Telling My Story, In Words and Music
AC's Renaissance Man Ben Fong-Torres is invited to share highlights of his life and times to a packed audience in Mill Valley.
The idea blossomed about a year ago: It would be called Telling Your Story, and I would involve people known for their ability to tell stories to advise others on how to relate their own stories in the form of an oral history, a written memoirs, or a multi-media presentation, aimed at family and friends or the public at large.
I heard the idea from Alan Unger, a friend who was working with The Redwoods, the rather hip and radical retirement community in Mill Valley, in Marin County (natch). He thought it would be cool if Amy Tan and I could kick off the series early in 2009. I told him we were both good choices but not together. If Amy were involved, I said, it would have to be the Amy Tan show, and I would be happy to serve as interviewer.
No, he said. We want you to tell your story, too. And, knowing that I was more available than Amy (who, at that time, was mounting the opera version of her novel, The Bonesetters Daughter), he convinced me to do the premiere program, in September. This was back in January, and it was a stretch to respond, Oh, September 17th. Darn! I just happen to be busy.
And so it was that, for the first time in my 40-year career (if we peg its beginning at May, 1969, when I joined Rolling Stone as a writer and editor), I sat down for an onstage interview about me. The interrogator was a long-time friend, Kathi Goldmark, who is a musician, novelist and Renaissance woman who also produces the radio show, West Coast Live.
Early on, I told Alan Unger that, with the rapid changes in technology, the possibilities for telling one's own story had changed dramatically. A person was no longer confined to diaries or journals, or talking into a tape recorder. You Tube! Facebook! Picasa! OneTrueMedia! Flip camcorders! Instant movies and photo albums off a Mac!
It is a multimedia world. And in my case, it's a story with musical hooks, including my excursion, in the last decade or so, of performing songs in public at weddings, fundraisers and other community events as well as at karaoke bars.
And so it was that, by the time we launched Telling Your Story, I had a more than reasonable facsimile of a band behind me. Besides Kathi, who sings, there was her new husband, Sam Barry, an ace harmonica and keyboard player; Kurt Huget, who handles guitar, mandolin, and myriad other instruments, and George Yamasaki, my accompanist on piano for our twice-a-year appearances for a Chinese seniors group in Berkeley.
At our one and only rehearsal, we ran through six songs, reflecting my life and chosen with The Redwoods audience in mind (even though the event was open to the general public). In other words, lotsa oldies. We would talk for five or ten minutes, then do some music. We would begin with a song from the year I was born, 1945: It Might As Well Be Spring. Then a song I performed with my brother Barry at a talent show in elementary school, That's Amore. Then into my fixation with Elvis, with Don't Be Cruel, followed by a representative of folk-rock: I Got You Babe, which was a duet with Kathi. I would then show a video of my butchering of Like a Rolling Stone on the TV show, Your Big Break. Then, karaoke, a world Kathi introduced me to. That led to my singing at other public places. I chose Can't Help Falling in Love, a natural for weddings. And, finally, with The Redwoods crowd in mind, we tried out All of Me, which was done by the late Larry Ching, the Chinese Frank Sinatra of the legendary Chinatown nightclub, Forbidden City. (I produced his first and last CD, and George Yamasaki was crucial to that project.)
And that is just what we did at Telling Your Story. We warmed up the packed house with a video of my 1993 appearance on Wheel of Fortune, in which I had a smart-ass exchange with Pat Sajak, and during which he asked me about my memoirs, The Rice Room. And then I won an Acura Legend (which was parked right outside The Redwoods.) A perfect start for a session about storytelling!
It all went well. Amateur singer that I am, I got through the tunes, thanks to the ace musicians. My penchant for messing with lyrics drew a big laugh, when I crooned, But I feel so gay, in a metrosexual way, that it might as well be spring.
One gauge of the success of the evening was a remark by The Redwoods director, Barbara Solomon, who said none of the residents nodded off, despite our going past the seniors usual bedtime of 8:30.
Among the highlights: After I told about being elected president of Westlake Junior High in Oakland, an insolent audience member, Ed Ferry, stood up and shouted, You lie! He continued, Mr. Student Body President, you didnt get elected by a landslide. You lie!
Just like Barack Obama, I ignored him, although I should have noted that, while I might have overstated my victory, I did provide a health care plan for my junior high classmates.
At evening's end, after helping George Yamasaki's wife, Anne, remove some items from my back seat, I drove off to hang with a couple of buddies at a restaurant in downtown Mill Valley. What I didn't know was that I had left behind a bag by the side of the car, including my cell phone, credit cards, my Shure 55 microphone, and miscellaneous other goodies. I retrieved them, but boy, what a place to have had a senior moment!
At the restaurant Piazza DAngelo I had a drink with Ed Ferry, of recent You lie fame (Yes, he was a plant) and Bob Barnes, my second best friend. But then Lucy Mercer, operator of 142 Throckmorton, the nearby theater and nightclub, came over and asked me to join her table, where she was hosting, among others, the legendary comedian and social observer, Mort Sahl. I quickly brushed off Ed and Bob and cozied up to Sahl, who regaled me with stories about sharing the stage with the Beatles at an Ed Sullivan Show and having various folk groups opening for him at nightclubs. The name of Mary Travers, who'd just died, came up. We all knew Peter, Paul & Mary. (Peter Yarrow was the commencement speaker at SF State University in 2003, the year I was Alumnus of the Year, so we both spoke at the graduation ceremony, and joined voices on Puff the Magic Dragon.) Mary, according to informed sources at our table, was a pretty difficult customer backstage, but the quintessence of peace-and-love folksinger on stage. It was to that Mary Travers that we all hoisted a toast. And then continued telling stories.
Ben Fong-Torres' latest book is The Grateful Dead Scrapbook. He writes the radio column in the San Francisco Chronicle (sfgate.com), has a DJ show on KYAradio.com weeknights 7-9 p.m.,
blogs on WolfgangsVault.com
and Redroom.com and is still remodeling his home page. Any day now...