If the life of Ben Fong-Torres in music was distilled into a greatest hits collection, you’d need at least a half-dozen CDs to contain all the stories he’d be able to tell. One of Rolling Stone’s first editors and writers, you name the star, he’s probably interviewed them and written a story about them.
To top it all off, he made a memorable appearance in one of the best rock movies of all time, Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, with actor Terry Chen playing the young Fong-Torres and stealing a few scenes (“Crazy…”). Fong-Torres has been at the center of a lot of the great rock moments of the last few decades, and has written about them in several books, including an autobiography, The Rice Room, and a previous collection of his journalism, Not Fade Away.
In his latest, Becoming Almost Famous: My Back Pages in Music, Writing, and Life, Fong-Torres offers a chatty, amiable grab bag of reminiscences. They’re worth reading for any fan of music journalism who wants an inside glimpse beyond the pages.
A Chinese-American, Fong-Torres was often the only Asian face at early rock shows, and made a lot of new inroads. The pieces collected here range from the 1970s to the present, with work from Rolling Stone, Parade, GQ, Paste and more. Fong-Torres makes the scene with Cheech and Chong, Al Green, Steve Martin, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and more. The best of his work crackles with an easy charm. Becoming Almost Famous is a breezy read, and each historical piece is bookended by Fong-Torres’ current memories of the story.
Some of the pieces excerpted here are a little conventional, standard-issue rock profiles. But most of them strive for something more, and in the best of them, Ben welcomes you into his head and experiences. You get a feel for what it’s like to stand in front of Mick Jagger. A profile of former Monkee Michael Nesmith is fascinating, capturing what it was like to be a “serious guy” in a “joke band.” For an interview with Lou Reed, Fong-Torres shows us his nervousness: ” … if I upset him with the wrong question, he might tear my face off.”
Fong-Torres covers the gamut of legendary musicians, including Frank Sinatra, Dusty Springfield and George Harrison, and looks at what it was like to become “fictionalized” in Almost Famous. He also gives a good behind-the-scenes look at how a piece comes together, sharing his successes and failures.
Yet some of the pieces I liked the most had barely a famous face in them, like his essay about visiting his family’s home in China for the first time and meeting a long-lost uncle, or the tragic tale of his older brother’s unsolved murder.
Fong-Torres has made a solid impact on the world of rock journalism; he may not be lionized in the same way as say, Lester Bangs, but his quiet insight and charm made his work worth reading then and keeps it fresh today.