Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Outtakes with Ben Fong-Torres

Well, the title's not an entirely accurate statement, since the piece hasn't even been written yet and these quotes might make the cut in shortened form, but I thought I'd post a couple of snippets from my conversation this evening with rock journalist Ben Fong-Torres, the former writer and senior editor at Rolling Stone who has interviewed such music legends as Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, the Jackson 5, Marvin Gaye, and the Grateful Dead--to name just a few. That's him with Quincy Jones on the right.

Fong-Torres was emceeing an event that I was covering, and so I got a chance to chat with him briefly beforehand. Of course in tune with the tools of the trade, he immediately made a complimentary note of my digital recorder, and mentioned a few devices he'd relied upon in the past. I couldn't help but ask for his take on how to report on the event, and then picked his brain about his own career. Yeah, sort of an amateurish approach, but you don't get the chance to solicit advice from pros of this caliber every day--and plus I figured it was a good way to warm him up a bit.

After talking shop, we strolled over to the spread, where I learned that, when it comes to appetizers, Fong-Torres is not a fan of gourmet eggrolls, and would have preferred to see pigs-in-a-blanket or calamari instead (these are the details I'm sure you crave).

Anyway, this is when I got down to business, and we started talking about the accomplishments of grassroots organizations on the margins (specifically, the one holding the event). He told me this about the need to press on:

"I would just say that for all of the progress that has been made by not just Chinese Americans but Asian Americans in general and people of color overall, we're still at a place where we have a long, long way to go. There's still a tremendous amount of racism out there in different forms--and so the battle continues. It is by no means over, even though a lot of people think, 'oh come on, you guys have done well, and hey come on, you guys get into the schools you want to, get the jobs you want to'--well not really, you know? When you look at it more deeply and more thoroughly, there's just a lot of restrictions and a still too-low ceiling for Asian Americans and other groups."

In addressing what everyday folks can do to push for progress, he commented:

"Just be aware. We're in a time now in American society when people tend to have fairly short attention spans. I think Al Gore is correct that people are being sidetracked by unimportant things in pop culture and not really, really keeping track of news as much as trivia and gossip."

And in reference to the prospect of standing up to the current administration and waging political protest, he offered a little bit of hope:

"More than ever, I think people have a right to say 'What is the point?'...I don't know, I don't want to be in fantasy land about it, but I feel like it can still happen, we can still right this ship."

We went on to talk about the role music can play in this movement, as it did when he was starting out as a journalist in San Francisco during the 60s. He expressed a belief that people today are writing and playing songs that do call for social change and a more righteous world, but that this is happening on a local level, not necessarily through your standard channels.

He was eventually commandeered by an event organizer before I could ask him what he thought of Paul McCartney releasing a new record on the Starbucks 'label' (although honestly, I was just saving that for if I ran out of things to say), and that was that.

The last note I want to add from this episode is that, when he was later addressing the crowd from the podium, he actually mentioned his conversation with me, and managed to squeeze in the name of the paper that I write for. It was certainly more a case that the anecdote served to help him pay compliment to the evening's keynote speaker for her stirring delivery, but the man has worked in media longer than I've been alive, so you have to believe he had some awareness that he was also giving a boost to the small publisher I was representing. Pretty considerate for a guy who's made the big time.

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