Ben Fong-Torres, Becoming Almost Famous:
My Back Pages in Music, Writing, and Life (Backbeat Books, 2006)
Ben Fong-Torres' second collection of rock journalism is a sequel of sorts to his first, Not Fade Away: A Backstage Pass to 20 Years of Rock & Roll. Becoming Almost Famous features profiles of -- and interviews with -- a vast array of diverse musicians from Frank Sinatra to Lou Reed, Hank Ballard to Sheryl Crow, Michael Nesmith to Janis Joplin, and with two features on Al Green written 30 years apart -- all written with the same level of appreciation. Even comedians Cheech & Chong and Steve Martin benefit from the author's engaging personality.
I could go on listing the artists' profiles included here -- CSN&Y, Joe Cocker, Jefferson Airplane, Bob Dylan and the Band, The Rolling Stones, two ex-Beatles -- but the long and short of it is, if you like rock music (or country, or folk, or R&B -- the author's favorite), you're going to want to read Fong-Torres' work. He was there nearly at the beginning of Rolling Stone, so he had unprecedented access to "the rock 'n' roll cultural revolution," as fellow Rolling Stone alumnus David Felton calls it in his Foreword. Felton also writes, "There is simply no better, more authentic, more astute, or more thorough chronicler of [that revolution] than Ben Fong-Torres."
As the book's title and promotional materials are eager to remind us, Fong-Torres "was depicted in the Cameron Crowe film, Almost Famous." The closing article, "Being Almost Famous," chronicles Fong-Torres' time on the film set, prompting reminiscences of his time in the Rolling Stone offices in the 1960s and '70s (he was the editor who gave Cameron Crowe his first assignments), in addition to the realization that Terry Chen, the actor cast as Fong-Torres, looks "eerily like me a quarter-century ago" (a number of photos in the book bear this out).
Though certainly best known for his work with Rolling Stone, several of the articles in Becoming Almost Famous are culled from other publications, like Parade, GQ, Gourmet (covering a number of bands composed primarily of chefs), the San Francisco Chronicle, and others. Fong-Torres even shows a flair for humor in a response to Dave Barry's Book of Bad Songs entitled "I Don't Wanna Hear Your Body Talk."
In addition to articles covering other music-fringe subjects like groupies in the 1980s, and the 20th anniversary of the "Summer of Love" ("Whatever that was . . . and whenever it was") -- which he had in fact already covered "way back when it was the 10th anniversary" -- also included in Becoming Almost Famous are a couple of pieces regarding Fong-Torres' time as a radio broadcaster; a chronicle of his return to China to visit relatives he had never met; his experience as a reluctant record producer; and a touching memorial to his older brother, Barry ("somehow ... ageless yet perennially two years older than I").
These latter pieces can be seen as a companion to the author's memoir, The Rice Room: Growing Up Chinese-American -- From Number Two Son to Rock 'N' Roll. Despite his multi-cultural surname, Fong-Torres is of fully Chinese heritage. As the author tells it, there was an embargo against Chinese immigrants when his father entered the United States, so the elder Fong cleverly made arrangements to purchase the name "Ricardo Torres" and was able to pass himself off as Filipino.
If the author's own history is that fascinating, just think of the quality of information he gets from his interview subjects, like what Linda Ronstadt really thinks about the music of Led Zeppelin and why Neil Young recorded with Crosby, Stills, and Nash, even though he didn't really fit in. Readers also discover what single paragraph made Emmylou Harris so angry at Fong-Torres that she refused to speak to him again -- even while he was researching a biography on Gram Parsons (Hickory Wind), her one-time musical partner. He even interviews himself for an anniversary article, a prime opportunity to answer frequently asked questions. (For those of you who just want the dish . . .Fong-Torres admits that he has become "more than friends" with a famous female rock star, "one hot night in Manhattan.")
I could not get away from the feeling that perhaps Not Fade Away got all the best articles (it is implied several times within the introductory essays that accompany each piece that a better article on the same subject is in the other book) and that Backbeat Books was simply looking for a follow-up, but I really enjoyed reading Becoming Almost Famous. Fong-Torres has a practically invisible journeyman style that rarely distracts from the subjects, and a remarkable ability to put his subject at ease. He has an unassuming writing style that cuts through to the heart of what the musicians are trying to say. He's not a great writer by any means, but he is a great journalist . He gets the job done and, more importantly, he was there! Fong-Torres wasn't just giving Cameron Crowe assignments, he was out there in the middle of the "rock revolution" himself, writing and editing articles from the time that Rolling Stone was just a little upstart publication with a tiny staff (the late 1960s) up until now, and he's still going strong.
Backbeat Books specialize in music-related publishing.