A Guest Writer Checks Out AC's 'Renaissance Man'
Our very own Renaissance man Ben Fong-Torres was the co-host of the Emmy award-winning telecast of the Southwest Airlines Chinese New Year Parade the largest parade of its kind in North America.
When he is off-camera, Ben is very busy working on his new books soon to be released.
The guy does take a break every now and then - you might be lucky to spot him in a jam session on the second Tuesday of each month at a local hang-out in San Francisco.
In the following feature, Mitzi Mock writes of her close encounters at the All-Star Jam session.
This time out, I'm giving my space over to Mitzi Mock , a student journalist at San Francisco City College. She showed up at the monthly All-Star Jam that I visit, at El Rio in the Mission District, and wrote it up as an assignment for class. I thought she did an excellent job capturing the quirky scene, that she came up with an excellent lead paragraph -- a skill that's vital for news writers -- and did a good reporting job, talking not only to band members, but also to patrons of El Rio. I told her she deserved an "A" (which she got from her professor) and a larger audience (which her teacher could not give her). So I'm proud to present...Mitzi Mock.
One Man's Train Wreck
By Mitzi Mock
Is Another Man's Jam
Ben Fong-Torres is scanning the room for women. He'll take one or two. Three would be ideal. He wants them all at once.
But only for about two minutes.
"Do you know the chorus to 'He's So Fine?'" he asks, whispering to a woman who just belted out "Tax Man." "I just need someone for the part that goes 'Doo-lang, doo-lang, doo-lang.'" He hums a few notes of the 60s girl group classic. Dressed in a black sheen jacket, his hair gelled back, the former Rolling Stone writer and editor adds, "I usually try to do some Elvis, but not tonight."
On the second Tuesday of every month, Fong-Torres and the other fans of Los Train Wreck excuse themselves from their respective families and responsibilities to participate in an open music jam at El Rio. Nestled in the Outer Mission, the wooden cavern declares at its front door, "your dive."
"There's a standard crowd every month. We call them the Tuesday Jam Regulars," said bartender Lynne Angel, referring to a mix of middle-aged Mission locals and loyal jammers who, like Fong-Torres, followed the Los Train Wreck jam night from its start at the former Blue Lamp on Geary St. to El Rio in September of 2005.
Fong-Torres' monthly performance is the highlight of jam night for many regulars. A local celebrity, Fong-Torres built his career writing about the iconic musicians who shaped the soundtrack to his generation. Now he passes time writing song parodies of their songs. Each month, he writes new lyrics for Bob Dylan's "Rainy Day Women 12+35," and is jotting a last-minute song to the tune of the Chiffons' "He's So Fine."
"I usually write lyrics about the news, but sometimes the news is so bad I can't stand it," he says. Current events dealt him a good hand this month: a city enflamed over an Olympic torch run and a New York governor who's hot for hookers. (Thus "He's So Fine," which will become "Client Number Nine.")
At the back of the bar, the six-person band is set up on a carpeted dance floor below a steady disco ball, a size too small to capture the reflection of red lights strung on the walls. Jammers sign up on a spiral notebook left next to the speaker. Patrons in leather jackets and flannel shirts weave as seamlessly into the scene as the kids wearing skin-tight jeans and ironic T-shirts do at the venues a few blocks away on Valencia St.
Members of Los Train Wreck have been playing together for over 15 years under different names, says lead singer Kathi Kamen Goldmark, co-author of The Great Rock and Roll Joke Book. "Each band member has been in at least one other band with another member at some point," she said.
Names of their previous incarnations include Four Shy Guys, The Sweethearts of the Bancroft Lounge, and The Ray Price Club. They started using Train Wreck eight years ago, but added the ubiquitous "Los" last year.
"Between us we probably know a thousand songs," said Goldmark, tucking strands of curly chestnut hair behind lime-green, rhinestone-encrusted cowboy boot earrings. "But mostly we play country, rock and blues."
Sixties girl group hits are not a natural specialty for the five-man, one-woman band. Hence, Fong-Torres' scramble for a few extra 'doo-langers.' But the band doesn't shy away from unusual requests. Their strangest: the theme from Woody Woodpecker. But you're more likely to hear band favorite "Your Cheatin' Heart," the proprietary standard for long-bearded drummer Peter Tucker. Once, after an especially soul-shattering rendition, he poured a shot of bourbon over his head.
The band members think everyone could benefit from the intoxicating spirits of singing live. "I think of this as my community service. Instead of going to help at a hospital, I create a space for people to perform live," says Goldmark. "f you're over 35 with a family and commitments, this is a way that you can remember to play live and commit to it."
Mission-dweller Elisa Welch has been coming to perform her home-written blues since the public jam sessions started at El Rio. "They are lovely people to play with, and it's easy to walk here from my home," said Welch, whose lyrics this month beg all the lovers in the Mission to "get a room" for their physical displays of affection.
"This is a great little S.F. scene," said new jammer, Don Forbes, a gray-haired songwriter. "I don't get out to see live music as much as I'd like to."
If the energy of live music is what differentiates a jam night from a karaoke sing-along, it's the band's chemistry that attracts even the most music savvy fans. "As long as they know the chord, the key, the tempo, they just go with it. They just meld," Fong-Torres said.
Band members Goldmark, Tucker, David Phillips, Todd Swenson, Sam Barry and Paul Olguin occasionally play weddings as a group, but Los Train Wreck is mostly a monthly gig.
Goldmark, who also plays guitar and writes songs, is known in San Francisco for convening rare musical phenomena. She is the founder of the Rock Bottom Remainders, made up of several best-selling authors, including Amy Tan, Stephen King, Matt Groening and Dave Barry (Sam's brother).
But at El Rio, it's another musical writer who takes the stage. With three willing ladies in tow, Fong-Torres closes the first set:
He's so fine (Do-lang-do-lang-do-lang)
Client Number Nine (Do-lang-do-lang-do-lang)
That familiar guy over there (Do-lang-do-lang-do-lang)
The one with almost no hair (Do-lang-do-lang-do-lang) ...
And familiar they are. But, hey, some of them still have their hair.
Ben Fong-Torres hosts Backstage, a music-and-interviews show on KFRC-FM in San Francisco Sundays 7-9 a.m. and 7-9 p.m. Pacific Time. The program streams live and is archived at www.kfrc.com. To visit his home page, go to www.benfongtorres.com. He also writes a music blog at www.tvland.com. And he has a page in the site for booklovers, www.redroom.com.