Celebrity Interview: Ben Fong-Torres, Rock Journalist and Moonalice DJ, Talks on Days, Times, Seasons and Events

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Ben Fong-Torres, DJ and program director with Moonalice Radio, the indie band from the Bay area comprised of Roger McNamee, Pete Sears, Barry Sless and John Molo, has spent the majority of his life living the music scene.

Although Fong-Torres, 71, is no longer jetting around with Linda Ronstadt or sailing with Mick Jagger, the former Rolling Stone rock journalist, writer and editor, San Francisco Chronicle radio columnist and senior editor for Qello Concerts, which streams music concerts & documentaries, a Netflix for all kinds of music, shows no signs of slowing down or heading to the proverbial retirement phase of life.

Creating Moonalice Radio with McNamee and producer T Bone Burnett, who also produced their first debut album, was an avenue to broadcasting the mood, feeling, and soundtrack of a time and season that has taken on iconic value.

Moonalice Radio brings back those good vibrations to a region commonly associated with the rise of the cultural and music revolution: Haight Ashbury, the hippie movement, flower children, the birth of the Grateful Dead and of course on the early side the Beat Poets, Allen Ginsberg and Howl.

The uniqueness of Moonalice is in part to the founders. McNamee, who goes by the stage name Chubby Wombat Moonalice, a former venture capitalist and one of the initial Facebook investors, has essentially bypassed the "system" and forged his own path for putting the music on the airwaves.

Moonalice is the first band without a label to achieve one million downloads from its own servers, direct from artist. "It's 420 Somewhere" has been downloaded over two million times," according to Wikipedia.

Fong-Torres, who is also the subject of a documentary in the upcoming year, by Suzanne Joe Kai, agreed to an interview. Below are his responses.

Janet Walker: You started working for Rolling stone in 1969 – and for a little more than a decade covered prolific changes in the music industry which can be a topic in itself – I think this is a two part - explain what it was like for you to thrust into the music world at a time many consider the heyday of rock and roll?

Ben Fong-Torres: Ha! I wasn't thrust into the music world. As a kid, I loved music, and, growing up in the '50s into the '60s, the age of Top 40, came to like all kinds of music. A year in Amarillo, away from Oakland Chinatown, got me into country & western. To write for Rolling Stone, and then to go to work there as an editor as well, was just a great job. It was Jann Wenner's genius that he came up with the idea for a mostly serious publication to cover the music and the culture just as it was expanding and exploding.

JW: If this question were to be played out it a film it would have you caught up in a helicopter riding off to a secluded location by chance and position – Describe some opportunities or most unusual interview settings?

Ben Fong Torres:  Well, as the rock industry got bigger, so did budgets, so we found ourselves in a time of extravagant (often excessive) parties to celebrate the release of albums. Journalists would be jetted from coast to coast to attend these bashes, and run into celebrity guests.

I think I went to one for the Eagles and met John Belushi. But at work, settings ranged from private jets (Elton) to tour buses (too many artists to name, but I treasure memories of riding with Bonnie Raitt, Tom Waits, John Prine, and, on another story, Linda Ronstadt. And, of course, Willie Nelson. 

In Detroit, I went to a boxing gym with Marvin Gaye. In New York to interview Diane Keaton (it wasn't all music, all the time), I wound up, at her suggestion, visiting Woody Allen at his beautiful apartment. I interviewed members of Wings on stage, during lulls in sound checks. For a TV interview with the Jacksons, the setting for 18 year-old Michael & his brothers was…Dianne and my flat in San Francisco. I decided against the typical hotel suite or backstage dressing room, and the station—and the Jacksons' reps—agreed. And I went sailing around Oahu with Mick Jagger at the captain's wheel. There's an Annie Leibovitz cover photo to prove it!

JW: Had you always intended to a journalist? What were some of your earlier pursuits?

BFT: No. I grew up loving to read, and thought it'd be fun to write—maybe humor, maybe a local column, maybe advertising. Back in the early '60s, there were no other Asian-Americans with bylines in newspapers or magazines. Hard to believe, but it's true. Ditto radio and TV. So although I dreamt about being a DJ or writer, I didn't think I had much of a shot at either.

But being in the Bay Area, and landing at schools where doors were open, I got opportunities—including joining the campus daily at SF State—and did just well enough to wind up with, among other things, a column and the editorship of the paper. (And I was a DJ on the campus radio station.)

JW: 1968 was on the tail end of a volatile time in American politics and landscape – Bobby was gunned down, Martin murdered and Kent State was looming, Civil Rights and Vietnam was still very much the soundtrack and the source of inspiration for many musicians and I'm believing these same topics would translate through artist into the music – Describe your feelings, powerful or powerless, as these events continued to clash with the music.

BFT: I came to think of my job as being a reporter. This began at SF State, site of many, many movements and protests. No matter my feelings, I maintained an objectivity in print. No question, the most thoughtful and talented musicians of the time chronicled what was going on in their music, and those songs remain powerful today, as we learn, sadly, how little progress we've made in half a century.  At Rolling Stone, we couldn't help but pay more attention to the strongest voices, and less to those we found more trivial. Although, of course, there's always room for fun and escape. Disco, anybody?

JW: What are a few of your most memorable moments?  

BFT: Marvin Gaye, in his living room at home near Detroit, singing to me, to demonstrate some songs he'd written for Sammy Davis Jr. but that never reached him. He played a backing track of an orchestra and sang. It was karaoke before karaoke, this being 1972.  Another moment: Covering Dylan's 1974 tour and listening to him singing "It's All Right, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" was overwhelming. Less than 2 years before, my older brother Barry was killed, and I'd not gotten over it. Still haven't. 

JW: Did you ever walk away without getting the interview?

BFT: Nope. When Rolling Stone was at its most powerful, musicians and others knew the importance of cooperating, in hopes of getting positive coverage. My, how things have changed.

JW: Describe the most difficult challenges of your job?

BFT: Just hard work. Jann had this crazy idea of cranking out a publication every other week. No other national magazine did that, except newsweeklies, which operated on an entirely different system. So we felt we were always on deadline, whether for a brief Random Note or a 7,500-word cover story.  Early on, we had almost no competition. As the years passed, we saw the mainstream media, both print and broadcast, covering rock culture. That made it all the more important to get –and keep—the best talent, and to stay on top of the ever-expanding world of the pop music industry.

JW: With all the changes in radio and how the consumer listens and chooses to listen and purchase music and the many streaming services, Spotify, as an expert describe what you see as the future of Radio and streaming music services?

BFT: The future is here.  A couple of decades ago, when I was editing an industry magazine, the prognosticators figured there'd be kiosks at mega-record stores where customers could custom-order a cassette of songs they purchased from the machine. A jukebox creates a tape. What's a cassette? What, even, is a record store?  Streaming and subscriptions clearly are the victors. The only thing to work out is fair compensation for the creators of the music.

What do you attribute the apparent return to vinyl and what will that do to the industry that provided an eloquent and neat obituary on Albums?

JW: The jump to the Chronicle is a different ball game. Describe how that came about?

BFT: In the early '80s, I was freelancing for Rolling Stone and numerous other national (and regional) magazines, and began tiring of the process, of pitching ideas and running around the country (or beyond—to Mexico, to France, to China). Not a bad life, but I wanted a more secure home base. So I joined the Chronicle as a feature writer. That led to a radio column (same sked as Rolling Stone; once every other week), and it's been fun, writing about something I'm still passionate about, through all of radio's changes.

JW: Describe being feature in a world that holds greater adoration for news anchors and writers?

BFT: If only!

JW: What's on your playlist?

BFT: I listen to radio—Sirius SM, online, terrestrial—more than any playlist. But the one I compiled for Dianne, my wife, has lots of my favorites—women like Amy Winehouse, k.d. lang, Shelby Lynne, and Gladys Knight & her (male) Pips; Ray Charles, Elvis, Chris Isaak, the Temptations, Darlene Love, Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks, Santana, Raul Malo, Melody Gardot, Boz Scaggs and Linda Ronstadt.

JW: What's the size of your album collection?

BFT: I got rid of most of my albums, except a couple hundred I expected never to make it to CDs. Boy, am I glad I kept them.  I probably have a couple thousands of CDs but am no longer a collector.

JW: Describe your favorite music/musician that has had the greatest effect on you and why?

BFT: Elvis. Voice, talent, eclecticism, humor.  It's just too bad about the negative traits.

JW: There are so many musical divisions, goth, indie, goth rock, C&W, pop, bubblegum pop, Top 40, the list has more acronyms than a government agency, do you see an integration or segregation of music?

BFT: It's always been fragmented, and always will be. Exceptional artists, like chefs, will find ways to blend different ingredients in tasteful or bold ways, and they'll find their audiences. But by and large, we like what we like. Hopefully, we don't confine ourselves to just one or two categories. (PS/ you left out hip-hop, dance, electronica, Latin, EDM and a few others…)

JW: And finally if you could see into the future, describe what you see as the face of rock and roll in 2036, 20 years from now?

BFT: I can't see into the future. I need new glasses.

Photos courtesy of Ben Fong-Torres. In order of appearance 1) Fong-Torres with Donald Sutherland, 2) Fong-Torres and Sylvia, 3) Three members of The Jackson 5 with Dianne in background, 4) Linda Ronstadt knitting in flight and shared with an early shot of Fong-Torres with Art Garfunkel of Simon and Garfunkel.  .

 

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