Almost Famous Since 1969

High school reunions are hard. Difficult to attend; difficult to organize. I just did both over the past year and a half, culminating in the event itself, in early October.


This was the 50th reunion of Oakland High School’s Class of ’62, which once numbered some 700 members.


The reunion took place at the the Marriott in nearby Walnut Creek, chosen in part because, when the committee first met in the summer of 2011, there was no such thing as Occupy Walnut Creek.


I was part of the reunion committee because, ‘way back a half a century ago, my classmates elected me “permanent class president,” an office I didn’t know anything about. The fact that my main responsibility, along with a permanent VP, secretary and treasurer, was to organize reunions came as a rude shock.

Anyway, about ten of us began meeting and figuring out when and where to have the reunion. I made the wisest executive decision early on, tapping Helen Pulver Rosenberg to be the actual reunion Chair. A couple of other members began searching for classmates. It helped that we had some funds left over from our 1992 reunion, along with a class directory (pre-e-mails). We began negotiating with hotels, hiring a DJ, accumulating memorabilia, working on the program, and planning several pre-reunion events. It was like organizing a big wedding, without a clue, early on, about who might show up, and pay $100 to get in. Scarey..


So, how did it turn out? Here is an excerpt from the “memory book” that’s about to go out to class members, summarizing the event:


There were almost 200 classmates and 100 guests; another 50 or so classmates joined in for pre-reunion events: the Friday tour of Oakland High, lunch at Fentons, and a mixer at Scott’s Grill & Bar. Every event was filled up or sold out. We couldn’t get enough of each other, after all these years.


At the Marriott, reunion chair Helen Pulver Rosenberg greeted everyone, including two of our teachers, Miles Myers and Ronald Miller, who drew a standing ovation. Co-chair Judi Johnston Tandowsky told how the reunion committee began, in mid-2011, with 40 known addresses and built from there, to a full house in the California Ballroom.


Permanent class president Ben Fong-Torres said the reunion could be called “50 Shades of Grey and White.” In 1982, he said, “the musical theme of our reunion was ‘For the Good Times.’ In ’92, it was ‘Moon River.’ Now, it’s ‘Try to Remember.’”


He saluted Rufus (Terry) Miller, who sang with Tower of Power, and brought on James “Big Daddy” Porter, our all-city wrestler. He looked out into the ballroom and said, “Some of you guys could wrestle me now, ‘cause I can see you’ve moved up to the heavyweight division!”


We greeted Lindy Corneille, in from Ontario; Pat Beckstrom Rey from Madrid; Warren Sapir, from Victoria, Australia. With an invocation from Janet Stromberg Rector, we paid respects to the more than 100 classmates who have passed away. We applauded the 2007 wedding of Gerry Anglim and Peggy Stark. Sometimes, love is lovelier, the second time around.


We mixed and mingled, greeting old friends and making new ones. We danced to songs that sounded bracingly familiar, comforting, and fun. And we lingered past the closing hour, flowing into the foyer, and, reluctantly, into the night. And the next morning, those of us who stayed at the Marriott met once more, to visit over breakfast before finally, finally saying farewell. Until we meet again.


That’s how it went. I should note that some of us also hung out in the hotel bar well past last call, dissecting the event. Helen Rosenberg and Judi Tandowsky were champs, both in organizing the reunion and dealing with assorted craziness, whether it was the guy who showed up at Judi’s home to hand deliver his payment – even though he wasn’t in our class, or the inevitable uninvited guests who thought they could just drop by.


Bottom line: It was a total success. But we don’t want to trumpet that fact too loudly. None of us is anxious to do it again. One wedding is enough—especially at our age. (Do the math.)


Still, we’re glad we did it. From comments at the event, by old-fashioned letters or e-mails, or posted on our reunion Web site, it’s clear that, despite the natural fear that comes with attending such an event, and seeing people you can’t recognize any more, and making small talk about your lives, our Class of ’62 had a ball. A senior ball, to be sure, but a great time, nonetheless.


Throughout the Marriott, and at the other sites over the weekend, it was clear that friendships born in classrooms and hallways; in clubs and at school events, had endured. And always will. Even without reunions. 

 

Yes, there was the joyful craziness, the dancing in the streets and bars of San Francisco when Giants closer Sergio Romo struck out triple crown winner Miguel Cabrera in Detroit to win the World Series.


And yes, there was the victory parade and Civic Center celebration, drawing more than a million fans into San Francisco, from all over Northern California.

 

But I also think of the line of 15 or 20 people in front of a tiny Taco Bell/KFC place on a recent late Tuesday afternoon. Taco Bell had promised free tacos if any player in the Series stole a base. The Giants center fielder, Angel Pagan, came through. He not only scored tacos for hundreds of thousands of people, he showed up at one restaurant and helped assemble tacos behind a drive-through counter. “I feel happy that I brought everybody together in the United States,” he said.


The next day (Oct. 7) was the big parade, and Romo struck a similar theme of togetherness. Sporting a T-shirt reading “I Just Look Illegal,” Romo, who is Mexican-American, looked into the mass of orange-and-black-clad fans before him. “Look at the diversity…the different faces from different places, the different strokes.” All united, he said, by a dream, of victory. 


Two fellow Giants, Pagan and Marco Scutaro, spoke in Spanish. And the program began with a welcome from Ed Lee, the first elected Chinese American mayor in San Francisco’s grand history. He presented the Giants with a key to the city, along with a golden broom, to celebrate the Giants’ four-game sweep of the Detroit Tigers.  Lee declared 2012 to be the “Year of the Orange Dragon.” And in the parade, sure enough, the Golden (well, let’s just say a very shiny orange) Dragon made an appearance.


It was a sensational party, from Beach Blanket Babylon’s rendition of “San Francsco” to Giants broadcasters Jon Miller and Dave Flemming dancing to  “Gangnam Style” (Seoul music!) to the closing surprise: Tony Bennett stepping out to sing “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”


The Giants who spoke—president Larry Baer, GM Brian Sabean (the architect of this extraordinary team), manager and mastermind Bruce Bochy, and several articulate, emotional players—reflected the team perfectly. This was a squad that won the National League West handily, but had to come back from behind in both playoff series to reach the World Series, combining skill and smarts, a bit of luck, a ton of team chemistry, and a one-for-all mentality that was not easy to find elsewhere.  Watching Cincinnati and St. Louis fall to the Giants, and watching the Yankees get swept by the Tigers, I saw deflation in the dugouts. Watching the Giants, I saw pep rallies, showers of sunflower seeds, joking and cheering. Romo, always smiling, always looking illegal, mugged for the cameras, then popped out to the mound and shut down the opposition with a steady diet of unhittable sliders.


Team spirit extended to the broadcasters.  The Giants’ flagship, KNBR, features superstar Jon Miller and young Dave Flemming, and it was a shock for many listeners to hear not Miller, but Flemming making the game-winning call in the bottom of the tenth inning. How did that happen? Flemming told me that he was scheduled for the extra inning, but when the Giants scored at the top of the inning, they knew the Series could be near its end, and he offered Miller the microphone for the potential final out. “Jon never flinched; just said, ‘No.’ I got a chance to do what very few broadcasters have done. And I’d like to think I made  him look good, and made a good call.”


Good? He crushed it out of the park.


Besides Miller and Flemming, there are two former Giants players, pitcher Mike Krukow and infielder Duane Kuiper (“Kruk & Kuip,” pronounced “Kipe”), and the four move smoothly between radio and TV booths. On the KNBR site right now, there’s a nice podcast of a chat between the morning show and Krukow about Barry Zito.  The pitcher is one of a half dozen Giant stories of redemption. Years ago, he signed one of those contracts that was so ridiculous (about $126 million) that he could never live or pitch up to it. He didn’t, and, between injuries and ineffectiveness, became a huge target for boobirds, in the stands and in the media. The Giants were locked into him, and in 2010, simply left him off the playoff rosters.  From ace to the bench; total humiliation.


Zito took it like an ace. He stayed in shape, just in case he might be needed. He made adjustments in his delivery; overcame injuries, and, this past season, won 15 games, and then, when the Giants were down, three games to one to the Cardinals and facing elimination, he pitched a superb game and saved the team. In the World Series, it was his turn in the rotation for Game 1, and he faced only the best pitcher on earth, Detroit’s Justin Verlander. Everyone, especially on Fox and MLB TV, picked the well-rested Verlander and the Tigers to kill the Giants.


Zito pitched into the sixth inning, allowing one run, while one Giant, Pablo (“Kung Fu Panda”) Sandoval , accounted for four runs himself, with a record-tying three home runs. The Giants were on their way.


Two years ago, noting Zito’s response to being exiled, I tipped my cap to him in my column in the San Francisco Chronicle. Now, I’m doing it again. But it’s Mike Krukow who articulates my feelings best, in his chat with Murph & Mac, the KNBR morning duo. Go to KNBR.com and check it out.


I confess that I watched the games on TV. If I could’ve synchronized radio (which was 30 seconds ahead), I would have, to have our home broadcasters over the inferior boys of Fox. The network also saddled viewers with a procession of singers of the National Anthem who were there mainly because they were on Fox shows like American Idol and The X Factor.  Between mediocre (Phillip Phillips) and wretched (Devi Lovato) performances and some local duds doing “God Bless America,” and their experts’ headline-styled predictions (“Verlander leads Tigers to …win”, “Tigers Bite Giants,” “Verlander Too Much”), Fox whiffed, time and again.


Meantime, Giants fans laughed—all the way to Taco Bell.


PS: A reader has suggested that fans who want to hear local radio while watching a televised game should check out a free download, Radio Delay, from Daan Systems. A quick look shows that it’s for FM radio. I advise you begin with Radio Delay. During your search, you’ll run across other options for outfoxing the national sportscasters.

 


 All right, all together now, with Neil Diamond in mind:


"I am," I said, to no one there
And no one heard at all, not even the chair
"I am," I cried. "I am," said I
And I am lost, and I can't even say why
Leavin' me lonely still


Well, Clint Eastwood must’ve felt pretty lost and lonely after his debacle of a speech at the Republican convention. Here he’d turned his back on the Democratic Party by attacking President Obama – or at least his imagination of Obama, represented by the now infamous empty chair on stage, with which Eastwood conducted a one-to-none conversation. But he’d done Mitt Romney and the GOP no favors by screwing up the convention’s rigid time line, looking slightly disheveled and rambling for 12 minutes when he’d been given five, delaying Romney’s big moment. And, in line with previous convention speakers, Eastwood issued statements that either were inaccurate or did no service to the anointed candidate.


Among his missteps: He chastised Obama for his timeline for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan.  But Romney himself has endorsed that strategy. Eastwood wondered whether it was a good idea to have attorneys (like Obama, a Harvard Law School grad) to be in the White House.


Backstage, Romney probably wasn’t wondering, since he also holds a degree from Harvard Law School.


That’s how it went. Eastwood threw off the schedule, then grabbed most of the headlines, for all the wrong reasons, after a night that was meant to spotlight Romney’s acceptance of his party’s nomination for the presidency.


It was a sad fall from grace for a classy, talented actor and director; an American icon. The media had a field day, or two, making fun and puns out of the affair (“The Old Man and the Seat,” a headline read on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show).


I prefer to remember him as the charming guy Dianne and I met in Carmel, California, where he once served as mayor. This was in 1987, when I was doing an article about that scenic seaside village for Travel & Leisure magazine.


That was, amazingly enough, 25 years ago. So much has changed. And not all for the better.


Mural, mural on the wall: Bill Weber, the San Francisco muralist responsible for the famed “Jazz Mural” at the corner of Broadway and Columbus in North Beach, is finishing up a new one. It’s an homage to the Haight-Ashbury and the Summer of Love, with two massive paintings meeting at the corner of Haight and Clayton, above the Burger Urge. (That was one of our urges back in the ‘60s, as I recall.) Weber, along with Arianna, his wife and sous painter, are at work, on scaffolds, as I write, painting the likenesses of Jerry Garcia, Janis Joplin, and George Harrison and Patti Boyd (who famously visited the neighborhood in 1967) for the Haight Street panel. Here’s his mockup of it.


Bill and Arianna have already completed most of the Clayton Street mural, which will include Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Joan Baez, Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary and…me. Here I am, loitering near Baez:


  

If you’re asking “Why?” I’m with you. But I’m honored – and awed.  Weber’s other works, which can be enjoyed around town, and beyond (a realistic painting of the Taj Mahal is in Indio, Calif.), endure. (You can see examples at his Web site.)  The “Jazz Mural,” which pictures Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson, and local luminaries like Emperor Norton, columnist Herb Caen and several former S.F. mayors, was created in 1987.  That’s a long time to be up against a wall.


Fortunately, I am not alone. In fact, I learned that I was included mainly because of a long-ago friend, Rita Guzman, who I knew in the late ‘60s as Margarita Chan, a neighbor who I enlisted, in 1969, to attend my sister’s wedding with me, so that I could show up with a fellow Chinese American, thus not pissing off my parents and ruining the ceremony. I am forever grateful to Rita, but, nonetheless, fell out of touch with her for decades, until a few months ago, when we found each other online.


Rita, it turns out, is a friend of the muralist, Weber, and he was including her in the Haight-Ashbury piece. She told him that he should add me, and probably fed him some gibberish about my being part of the Summer of Love. Whatever she said, it worked, and there I am. At least until I start to fade…


As for Ms. Guzman: In the montage above, she’s the young woman up front, looking out onto the street. Lovely Rita…

 

 




 

As the old song goes, “it’s been a long, long time.”


I apologize for not writing sooner. It’s not that I haven’t been writing. Just not for this space. For example, I just had a short piece published in The Hollywood Reporter, about the Olympics’ opening ceremonies, with a focus on music. It’s in the August 10 edition of “THR,” which is an interesting blend of trade magazine (for showbiz industry folks) and consumer mag (for people who like backstage peeps at the business known as show).


My piece—about the  60’s music that producer Danny Boyle featured during that wild, wacky event—was nothing special. But one thing about it really amused me. Just below my story was a Q&A with Ryan Seacrest, who was among the talent NBC shipped to London to work the Olympics.

Download: Olympics in THR.pdf

 

A few months ago, when Dick Clark died, I wrote my first article for The Hollywood Reporter, recalling a sometimes contentious interview with him from ‘way back, for Rolling Stone. The editors chose a quote of Clark, something he said to me, for the headline: “YOU’RE A LIBERAL, AND I’M A F---ING WHORE’. This, right after a glowing tribute, “What I Learned from the Master,” by…Ryan Seacrest.


We are fated to be together!


This is to say that stuff happens.


Just the other day, I was on Castro Street here in San Francisco, and a guy asks, “Aren’t you Ben Fong-Torres?” I admit that I am.


“Well, that’s reassuring,” he says.


I didn’t know what to make of that—although I think I knew what he meant, about old-timers still being around—so I just asked for his name and shook his hand. I hope he found my gesture…reassuring.


A few weeks before, at a wine tasting party, a friend asked if I’d seen the banners around town carrying my name and a quote. I had not, but went out in search of one of the signs a few days later. Sure enough, there they were, put up by San Francisco State University, my alma mater. Mine was one of several banners, flanking street light poles, featuring alumni extolling the school. Apparently, in an interview some time ago, I’d uttered something about how, at SF State, I found open doors. Didn’t matter that I was this Asian American kid wanting to get into media work when, in the early Sixties, there weren’t that many of us with such ambitions. And, now, that revelation is on display on selected streets around San Francisco.

Nice. But even nicer? My banner, on Bush Street and Van Ness Avenue, was right next to one featuring Jeffrey Tambor, the actor who I loved on The Larry Sanders Show (and, later, Arrested Development). His statement: “I’m positive I’m an actor because of that place.”  And, I would add, that talent.


What else? Lots else. Dianne and I recently had Linda Ronstadt over for dinner. I’m working on a book about Little Feat, a band Linda knew well. She agreed to talk with me for my book, and, knowing that she was working on a book of her own—about her musical career—I offered to give her copies of transcripts of interviews I’d done with her  over the years, ranging from her Rolling Stone cover story in 1975 to her work with Nelson Riddle, her tribute to her father, Canciones Por Mi Padre, and her excursion into light opera with Pirates of Penzance. I gave her a choice of how to get the materials. I could mail or messenger them to her (she also lives in San Francisco); or she could pick them up. And maybe have dinner while she was at it. She selected the latter option.


And so it was that, one recent Sunday evening, I prepared a fish-in-paper dish for Linda and a pal of hers; we caught up, and she got her goods. At evening’s end, she agreed to pose for a couple of snapshots with Dianne, my wife, and me. Knowing that Linda’s a private person, I  won’t post any of the shots. Instead, I’ll share one I took of her during one of our earlier assignments. She was one of the brightest, most beautiful women I ever knew. Still is.

What else? During our exchanges about Little Feat and its founder and leader, the late Lowell George, Linda agreed to participate in the documentary of me that Suzanne Joe Kai is producing. Which reminds me that another friend and pioneer broadcaster, Felicia Lowe, has come up with an innovative way of raising funds for her film, Chinese Couplets, about her mother’s emigration from China and its impact on four generations of women. Lowe is reaching out to friends by way of indiegogo, which helps artists, entrepreneurs and organizations to raise money. Check her project out here.


While I’m supposed to be writing the book on Little Feat, I continue to crank out my radio column, Radio Waves, for the San Francisco Chronicle. A recent one featured an answer for any music/radio fan who’s wanted an easy and relatively low cost way to blast sounds around the house. It’s called Sonos, and my report and review is here.


THOUGHTS WHILE MEDITATING: Good going, Jeremy Lin. That is, for going from the New York Knicks, with whom he became a superstar, to the Houston Rockets. Not only did he get the big-money deal he deserved, he escapes New York, which is just too crowded—both on the streets and on the court, where he couldn’t co-exist with Carmelo Anthony … Sad, though, to see Kurt Suzuki leaving the Oakland A’s (for Washington). A standup guy—especially for a catcher …

 

MEIN ATTRACTION: I’ve learned how to make chow mein. The recipe is my sister Sarah’s; she got it from a cookbook, and it’s classic Chicken Chow Mein. Living in San Francisco, I have no need to make my own, but, as Sarah noted, homemade is far superior to most restaurant versions. I was compelled to try the recipe after seeing a video of my nephew, Jason Watkins (Sarah’s son) whipping up the dish, under Sarah’s supervision.


It’s quite a bit of work, and it calls for stuff like dried shiitake mushrooms, Chinese egg noodles and bok choy. But the result is a delicious and healthy meal. And, probably, leftovers.Here's Sarah's recipe Download: CHICKEN CHOW MEIN BFT.docx 

 

And here's the video.

 

FINALLY: Thank you to New American Media, a network of ethnic media organizations, for including my jottings here on AsianConnections.com as part of its NAM Ethnic Media Awards, handed out at a dinner gala in July. Congrats to all the winners.

.

It’s been a while since I blogged, but I’ve got some excuses. (Don't we always?) For one thing, I’ve been engrossed in The Voice, the singing competition on NBC, because I’m related to one of the singers who made the Elite 8. For another, I’ve been out in public, at the L.A. Times’ Festival of Books at USC, emceeing a sendoff for the president of San Francisco State University (a couple of my jokes even made the local press), and keynoting an Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce dinner, on the eve of Asian Pacific American Heritage month. B.D. Wong, now being seen on the NBC series, Awake, was a late (and great) addition to the program.

I also cranked out an article for The Hollywood Reporter about Dick Clark, based on a sometimes contentious Rolling Stone interview I did with him in 1973, followed by a fun run, a couple years later, through Las Vegas. And I conducted some interviews for my Little Feat book, with Jimmy Buffett, John Sebastian and others.


But forget all that. I had a family tie to The Voice?


Yep. Lindsey Pavao, the most indie of the final bunch of singers, is, if I got it right, a second cousin of my niece Tina’s husband, Matt Pavao. He told me this over brunch at the Foreign Cinema just as the show was whittling the original 48 contestants (a dozen each for celeb “coaches” Christina Aguilera, Adam Levine, Blake Shelton and Cee-Lo Green) to eight.

I’d been watching the show (I prefer it over American Idol), and had noted Lindsey’s name, but never thought there might be a family tie. And I liked her soft, unique voice (others sounded like Adele, or an opera singer, or a generic Rob Thomas or R. Kelly type).


But Lindsey, who was on Christina’s team, didn’t survive “America’s” vote, which determined the final four. She lost to the operatic guy, who lost to the R. Kelly guy, who probably just edged Juliet Simms, a knockout rocker whose fiery version of “Freebird” coulda, shoulda made her “The Voice.” Simms, I learned after Jermaine Paul had taken the crown, is from San Francisco—my town.  So, although my second cousin-in-law didn’t win, I still can celebrate.


PS: Although I dug The Voice, the show really should consider finding a host with perhaps a thimble-full of personality. The coaches should be given strict limits on how long they can agonize over their decisions about which team member to cut. It should also ditch the language that Idol has already beaten to death, over-promoting the show as being “live,” when it isn’t, for most viewers, and beating us over the head with the idea that “America” is voting. It’s a bunch of fanatics, friends, and second cousins, OK?


As for the other things that have occupied my time: The Dick Clark piece can be found here. DC  The headline, “You’re a Liberal and I’m a F---g Whore,” says it all. It’s about Clark being brutally candid about himself, and making no apologies for being more than a TV disc jockey. He was a brilliant entrepreneur who knew show business as what it is: a business.


What else? The Los Angeles Times’ books festival, staged at USC. It was fun, being on a panel about celebrity memoirs with two actual celebs. One was Sir Michael Lindsay-Hogg, director of pioneer music videos with the Beatles, the Stones, and many others. He learned, late in his 70 year-long life, that his biological father was Orson Welles. There’s a book, right there. The other panelist was Vicky Tiel, a fashion designer who was hot, in more ways than one, in the Sixties, and had designs on numerous well-known men. From what she said on the panel, her book is a tell-all, about men (Paul Newman, Warren Beatty, Mick Jagger) and a show-all, about miniskirts, about not wearing panties when she was a cheerleader, the better to distract opposing teams’ players, and about see-through blouses. I told her, “I guess that explains the Beatles’ song, ‘I’m Looking Through You.’” 


The festival was a Bookstock; probably 150,000 visitors over the course of the weekend, with events all over the campus. It was gratifying to see so many people – and not one Kindle.


Equally fun was my MC stint at the luncheon honoring Dr. Robert Corrigan, president of SF State for 24 years, and his wife Joyce, on the eve of his retirement. This was at the St. Francis Yacht Club in San Francisco.

Since I was inducted into the university’s Alumni Hall of Fame in 2003, I’ve attended the induction ceremonies, classy productions largely orchestrated by Joyce Corrigan. In recent years, I’ve been called on to MC the events. Now, with the Corrigans about to take their leave, I agreed to host the luncheon.  The honorary chairs included Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, Mayor Ed Lee, and former Mayor Willie Brown. The latter is not a shy man – especially about his own stature, accomplishments, adventures and wit – and writes about them in his Sunday column in the San Francisco Chronicle. Anyway, Newsom and Lee showed up; Brown was missing. Thus, my joke, which columnist Leah Garchik repeated in the Chronicle, like this:    


Emcee Ben Fong-Torres, a member of the class of 1966, remarked upon the absence of Willie Brown (class of 1955), who was, with Lee and Newsom, an honorary chairman of the event. Brown, said Fong-Torres, "is at the computer shop getting his keyboard fixed. The letter 'I' is all worn out."

George Marcus (class of 1965) announced a gift of $1 million to create a Robert A. Corrigan Chair in American Studies. Fong-Torres said he and his wife, Dianne, would donate $100 for its cushion.


It is, no doubt, a fun life. But it’s also one loaded with challenges. And so it is that I dedicate this report to another person who was, and is, uppermost in my mind: my younger brother Burton. He is ailing, but he has the undying support of all the Fong-Torreses, the Watkins, the Berlinskys, and, yes, the Pavaos.


The strangest things happen to me.


The weekend after my 16th stint as co-anchor of the Chinese New Year Parade on KTVU, I’m at the Sunset Sessions, a three-day weekend retreat in San Diego for radio DJ’s and programmers and music supervisors; people from film, TV and video production companies seeking fresh musical talent and sounds.


There are about 55 bands and artists doing showcases day and night around the Rancho Bernardo Inn, and there are panels about radio and music trends. I’m there to interview Dennis Constantine, program director of KFOG in San Francisco. I’m also enjoying the wealth of talent, plus bonus big-name acts like Jimmy Cliff, Jason Mraz and Lucinda Williams.


So what happens? I wind up on stage at a big evening showcase, doing Elvis.


This is nutty on several levels. Mainly, I’m not a singer, and should not be sharing a stage with professionals.  Second, it’d be a shock for the industry pros to see this former Rolling Stone writer busting out a song.


But that was the idea, I guess. Michele Clark, the workaholic, dynamo organizer of this musical marathon, heard from a radio buddy of mine that I sang Elvis Presley songs, and made a snap decision. I’d help do roll call Saturday evening (hours after my onstage Q&A), then launch into Elvis. She found willing accomplices in Glenn Alexander, a seasoned guitarist who was there with his daughter, Oria Aspen. They found a YouTube video of Presley performing my chosen song, learned it, and after a quick run-through, we were on stage, doing one of my favorite Elvis tunes, “Love Me.”

The music and radio pros were visibly shocked, but their applause (and even a few screams) told me I hadn’t embarrassed myself.  Or did I? You be the judge. Here’s an audio clip.

Download: Love Me SSessions.mp3

Also, Rita Houston of WFUV in New York shot it – the first couple of minutes, anyway – on her phone, and that may be online somewhere. Afterwards, various people asked for autographs and photos. KHUM, from Humboldt, Calif., requested that I do a station liner, on the spot. I had to hire a bodyguard. Hey, it’s not easy being a dead yet beloved rock star.


HIT PARADE: Regarding the Chinese New Year Parade: Not much to say; it was spectacular, this being the Year of the Dragon. It was good to hail the first elected Chinese American mayor of San Francisco, Ed Lee, and I was happy to be able to pay tribute to my sister Shirley, who loved being part of the Lunar New Year. The telecast went swimmingly, and the highlight, for me, was a marching band that performed “Dynamite,” the Taio Cruz hit. What next—Kate Perry? Yep. They do her songs, too. Teenage Dreams do come true…


LINSANITY: For a personal take on the Jeremy Lin phenomenon, I invite you to check out my column in Asian Connections.

The story begins at Bellaken Garden, a skilled nursing care facility in East Oakland, where my mother, Connie, has been staying since August. I’ve been visiting there twice a week, crossing the Bay Bridge from San Francisco and popping in with potstickers from a nearby takeout restaurant.


For months, I’d seen this thin, white-haired Asian woman seated in the lobby area, across from one of the dining rooms.  After a while, we’d exchange smiles and hellos. I’d noticed her mainly because she always had a transistor radio with her.  Being a radio columnist and occasional DJ, I asked what she was listening to. “Baseball,” she said. She was an avid San Francisco Giants fan, kept notes on their games, and kept their radio schedule close to her, all on a shelf of her walker. Her son, Jonathan, I would learn, works as a concessions cashier for both the Giants and the 49ers, so she was a football fan, too. We could talk.

I decided to do a little shout-out to her in my Radio Waves column in the San Francisco Chronicle, learned her name – June Kwei – and told her to watch for the mention. She appeared delighted, although I never properly introduced myself. Bad manners. (In Cantonese, “bad” is pronounced “kwei.”) Anyway, on December 11, the item ran, ending with “Holiday cheers to June Kwei.”


That evening, I received an email from a “Dede.” It was Mrs. Kwei’s daughter. I couldn’t believe it. Here’s most of what she wrote:


What a delight to see the mention of my mom, June Kwei, in your column today.  I just wanted to let you know that we are huge fans of yours, and have been faithfully following you in print and radio, since the ‘70s!


About two weeks ago, my mom called to say that "I am going to be in the paper." This event in itself was amazing, since being the typical Chinese mom, she only calls me after earthquakes and when she needs me to bring her more batteries for her little transistor radio. Since her memory is a bit sketchy these days, I thought I got the salient facts: that somehow you were visiting Bellaken and that you chatted about something -- she couldn't remember why, though.


I asked her if she told you that I, her 50-year-old Chinese American Bay Area native baby boomer daughter, had listened to the old KSAN for years, and you on Sundays, while I did my homework, since I was in 7th grade, growing up on the Peninsula. My exposure to you on KSAN was what got me started reading Rolling Stone, too. I cannot tell you how much my exposure to both of these media has shaped my life.


I had to move my mom to Bellaken a few years ago … Bellaken has been a godsend. The staff is wonderful, friendly, always positive and caring! Putting one's loved one in a well-caring nursing home can be a huge, unexpected (healing) blessing for everyone involved.

 

My mom has been reading (the Chronicle) faithfully, from cover to cover, for at least 60 years. When I called her today, she told me specifically not to make a special trip to buy one. She already had figured out how to get a copy of the article today, LOL.


Again, I just wanted to let you know how much I have appreciated your influence in my pop culture life and I hope to run into you at Bellaken someday soon. I have gotten to meet many other dutiful Chinese children there.  



Dede added a note about her brother, Jonathan:  “Today is his birthday. What a great present for our family: mom and my brother are in the paper ;-).”


What a present for all of us. I’ve shared Dede’s email, and an ensuing exchange, with my own family members. Suddenly, Bellaken Garden is more than a visit to Room 214 and chats with nurses, staffers and therapists.


I spoke with Dede for the first time a few days ago. Her mom is 85, she said. So she was in her mid-forties when she listened to my Sunday afternoon show on KSAN, the pioneer free-form rock station. Dede was maybe 12. “She loved it when you started saying a few words in Chinese,” she said.


So now I have a new project: To bring June a few air checks from those shows of long ago, when, unbeknownst to us, we made our first connection.


Meantime, June and her daughter shared a photo of the young June Kwei, in 1944, posing for a newspaper ad for Klein Jewelers in Chinatown, where she worked.


RANDOM NOTES: Speaking of radio connections, I’m doing a stint on a show called “My Turn,” an hour-long program in which a celebrity (and, sometimes, people like me) gets to spin favorite tunes, with no format rules. This is for KPRI in San Diego, and sister station “100.3 and The Sound” in Los Angeles. It airs on Sunday, Jan. 8 on both stations. They stream online; just Google one of them at the appointed time and hit “Listen Live.” Artists on my hour include Al Green, Chris Isaak, Amy Winehouse, the Eagles, Mayer Hawthorne and Shelby Lynne. Good stuff … If you’re looking for a beautiful, interesting, yet low-priced book of photography, check out San Francisco and the Bay Area: The Haight-Ashbury Edition, by Dick Evans. Dazzling shots of people, places and things. He asked me to write the foreword and a couple of chapter intros, and it was a pleasure just going over the photos. Available at his daughter’s bookstore, The Booksmith on Haight Street (Booksmith.com), or on his photography site, Intransitimages.com. A bargain at $29.95 …

 

 

 

 

It’s short shrift time.


I have a life that’s ripe (and slightly wrinkled) for blogs and tweeting; for facebooking and updating.


I’m just no good at it. My last column on AsianConnections was about the memorial in late July for my sister Shirley. My last posting on the authors’ site, Redroom, was about a radio promo tour I did (20 stops, all on the phone in my home office) for my Eagles book. On my own home page, the last thing was about hanging with Johnny Depp at UC Berkley – in mid-October.That was for a Q&A after a screening of his movie, The Rum Diary.


Pathetic. But hey, when you’re busy having a life, it’s not easy stopping and writing about it -- although hundreds of thousands of people apparently do. I hear Steve Martin is an inveterate Tweeter, and he’s kind of a busy guy. But I can’t do it. Backstage with Depp, I realized that it was the perfect time to post on Twitter: “We’re about to go on stage; students are screaming already”—something like that. But Johnny and director Bruce Robinson were chatting; I had to pay attention.  So, no tweets from this twit.


Bottom line: It’s time to catch up and, with apologies, to give the following events & incidents short shrift.


SANTANA: On Oct. 21, four days after the on-stager with Depp, at Cal, I was at Mission High School, where Carlos Santana was a student in the late Sixties, soon after arriving from the streets of Tijuana. That, he once told me, was where he learned about music and life. But, at Mission High, joined by members of his band and special guests, including the great Edward James Olmos (whose stint as one of the villains on Dexter had just begun), Santana and Olmos imparted words of wisdom and inspiration to the assembled student body. Carlos advised that they find their passion. “We talk about jobs,” he said. “I never worked a day in my life, because I love what I do.” He jammed with members of Mission High’s guitar club on “Oye Como Va,” giving eight young men the thrill of their lives; then, with Olmos helping out on percussion, and with wife Cindy Blackman on fierce drums, he performed a mini-concert. He also visited classrooms, spoke with the school’s media students, and sat for a video interview with me, for his Milagro Foundation and for BAMmagazine.com to use.


Check out the BAM site; a clip of our session should be up there soon.


TAJ MAHAL: Another day, another interview: For a new series of onstage chats with musicians, the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco paired me with the great Taj Mahal, a pioneer of world music (before it got that tag): a blues player who also did doo-wop, folk, Delta blues, jazz, Caribbean, Hawaiian,  and reggae, and, why not, even a Monkees song. One of his first albums in the early 70’s was called Take a Giant Step, and the title tune, which we DJ’s on KSAN played a lot, turned out to be a Carole King-Gerry Goffin song first cut by the Monkees.  Taj, of course, made it his own. Although the event was advertised as an interview, he brought along a gleaming National guitar, a banjo and a mini-banjo and performed maybe five songs.  The audience, including David Rubinson, producer of his seminal first albums, lapped it up, and laughed at my one stab at a joke: I was so impressed by Henry Fredericks taking on the name Taj Mahal, I said, that for a short time in the ‘70s, I changed my name to Stone Henge. Big laugh, I swear…


BLUE CHRISTMASES:  On KSAN on Sundays (which is what I did when I wasn’t at Rolling Stone or on the road), I used to do this stupid DJ trick in December. I’d say I wanted to sing Elvis’ “Blue Christmas,” and, just like Presley did, kicked off the song a cappella.  A line in, I’d stop and say I’d screwed up, and could we start again? And then I’d spin the record, and thousands of listeners would think (if they weren’t really thinking) that I sounded just like Presley.


That was in the ‘70s. In more recent decades, with thanks to karaoke, I’ve done “Blue Christmas” off the air, and in public. Maybe once a year, until this year. It got ridiculous. I did it at Book Passage in Corte Madera with Kurt Huget on guitar after a reading of my Eagles book. Two days later, Dec. 6, I performed it at the holiday luncheon of the Broadcast Legends in Berkeley – my third time doing Elvis for the social group of veteran radio & TV pros. In the audience, Stan Bunger, KCBS morning co-anchor and guitarist for the the Eyewitness Blues Band, decided I should join his group of CBS staffers the next morning in front of Macy’s downtown. They were part of a four-hour music show to raise money for the Salvation Army. With DJ Don Bleu emceeing, I wished everyone a “blue, blue Don Bleu Christmas.”  A few days later, same song, different band—this time on Radio Valencia, a not exactly legal station in the Mission. DJ Quarterman Jack produces a Hillbilly Hoot, live audience and all, on the very local air and online (radiovalencia.fm). Last time out, I did Johnny Cash. This time, what else but Elvis? I also did it at a wine tasting party with friends, and, finally, on the 13th, did my annual holiday appearance for the seniors gathered for lunch and song at the Berkeley Chinese Community Church. Kurt Huget, again, on guitar; George Yamasaki on piano for maybe eight tunes, including “Silver Bells” (“as shoplifters rush home with their treasures…”) and “Blue Christmas.” Done? Not quite yet. After lunch, with George in tow, I visited my mother at Bellaken Garden, a skilled nursing facility in Oakland, and we wound up doing an improv mini-show, with my Mom in the front row.  And, on the eve of Christmas Eve, at Kathi Goldmark & Sam Barry’s foodfest and singalong, one last round of those blue memories.


That’s eight times. Boy, do I feel blue!


RANDOM NOTES: Thanks to the Broadcast Legends and the California Historical Radio Society. In December, I got the Legends’ “Broadcast Legend of the Year” Award, and CHRS’s “Charles D. ‘Doc’ Herrold Award,” named after the inventor of radio. Not for any particular achievement, I don’t think, but maybe because I love radio and have enjoyed writing about it in the SF Chronicle, and elsewhere, for three decades … The Roxie Theater, an indie movie house in the Mission District, invited me to introduce its screening of the Paul McCartney doc, The Love We Make, as a fundraiser for MusiCares, the Grammy people’s charity organization. It was fun, flashing a photo of Paul and me, looking bored (or feigning nonchalance) in an office – probably in a stadium somewhere along Wings’ 1976 itinerary. The film – of McCartney in New York after Sept. 11, 2001, preparing for The Concert for New York and meeting people in Manhattan – captured the Paul I knew: always perfectly at ease, whether with Bill Clinton or raving strangers on the streets. Nonchalant – and not faking it … And speaking of strangers, I was driving up Market Street and stopped at a light when a young man rushed up, waving a CD and indicating that he wanted to give it to me. Why not? I’ve checked out several tracks and may well play one on my show on WTF, a  radio station I can’t say much about, because it’s not licensed. But it’ll be on the air somewhere in Michigan. And that's how music promotion works. Sometimes …


FINALLY: Thanks to Lidia Bastianich and the producers of her holiday special on PBS, Lidia Celebrates America.  Early in 2011, she visited San Francisco for one of the four segments that made up her show, about how different cultures celebrate holidays: Jewish, Mexican, Italian and Chinese. My sister Shirley served as her guide through Chinatown. Bastianich, well known New York restaurateur, chef and cookbook author, dedicated the program to Shirley, who passed away in June.  It was very difficult to watch. But it also was good to see her again.

 

 

I strolled onto the stage at U.C. Berkeley’s Wheeler Auditorium after the screening of The Rum Diary, faced about 700 people and said, “Hello, I’m Johnny Depp.”


It was like being a Beatle. They knew full well who I am not, but unleashed a blend of screams and squeals, along with laughter. They could afford to be good-natured, because they knew that the real Johnny Depp was in the house.

Rum Diary is his latest film, and it’s based on an early novel (circa 1960) by his late buddy Hunter S. Thompson. Depp, who portrayed Dr. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, had planned to produce Rum Diary with him, but Hunter took h is own life in 2005. Depp made it a personal mission to get this film completed.


Now, he was in Berkeley. He’d chosen to screen the film for students rather than the usual mix of media and radio contest winners. Cal offered tickets to film, English and journalism majors. Apparently, the great majority of students in those fields are female and Depp devotees.


Anyway, the publicists for the film asked me to moderate the Q&A with Johnny, and, of course, I agreed. We’d never met, but we have several bonds, and he told me of a few more. There’s Hunter, of course, from Rolling Stone days in the 70’s and beyond. And there are the Doors. I wrote a book in 2006 that was meant to be partnered with a documentary. The book beat the film by about four years, but the documentary featured narration by…Johnny Depp.


Backstage, he told me that he was a fan of my book on Gram Parsons, Hickory Wind, and knew that Keith Richards (his dear old dad in the Piratesof the Caribbean movies) had wanted to produce a film about Parsons.

On stage, once the screams died down, he, along with Bruce Robinson, the Rum Diary’s writer and director, fielded a couple of questions from me, and then we invited students to take over the questioning. Most of them were good, but several coeds who’d lined up at the two microphones were there just to say they’d spoken with Depp. They didn’t really have a question. At least not one they could ask in public. Johnny was gracious about it all; he's used to this. Bruce warmed up to the crowd, too.


Then, one guy claimed that he’d seen a boom mike in one shot and asked if that was intentional. Depp and Robinson told him that it was a ceiling fan he saw, but the student persisted until Depp, who does have an edge about him, asked, “What’s your f---- point?” Later, backstage, he and Robinson got into Hunter S. Thompson Gonzo mode. ”Let’s find that kid and kick him in the nuts,” said Johnny.


Robinson, before the Q&A, had told me he hated appearing in front of college students. “They’re all smartasses,” he said.


Still, the film’s promoters invited everyone to hang out afterwards at a nearby bar, Shattuck Down Low, where Depp had a favorite band set up. Its leader was Chuck E. Weiss, the real life inspiration for Rickie Lee Jones’ hit, “Chuck E.’s in Love.” Her former boyfriend, Tom Waits, who lives in the Bay Area, showed up for dinner with Depp and popped into the club.


Oddly, there was no mob scene at the Down Low. It was all very easy going. And then we realized that the great majority of the Cal students were not old enough to get in.  


Behind VIP ropes, Depp enjoyed himself. We chatted some more, and he met Dianne and our nephew-in-law, Matt Pavao, an elementary school administrator and a long-time fan of Thompson’s writing. (He was a big hit with the kids the next day.)  I gave Johnny a copy of The Rice Room, which includes an anecdote about the time Hunter dropped in on a Rolling Stone gathering in Palm Springs and dosed the guests with some hallucinogenic drug. I also gave him copies of photos from that evening. Evidence.


By the time I got home to San Francisco, there were four or five videos of snippets of the  Q&A on YouTube, along with online reports that he jumped onstage and played with the band. By the next morning, the story was on Perez Hilton’s blog, on The Hollywood Reporter, and on numerous other sites.


It’s been a long time, but it was fun hanging out with a rock star, which is what Depp is, through and through. In fact, a few days later, at the supermarket, I spotted a tabloid headline about him being seen falling-down drunk at some nightclub in Los Angeles. Fact or fiction, it’s another page in his own rum diary.

I just flew in from Canada and a few dozen other cities, and boy, are my ears tired.

 

Let me explain: It was a radio tour, as it’s called, for my new book, Eagles: Taking It to the Limit. The publisher, Running Press, set up 20 stops – mostly morning shows from coast to coast – from 5 to 8:20 a.m. – all from my phone at home.

           

By 6:30, half way through, my left ear was feeling it. Before then, I’d also gone through a couple of technical glitches. My cordless phone ran out of juice, and I had to run (quietly) from my office to the kitchen upstairs. And my recorder malfunctioned.

 

But it was still better than going to 20 bookstores in 20 cities. The Canada call – from Astral Radio – reached 83 stations in 40-something cities.

           

And I met a wide range of broadcasters, from DJs in smaller towns like Lima, Ohio to news talk anchors in Atlanta and St. Louis, to Philadelphia radio legend John DeBella and rock artist turned morning jock Greg Kihn, himself an author. He knows all about this 4 a.m. wakeup routine. Only he does it five days a week. One a book is plenty enough for me.

            I had 19 chats ranging from five to ten minutes, the last being with Premiere Networks, which itself services 60 stations with show prep material. The only flake-out was a station in Norfolk, Nebraska, scheduled near the end. My ear was most grateful.

            

The Eagles book is one of two I have out right now. University of California Press just published an expanded and updated version of my 1994 memoirs, The Rice Room. No radio tour, thank god. But on Friday, Oct. 28, I’m doing an event in Oakland, in Chinatown, where the story begins. Check my calendar and act fast. It’s Friday!

 

PS: On one of the TV shows I did for The Rice Room, the host said to come to this site to buy the book. Sorry, but I haven't built a store here. Most bookstores and, of course, Amazon, have both books on their shelves. Thank you.


Ben Fong-Torres

is a journalist, author, and broadcaster.  He began writing for Rolling Stone in 1968, in its eighth issue.  He is the author of nine books, and his most unique TV credit was his triumphant 1993 stint on Wheel of Fortune. He writes the Radio Waves column in the S.F. Chronicle and a column at AsianConnections.com. He is working on a book about Little Feat.