Pee-Wee Herman is back, and he talks with our Ben Fong-Torres.
I hate to be a name-dropper. Diana Ross told me it was gauche. But Ive got to drop at least one on youactually, two: Pee-Wee Herman and the guy who created and played him, Paul Reubens.
He was honored by SF Sketchfest, an annual celebration of sketch comedy, and the organizers asked me to conduct the interview, in the theater at the Palace of Fine Arts. I accepted immediately. Way back in 1983, hed brought his Pee Wees Playhouse act to a nightclub in North Beach, and Dianne and I were immediate fans of his quirky character. Next came the movie, Pee-Wees Big Adventure, followed by CBS putting him on Saturday mornings for kids (and the young and goofy at heart). In 1988, he had his second film, Big Top Pee-Wee.
And then came his arrest in an adult theater in his hometown, Sarasota, Florida, and a couple of years away from the spotlight. He has since appeared in numerous films and TV shows, from Batman Returns and Mystery Men to, currently, 30 Rock and Reno 911. And, after years of pointedly not doing his Pee-Wee character, even as the shows were being rerun and distributed on DVD, hes working on two films centering on that beloved character.
Before our interview, he made it clear that he didnt want to rehash his arrest. He had nothing to worry about. This, after all, was a tribute, a celebration of his work. And with as rich a career as his, I was barely finished with questions about the Pee-Wee projects when it was time for audience Qs and As.
Throughout our hour or so together, Reubens was relaxed enough to tell some stories hed never revealed before. After working with the comedy troupe, the Groundlings, in Los Angeles, and establishing the Pee-Wee character, he tried out for Saturday Night Live in 1980. He lost out to Gilbert Gottfried, and, he says, I was so bitter and angry that on the plan on the way back to LA, I was thinking, Youd better think of...
Ben writes a book about The Doors and almost has them slammed on him.
Id been kidding when, hours before, at a rehearsal, I told one musician at the Whisky a Go Go that we were headed for a 2006 version of "Riot on Sunset Strip," and that Stephen Stills should drop by and get some inspiration for an update of "For What Its Worth," his classic Sixties song about unrest between kids and cops on that stretch of Sunset Blvd. in West Hollywood.
But, caught in a crush of hundreds of people--not just people, mind you, but Very Important People--all trying to squeeze into a tiny rear entrance of the Whisky, Ialong with Dianne, my wife, and her two sisters and their husbandswas lucky not to get literally crushed, and to just barely make it into the club.
And who were these frantic, excited, and increasingly impatient, frustrated and angry people trying to get into the landmark club to see? A band that broke up 35 years ago. Half a band, in fact, since the breakup began with the death of its lead singer, and, these days, the drummer never appears with the guitarist and keyboardist, having taken them to court.
The band is The Doors , and theyre the subject of the second of my two books this year. Despite its title The Doors By the Doors it was my book to put together. I did it on short notice beginning in January, with a mid-March deadline. In those ten weeks, I had to wade through mounds of research, including several books on the iconic singer, Jim Morrison, alone, along with radio and video specials, magazines, and a dozen other books. Then I interviewed the three surviving Doors, along with several intimates, including Morrison family members whod never spoken out before. And then I wrote, sorting through yet another case of rock Rashomon, with different people recalling events entirely differently.
Eight months later, out popped The Doors By the Doors , more or less in time to spearhead a celebration of the 40th anniversary of...
Ben visits an artist who paints whatever he likes, and listens to lots of flower drum songs.
Somboun Sayasane is an anomaly among painters. Hes self-effacing, modest to a fault, and generous with his time and talents. And he loves to sing Chris Isaak, John Lennon and The Bee Gees.
I know this because, since 1991, Ive seen Sayasane at Yet Wah, a San Francisco restaurant that includes a karaoke bar.
Now, after all these years and songs Sayasane has published a book, The Park in the City: Impressions of Golden Gate Park . Its a beautiful, personal celebration of one of the world best-known urban parks, and it gives me all the more reason to introduce him to you.
Sayasane, who is 57, is an American, by way of Laos, and, as a refugee from that country, has reason to appreciate much of what he encounters.
And whenever he sees something he likes, hes likely to paint it.
Everywhere he goes, hes always drawing, says his friend, Henry Arnold . Hes a tremendous artist, and hes a very good-hearted guy.
I first met Sayasane at the Yet Wah. Hed read an article Id written about karaoke, and began showing up with a couple of friends. As a regular, Id begun producing a newsletterthe Yet Wah Tusi (get it?)for fun. It was a mix of news, gossip and slander, with a circulation of maybe a dozen. Somboun began doing cartoon sketches of the singers. Despite our artistry, the Tusi folded, due to a lack of time and ink cartridges. But Sayasane, who was an art teacher in San Francisco, drew on. He began painting scenic mural backdrops for parties at Yet Wah, beginning with a wedding that I officiated in 1998, of Martha Rodriguez and Stompin John Stadlberger . His light, airy watercolors of the Golden Gate Bridge and of hearts and flowers was the perfect backdrop for the daytime ceremony.
Outside the Yet Wah, Sayasane essayed even more spectacular works, including murals that have taken up entire sides of school buildings. On a...
Ben Fong-Torres discovers an Asian blueswoman, plus an online locker for all your music.
I was at Biscuits n Blues, a combo plate of blues nightclub and restaurant (with a Southern accent) in downtown San Francisco, working on a feature about a band comprised mostly of chefs. At B n B, the Back Burner Blues Band likes to invite people from the audience to jam, and, as I sat at the bar, taking notes, I couldnt help but take special note of a young Asian woman with long black hairand an electric guitar.
Heres how shes introduced in the article I wrotepublished in a recent San Francisco Chronicle. Im quoting one of the chefs, Gordon Drysdale , telling why he likes the jam sessions.
Its nerve-wracking, but exhilarating, and weve had some great moments. Like this woman, Angelawow! The ferocity with which she attacked everything. Im under-confident, so to see anybody get up there and do it with such convictionIve had to rethink how I approach everything.
Angela is Angela Lum , a 25 year-old with flowing black hair, dressed in a cowboy shirt and jeans, slinging a guitar and wailing an original blues ('B Minor Slide') with a throaty, gravelly voice, the flip side to (Back Burners co-lead vocalist) Leah Tysses smooth gospel tones.
Turns out Lum is a tech consultant (specializing in Web 2.0) from the Napa Valley. She met a couple of the chef-rockers at a blues club in the wine country a few months ago, and they invited her to play with them at Biscuits n Blues, where they play the first Monday every month.
I showed up, but I chickened out, Lum told me. Theyre really intimidating; theyre awe-inspiring, because theyve got all these other things going on. The following month, she got up her nerve and got up on stage.
It was the coolest thing, she said. I did my song, and then Midnight Special. And, yes, she knows that her low, gruff voice can catch people off guard. Ive always had that voice, she said. Im told I should...
Ben Fong-Torres judges a gay beauty contest and offers the scoop on Skype.
Free Lunch? No Such Thing. Free
Long-Distance Calls? Sure!
This is your lucky ten minutes, or however long itll take you to read this column. Im about to save you scads o cash especially if you make a lot of long-distance calls and have a computer. If so, you qualify to read on:
So. Youve no doubt heard about telephony by Internet, or VOIP (voice over Internet protocol). You may have demurred because, as in the early days of Internet radio, you didnt want to have to be tied to your computer to enjoy the new service. Or youre frightened by your computer (as you well should be). Or you didnt understand why youd need anything besides your cell phone. Especially when you heard that Vonage, for one, charged $24.95 a month for its Internet phone service. Skype has no monthly fees.
I recently began using Skypethis is about eight months after hearing about it from Spark PR, a spunky young company in San Francisco. Now, I realize that Ive been wasting money on the phone company for eight months.
As hard as its going to be to believe, heres the deal on Skype: Its free. You download the software (at www.skype.com), hook up a cheap computer microphone (if your PC doesnt already include one) or a headset/microphone combo, and youre set.
You can begin making calls to any Skype customers around the world for free. Until the end of the year, you can also call land and cell phones anywhere in this country and Canada for free. After that, those calls, called Skype Out, cost pennies a minute, at mosteven for overseas calls.
Using Skype is ridiculously easy. Just set up your list of people you might call on a regular basis, and theyll appear by name in your onscreen Skype box. When you want to call, you just highlight the name, hit the green button, and the number is speed-dialed.
Of course, you can also dial any number, domestic or overseas....