Ben Fong-Torres on getting old, on 'American Idol' getting mean, and on Johnny Carson.
Well, that was interesting.
I turned 60 the other day, and nothing seems different. What changes thereve been the various aches and pains, the thinning hair, the widening waistline began years ago.
Friends and family asked how it felt to be turning 60 as if they didnt know, or wouldnt know soon enough. To them, Id only say: All these years, Ive been called a former Senior Editor of Rolling Stone . Now, you can call me a senior former editor of Rolling Stone .
Strangers expressed a charitable amazement: You dont look a day over 40!
Actually, except for the occasional white strand that Dianne spots, my hair hasnt turned white or blue, the definite signs of old age. But, then, my dad didnt go gray till he was deep into his seventies. My mom? Only her hairdresser knows for sure.
So, given my laconic attitude about the landmark date, I opted for a low-key observance. No big party, like the one Dianne and I staged for my 50th. We had maybe 100 friends and family over, with caterers serving food and drinks, and with the more professionally entertaining among us doing some karaoke. They included Huey Lewis, Annie Sampson (who was part of the band, Stoneground, among many rockin credits), and local lounge legend Bud E. Luv.
This time, it was two smallish events. Immediate family gathered at my karaoke hangout, the Yet Wah restaurant on Diamond Heights for dinner, singing, and, in the case of my nephew Jasons girlfriend Wendy, some great dancing and air guitar. To help with the singing, I pulled in a ringer, singer-songwriter Kimberlye Gold, who wrote and performed a parody of an Elton John tune. Hers was entitled Benny at the Yet. Meantime, my sisters and nieces did some Motown, turning My Girl into My Bro. With stuff like this going on in your life, how can you age?
The next night, January 8th, was the annual slightly-late New Years Eve bash produced by the Martini Club, a group of time travelers who live in the 30s and 40s, in the age of art deco, big bands, swing dancing, and high fashion. We put together a table of ten and joined in at the Lake Merritt Hotel in Oakland. It was a weekend of rain and high winds, but for those hours that Saturday night, it was miraculously clear, as the Mood Swing Orchestra played, as Connie Champagne sang, and as dancers swayed and swung around the dance floor. Not long before the countdown to midnight, the band stopped and Mr. Rick, co-host, with his partner Laurie Gordon, of the event, told the guests that it was my birthday. Out came the Decobelles, the Art Deco Societys line of gorgeous dancers. Out came a cake. Out came more of my hair. They sang, they posed, and people expressed amazement at my age. Ah, we are all such fine actors
Now, whether youre 20, 30 or 60, heres more than a bit of wisdom from that ageless comedian and social observer, George Carlin:
Do you realize that the only time in our lives when we like to get old is when we're kids? If you're less than 10 years old, you're so excited about aging that you think in fractions.
"How old are you?" "I'm four and a half!"
You're never thirty-six and a half. You're four and a half, going on five!
That's the key. You get into your teens, now they can't hold you back. You jump to the next number ... or even a few ahead.
"How old are you?" "I'm gonna be 16!" You could be 13, but hey, you're gonna be 16!
And then the greatest day of your life you become 21. Even the words sound like a ceremony . . . YOU BECOME 21. YESSSS!!!
But then you turn 30. Oooohh, what happened there? Makes you sound like bad milk. He TURNED; we had to throw him out.
There's no fun now. You're just a sour-dumpling. What's wrong? What's changed? You BECOME 21, you TURN 30, then you're PUSHING 40.
Whoa! Put on the brakes .. it's all slipping away. Before you know it, you REACH 50 and your dreams are gone.
But wait!!! You MAKE IT to 60. Yu didn't think you would!
So you BECOME 21, TURN 30, PUSH 40, REACH 50 and MAKE IT to 60. You've built up so much speed that you HIT 70! After that it's a day-by-day thing; you HIT Wednesday!
You get into your 80s and every day is a complete cycle; you HIT lunch; you TURN 4:30; you REACH bedtime. And it doesn't end there.
Into the 90s, you start going backwards ..."I Was JUST 92."
Then a strange thing happens. If you make it over 100, you become a little kid again. "I'm 100 and a half!"
May you all make it to a healthy 100 and a half!!
Next time out, Ill steal some more from Prof. Carlin, on How to Stay Young. Tip #3 includes the line, Never let the brain idle. I certainly second that emotion, as Smokey would sing. Besides co-hosting the KTVU broadcast of the San Francisco Chinese New Year Parade on February 19th, and starting up a radio show the week before (See my last column for details), and restarting my radio column in the San Francisco Chronicle's Sunday Datebook, Im back to freelance writing for various magazines. An obituary of Jefferson Airplane drummer Spencer Dryden is in Rolling Stone (issue of February 10); Im off to Memphis to interview Al Green for Parade magazine, and then to Los Angeles to visit the Eagles, who have a special on NBC in April, for a piece in TV Guide . Meantime, Ive agreed to do a follow-up to Not Fade Away: A Backstage Pass to 20 Years of Rock 'n' Roll, my compilation of past articles, for Backbeat Books. This time around, fewer music stars; more personal pieces.
Meantime, Happy Year of the Rooster. Be sure to set off a few figurative firecrackers and play some air guitar.
IDOL CHATTER: : It was strange to see the New York Times running an editorial about American Idol , but that's what the august newspaper did shortly after the show's season debut. "The producers," the paper noted, "seem to feel it's funny to watch a trio of wealthy and famous adults making fun of a simple 16 year-old girl whose only sin was being 'pretty sure I have a good voice' when she didn't." Viewers, the editorial continued, "are invited to roar while young people who in many cases appear to be poor, of low intelligence or even mildly disturbed, sing enthusiastically and then stand gape-mouthed with shock while their heroes insult them on national television." The show, the Times concluded, promotes the "glorying in the abasement of the utterly defenseless."
I've felt much the same way throughout Idol's run. I also find it disingenuous for the show to pretend that the people we see appearing before the judges in the preliminary rounds have been screened, so that we're seeing the contestants with the most potential. Clearly, they're also choosing people with the most potential to make fools of themselves.
For television, that adds up to entertainment, and, judging by the ratings, public humiliation--and the repetitive scenes of untalented, unknowing young people lashing out at Simon Cowell & Co. for rejecting them--is what the public wants.
It makes us all feel SO superior. Doesn't it?
HERE'S TO JOHNNY: We've got a handful of excellent television talk show hosts on the air these days. David Letterman, Ellen DeGeneres, Oprah Winfrey and Conan O'Brien all have their great strengths. But there will never be another Johnny Carson, the epitome of the complete package: A masterful stand-up comedian with lightning-quick adlib reflexes; a slapstick comic in scripted skits; a charming interviewer of fellow entertainers; a supporter of rising young comics. He was a man of warmth and candor who guided viewers through the late night gently, with just a bit of spice. He was a man of his time, and those times, sad to say, have passed. He was a man of honor, retiring as a champion, and never looking back, or looking for a way back in. He was a class act, and we were fortunate to have him. Good night, Johnny.
It's the Year of the Rooster, but Ben's a monkey. But he ain't no chimp. Just ask Laura "Bonnie" Swezey, or check out his home page, at www.benfongtorres.com.