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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...

A Singing Career? Oh, I Think Not.

Ben Fong-Torres

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. And, now, singer? Not really, but he's certainly had his moments.

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 in the movie "Almost Famous," the Oscar and Golden Globe-winning film by Cameron Crowe.

As I was exiting from the Exit Theater, a woman spotted me and asked, "So, is this a third career?" She'd just seen me doing some Dean Martin and Elvis in "Exit Laughing," one of the entries in the San Francisco Fringe Festival of 55 one-hour plays and performances of all sorts, crammed into a handful of theaters over a dozen days and nights in the seedy Tenderloin district. She either knew, or had just read, in the playbill, that I was a writer and broadcaster. And, now, a singer, too?

No way. This was just for fun. Ruby Unger, the saucy, sassy, and somewhat silly founder of WUFF (Women United For Fun) decided to do a one-woman show celebrating the 20th anniversary of her social group, and, since WUFF has a men's auxiliary (Men Who Dare), asked me to give her a break during the hour by doing a song, preferably about WUFF, or its philosophy: Party today, for tomorrow, who knows?

So I rewrote the Dino hit, "Memories Are Made of This," and, since WUFF's avatar is a rubbery, plastic fish (or, as Ruby calls it, "the power trout"), opened with:

Take one fresh and tender kiss
Add one stolen rubber fish
One girl, one boy,
One new sex toy
Memories are made of this

You get the drift. When Ruby told me she'd planned on my relieving her of ten minutes of her hour, I added a second number: Elvis Presley's "Teddy Bear." On this one, I didn't mess with the lyrics, except, at the end, it became:

I just wanna be a Man Who Dares!

I did these songs in three shows, and each time, got a nice hand, mixed in with the sound of plastic fish being rapped approvingly (I hope) against seats and laps. Afterwards, people looked generally surprised as they complimented my voice. It is a shock, I think, to identify someone as something other than a singer - or, in some cases, as anything but a singer - and then to hear them break out in song. I sympathize. But sometimes, the surprise is pleasant, as with, say, Gwyneth Paltrow, in the movie Duets and in her twisted turns on Saturday Night Live. Or with Vic Lee, the veteran reporter on KRON-TV in San Francisco, who has stunned numerous AAJA (Asian American Journalists Association) gatherings by belting out lounge tunes, and staying in tune.

As with Vic, I sing for fun. But after that woman asked about this being my "third career," I had to pause. Of course, it's not. I wouldn't charge anyone anywhere anything to hear me sing. But Ruby invited me to horn in on her show after we'd shared a stage at a book festival at the Yerba Buena Gardens, where I did my Dylan impression while she sang backup, waving her power trout in time. I was singing at that festival because Kathi Kamen Goldmark, a musician, author, publishing exec and long-time pal, has had me doing my Dylan in various of her bands at numerous benefits, usually for literacy causes. Before Yerba Buena, we were in New York, where I did backup vocals at the legendary Webster Hall in the Village. Up front, I've done my Dylan with Kathi bands at Slim's, the rootsy music club in the South of Market, at the Paradise Lounge in the South of Market, on the radio, at a posh party staged by The Paris Review, and on a CD (Stranger Than Fiction; see my home page, www.benfongtorres, for more info).

Away from Kathi, I've sung at two fundraisers for Jeff Adachi, the victorious candidate for Public Defender in San Francisco, once at a Chinatown restaurant, the Far East, and the other at a popular cabaret, The Plush Room. I also helped organize a troupe of singers from Yet Wah, my karaoke hangout, and hit the stage at the Moon Festival in Chinatown. Twice. I've done Elvis' "Can't Help Falling in Love" at several weddings, including those of TV anchors and reporters Emerald Yeh and Sherry Hu, and at parties, one of them at Bimbo's 365, the classic nightclub that's the TV home base for Chris Isaak. I did a more rockin' Elvis at a movie theater at last year's Mill Valley Film Festival. I've done Elvis on local television - on the Chinese New Year Parade broadcast, which I've co-anchored the past six years on KTVU, and on various other stations, the most recent being the CBS affiliate, KPIX, on the 25th anniversary of Elvis' death. National TV, too: I did Dylan on Your Big Break.

The reason I mention all this is that "third career" question at the Exit Theater. I'm thinking of all the real singers who'd like to have music as their first and only career, people who've struggled to get to that first rung of recognition, who hunger for that moment in the spotlight, for that first big break. I have many singer friends who tell me about their victories. A demo session. A nice comment about their homemade CD from a star. A job opening for some middling artist on a weeknight in some suburban town.

And I think of where I've been able to be seen and heard, without even trying. At all. And I feel a little guilty.

It helps that I know my many limitations. I'm just doing a song or two, max, getting a few laughs, and scramming. I could never memorize an hour or more of songs, the way the pros do. My tunesmithing is restricted to taking well-known songs and writing parody lyrics. And my moves on stage are best described as "furtive."

In short, I'm no competition to anyone who's serious about music. And, as I sit here, with a wonderful Valerie Carter CD (The Way It Is) playing, I'm reminded that I've spent most of my career trying to lend support to singers and bands I like. So what's to be guilty about?

Think I'll just go and sing.

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