an interview and even thought it may have gotten into a relaxed state, unless you tell me we're off the record, it ain't. You hope that it can get patched up. Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn't. That's the price you pay. You're supposed to know going in that you're not there to be friends. When you were at Rolling Stone, you and colleagues Hunter S. Thompson and Cameron Crowe were each asked to write a screenplay for Paramount Pictures. Hunter didn't finish his script and Cameron wrote "Fast Times at Ridgemont High." You were supposed to write a romantic comedy about the San Francisco rock scene of the 1960s, but you never completed your script. Do you have any plans to revisit that screenplay or to write another?

Ben Fong-Torres: I revisit it once in a while just as someone would visit a prisoner where he belongs. That thing should probably stay in some cell somewhere. That was in retrospect a misguided assignment, [laughs] mishandled. Although it was fun doing it, it was my first time writing a screenplay. It was my first time writing a fictional piece. I shouldn't have been doing that at that time. Or if I were doing it, I should have had different guidance because it was a deal with Paramount and Rolling Stone, and the person they had assigned to help edit this screenplay was another magazine editor, who also had only a movie-lover's knowledge of what worked on the screen. It was the blind leading the blind. So when I look back and I revisit the screenplay, I see a way-overly talky thing. It's just too much telling the viewer the story instead of having crisp short scenes that relay the same idea.

No, it would need to be completely trashed and overhauled. But yeah, there are always every few years a story about the sixties. It can work. It's a real hard road to tread because the sixties have become such a collection of cliches. You can't get away from the music. The sixties are so cliched that to be real is to be cartoonish. You can't avoid tie-dye, the posters, the mood lights, the fluorescent lights, the ballroom dancing scenes, the language, the drugs, the first high, the acid, the parents' disapproval, the cops, the demonstrations. There's nothing you can do about the sixties scene without being a retread of American Graffiti 2. It's awfully hard to do.

Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner,
Fong-Torres and actor Michael Douglas. When you started freelancing at Rolling Stone in 1968, there weren't that many Asians in the media business, much less Asians covering Rock 'n Roll. How were you treated? Did these stars open up to you?

Ben Fong-Torres: When I started at Rolling Stone, as far as I know, you're right, there were very very few Asians in the business. On the road, I found it to be perhaps an advantage. I'm not sure. I think most artists were of a mind that they welcome the fact that to their surprise in many instances they were facing a Chinese guy or an Asian American or whatever. There was never a situation where they would openly say, "Wow, I didn't know you were this" or whatever, except in a positive way. Like, "Your name is so strange. I thought you were Hispanic or some kind of a mix. I just didn't know what to expect because I've been reading your stuff and this is cool with me. Let's get to business." Coming from a strict Chinese upbringing, how did your parents feel when you wanted to become a journalist -- and to cover Rock 'n Roll? Were they disappointed you didn't want to take over the family restaurant or become a doctor or lawyer?

Ben Fong-Torres: I came from a family that very much adhered to Chinese culture. In terms of strictness, it was really more the feeling of responsibility to be a part of the family business, which was the restaurant. You were simply expected to be there and to work pretty much every day and night and weekends and summers [laughs]. But aside from that, hey, we're loose man. Not to mention the language barrier. They were shouting at you, but you didn't know what they were saying. I was not inclined to tell them very much. Or I wasn't very able to articulate what I was getting into. They knew that I was kind of heading toward the newspaper racket because they would see that I was bringing home newspapers with my articles in it. But that was as far as they knew. They didn't express a great disappointment.

Actor Tom Hanks and Fong-Torres Out of all the concerts you've covered, which one was the most memorable?

Fong-Torres: That would be really tough. I suppose I have to say Bob Dylan in Chicago. It was his first tour since his motorcycle accident in Woodstock. It was a great show. He was sounding strong, playing his classic music, and the music meant a lot to me. I was grateful to have the assignment and to be on the road chasing after him to do a cover story for Rolling Stone. Having seen a couple of concerts already, and just knowing what he was going to do, now I was able to really focus, or allow myself to just kind of listen to the words. At one point, when he was singing "It's alright ma, I'm only bleeding," it started to make me think about my brother Barry [who died at a young age]. Just to be surrounded by that crowd who were all there to do the same thing basically, to hear the message from Bob Dylan.

Copyright © 2001, Inc. All rights reserved.

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