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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...

Get a Job? Who Needs a Job?

Ben Fong-Torres

Our Ben Fong-Torres loses a job and gains a half-dozen others, from New York to San Francisco, with a stop in Cincinnati.

I lost my job a couple of months ago, and life couldnt be better.

I was just about ready to run out of the office in South San Francisco, screaming from sheer boredom with the job (VP of content at a marketing company that produced branded magazines sent out by e-mail), when the company got sold.

Yes, it was a big-salary; yes, the people I worked with were great. But spending a third of your life doing something youd just as soon not be doing is well, its something too many of us do.

Not me; no more.

And it seems as though the moment I was set free, a happy houseful of doors flew open, inviting me in for a look-see. Radio! Television! Movies! Books! Magazines! And, of course, more!

Some of these opportunities came before the downsizing at my company. Its been months, for example, since David Ling, an attorney-turned-film producer, called from New York to ask about a film option on The Rice Room, my 1994 memoirs. Weve now signed a deal, so Id advise getting in line immediately to see the film And Ive been writing, on and off, for Parade magazine since a couple years ago. Its on again, with profiles of Tim McGraw, the country superstar, and Ellen DeGeneres coming out (if youll pardon the pun) in August and September.

To check on a couple of these doors, Dianne and I went to New York in early June. Actually, we were there to go upstate, to a renewal of vows ceremony for a pair of good friends, editor-writer Holly George-Warren and her husband of 15 years, the superb singer-songwriter Robert Burke Warren. I officiated and felt like nothing less than a country preacher, as Holly and Robert exchanged warm vows under a sweeping willow tree in their backyard in Phoenicia, in the Catskills, and as Robertwith help from their six year-old son Jackserenaded Holly with his song, You Look Good in the Rain.

From that most romantic weekend, including a night at the warm & comfy Phoenicia Belle B&B, we went on to New York City, where I visited editors at my old stomping grounds, Rolling Stone , lunched with Shirley Halperin, music editor of Rolling Stone s sister publication, US Weekly (where I said a quick "Hi" to new editor Janice Min), visited former RS ally Dian Aziza Ooka, a magazine designer now working at Home magazine; visited Gourmet and wound up chatting with editor Ruth Reichl; dropped in on one of my faves, Entertainment Weekly , and found open arms at all those magazines. What a feeling.

From a lunch with my editor at Parade , I was assigned to go see McGraw in concert for a story. And from a meeting with the producer of a radio show connected with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, I was invited to conduct an interview with Ahmet Ertegun, the fabled co-founder of Atlantic Records. That is, if I could return to New York the next week. Freed of my job, I could.

And, from a cuppa Joe with David Ling, whod just purchased the film option for The Rice Room , I got a brimful of confidence about what a film based on events in my life might be. Mainly, it would deal with issues of race and assimilation as well as rock n roll and the Sixties. All we need is a scriptwriter to take the story to the next level.

Besides the business meetings, I had a chance to visit Lia Chang, AsianConnections multi-talented columnist, and to see, first hand, her photography for the National Tropical Botanical Garden. At Bryant Park, she snapped a couple of shots of me with her cell phone camera, but, fortunately, she hasnt forwarded them to me, so they wont show up here. Far better that you visit her column and see some of her beautiful photographs.

After lunch with David Felton, an old Rolling Stone buddy, at Ruby Foo, a pan-Asian emporium in Times Square, I hooked up with another friend, documentary maker Karen Thorsen (Rats Bats and Bugs! on The History Channel last year), whos wrapping a doc on the late theater pioneer Joe Papp. We went to Chinatown so that I could drop off some Larry Ching CDs to the Museum of Chinese in the Americas. After visiting with CEO Charlie Lai and taking in the MoCAs latest exhibits, we went to Tea & Tea, thinking wed have a quiet coupla cups of well, tea.

Wrong. These days, tea means novelty drinks, smoothie blends of fruits, liquids, and, I suppose, some fragments of tealeaves. After enduring thousands of decibels of noise, as the blenders did their work, Karen had a Bubble Pearl milk tea concoction that seemed to include blueberries; they were, in fact, tapioca balls. This she learned from the server over yet another cacophony of blenders. No wonder Mayor Bloombergs trying to crack down on noise in Manhattan. Start with the tea parlors!

Other times, Dianne and I had excellent mealsat the upper West Side French restaurant, Aix, at Danny Meyers flagship restaurant, Union Square Caf, and at August in Greenwich Village, a small hotspot where, over inventive European fare from an Asian American chef, Tony Liu (ex- of Babbo), we broke bread and enjoyed dishes like grilled octopus with the delightful Christine Toy Johnson and her husband Bruce. They made All American Eyes , the short film I mentioned in my last column. Christine, an activist for the casting of Asian American actors in Asian roles, is targeting the Broadway revival of The King and I. Watch for, and join, the fireworks

While in New York, I heard the news of Ray Charles death. In San Francisco, my phone began ringing, with radio and TV stations seeking comment. Thats because, back in the day, Id conducted the Rolling Stone interview with the legendary artist. But I was in New York, staying at the quite impressive home of Josh Feigenbaum, founder and former head of MJI Broadcasting, the radio syndication giant.

Ironically, back in 1972, after interviewing Charles, Id pieced my article together at Joshs apartment. Back then, he sold ads for the magazine and lived in a roach-infested apartment in the Village (not rat-infested, as I have it in my book, Not Fade Away ). Now, 32 years later, I was visiting Rolling Stone (which moved to New York from San Francisco in 1977), theyre scrambling to put together a package on Ray Charles, and Im enlisted to write a new intro for my old interview, in case the magazine uses excerpts. [You can find my interview online at www.rollingstone.com.] Moments later, Im back in Joshs apartment writing about Ray Charlesagain. Only this time, the apartment is on the 20th floor, with a view that overlooks Central Park and sweeps the Manhattan skyline. And there isnt a roach in sight.

And, now, Im in line to do a book on Mr. Charles. If that happens, Ill just have to write at least a portion of it at Joshs apartment. It would only be right.

Theres not enough space to cover my return trip to New York the following week, for the interview with Ahmet Ertegun. Suffice to say that it went well, and that, having flown Jet Blue on Trip Uno and United Airlines on Trip Dos, its Jet Blue by 5,000 miles. Also, fake watches arent what they used to be. Sarah Watkins, my sister, asked me to go looking for faux Rolexes, Piagets and Bulgaris. Nary a one to be had, even along Canal Street. Plenty of five- and ten-buck beautiesand Sarah did get one of thosebut no authentic fakes. And, finally, I got in two more excellent meals, thanks to yet another good friend, long-time recording company exec Paula Batson. She took me on an encore trip to Beppe on W. 22nd for a faboo lunch, and, along with her companion, the musician Bob Neuwirth, hosted me for dinner at Jefferson on W. 10th, where chef-owner Simpson Wong (also of the neighboring Asean restaurant) is working fusionary magic.

And to think, Id be in Cincinnati the following week, to chase after Tim McGraw.

This n That

While in Cincy or, technically, just across a bridge from it, in Newport, Kentucky after a thoroughly pleasant time interviewing McGraw and enjoying his concert, I whiled away a couple of spare hours by catching Fahrenheit 9/11 . Just two words: See it. If you thought of our President as not much more than a down-home, baseball-loving, terrorist-hating kind of guy -- perhaps bush league, as presidents go, but pretty harmless -- see this film. He and his family, and their associates are far more insidious than most people ever knew. Its time we all knew

I idolize you: Thats the title of an old hit by Ike & Tina Turner, and thats how I feel about Fantasia Barrino (now just Fantasia, if you please). Her performance of the Turners A Fool in Love in the next-to-final round of American Idol clinched it for me. I was so knocked out by her high-voltage rendition that I went David Letterman a few steps further: I TiVoed it, transferred it to a video, then to a cassette, and into my PC, and burned it onto a CD. Whew. But its worth it, and its great to see that, in the end, American Idol got it right, after a start that gave us, along with too many dorks advancing too far, and charges of racism, the unsightly sight and sounds of William Hung, whos being so exploited (willingly) that his next song should be James and Bobby Purifys classic Im Your Puppet

I dont know whether or not you fell for that malarkey about the 50th anniversary of rock and roll being pinned on Elvis recording of Thats All Right, Mama at Sun Records studios in Memphis on July 5, 1954. Sorry, but there really is no one birthdate, as much as this country loves to celebrate anniversaries. You can make too many arguments for singers, bands, songs and events, some of them dating back to the Forties, and to gospel, blues, R&B, country and rockabilly, for there to be one moment. But whenever it happened, what a moment it was.

R.I.P. Stanley Toy: One of the many gifted tap dancers to grace the stage of the Forbidden City nightclub just outside San Franciscos Chinatown in the 40s and 50s, Stanley was days short of age 90 when he died on June 10th. I first met him at an event celebrating the DVD release of Arthur Dongs Forbidden City U.S.A. , the fine documentary of that nightclub and its pioneer entertainers. I was MCing the event; Stanley was performing a couple of dances with Ivy Tam. Before the program, he sidled up to me and asked if Id do him a favor, and, instead of saying he was 88, to say he was going on 90. More impressive. I obliged, saying, in fact, that he was nearing 100, and he got a big hand. He and Ivy got an even bigger response last December when they journeyed to New York City to perform at the Lincoln Center, in honor of fellow former Forbidden City dancer Jadin Wong. A fitting last hurrah for a most elegant man.

I popped in on a book-release celebration for Him Mark Lai at the Chinese Historical Society of Americas Learning Center the other day, and it was good to see a packed room downstairs at the CHSA Museum. Ive known Him Mark since the mid-60s, when I helped edit East West , the bilingual newsweekly, and he contributed articles about Chinese history. Hes since established himself as the dean of Chinese American historians, and his new book, Becoming Chinese American , from Alta Mira Press, is a must-read for anyone who wants to know more about how the Chinese, through their work, their families, and their communities, became an intrinsic part of this great country.

Favorite e-mails: Diane Gunderson writes: Did you hear what the Buddhist said to the hot dog vendor? Make me one with everything. En-chanting And then theres this one: We just named our new kitten BEN FONG-TORRES FROM ROOLING STONE MAGAZINE. Thanks! Rooling Stone? Great. A pet name with a typo!

Meow. That means you're welcome to check out Ben Fong-Torres' home page, at www.benfongtorres.com. Just don't scratch the sofa.