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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...

'Twixt Teen and Michael Jackson

Ben Fong-Torres

Ben Fong-Torres, our very own Renaissance man -- author, broadcaster, and former senior editor and writer at Rolling Stone Magazine -- visits with pop icon Pat Boone.

Twixt? Whats THAT mean? The word was part of the title of the best-selling book back in the late Fifties by pop star Pat Boone. Its short for betwixt, as in, betwixt and between. Its one of Dianne, my wifes favorite phrasesespecially at restaurants. Shell tell the waiter, These two entrees both sound good. Im betwixt and between.

Anyway, Pat Boones book was Twixt Teen and Twenty, and offered advice to teenagers. Im thinking of Pat because I just interviewed him in front of a gymful of high school students at Campbell Hall in Los Angeles. (The assembly, part of the schools focus on diversity, was produced by Diannes sister, Eileen Powers, an administrator.)

Pat, who is almost 70 but looks nowhere near that age, had a lot to say to teens back in the Fifties and Sixties, when he was a bigger pop star than anybody, except Elvis. Pat had almost 40 Top 40 hits, including April Love, Love Letters in the Sand, Aint That a Shame, Tutti Frutti, and Moody River.

In a month dominated by the fear of war and the disturbing visage of Michael Jackson on TV whenever some reality show wasnt on, it was good to spend some time with a true role model.

For many, Pat was too squeaky-clean back in the day. He was the safe alternative to the hip-swinging Elvis. A devout Christian, Pat was (and remains) a good family man. His idea of wild fashions was to wear white buck shoes. He was wearing a pair at Campbell Hall, where he good-naturedly fessed up to having been opposed to the concept of dancing when he first emerged on the pop scene, and to wanting to change the line, Aint that a shame to isnt that a shame.

Squaresville. But look at whats happened all around him, over the five decades of rock and roll. Look at Michael Jackson.

Im just as sick of hearing and talking about him as you must be. Thing is, I interviewed Michael, along with his brothers, back when he himself was twixt teen and twenty. Twice, in fact. First when the Jackson 5 were the hottest thing in the pop world, in 1971, when little Michael was 13. Then, five years later, we met up again, at Dianne and my flat in San Francisco, for a TV interview.

So when ABC broadcast the British documentary, Living With Michael Jackson, and, as Pat Boone might put it, all heck broke out, I was asked to go on TV myself and ruminate about this pop idol-turned-freak show.

I saw the documentary, and, more than anything else, I felt sad. Here was a performer with genius in his bones. At 11, when he first burst into public view, he was an accomplished dancer, a tiny James Brown, and a super seller of songs, from bubblegum pop to down home blues. He was startlingly good. He was also painfully shy. It turns out, if you believe Michael, that he was beaten by his father into becoming that good; that he was kept from having anything near a normal life; that hes still trying to enjoy a childhood he never had.

And so, just as his father (Joseph, himself a musician) stunted his childhood, Michael now chooses to believe that he can be a child forever. His behavior, so bizarre to so many, is rooted in that fact that he was never allowed to be normal. How can one expect him to be normal now, or ever?

The thing is, most child stars do work out a balance between celebrity and normalcy. Many pop stars, ranging from the clean-cut Pat Boone to wilder guys like, say, Mick Jagger, were already young adults when they became famous (Boone was 21 and already married; still is), and theyve weathered pretty gracefully.

Michael? Hes still moonwalking, backwards and forwards, precariously twixt and between.

Happy New Year, Again

February, of course, was also the month for the Lunar New Year, and, for the seventh time, I co-hosted the broadcast in San Francisco of the Chinese New Year Parade on KTVU with news anchor Julie Haener. It was our third time together, and we were charmed, by good weather for the first half of the two-hour broadcast, despite week-long warnings about a storm. Rain did arrive, and thousands of firecrackers went unlit. But, across the way from us, hundreds of bright red umbrellas blossomed and only added to the color. Behind the scenes, Julie and I, as always, fended with last-second changes in the order of parade units, flipping wildly to find script pages while adlibbing, then reading the copy as casual as could be. As Jon Lovitz would say, ACT-ing!

Its the year of the Ram (Julies year), said to be a time for harmony, compassion and peace. One can only hope.

Besides the parade and the interview with Pat Boone, I also spoke at California State University in Hayward, a town where I did a bit of growing up (related link), and oversaw the recording session for the CD by Larry Ching, the former star vocalist at the Forbidden City nightclub in San Francisco back in the Forties, when even Pat Boone was just a tyke.

It's Larry's first recording session since - well, the Forties. I'll let you know how it all turns out. But I'm feeling good about this. Both Larry and I were born in Monkey years. If we can find a Monkees song to mix into the American standards he's cutting, we'll have a hit, for sure.

For more insights by Ben, visit his official website at www.benfongtorres.com