Ex-Rolling Stone editor discusses rock ‘n’ roll

David Osborne

Many Northwestern students might recognize former Rolling Stone News Editor Ben Fong-Torres from his recent portrayal in the Cameron Crowe film “Almost Famous.” But they might not have recognized him Thursday at Harris Hall 107 in his toned-down attire.

“It was Hollywood,” Fong-Torres told about 100 students at an event sponsored by the Chinese Students Association. “The most accurate thing was the loudness of my shirt.”

Dressed in a dark suit and brown-collared shirt, the pioneering Asian-American writer discussed his life and career as a music journalist in a colorful and lighthearted presentation.

“It is an honor to be here at this prestigious university and to enjoy a meal on the meal plan,” he said before presenting a clip from “Almost Famous.”

The film, which won a 2001 Academy Award for best original screenplay, featured a fictionalized Fong-Torres as a Rolling Stone editor who gives the main character his first big break.

“I’ve had a very fortunate life,” Fong-Torres said of his experiences, which include having interviewed such legendary musicians as Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Janis Joplin and Marvin Gaye. “I came of age in the ’60s, a time as liberating as it was loose and experimental.”

Fong-Torres also discussed his role as a Chinese-American journalist.

“I’m called on to offer certain kinds of advice, assistance or support,” he said. “I talk about my career and in doing that I hope to offer some (help) to students interested in media work and (those who) are thinking about the issue of an Asian American managing to make a career in media.”

Fong-Torres supplemented his discussion with a number of humorous video and audio clips taken from throughout his life. One clip featured him interviewing comedian Steve Martin; another showed him making an appearance on “Wheel of Fortune.”

Some in attendance found it easy to relate to Fong-Torres.

“I’m quite inspired by him,” said Ben Kwan, a Medill freshman. “He’s a second-generation Chinese American, and I am, too.” Kwan said he especially enjoyed Fong-Torres “telling about going to China and it being home. I just got back from China for the first time. I admire how he went about his experience.”

But some said they wished Torres had spoken more extensively about his heritage.

“I think this was very good,” said Teresa Kao, an Asian American Advisory Board member and Education senior. “The presentation reflected a lot about his personality. It’s just that I was thinking about his identity and how that shaped his life. I wanted to know more about his association with his Asian-American identity.”

Although Torres had never been on the Northwestern campus before, he did have at least one connection to the school.

“I worked with Ben at Rolling Stone,” said Abe Peck, chairman of the magazine program at the Medill School of Journalism. “Ben was the music editor and I was the music news editor for two years. We hadn’t see each other in 24 years.”

When Fong-Torres found out he was coming to speak, he contacted Peck, who invited him to speak with his classes.

“Some of the students in my (classes) are interested in music writing,” Peck said. “Ben has obviously written a lot about rock ‘n’ roll. But he also has kept up journalistic standards. So he talked with my class about being counterculture.”

Event organizers said they were pleased with their fall speaker.

“This was a really nice event,” said Serena Li, external chairwoman for CSA. “I was happy with the turnout. And he was a very charismatic speaker. I think everyone was pleased with his lecture.”