Ben Fong-Torres sings on stage in Texas with rock legends and lives to tell the story.
[Editor's Note: This article was written for the music maga- zine Paste and will appear, in a slightly differ- ent form, in its October issue.]
We were re- hearsing, and Id just run through my Elvis number when Jim Messina issued a threat.
Hey, Ben, he said, I just want to let you know Im gonna be writing a review about this!
Fair enough. After all, back in the day, when I was at Rolling Stone , I used to write about Messina, who was in Buffalo Springfield and Poco before becoming half of Loggins & Messina.
Standing near Messina was Richie Furay, his bandmate in Springfield and Poco. And huddled in a far corner were Mickey Raphael, the harmonica wizard behind Willie Nelson, along with Tony Brown, Nashville label executive, producer, and former keyboard player foryes, Elvis Presley. Yikes!
We were in the Hunt Suite in the Mansion on Turtle Creek, the Dallas luxury resort hotel where Dean Fearing, the ebullient executive chef and guitar-slinging leader of a mostly-chefs band, the Barbwires, gathers as many ringers as he can every year to play at his fundraising Summer Barbeque Fest.
On this seasonally hot July Saturday, some 600 people would soon show up, at $250 a ticket, to sample grilled and barbequed dishes whipped up and served by celebrity chefs from around the country, and to be coerced into overspending for items in an auction run by Al Roker and Peter Greenberg of the Today show.
But mostly, there were the musicians, and the chance to see renowned Texas chefs like Fearing, guitarist Robert DelGrande (of Caf Annie in Houston) and vocalist Tim Keating (of Quattro, also in Houston) performing with bona fide country and rock stars.
And there was me. Id covered last years bash for a feature for Gourmet magazine, all about chefs who never got over their passion for music, and who were still dreaming the rock...
Our Ben Fong-Torres loses a job and gains a half-dozen others, from New York to San Francisco, with a stop in Cincinnati.
I lost my job a couple of months ago, and life couldnt be better.
I was just about ready to run out of the office in South San Francisco, screaming from sheer boredom with the job (VP of content at a marketing company that produced branded magazines sent out by e-mail), when the company got sold.
Yes, it was a big-salary; yes, the people I worked with were great. But spending a third of your life doing something youd just as soon not be doing is well, its something too many of us do.
Not me; no more.
And it seems as though the moment I was set free, a happy houseful of doors flew open, inviting me in for a look-see. Radio! Television! Movies! Books! Magazines! And, of course, more!
Some of these opportunities came before the downsizing at my company. Its been months, for example, since David Ling, an attorney-turned-film producer, called from New York to ask about a film option on The Rice Room, my 1994 memoirs. Weve now signed a deal, so Id advise getting in line immediately to see the film And Ive been writing, on and off, for Parade magazine since a couple years ago. Its on again, with profiles of Tim McGraw, the country superstar, and Ellen DeGeneres coming out (if youll pardon the pun) in August and September.
To check on a couple of these doors, Dianne and I went to New York in early June. Actually, we were there to go upstate, to a renewal of vows ceremony for a pair of good friends, editor-writer Holly George-Warren and her husband of 15 years, the superb singer-songwriter Robert Burke Warren. I officiated and felt like nothing less than a country preacher, as Holly and Robert exchanged warm vows under a sweeping willow tree in their backyard in Phoenicia, in the Catskills, and as Robertwith help from their six year-old son Jackserenaded Holly with his song, You Look Good in the...
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...
Our Renaissance Man wins an Emmy for his work on the Chinese New Year Parade broadcast. And he honors winners of the Women Warrior Awards.
I wont lie to you. It feels good to win an Emmy. Thats what happened the other night at the Northern California Emmy Awards in San Francisco, when the Chinese New Year Parade broadcast, which Julie Haener and I co-host on KTVU (Fox 2), won a bunch of the gold-plated statuettes. As one KTVU anchor kidded afterwards, Jeez, you work part-time and you win one!
Part-time is right. Each February, I go into the stations offices for two script-reading sessions, and then we do the parade from our perch in Union Square, and then we pick up our Emmys. Easy as custard tarts.
Other big winners: Wendy Tokuda of KRON, who got two Emmys for Students Rising Above , a series of reports on low-income, at-risk kids who nonetheless strive to get into college, and Emerald Yeh, formerly of KRON, who won her ninth Emmy, this time for Lost Childhood: Growing Up in an Alcoholic Family. The win was redemption, of sorts, for Emerald, who fought hard to get the show produced and aired, and whose dismissal from KRON last year (owing, the station said, to budget cuts) caused a local stir. But she proved, once more, that shes a winner.
Sydnie Kohara of CBS 5 co-hosted the event with Frank Somerville of KTVU, and offered her usual blend of glamour, professionalism and good humor, while Tokuda and Kristen Tze of ABC 7 were among the presenters. Before the ceremonies, Kristen told me she wasnt up for any awards. I was busy having a baby, she said. She now has a ten-month-young cutie pie at homeMeantime, Lisa Kim of NBC 3 is expecting her second child, a fact apparent to everyone as she strode onstage to accept one of two awards the judges decided to give out for best news anchor. The other winner in that category: Julie Haener. Yeah , Baby!
So Julies got two Emmys, and Ive got oneand about a half, sorta. Way back in the...
American Idol reject William Hung gets an extended 15 minutes of fame, and Kim Wong Keltner's first novel sets off an online firestorm.
AsianConnections pre- sents the adventures of Ben Fong-Torres, our very own Renaissance man: author, broad- caster, karaoke nut and former writer and editor at Rolling Stone. Ben was a featured character in the acclaimed film, Almost Famous.
Ive got a feeling about this William Hung guy. Hes going to last about as long as an iPod download. Hung, of course, is the diminutive UC Berkeley student who auditioned for American Idol with a goofy version of Ricky Martins She Bangs, got featured as one of the really bad singers (and he dances like a marionette, to boot), and is going through his 15 minutes, and then some, of fame. Hung, a native of Hong Kong who moved to the U.S. in 1993, has been on big TV shows Tonight, Dateline, Entertainment Tonight, and Ellen ; hes being booked for personal appearances, hes got fan Web sites, and hes constantly mobbed on campus, where hes a civil engineering student. Best, or perhaps most frightening of all, he got a $25,000 recording contract and a CD, True Idol , coming out.
All this because, as clunky a performer as he is, he offered an innocently sweet and gracious response after the judges dissed him. I already gave my best, and I have no regrets at all.
And that was it. Because he didnt scream back at Simon Cowell, burst into tears and stomp off and because hes so bad its almost funny hes a cult celebrity, getting the kind of media attention thousands of talented musicians can only dream of. Hes even been featured in Rolling Stone , whose reporter called him a bona fide dweeb and revealed that Hung, whos 21, is a non-smoking, non-drinking, non-swearing, teeth-flossing virgin.
OK, so Im not famous for the right reasons, he said. Im infamous, a joke. It doesnt make me feel good, because Im a genuine person, but I dont let it get to me, because I am who I...