New Documentary Explores the Stone Scribe, Ben Fong-Torres
by Michael A. Gonzales
Growing-up with a mom who bought Rolling Stone in the early to mid 1970s, when it was still a newspaper, I was introduced to a handful of writers whose work later had an impact on my own articles. There were wild styled New Journalists such as Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson, guys who became the bane of English teachers everywhere when students were inspired by their textual theatrics that included run-on sentences and lots of exclamation points. However, not every writer wants to be a madcap character. Journalist Ben Fong-Torres was never as flashy as those other guys (and, unlike Hunter, just said “no” to drugs), but he always delivered a solid story that wasn’t afraid to ask hard questions and interviewing everyone connected to his subject.
Joining the Rolling Stone staff in 1969, a year after graduating from San Francisco State College where he was a daily columnist for the school paper, Fong-Torres was a pioneering Asian-American in media, breaking in at a time when there were very few. He soon became the magazine’s editorial guiding light. Owner Jan Wenner might’ve been the boss, but Fong-Torres was the heart and soul. In addition to his own writing, Fong-Torres was also an editor who helped shape future stars such as Holly George-Warren, author of Janis: Her Life and Music (Simon and Schuster), and Cameron Crowe, who today is an A-list screenwriter/director.
In 2000, Crowe depicted his former mentor in the autobiographical film Almost Famous. As played by actor Terry Chen, it showed Fong-Torres as the stressed out editor trying to navigate a sixteen-year-old music journalist through his first big assignment. Crowe, much like Fong-Torres, pulled back from the magazine when Wenner went full mogul and moved from their native San Francisco offices to New York City skyscraper in 1977. Still, Fong-Torres still freelanced with the magazine for three more years and remains a forever part of the counterculture press corps that helped change the world of pop music journalism.
While it has been more than forty-years since Rolling Stone left for the east coast, filmmaker Suzanne Joe Kai brings it all back in her documentary Like a Rolling Stone: The Life & Times of Ben Fong-Torres. Kai tells the story of how a Chinese kid from the Bay Area, the second son of immigrant parents who owned a restaurant, later became one of the most respected music journalists in the country. Having developed a work ethic when he was kid helping out in the back of the restaurant, Fong-Torres says in the film that his parents wanted a doctor or lawyer in the family, but instead he followed his path and passion for music and writing.
Though Fong-Torres is known for his profiles on rock stars that include Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Linda Ronstadt and Elton John, who makes an appearance in the doc, what initially drew me to his work was the in-depth features he wrote on Black musical geniuses Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, Ike & Tina Turner and my personal favorite, Marvin Gaye. These were recording artists that most rock journalists, as Fong-Torres says, “Overlooked.” The fact that he felt a responsibility to cover these artists beyond the usual fluff and puff of others says a lot about the man.
Born in 1945, Fong-Torres was a young boy when rock and roll started, and could well remember when the Black folks were still a part of the scene as both a performers and audience. He was a fan of “Rocket 88” by Ike Turner/Jackie Brenston and dug the grooves of Little Richard. One of the funniest scenes in Like a Rolling Stone was when the filmmakers played a Ray Charles interview while talking smack about Elvis Presley’s dancing and how he stole those moves from Black people on Beale Street. From his tone, Charles had no love for the so-called king.
Later in the film, we hear Tina Turner explaining to Fong-Torres that Mick Jagger learned how to dance from watching her. Another highlight of the doc was when Fong-Torres go to this his archive and retrieved the Gaye interview where they talk about the genius of the singer’s then recently released masterwork What’s Going On. Rocker or soul legend, I get a sense from the relaxed tone of their voices that they trusted Fong-Torres and were comfortable enough to be themselves.
Like a Rolling Stone features big-names stars praising the journalist including Quincy Jones, Santana and Steve Martin (who barely says anything of note besides, “You helped my career”), but the best is fellow writer Cameron Crowe who, at 63, still has the youthful enthusiasm of a teenager. “Ben was my first glimpse of a professional journalist,” he says. “He didn’t want to hang-out, he wanted to get the job done.” Fong-Torres also worked closely with newly hired photographer Annie Leibovitz when she joined the magazine a year after him. When the writer married Dianne Sweet a few years later, Leibovitz was their wedding photographer.
Director Suzanne Joe Kai features stunning archival footage and photographs from the ‘60s and ‘70s pop/political landscapes while also digging deep into the history of Chinese people in California and its connection to the Fong-Torres family saga. Though documentaries on the scale of Like a Rolling Stone have historically been reserved for more flamboyant scribes (Lester Bangs, Hunter Thompson), it nice to see one that focused on a normal guy who doesn’t overdose or commit suicide in his third act.
As inspiring as regular guy Ben Fong-Torres himself, Like a Rolling Stone is an excellent must-see for aspiring journalists, pop culture connoisseurs and west coast Asian culture buffs.
Back in the day, Ben Fong-Torres usually got much access to his subjects and, from his hours of interviews, wrote profiles that were definitive. Below are a few of the soul music stories he penned during the golden years of the music.
Michael A. Gonzales has been writing about music and culture since the 1980s. He has written for Vibe, Essence, The Source and Spin. Currently he writes true-crime features for CrimeReads, a book column (The Blacklist) for Catapult, essays for LongReads and music features for Wax Poetics. Forthcoming essay subjects include Octavia E. Butler, The Wire and Isaac Hayes. Gonzales blogs at Blackadelicpop.blogspot.com. Check out some of his work for soulhead.