In the Trenches with Trent, Jon Lovitz, and Johnny Rivers
Ben Fong-Torres, our very own Renaissance man -- author, broadcaster, and former senior editor and writer at Rolling Stone Magazine -- was a featured character in the 2000 movie "Almost Famous." Everybody still asks him about it--even comedian Jon Lovitz.
In the end, it doesnt really matter whether Sen. Trent Lott is outwhich he should and may well be, by the time you read thisor remains the majority leader of that private party we call Republican. What his remarks added up to was yet another reminder that weve always lived among racists, and always will. Just when you think, for example, that Asian-Americans have made a bit of progress, you run across one of the numerous Web sites that are devoted to Asian jokes. Every slur and stereotype youve been working to squash is there, available for people of all colors to laugh at. Is that equality or what?
One Asian-American had a letter published in the New York Times, in the immediate aftermath of Lotts self-exposure. Wrote Bell Yung of Pittsburgh:
For countless immigrants like me and those Americans born after the 1960s, the furor over Lott is indeed an invaluable national tutorial. Even more important, it clearly demonstrates how the practice of equality among all has been a constant battle that is still being fought today in America, more than two centuries after its declaration of independence.
As the United States exerts increasing power over other nations and people, it behooves the administration to recognize this struggle at home, and to exercise patience and forbearance as it demands similar practice from other nations that may have a much shorter history of such a struggle.
Random Notes: Speaking of the New York Times, I got mentioned the other Sunday. In a superb piece about Gram Parsons, the country-rock pioneer who was the subject of my first book, reporter Neil Strauss surveyed the continuing interest in Parsons, who died young, 30 years ago, and never had a hit record. He noted a film being made, starring Johnny Knoxville, about Parsons. In the meantime, Strauss wrote, Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones recently bought the movie rights to the definitive biography, Hickory Wind: The Life and Times of Gram Parsons by Ben Fong-Torres. Its true. Hes got a year or so to make something happen, and I sure hope he does, given the shape of my 401(k) It sure has been a crazy year. Every day, it seems, I still get asked about being portrayed in the movie, Almost Famous. The other weekend, in Los Angeles with Dianne, my wife, I was in Beverly Hills when I ran into Jon Lovitz, late of Saturday Night Live (The Liar, The Thespian) and NewsRadio. Having just enjoyed seeing him being interviewed on Bravo, I introduced myself. Say that again? he asked. I did, and he smiled. You sound just like you do in the movie, he said, and proceeded to pepper me with questions about what was real and what wasnt. Inquisition over, I asked what he was up to, and here you go: Hes scored another guest shot on Friends. (Lisa Kudrow, he said, happens to be a buddy.) And I am NOT lying!
Johnny Be Good: While in L.A., I had lunch with Johnny Rivers, who is remembered by long-time rock fans for such hits as Poor Side of Town, Memphis, Mountain of Love, Baby I Need Your Lovin, and Summer Rain. These days, his best-known hit is Secret Agent Man, which got a new life thanks to the first Austin Powers movie. Back in 66, when it first hit, I heard it as Secret Asian Man. It was partly Johnnys Baton Rouge-flavored enunciation; part personal fantasy.
Anyway, we had lunch because Rivers is interested in writing a book about his life and times, and wed met about five years ago. In fact, Elaine Vasko, the president of his fan club, whose members consider themselves secret agents, asked me to write a little something about Johnny for its newsletter. Heres part of what I sent:
At my left was Johnny Rivers, and to his left was an array of legendary radio disk jockeys and programmers. We were on stage at the Museum of Television & Radio in Beverly Hills one December evening in 1998 for a salute to 40 Years of Top 40 Radio.
Id just published a book on the history of Top 40, called The Hits Just Keep On Coming, and the Museum agreed to host an event, if I could put together a decent panel. A few phone calls later, Id managed to get Gary Owens, Casey Kasem, and Rick Dees to represent deejays. Two of Top 40s major programming architects, Chuck Blore (Color Radio) and Bill Drake (Boss Radio), both known to be media-shy, agreed to participate.
Then, the Museum added a bonus. To offer an artists perspective on radio, they invited Johnny Rivers, who would not only join the panel, but also perform on the Museums rooftop garden afterwards.
I couldnt believe my good fortune. And, looking back on that evening, its still hard to believe that it actually happened.
In my years of covering and interviewing musicians for Rolling Stone, Id never met Johnny. But long before joining the magazine in San Francisco in the late Sixties, Id been a fan. That evening at the Museum, moderating the panel, it was hard to get away from the stories being told by the radio people, but, soon enough, I asked Johnny to tell about his own connections to radio.
He told of growing up hanging around radio stations in Baton Rouge and going to New York City on vacation once, in 1957, and taking a guitar and standing in front of WINS at Columbus Circle to wait for Alan Freed, the pioneer DJ credited with coining the very phrase, rock and roll. Just like in the movies, said Johnny. And he came walking up with his manager, who was running his publishing company. I introduced myself. Im John Ramistella, I have a band and I write songs. He gave me his card and invited me to come up to his office in the Brill Building the next day, to play him some of my songs. Johnny did and got a recording session out of it. He was on his way.
After the panel and a short reception, we hit the roof, where Johnny and his band made my book title come true. The hits just kept on coming. Id invited my wife Diannes sisters, who live in Los Angeles, to join us. Along with Dianne, Robin Ward and Eileen Powers were among the first to hit the front of the stage, where they danced from Maybelline through Summer Rain. Three sisters dancing together; it was like American Bandstand all over again.
Johnny and I have kept in touch. Hes talked about writing a book about his amazing career and his unique perspectives on the music industry. Beyond his own vivid memories, he said, he could call on any number of secret agents (his fan club members) around the country for help.
He can also count on at least one secret Asian man.
For more insights by Ben, visit his official website at www.benfongtorres.com