I Write the Songs That Make Nobody Sing
You know our Ben, the writer, the editor, the broadcaster. But Ben, the songwriter?...
AsianConnections presents the adven-tures of Ben Fong-Torres, our very own Renaissance man: author, broadcaster, karaoke nut and former writer and editor at Rolling Stone. Ben was a featured character in the acclaimed film, Almost Famous.
First, before the musical portion of this column, a couple of quick hits: If you've been waiting and waiting for a bright, hip TV show focused on young Asian Americans, all you gotta do is stir it up -- that is, find Stir , a 30-minute maga- zine show produced by Jeff Yang. Hosted by four attractive youths, Jeannie Mai (who's also on MTV), Sabrina Shimada, Brian Tong, and Tony Wang, the show covers lifestyles, personalities, trends and issues. It's on the International Channel and various indie stations, including KTSF-San Francisco, whose studios serve as Stir's home base. The hipness quotient declines severely when I make an appearance, interviewed by Jeannie. For more info, go to the show's Web site, www.stirtv.com...And for a sober look at the William Hung phenomenon, check out Emil Guillermo's essay, "William Hung: Racism, Or Magic?" at www.sfgate.com...And I'm with Leonard Chan, editor of the newsletter for the Asian American Curriculum Project, a bookstore in San Mateo, Calif., when he writes: "If you're interested in an Asian American that truly could sing, we still have some Larry Ching CDs. The Chinese Frank Sinatra beats the Chinese Ricky Martin any day." Of course, since I produced that CD, we have them here, too. Just go to the shopping sector of this site...and for a beautiful set of music by a contemporary artist, discover Vienna Teng for yourself. Her 2nd CD -- Warm Strangers -- is out, and it fulfills the promise so evident in her debut, Waking Hour . She may remind you of any number of excellent singer-songwriters, but she carves out her own identity, especially on the last, "hidden" track, sung in Mandarin. It's a Taiwanese lullaby, "Ludao Xiaoyequ," which she learned as a kid, and which translates to "Green Island Serenade." I'll resist saying it's so mesmerizing, you can hear a Pinyin drop.
And, now, back to my regularly scheduled column:
In a thank-you note for participating in the Jack London Writers Conference, Kevin Ferguson, the conference chair, PS-ed, Let me know of your next karaoke gig. Ive got to hear that Martha S. song.
That would be Martha Stewart, and the song is one I wrote one night last June at Bobby Ryders a San Francisco tavern where my friend Kathi Kamen Goldmark and her band, Train Wreck, were playing one of their monthly country jams. The band can play just about any song (or fake it good enough), and welcomes guests to get on stage with them.
I usually do Dylans Rainy Day Women 12+35, with new lyrics every time out, playing off whatevers in the news. (Theyll stone you if they think that youre a beggar, theyll stone you if youre Arnold Schwarzenegger) Anyway, that night last June, Martha Stewart had been indicted for (allegedly) lying about her stock sale, and Kathi wanted to do a song about it. She came to my table and asked if I could write parody lyrics to a Merle Haggard classic, Sing Me Back Home. And she wanted to sing it in the first set.
Sure, I said. The only problem was that I didnt know the real lyrics. As the band did its sound check, Kathi sang me the song, and I scribbled down the words. With a Dewars rocks and a reasonably fresh sheet of paper, I began writing. I finished the song before the drink, handed her my scrawled lyrics, and she took them straight up to the bandstand, told the band about it, and they eased into the tune. Just about 15 minutes after Id begun writing, Kathi began singing:
The warden led the prisoner down the hallway to her cell
I stood up to gawk at her like all the rest
And I heard her tell the warden, in a voice I knew so well
Why, this horrid space is not fit for a guest!
Won't you paint these four walls with colors full of cheer
With a lamp, that dark corner comes to life
Then I can host inmates far and near
Fix up my cell or I'll just die ...
The song ended with Stewart fitting a kitchen into her cell, even though it was only six by nine, and by days end, serving dinner, complete with wine.
Easy, eh? Truth is, Ive been writing silly lyrics to actual songs since my high school days, back in the early Sixties. The first, I think, was to the tune of Runaround Sue, and the message, sung to a school assembly at Oakland High, was to be sure to buy the yearbook.
A couple years later, I toyed with the Andy Williams hit, Cant Get Used to Losing You, to mock Richard Nixon for losing the California governors race to Edmund G. Brown:
Ill win an office, wait and see
I almost beat out Kennedy
Cause if I dont, Im in a jam
I havent even passed my bar exam!
I wrote the songs for amusement; this was decades before radio shows concocted and aired parody songs every morning. But at Rolling Stone magazine in the Seventies, I continued my little hobby, and at least two songs were performed. One, to the tune of Bob Dylans Hurricane (The Ballad of Reuben Carter), celebrated the magazines big scoop in 1975 on the Patricia Hearst/SLA kidnap and aftermath. I vaguely recall doing the song, with real musicians behind me, on a couple of occasions, including a nightclub, the Boarding House:
Doorbell rang out in the Berkeley night
Into the apartment house they burst
Knocked down Steven Weed with hardly a fight
And made their getaway with Patty Hearst!
Here comes the story of the Rolling Stone
Of David Weir and of Howard Kohn
They found the trail of Patty Hearst
And they wrote about it first
A few years later, with the magazine having moved to New York, several staffers formed a punk band called the Dry Heaves. When they asked me to chip in a song, I came up with one that I thought matched the dignity of the bands name. Once again, it was a Dylan song, Serve Somebody. Only mine was called Suck Somebody:
You may know Paul Simon, you may know Elaine
You may know Jann Wenner, you may even know Jane
You may have home numbers for Ahmet and Clive
You may know the cast of Saturday Night Live
But youre gonna have to suck somebody
Wise words, indeed. On occasion, I write them for good causes. When Amy Tan threw a big party for her mother Daisys 80th birthday, I helped serenade her, to the tune of Crazy:
DaisyDaisy, today is your birthday
Daisy, you were our first perfect Tan
And now family and friends have all gathered
Say Ai-yah! -- I think wed all understand
And for Jeff Adachi, who won the San Francisco Public Defenders office against a powerful political machine, I did a little Dean Martin at the Plush Room cabaret, at a party to help pay off his campaign debt. Think Thats Amore:
When you run for PD
And score a big victory, thats Adachi!
When you fight the Machine
And you can pick em clean, thats Adachi!
Thereve also been songs to roast the attorney Dale Minami; to bid James Hattori farewell as he left KRON-TV in San Francisco for CNN in Atlanta; to celebrate the life of a departed dear friend (Judith Smith Cushner). And, I suppose, therell be more. One of these days, Ill compose a song that might have some actual shelf life. Until then
Theyll stone you if youre eatin cream of spinach
Theyll stone you if youre voting for Kucinich
Theyll stone you if they think that youre too solemn
Theyll stone you if they see you read this column
But I would not feel so all alone
Everybody must get stoned!
They'll stone you if you don't check out Ben Fong-Torres' home page, at www.benfongtorres.com.