The Life and Times of Rolling Stone Rock Star Journalist Ben Fong-Torres

Ben Fong-Torres has a distinctive smile. The rock star reporter flashes it to punctuate a comedic comment or interesting fact he just pulled from the musical encyclopedia in his head.

It’s a smile that is currently lighting up screens around the world via Netflix in Like A Rolling Stone: The Life and Times of Ben Fong-Torres.

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Courtesy of StudioLA/supplied

The life of rock journalist Ben Fong-Torres is honored in the documentary Like a Rolling Stone: The Life & Times of Ben Fong-Torres, which sheds light on how the legendary Rolling Stone writer and editor defined an era.

A legendary figure in music journalism, Fong-Torres has a long list of interview credits for some of the biggest names in music, from Bob Dylan to the latest interview with Jim Morrison.

How does it feel to be the one in the spotlight?

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“It’s a bigger spotlight than ever, but I think I take it with a grain of salt,” Fong-Torres said.

The documentary, directed by director and freelance journalist Suzanne Kai, chronicles Fong-Torres’ life as the son of Chinese immigrants to America who, as a child, first discovered music through a small rocket-shaped radio. .

He helped define an era as a writer and editor in early Rolling Stone magazineespecially in the 1960s and 1970s.

Like a Rolling Stone: The Life & Times of Ben Fong-Torres is currently showing on Netflix.

Courtesy of StudioLA/supplied

Like a Rolling Stone: The Life & Times of Ben Fong-Torres is currently showing on Netflix.

Shrewd, balanced, empathetic and sharp, Fong-Torres walked with apparent ease the difficult tightrope of earning the respect and trust of the stars he interviewed, maintaining cordial relations with them while spilling the tea in printed version.

Some of his interview subjects including Elton John, Quincy Jones, Carlos Santana, Ray Manzarek and Steve Martin fill the screen to praise his reporting style.

Legendary rock journalist Ben Fong-Torres laughs with Quincy Jones.

Courtesy of StudioLA/supplied

Legendary rock journalist Ben Fong-Torres laughs with Quincy Jones.

While the stars he interviewed might have been glamorous, the work was not.

In the early days of Rolling Stone Magazine, the 23-year-old “did everything”: write headlines, captions, budget, consult manuscripts, deal with foreign correspondents and write his own stories.

”You have a job to do, you have a deadline to meet and quite often you juggle several deadlines, you know that of course. You could say hey I’m going to go see Bob Dylan or hey I’m going to go to Los Vegas and hang out with Gladys Knight and the Pips,’ Fong-Torres, 77, said.

”On one side of your head you think it’s great, I love their music, I can’t wait to meet them, on the other side it’s, OK let me go to the hotel, go to interviews, I have to call their choreographer and other sources for comment, then I come back to San Francisco, then I have two days to knock out 3000 words… that was it. I didn’t hear anyone complain. It was a great place.”

As an Asian American working in the field – “often the only one” – he naturally gravitated to writing about marginalized people.

“They were people who were newsworthy to me, it was as innocent as that,” he said of his award-winning interview with Ray Charles about his hard drug use or Marvin Gaye, Tina Turner et al.

Hunter S. Thompson was busy lugging a briefcase of drugs across the desert while the polite Fong-Torres, who avoided drug use, worked long hours at a desk in the nearby Rolling Stone loft offices of a slaughterhouse.

“There were several times when I observed Hunter around the offices. When he traveled, he carried a huge duffel bag, a duffel bag in which he had an IBM electric typewriter, easily weighing 25 pounds, stereo equipment – ​​because the man needed his music – and who knows. what else was in the bag,’ Fong-Torrès said.

”He would bring this into Rolling Stone’s office, walk into [Rolling Stone founder] Jann Wenner’s office corner and start working. We left him alone because he was Hunter S Thompson.

The brilliant Cameron Crowe, who immortalized Fong-Torres in his film, almost known, offers valuable insight into the film alongside friends, family and colleagues. The role of family life in Fong-Torres’ career, particularly the unsolved murder of his brother, Barry, proves poignant.

“I have to say that I think some people on the film are too lavish in their praise and description of my influence and impact on the scene and some of the artists themselves,” Fong-Torres said. ”I appreciate their generosity.”

Rolling Stone journalist Ben Fong-Torres and renowned portrait photographer Annie Leibovitz worked closely together, capturing and defining an era.

Courtesy of StudioLA/supplied

Rolling Stone journalist Ben Fong-Torres and renowned portrait photographer Annie Leibovitz worked closely together, capturing and defining an era.

Working closely with esteemed portrait photographer Annie Leibovitz on numerous assignments, Fong-Torres recalls interviews in strange places – including one done in bed with Grace Slick.

”That’s pretty innocent. The Jefferson Plane and later the Jefferson Starship of course had a grand mansion on Fulton St…Grace and Paul [Kantner] had their own bedroom upstairs. It was dominated by… was it a waterbed? I forget now, that’s where we conducted the interview. I think Annie would lay down for the close-ups too.”

His easy smile returns when he recalls interviewing Grace Slick on another occasion: “At her acupuncturist before she went on tour.”

Fong-Torres has enjoyed easy access to talent, once traveling alongside Elton John on his Lear jet.

However, over the past 20 years, this unfettered access has all but disappeared.

“Stars, their agents, their publicists and their record labels are in a position to control the type of interviewers and reporters who can meet their stars,” he said. ”The tables have turned. The proximity, the proximity that we had with the artists was, at that time, regular. Now that’s impossible.”

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