It Certainly Wasn't The Same Old Song
A punky rock song about our own Ben Fong-Torres? It's true! Read it and sing!
As many people who write books and make records are wont to do, I was Googling myself the other night. Actually, it was a variation. I was Amazoning myself, if there's such a thing. A friend had told me about finding old copies of his own books there for a penny a copy. So I went online in search of cheaper versions of myself or my books, anyway.
And that's how I happened onto a song called "Ben Fong-Torres." Not a song by me. Not a song from Almost Famous , which includes me as a character. But a tune, apparently, about me.
I couldn't believe it, but there it was. Amazon offers mp.3 downloads of some albums, so this song, from a CD called Where I Am, by Christopher Van Epps , was available for 89 cents.
I was further shocked by the original release date listed: October, 2002. This thing had been out five years and I just now stumbled across it? Maybe it was an attack on me, and nobody least of all the composer wanted me to know about it. I clicked on the "listen" button for a 30-second sample.
I heard a chorus of voices shouting my name over a combination of a polka and punk-rock beat. The words were a blur, but I made out "it's not an accident is he from south of border or from the Orient." And a robust shout of "Ben Fong-Torres is a helluva guy!"
So, despite the clumsy reference to "the Orient," it sounded like nothing to call my attorney, "Mad Dog," about.
I downloaded the song and then, why not, sprang for the physical CD as well. Hey, how often is something like this gonna happen? And then I tracked down the artist, going from Allmusic.com to myspace, where a discography listed three CDs, and where he posted a modest biography. I learned that a distant cousin of his invented the seven-string guitar in 1938, that he's been playing music, on and off, for about 20 years, and that in 2003, he and a buddy formed a band called Jack Ruby's Alibi. From his blog, it was clear that the album with "Ben Fong-Torres" on it was not a smash.
Listening to my download, I begin to make out a few lines, including:
"Ben Fong-Torres will debate you to death
He'll even do your dry cleaning while on crystal meth."
And I think: This guy knows me better than I know myself! I've gotta find him.
I reach Van Epps by e-mail and learn that he's a technical writer in Raleigh, North Carolina. He sends me a copy of the lyrics to the song and says that my discovering the song and him is "the highlight of my weekend."
Uh mine, too.
Anyway, Chris tells me that it was the movie Almost Famous that inspired him to turn me into a song. "I just kept saying your name over and over Don't you agree it's a lyrical, rhythmic sounding name?" he asks. He says he did some "modest research," and that he hadn't tried to reach me in the five years the song (and the CD it's on) have been out because of shyness. He's sold only "a handful" of CD's, but has two more ready to release.
OK. But, about that "research." How'd he come up with my using crystal meth? "That's what you call desperately trying to find a rhyme," he says, laughing. I'm thinking "Beth" and "breath," and that the "death" line ("Ben Fong-Torres will debate you to death") wasn't exactly accurate, either. I hate arguing. There's also:
Ben Fong-Torres is a helluva guy!
He can write a book on Marxism without even try-ing
Besides the dangl-ing "ing," what's the deal with Marxism? "You are well-read," Chris says, clearly trying to ward off my team of attack-dog attorneys. "I mean, you came up with that book about The Doors. That's a postulation that you can just whip it out, no big deal." Sure, Chris. The Doors book came out three years AFTER your song, but I'll let it go.
Van Epps wrote some clever lines, including "He can spot a split infinitive in ten seconds flat." But there's also:
Ben Fong-Torres was a straight-A student
Does he honor Mau-Se or did he give it up for lent?
And, to rhyme Rolling Stone , he wrote, "They love him in the A.M., by P.M. he's alone." Not true, as long as I have my Project Runway and my imaginary friends. Finally, there's this puzzling couplet: "Ben Fong-Torres has spoke to H. Thompson. Never been sued for libel; by the dozens they all come." "has spoke?" "H. Thompson?" "By the dozens they all come?"
As we used to say at the magazine, "Wheh!" Rewrite!
So I sent him my own version, including:
His name is Ben Fong-Torres, he wrote for Rolling Stone
He was in 'Almost Famous,' going 'crazy' on the phone
Ben Fong-Torres, once spoke with Janis Joplin
She wasn't half as gonzo as Dr. Hunter Thompson!
Ben Fong-Torres, he followed all 12 steps
The thirteenth is a song by Christopher Van Epps!
Mere hours later, he responded. "These lyrics are hysterical! Way better than mine. I may have to go back to the studio with them!"
Check out a free sample of Christopher's Ben Fong-Torres song at iTunes when you search for Ben Fong-Torres in Music, or click on the music link at this page on iTunes.
New Old Friends: In Los Angeles for the book I'm writing about the music legend, Quincy Jones , I visited James Wing Woo , a martial arts master of some 40 years standing (and crouching, and thrusting).
I'm helping a couple of friends, long-time students of his, to get the 85 year-old Woo's story down, and to post some of it on his Web site. It is some story, including his family's back and forth moves between China and California (where James was born) in the midst of Japanese invasions of Guangzhou, to his times as a young man in the streets and nightclubs of San Francisco, to his opening of a karate studio in Los Angeles.
There, he found work in the movies, often playing stereotypical roles ("I'm good at playing a dead Chinese guy," he says), and landing in major films like Lethal Weapon 4 . I'll have more on Master Woo in the near future.
And, finally, a shout-out to the members of the Dorothy C. Wong Senior Center, a loose group (they don't actually have a "center") who get together at the Berkeley Chinese Community Church for lunches and special events. For the third holiday season in a row, pianist George Yamasaki and I closed the show with a medley of Christmas tunes. (We followed MC and jokemeister Benton Siou , the church's "Men's Quartet," a sing-along led by Vicky Jennings , soprano Linda Wang and a hula by Anne Yamasaki to "Mele Kalikimaki.")
I rewrote one Christmas classic to begin:
Char-siu roasting on an open fire
Rice wine nipping at your nose
Cute. But I do know that char-siu (barbecued pork) isn't roasted anywhere but inside a covered oven. After all, I used to watch my father making char-siu at our family restaurants.
I think the song needs a rewrite. Get me Christopher Van Epps!
Ben Fong-Torres hosts 'Backstage,' on KFRC-FM/San Francisco, Sundays 7-9 a.m. and p.m. Pacific time. The music show streams live over www.kfrc.com and is archived there. And to visit his home page, go to www.benfongtorres.com