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  • Catching Up: Santana, Taj Mahal and a déjà vu ‘Blue Christmas’

    Posted by Ben Fong-Torres

    By Ben Fong-Torres 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 here 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...

We Love New York, v. 2003

Ben Fong-Torres

As my regular readersboth of youknow, Dianne, my wife, and I like to hit New York City every year.

AsianConnections is proud to present the adventures of Ben Fong-Torres, our very own Renaissance man: author, broadcaster, and former senior editor and writer at Rolling Stone Magazine. This guy's our hero! Ben was a featured character and immortalized in the movie "Almost Famous," the Oscar and Golden Globe-winning film by Cameron Crowe.

As my regular readersboth of youknow, Dianne, my wife, and I like to hit New York City every year. We got around to it in early October and had a blast, courtesy of the Carlyle, which put us up in one of their grandest suites (in fact, it included a baby grand piano in the living room), and of several restaurateurs and chefs, who helped us secure some of the hottest tickets in Manhattan: namely, reservations at their restaurants.

I won't bore you with culinary details. Suffice it to say that we had a blast. We werent weight-watching; we were just waiting for the next amazing course at Babbo, Aureole, Gramercy Tavern, Tribeca Grill, and the Biltmore Room. The reason we got into those hotspotsnot to mention Icon for a lunchwas that I did a story in the October issue of Gourmet magazine, on chefs who are also musicians and manage, amidst their 24/7 schedules, to rehearse and play at various gigs and fundraisers.

And when we weren't busy with our four-star meals, Dianne could shop to her closet's content, and I visited various friends, including my fellow Asian Connection, Lia Chang (who, small world, took the photo of me that appears in the contributors page of the current Gourmet ), and magazine editors, and enjoyed a Manhattan (what else?) or two at the Carlyle's cocktail lounge, where a fine pianist/vocalist, Chris Gillespie, filled the hours before our evening excursions.

We scored tickets to watch a taping of Late Night with David Letterman. One of Letterman's cast of characters is Rupert Gee, owner of the funky Hello Deli! around the corner from the theater. Rupert's roles range from letting his sandwich shop be the location for various pseudo-contests like "Psychic Sandwich" and for interviews with people who've been bumped off the Survivor series, to doing stunts. In recent years, Rupert's become a bona fide celebrity, and Letterman fans jam the store, not for one of his sandwiches (not exactly edible, according to Dianne, my wife), but for a photo op with the Gee-man. I introduced myself and, as he often is on the show, he appeared unaware, but friendly. I bought a Rupert Gee t-shirt for $14, left my card, and made way for the next stream of fans

Besides an excellent Letterman show (Lisa Kudrow, R.E.M., and Stupid Human Tricks but no Rupert), we caught a gospel show at the Bottom Line with Odetta, the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Holmes Brothers, Marie Kight, and host Maria Muldaur, a Bay Area singer who was on my old radio show, Fog City Radio . Another night, we got into Joe's Pub to see Boz Scaggs another Bay Area star and friend doing his jazz standards set. We also heard about a secret gig Norah Jones was doing at her old hangout, the Living Room, but I had to skip it to keep an appointment with Joey Reynolds, host of an all-night radio talk show on WOR thats sent out to another 90 or so stations.

I've popped in on Joey, a legendary Top 40 DJ who was part of my book, The Hits Just Keep On Coming , whenever I've been in New York. This time, I wanted to tell a nationwide audience about Larry Ching, the singer whose CD I produced earlier this year.

Joey does what you might call a free-form talk show. He brings in several guests at a time, riffs at the top of the hour, and, after he's had his say, gets around to the guests. With me, he had a set line: How is it that a guy who wrote for the hippest rock magazine around, Rolling Stone , winds up producing a crooner, doing songs like "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" and "Hawaiian Wedding Song"?

Before I could respond, the engineer played "Hawaiian Wedding Song," and I was in heaven. Since the CD came out in early June, Larry (who died just a month later, a month short of his 83rd birthday) got lots of media attention, but, aside from an NPR feature, it was mostly local. Now, he was being aired on 90-something stations around the country. After the song finished, Joey, who'd opened the show with a monologue about doo-wop music, re-posed his question, and I reminded him that one of the songs Larry did, "Once in a While," had been a doo-wop hit by the Chimes in 1961. The trigger-happy engineer instantly punched up that song, and, again, Larry's beautiful tenor voice was on the air again.

It may have been 3 in the morning when our segment aired, but no matter. I'd been able to tell a little about Forbidden City, the pioneering Chinatown nightclub where Larry sang in the Forties and Fifties, about the gutsy and talented performers who shared that stage with Larry, and radio listeners coast-to-coast had heard some of Larry's lilting music.

As I staggered out of the studio, onto Broadway, and hailed a cab back to the Carlyle, I thought, once again: I love New York.

Lessons

I published my memoirs, The Rice Room , and its rock 'n' roll companion, Not Fade Away , years ago, but I'm still learning from them, thanks to readers like Donna Haraguchi of Antioch, California, who wrote: "After reading some of those interviews, I'm sure it was hard to not really explain to your parents what you were really doing. If they could have truly grasped it, they'd probably cry happy tears."

Donna was referring to the language barrier that kept my parents from communicating with their five children aboutjust about anything. They only knew, usually from others, that I wrote for some newspaper that hippies read. It's difficult to know whether they would have understood what it meant that their kid was interviewing various Beatles, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, the Stones and other giants, and was helping edit a magazine that was a cultural phenomenon. Probably not. They were rather occupied trying to raise the family and to keep the family restaurant afloat. But it would've been rewarding to have been able to give them the choice of shrugging it off, or of crying happy tears.

New York Post-Script

Here's a reminder that reporters in New Yorkwhether on TV or in print are not necessarily better or smarter than those in any other part of the country: In the New York Post , sportswriter Mark Hale wrote:

A.J. Pierzynski summed up last night's 4-1 loss with one sentence. "I think we came out and played the way we wanted to play," the Twins catcher said. "We just couldnt get any hits." Its pretty much that simple.

I'm thinking, "We just couldnt get any hits" was the second sentence. Its pretty much THAT simple