Ben Fong-Torres on the death of rock and roll
Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation.
‘FIRST OF ALL, I’ve got to say it,” pronounces author Ben Fong-Torres, shortly after catching Almost Famous for the third time. “The movie does a great job of re-creating its particular time period. And I think it re-creates the feeling of falling in love with music–and of falling in love, in general–extremely well.
“It also,” he continues, “captures the rush of being a part of the rock music scene, of being allowed, even temporarily, into the inner circle of musical stardom.”
OK, stop. Wait. Hold it a minute.
Though Fong-Torres has a lot more to say about the movie–and I have a point or two of my own to share–maybe we should stop and let the rest of you catch up first.
First of all, the time period to which Fong-Torres refers is the year 1973, when he was serving as editor of the then 4-year-old Rolling Stone magazine. By that time, the Oakland native had already fallen in love with music himself, having had his own rock-and-roll cherry popped by Elvis Presley way back in the ’50s.
Almost Famous–a mostly entertaining and funny film that’s just a little dry around the edges–is director Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical rock-and-roll fantasy based on his own early days as a starstruck 15-year-old writing for Rolling Stone.
It’s a classic coming-of-age story, as the innocent, embarrassingly uncool lad is sent out on the road (assigned by a then twentysomething Ben Fong-Torres) to cover the backstage shenanigans of an up-and-coming rock group named Stillwater (a fictional amalgamation of several ’70s bands that Crowe actually did write about).
The kid is played with wide-eyed wonder by young Patrick Fugit, the band’s intense lead-guitar player by Billy Crudup, and the band’s favorite groupie–excuse me, their favorite “Band Aide”–by the brittle but sweet Kate Hudson. Fong-Torres is portrayed, in a handful of goofy scenes, by Terry Chen.
Some of Fong-Torres’ own Rolling Stone memories are captured in Not Fade Away: A Backstage Pass to 20 Years of Rock & Roll, a collection of the author’s interviews, featuring a colorful foreword by Cameron Crowe.
“While Cameron’s movie shows what it’s like to be a writer on the road with a band,” he observes, “it also catches, very vividly, the frustration of being ultimately defined as being on the other side of the line. Because, by being a journalist, you are not an insider.
“Even though you’ve been pulled into the huddle,” he continues, “even though you’ve been allowed backstage, and even though the musicians have talked to you as if you were something more than a reporter, still finally, the line is there, and you are the enemy.
“I think the movie drew those portraits quite vividly, and it did a great job.”
“And as a depiction of the young Ben-Fong Torres?” I ask.
“Well. As a depiction of the young Ben Fong-Torres, it was an absolute disgrace!” he says. “In fact, I’m calling my attorneys immediately. Better yet, I’m calling Hunter Thompson. He’ll take care of Cameron. He’ll pull him up to Colorado, take him out to Woody Creek for a little target practice.”
“But didn’t you really throw the word crazy into every single sentence,” I ask, “like you do in the movie?”
“Actually, no, I didn’t,” Fong-Torres replies. “I mean, I did say ‘crazy,’ but it was in a different context usually. Let’s call it an affirmative, approving nod. If Cameron had said, ‘Hey, I finally scored that interview with Neil Young and we talked for an hour and a half,’ I would say, ‘Crazy.’
“Not ‘Ca-raaaaaaa-zy!’ “
For the record, Fong-Torres does a spot-on impression of Terry Chen doing a bad impression of Fong-Torres. But there are better things to talk about.
“So tell me about the whole rock-and-roll-being-dead thing,” I say, referring to the pessimistic rantings of Lester Bangs, the real-life rock critic and provocateur (played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman) who was something of a mentor to Crowe.
“When that conversation came up in the movie, I thought back to this interview I did with Jim Morrison in 1971,” Fong-Torres says, “where one of the subjects of discussion was the death of rock and roll. It seems that from the late ’60s on, the recent death of rock and roll has been a recurrent subject. Rock and roll is always dying.
“You have to listen to the Lester Bangs speech to get a sense of what he was talking about,” says Fong-Torres.
“It was the aggressiveness, the rebelliousness, the take-no-prisoners approach to rock-and-roll music that people thought had died. The other thing that had died was the belief that rock and roll would somehow change the world.”
FOR SURE. According to Bangs, the commercial aspects of the music industry had possessed rock and roll, destroying the purity of its once revolutionary soul. But since rock was essentially created by Little Richard and Chuck Berry and the like–people who weren’t really angling for a hippie revolution–it could be argued that the revolutionary element in the ’60s sort of co-opted rock and roll.
“I don’t know about being co-opted–that’s a strong word to use,” says Fong-Torres. “I think music, including rock and roll, is always being conjoined to causes, to societal changes, to political interests and all of that. That’s nothing new either.”
“Yet the rock-and-roll-is-dead people do seem to feel a sense of ownership of the music,” I say. “Lester Bangs was certainly expressing a sense of ownership the music, and he was pissed that someone had stolen it away from him.”
“And God bless Mr. Bangs and all people like him,” Fong-Torres says laughingly. “They may have the loudest, most articulate voices, but that doesn’t mean they’re the majority.
“For every fan today who bemoans the state of popular music, there are a hundred others going out and buying Britney Spears T-shirts.
“What’re you gonna do?” he concludes.
From the October 5-11, 2000 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.