By C.J. Hirschfield
At the beginning of the pandemic, TIGER KING was the documentary everyone was watching. It focused on an eccentric and unethical schemer/scammer driven by greed–truly a despicable character. Kind of like the president we were forced to endure on screen at the same time.
Maybe now we’re ready to see more documentaries like the recently-released FAUCI, and now LIKE A ROLLING STONE: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF BEN FONG-TORRES, which turn the camera onto people who show up with passion, talent and humility every day– and not just for the money. After a film festival tour and theatrical release the film is now on Netflix.
You may not know Fong-Torres’ name, but those of us of a certain generation certainly are familiar with his byline. As the first music editor at Rolling Stone magazine (in 1969), he helped shape the San Francisco publication’s rise to international fame as it chronicled the music, politics and popular culture of a generation boldly breaking away from the status quo.
Many of Fong-Torres’ most famous interviews are documented in Suzanne Joe Kai’s exceptional and entertaining new film, including those of Marvin Gaye, Tina Turner, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder and Jim Morrison. The thoughtful—and artful—use of historic film, photos and audio create a film that is a very pleasurable journey through time.
Fong-Torres’ life before and after his years at Rolling Stone are also quite compelling. Born and raised in Oakland, where his father owned restaurants in Chinatown, he also endured segregation and discrimination during a stint living in Texas when he was only 12, which later informed his writing.
“I was such a music nerd,” he says. In his early years he honed his journalistic chops as editor of Oakland High’s school paper, and then as editor of San Francisco State’s Gator, just as a revolution was starting to taking place on campus. After college, he took a job writing and editing a publication for the phone company when, in 1968, the opportunity to write for a new magazine presented itself. On screen he recalls how he made the decision. “The choice of working for the phone company or Rolling Stone?” he says. “Duh!”
At Rolling Stone, he soon became the go-to guy for musicians who wanted to be interviewed by someone who knew and respected the power of music to change minds, and the world. After he became established, some bands would only agree to talk with him. How much was he respected by those rock stars he interviewed, sometimes in a tough way? The Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir put it this way: “I figured if he trashed us, we probably had it coming,” noting his respect for artists and his knowledge of the form.
In addition to Weir, there are also on-screen interviews about Fong-Torres with ALMOST FAMOUS director Cameron Crowe (the fictitious film is based on Rolling Stone’s early years, with an actor playing a Fong-Torres character), Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner, as well as music legends Elton John, Country Joe McDonald, Quincy Jones, and Carlos Santana. Jones says that Fong-Torres’ urban upbringing and cool vibe also meant that he was relatable to a lot of artists. Because he’d been marginalized, Jones says, “He can get ghetto in a New York minute.” A former Rolling Stone managing editor calls Fong-Torres “the king of ‘tell me more’”,” referring to the journalist’s highly effective technique of getting artists to open up to him, which resulted in brilliant and insightful pieces.
At the same time he was hobnobbing with rock royalty, at night he was also a volunteer editor/writer for the Chinese-American journal East West, giving a voice to a large group that had long been underrepresented in the media.
The film also documents the tragic and unresolved 1972 murder of Fong-Torres’ activist brother Barry, which had a profound effect on the writer.
Fong-Torres hasn’t slowed down since his Rolling Stone days. He has written numerous books about music and musicians, as well as one about his own family’s Chinese immigrant journey, covered music for Parade Magazine, penned the long-running weekly column, “Radio Waves” for the San Francisco Chronicle and served as a radio host on KSAN and KQED-FM.
One very minor criticism of the film: with about seven minutes to go, it veers off into a seeming mashup of unrelated segments featuring comedian Steve Martin, cooking, a Chinese parade—before it segues into a proper ending. This jump is curious, but not enough to dampen enthusiasm for an excellent story of a fascinating person, and the turbulent era in which he was so much a part
So really, what can you say about a guy who, in 1977 turns down the opportunity to move to New York when Rolling Stone relocates in order to care for his aging parents, has been married for four decades to the same woman, has raised millions for charity and consistently exhibits the qualities of persistence, thoughtfulness, professionalism, competence and humility—and a great sense of humor?
That the unpretentious king of “tell me more” inspires, whereas the Tiger King just depresses.
LIKE A ROLLING STONE: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF BEN FONG-TORRES is now available on Netflix.
Ben’s late sister Shirley Fong-Torres was a well-known chef and popular San Francisco tour operator. We offer her easy—and classic– recipe for Congee (rice pudding) here. It is one of my favorites and perfect for cold nights.
SEE BELOW FOR BONUS MATERIALS, INTERVIEWS, PHOTOS AND MORE.
C.J. Hirschfield retired after 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry where she produced two series, ran San Francisco’s public access channel and advocated on behalf of the industry. A former writer for Film Month, she also penned a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years and now writes features and reviews for EatDrinkFilms. C.J. holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.
Hirschfield currently serves on the programming team for the Appreciating Diversity Film series showing free documentaries in Oakland and Piedmont, as well as on the advisory board of Youth Beat, a youth media training program that provides low-income Oakland students with the tools and opportunities they need to thrive in today’s workforce.
C.J. says, “A good documentary takes us places we never could never have imagined, and changes the way we see the world.”
Learn about all his books here.
Some of Ben’s favorite articles are here.
His regular column, “Radio Waves,” about the radio business ran for many years in the SF Chronicle Sunday Datebook. Samples of this and other article for the paper can be read here.
His love for radio can be found in his book “The Hit’s Keep On Coming” including a CD of airchecks from 16 legendary deejays. Read about it.
He created, curates and discusses music on Moonalice radio 24/7. It is great fun.
Todd Inoue interviewed Fong-Torres for the SF Chronicle in October, 2021.
Subscribers to Rolling Stone may read many of his articles and interviews.
Jim Morrison, February 1971 in-depth audio interview gives a feel for how Ben was trusted by his subjects.
Ben in conversation with former “Doors” keyboardist Ray Manzarek
Ben talks at the San Francisco Public Library about his career, (1917).
Ben audio interview with Jerry Garcia, 1976
All five parts of the Garcia interview are here.
The movie ALMOST FAMOUS has Terry Chen playing Fong-Torres as the editor hiring Cameron Crowe at Rolling Stone.
A young Ben talks on TV with Geraldo about drug use in rock & roll in 1974.
Christina Marie talks with Ben on “SF Live” (2009) about many things including growing up, his journalist inspirations, singing (he gives his impression of Bob Dylan and Elvis), Steve Martin, Dick Clark, his love of doing radio, the hardest interviews, essential music to hear and much more. (Watch both parts )