The man whose words put some of the greatest names in the history of recorded music on the map is getting the star treatment at the 44th Mill Valley Film Festival.
Ben Fong-Torres, a multi-talented journalist and longtime Bay Area media figure, is the subject of Suzanne Joe Kai’s “Like a Rolling Stone: The Life & Times of Ben Fong-Torres,” a documentary that captures a pair of compelling storylines: Fong-Torres’ career chronicling rock gods for Rolling Stone magazine in the 1960s and 1970s, perhaps the most exciting time in music history, and his Chinese-American family’s devotion to one another through immigration, discrimination and tragedy.
With a pair of MVFF44 screenings of the film on Oct. 10-11, along with a music-laden celebration of Fong-Torres at the Sweetwater Music Hall on Oct. 10, we spoke with Fong-Torres and Kai. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Enjoy Mill Valley: Ben, you’re no stranger to well-deserved accolades, both as a longtime Bay Area music and media figure. But given your professional background, what has it been like to have the camera lens turned directly onto you, and to be on the receiving end of so much praise from both your former colleagues and some of the biggest legends in the history of recorded music?
Ben Fong-Torres: Ever since Rolling Stone itself became noted as a kind of celebrity among music news publications, the spotlight has turned on their main writers and editors. For many years, I have been included in numerous documentaries about music and entertainment and media and also interviewed about my career as a broadcaster. That part isn’t new. What is astounding is what the people that Suzanne spoke with said on the film about how powerful I was and sought after I was and how honest and factual I was. And those were all lies. They were all a pack of lies! (laughs). They’ve been so nice to take the further step of cooperating with Suzanne, not just giving us old footage of them talking to a reporter back in the 70s but to show up in front of Suzanne’s cameras – that was really amazing. (Ed. note: the list of legends who gave recent on-camera interviews includes Bob Weir, Elton John, Carlos Santana, Steve Martin and many more).
Suzanne Joe Kai: We knew of each other for quite a while because there were so few Asian-Americans in the media at the time. We knew many of the same people. And then many years later, Ben would say, ‘hey, I’m flying to Los Angeles to meet Q (legendary music producer Quincy Jones), would you like to meet afterwards,’ and of course I said yes. At dinner, I said to Ben, ‘you’re in everybody else’s rock ‘n roll documentaries. Why isn’t there one about you?’ And he said, ‘well, why don’t you do one?’ I had just finished a short documentary, “The Last Line,” which is a 360-degree look at the inner world of “Star Wars” fans, getting into the hearts and minds of those people.
EMV: Suzanne, how did you decide on the two narrative arcs of this film, focusing on Ben as a renowned music journalist and media figure and on his parents and five siblings and their lives and relationships and a horrible tragedy?
SJK: It started off as a nice short rock ‘n roll film with Ben as the centerpiece. As I started to do the research, every single interview I did was a revelation. Just one layer on top of another. I realized then that the people I was talking to, insiders in the community and particularly at Rolling Stone, had no union, and were able to be very creative and innovative and they allowed the staff to really become truly great. I kept digging and digging. It was astounding. Ben had written a phenomenal autobiography, (and) I dug through a lot of his incredible archives. They’re emotional and raw and back in the day when rock was close and personal and no professional handlers and when Ben could really have these great conversations with fantastic rock stars. And then it became a mission to try to get it pitch perfect.
EMV: Ben, your work, and your words specifically had such a powerful impact on both new and veteran bands in that era. This is somewhat obvious given how differently the industry functions compared to those earlier decades, but what role do you see journalism playing in the streaming-dominated music business?
BFT: It has changed drastically. The mechanics of it and the powers that the people behind the performers have put them in a position to demand and set rules. Before it was much more loose and free form. But in terms of the role of music writing and young people, they still all rely on word of mouth. They want to hear from their friends about what music is interesting and what concerts to go to, what is meaningful and danceable. They’re still in need of advice and guidance for what’s cool.
EMV: That makes me think about was access. Suzanne has said, “you were not one of 100 people asking for an interview – you were 1 of 1.” That world doesn’t really exist anymore.
BFT: Access is totally different now. I don’t know how journalists can get through without having to go through all corporate hoops. It’s a different world. But I’ll also say that the role must remain objective and detached. I know one reviewer said it was weird because we purport to be objective and detached from our subject matter but that there was so much hugging and clowning around with various celebrities in the film. I should note that stuff happened 30-40 years after I wrote about them in Rolling Stone. If you’re in the same community, you do have something in common. To me, it’s not a surprise that Quincy Jones and I would be scatting together. We always do that.
EMV: Ben, at this point in your career, what’s the breakdown of time you spend looking ahead at new projects and time reflecting back on such a bountiful career?
BFT: I am completely immersed in wallowing in my past (laughs). I’m always looking through my souvenirs and mementos and the gold records and calling to try to find the old celebrities and have a meal with them and attend one of their parties. Seriously, though, I would say because of Suzanne’s work, I have had to think back to those days. My memoir was just published by Audible and I had to go to the studio to read it aloud. The past is a part of my life, but I’m also juggling various kinds of work like my show on radio station Moonalice Radio, editing a couple of books and serving as a creative consultant on the next one from Q. I’m also called on for a variety of emcee duties and conducting on-stage interviews. (Ed. note: Fong-Torres has conducted an array of onstage interviews for the Mill Valley Film Festival over the years, including with Robin Williams, Peter Coyote, Dianne Wiest, Helena Bonham Carter, James Edward Olmos and Jennifer Jason Leigh.)
EMV: Ben, there are a few people featured in the film who have passed away in recent years, including (former Rolling Stone Managing Editor John Burks and the late keyboardist Ray Manzarek from The Doors. We see music icons memorialized every year at the Grammys and elsewhere. How do you process that sort of thing, especially when these days, these are your peers, your interview subjects dating back decades?
BFT: The same as you and Suzanne. I may not be seen as sentimental but I certainly am emotional. It was great that Ray in his life was so open and loquacious and so able to talk about his past and his music with the Doors. I did an event at Booksmith where he dissected “Light My Fire.” And John Burks was a supreme journalist and a wonderful friend and colleague. He helped get me hired. He was such a master writer and journalist. I’m so glad that Suzanne has him in the film, not because of what he says about me, but because he gets a moment to talk journalism in a way that only he could, in a very jazzy kind of way. A loss is a loss, and those are two big ones.
EMV: I loved the way he talked about your writing style, particularly the piece that goes from narrative to Q&A and back, the way you threaded the needle to make that work.
BFT: I’m grateful for that but like so many of the people that Suzanne got to speak on camera, I thought he was overly generous in saying that I had a method for doing that. I think a lot of the things we did at Rolling Stone were accidental. I’d be sitting there with a transcript of an interview of Ray Charles and then suddenly I’m out of transcript and I need to bridge from that quote to the next but I can’t jump to it so I create a transition. But it wasn’t like I consulted with a writing professor or harkened back to my days at SF State, it was just working on deadline and this is what you come up with.
EMV: The on-camera exchanges you have in the film with “Almost Famous” director Cameron Crowe are so fun – you both seem to have retained that joy of discovery and creativity over so many decades. What was your view of how you, and music journalism generally, were portrayed in “Almost Famous,” and has that view changed over the years?
BFT: No, I still hate Cameron (laughs). I haven’t gotten over it. We were just acting for Suzanne and her cameras there. I have been very clear with Cameron of my view that he didn’t capture me and he used my attitude toward jim and treatment of him and Rolling Stone’s treatment of him as a plot device. I was an antagonist. Someone had to cause trouble and create challenges and stumbling blocks for the kid. That’s what Rolling Stone and I played. And because we were of service to a wonderful movie with great writing and fantastic characters and lot of discoveries like Billy Crudup and Kate Hudson, overall, he did a superb job. My feelings have not changed and we still argue about it. (ED. note: Fong-Torres one wrote that “about the closest thing to my character in that movie is the loudness of my shirts.”)
EMV: There’s a clip in the film of Jim Morrison talking about how “there’s a certain moment when you’re right in time with your audience and you both grow out of it, and that it’s not that you’ve outgrown the audience but that the audience and you are both too old for that.” I think about this all the time – the arc of bands creating their sound, finding their sweet spot, and the difficulty that so many have in maintaining that, or in evolving, without losing their audience. What are your thoughts on that, both from your heyday and in today’s music industry?
BFT: In essence, I agree with Jim. That was a great insight because so many of the rock artists and stars of his generation were insistent that they would go on forever. But I came to think over the years after I wrote one story after another and met all these people with all of their various psychoses that that real story with many of the artists was all about success, how they came to get it, how they were handling it, what’s going to happen when the success goes away. And there were a number of cases when I caught them in decline dealing with that. That was quite often really what illuminated how they as a group handled the mercurial nature of the music industry. I thought about this just yesterday. I’m programming a song “It’s Magic” by Pilot. It’s being used in a TV commercial for a Type-2 diabetes medication called Ozempic. I’m playing it as part of my MoonAlice show. I looked them up, they had that hit in 1975. It was humongous, and then they disappeared. Now, almost 40 years later, they’re in a major TV commercial. The song is generating thousands of dollars for them and it took almost 40 years. That’s how it can go sometimes and you have to remember that as an artist.
EMV: What should people expect at the Sweetwater event?
BFT: More music than talk. I’m doing a Q&A with Suzanne at Sequoia before. The idea was a party with musicians who I know and love performing songs reflected in the documentary, including Annie Sampson, David Freiberg from the Starship, Maria Muldaur paying tribute to the late Dan Hicks, who was one of my dear friends and fellow radio nut, Austin deLone, The Soul Delights, Roger McNamee doing a Beatles song, Glenn Walters paying tribute Ray Charles, I will do some some Dylan and some Elvis – and they’ll be much more.