First thing you notice about Ben Fong-Torres is his burnished speaking voice, a brogue that reflects decades in front of and behind the microphone. The thoughts within these well-shaped words fall from his lips like perfect Tetris blocks. If you’re lucky enough for him to leave you a message, it sounds like God wants you to call him back.
I first experienced this voice in 1994, when Ben was promoting his memoir The Rice Room: Growing Up Chinese American. From Number Two Son to Rock ‘n’ Roll. It was at A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books in Cupertino. He read excerpts, sang a vintage oldies tune, and signed my copy.
At the time, my career as a music critic was just beginning. I had moved up the ranks at a weekly newspaper in San Jose from intern to editorial assistant. The music critic at the time was moving on, and he handpicked me to be his replacement. Thus began a humbling journey into the sordid, perpetually underpaid world of music journalism, consumed by long nights and beer-soaked floors, smokey clubs and clothes, turning and burning copy with your ears still ringing. And it’s where as much time is dedicated to chasing down accounts payable than listening to transcripts of your awful voice asking awful questions to awful musicians.
In the early ‘90s when I was just getting my byline out there, the writers I looked up to were mostly African American: Danyel Smith, Davey D, and Donnell Alexander — deep thinkers who often wrote about music through a personal lens. At the time, a generation of Asian American music writers were finding their voice, too. Add to this was the emergence of ‘zine culture, embodied by the arbiters of Asian and Asian American cool, Giant Robot. Young Asian American music journalists were connecting on and offline.
During this time, Ben Fong-Torres felt like a mythical figure. He was like the groovy uncle with a better record collection and a more impressive Rolodex. Ben was someone who documented the story of rock ‘n’ roll, meeting with and mentally sparring with legends like Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Marvin Gaye, Elton John, and Linda Ronstadt. There was an instant familiarity with having similar beats, knowing the key to a good interview is establishing rapport and preparation.
The countercultural space Rolling Stone occupied had become the establishment. To young writers in the ‘80s-‘90s, it was about Spin, The Source, NME, Village Voice, Vibe, Rappages, Urb. We were more interested to see where music was going, while respecting where it had been. But as the documentary Like a Rolling Stone: The Life & Times of Ben Fong-Torres shows, Ben Fong-Torres was a rock ‘n’ roll pioneer — elevating the voices of a generation by asserting his. And given his origin story, it’s amazing he did so at all.
Like a Rolling Stone: The Life & Times of Ben Fong-Torres follows Ben’s rise as a young Chinese American facing down filial piety to pursue a career in radio and rock ‘n’ roll journalism as editor of Rolling Stone. Director Suzanne Kai followed Ben for 12 years, capturing footage and meetups with some of his (almost) famous subjects and colleagues including Quincy Jones, Steve Martin, and Elton John.
Ben was the second son of four children born to Chinese immigrants. They ran restaurants in the Bay Area and Texas, and he was expected to help. His chosen profession as a DJ and editor and writer was inspired by long hours helping at the restaurant: it was easier for him to ask someone else questions than talk about himself washing dishes or assembling won tons.
Almost 30 years after first hearing his professorial voice in Cupertino, I got to sit down with Ben Fong-Torres for a SF Chronicle Datebook cover story. He invited me to his Noe Valley home that he shares with his wife Dianne Sweet and rescue dog. His office is part studio/part museum/part dude cave — walls of CDs and books, instruments and microphones, sound checks, framed concert posters, even a personalized painting by Grace Slick of the Monterey Pop Festival with Ben’s face in it (he didn’t attend Monterey Pop, he insists). A huge window looks out onto a picture-perfect view of the San Francisco bay.
This is the end-game for music writers, I thought. I sighed. “Seeing all this gives me so much hope.”
One item on the wall made me gasp: a framed collection of surname misspellings, cut from correspondence or promotional materials sent by labels. I did the exact same thing during my time at the weekly. I amassed a collection of my botched surname (the worst: “Enoway”) and pasted them on my desk divider — a constant reminder of otherness.
Imposter syndrome is a feeling familiar to music writers of color. Back in the day at punk and rap shows, I felt the stares of intrusion and novelty — like, “What’s this Asian guy doing here?” (Now that I mostly focus on the youthful K-pop genre, it’s “What’s this old man doing here?”). Music writing is and always will be the profession of predominantly old, white men stuck in a perpetual state of adolescence — one trip to SXSW will confirm this.
When I asked Ben how being Asian helped or hindered his ability to do his job, he told me it opened doors. “We were suddenly bound by the fact we were different,” he said.
Writing is an occupation you never age out of. As long as you’re able to think critically, and write coherently, you can keep at it long after music trends come and go. Even though he doesn’t follow new music as much as he used to — he’s 76, after all — he can still hold court on artists like Amy Winehouse, Bruno Mars, and Adele. Note: If you call Ben Fong-Torres a music critic, he will correct you. He was never a music critic — an author, editor, writer, journalist, DJ, emcee of the KTVU Chinese New Year Parade, yes; but he leaves judging music to the professionals.
For fun, I played snippets from contemporary songs for him, just to witness how his mind works when he evaluates talent and songcraft. I played him songs by Kendrick Lamar, Saweetie, and The Linda Lindas. He saved his highest praise for Olivia Rodrigo’s megahit, Drivers License.
“I know of Olivia Rodrigo but didn’t hear her until now,” he said, enthused. “I like it. I would play this one for sure on my radio show. It’s the way she glides into falsetto to express her emotion so easily. And I like the breakage in her voice, she reminds me of Adele.”
Though we come from different eras, Ben Fong-Torres and I have more in common than I thought. We are career writers from the Bay Area. We have shelves of CDs and vinyl we can’t part with. Our names have been botched numerous times, we have older brothers named Barry, and we like Olivia Rodrigo.
In 1994, he signed my copy of The Rice Room: “To Todd, and your future in writing.” I think I turned out alright. Thanks for everything, Ben.
Todd Inoue is a Bay Area music journalist.