The Doors of Perception with Ben Fong-Torres
The new generation of kids will come along in a few years, swarm together, and have a new name for it. It’ll be the kind of music that people like to go out and get it on to- Jim Morrison to Ben Fong-Torres, Rolling Stone magazine, March 1971
Ben Fong-Torres was the first music editor of Rolling Stone magazine, eventually establishing a San Francisco bureau when publisher Jann Wenner moved headquarters from the West Coast to New York. He currently writes a radio column for the San Francisco Chronicle. Fong-Torres also is an Emmy-awarding winning fixture in Bay Area radio as he did a decade-long stint as a free-form rock disc jockey on KSAN, an FM station that helped pioneer radio without any type of genre-classification, time-specifications or subject matter criteria. This dedication to radio programming of a unique nature continues to this day as he selects music for several on-line radio services.
Earlier this year, Fong-Torres worked with the three surviving members of The Doors to produce the first book which tells the legendary story from their collective point of view. Titled, fittingly, The Doors by The Doors with Ben Fong-Torres, the 285-page coffee table text and photo tome offers the first glimpse into the reflections of the Morrison family, including the retired Admiral George Morrison, who has never spoken on record about his controversial son.
Jambands.com sat down for an extensive look into The Doors volumean excellent, near definitive take on The Doors impact and continuing legacy. We also took the opportunity to discuss the long, groundbreaking career of one of music’s best writers, radio pioneers and public speakers. His interviews with Grace Slick, Paul Kantner, Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder still serve as textbook exercises in writer/artist synchronicity on the page. Fong-Torres is a charismatic man who focuses in acute detail upon what transpired within his wide plane of vision. He also dissects his environment, shapes the notes and delivers sound bites that illuminate the convoluted design of pop cultural mythology.
PROLOGUE Whiskey, Soup and the Cat
RR: You just returned from a trip to Los Angeles for a unique book signing. What were your experiences there?
BF-T: That was incredible. It was over three spots on Sunset [Blvd.] with the Whiskey [a Go Go], Book Soup and the Cat Clubwhich was the London Fog. Their idea was to allow fans to buy a book at one of the three places and get them signed at all three by just running around Sunset. As it turned out, there was such a crowd situation, long lines everywhere, that people were lucky to get into one of the places. If they did and got a book, they were lucky to get them signed. If they were at the Whiskey, it was hard to leave because you couldn’t come back for the jam at 11:00 so people were stuck there or others were at Book Soup and had to wait for [Doors drummer] John Densmore to sign and hopefully get in line at the Whiskey and get in which was probably impossible.
The same thing with the Cat Club which was next door where Ray [Manzarek, Doors keyboardist] was holding forth signing books and showing off Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame exhibits only two doors away from the Whiskey. Againa long line waiting to have him sign books. It was a great success on one level and a great logistical nightmare on another, which I guess was kind of true to the spirit of The Doors and rock n’ roll.
There were enough happy peoplethe ones that got inwho got a couple of signatures that it was clearly a successful event. I think the Book Soup ordered 800 copies of the book and they had The Doors who were in town a few days early for promotion signing them. About 600 books were pre-signed by all three [surviving] Doors before their arms fell off and those were all sold outeverything was sold out so that was pretty much what happened. (laughs)
RR: That’s ironic because I think of the Sixties. When did Stephen Stills write that song for Buffalo Springfield about mayhem on the Strip?
BF-T: Oh, yeah“For What It’s Worth.” During the rehearsal at the Whiskey around 4:30, I said to one of the musicians there that we were getting ready for “Volume 2v2of Riot on Sunset Strip” because, already at that point people were lined up outside. The schedule was weird. There was a VIP thing at the Whiskey starting at 7 but a lot of fans were told on various web sites that everything started at 6 so people began lining up at around 4. By the time rehearsals and soundcheck were going on, people were already lined up outside the Whiskey or strategically lining up outside the Cat Club, thinking they would go to the Whiskey afterwards. Also, at Book Soup people were lining up and buying books so they could get tickets to the poetry reading later on that night. We had a sense that it was going to be just nuts and they were promoting it on two radio stations. I definitely expected that there could be problems later on that night given to the crowd situation that was already building that night hours before the thing even began so, yeah, that definitely came to mind [parallels to the Sixties problems on Sunset Strip].
RR: Who read the poetry?
BF-T: The poetry reading was hosted by John Densmore in an annex of the Book Soup, a space they use for readings. John was the host and played the hand drums behind himself and sometimes some guest readers who were all reading Jim Morrison poetry. The readers included Perry Farrell, Chester Bennington and Michael C. Ford who was a longtime friend of Jim’s back in college days. Unbeknownst to a lot of Doors fans, the Book Soup had a policy and they had announced it on their web site that the first seats would go to people who bought advance copies of the book and got a ticket. A lot of fans who showed up that thought it was a free-for-all, free admission thing were surprised to learn that they would not be able to get in [to the poetry reading]. They had to stand outside and watch it on video.
RR: Who was involved in the jam at the Whiskey a Go Go?
BF-T: The jam? That’s another story. The original idea was that those two guysChester and Perrywho were among the three musicians who wrote forwards to the book would be jamming along with a couple of guys with other bands filling in on other instruments. They had Slash who came in for a couple of songs; they had Val Kilmer. He became sort of the big, gossipy story of the evening. He showed up in the late afternoon, did a soundcheck and he sang very nicely. He did his Morrison thing, just standing at the microphone, sang “Roadhouse Blues” and then disappeared and never showed up again.
In the evening when I finally got myself back into the club, they started the jam and it was Chester and Perry who started with “Roadhouse Blues” so I wasn’t sure what was going on but then learned afterwards from the manager that Val had excused himself from the thing after learning that he would not have the stage to himself in terms of a lead
vocal. The plan was to have Chester and Perryone of them at leastjoining him on lead vocals or being around on stage and Val just wasn’t comfortable with that. He said, “Alright, you guys do your thing and I’ll see you later.” That’s too bad because the word had spread on the radio that Val Kilmer would be there. I got a chance to meet him, get a picture, listen to him and all of that but that was kind of fun. Many of The Doors, mostly Ray, did not care for the Oliver Stone movie [1991’s release, The Doors starring Kilmer as the Lizard King]. Everybody agreed that Val had done a pretty good job doing the role.
RR: His portrayal of Morrison still gives me goosebumps.
BF-T: Yeaheven just standing there, talking with the band members. He’s gained a bit of weight since the movie. I think that can be said. He’s trimmed his hair; of course, he probably never had such long hair as in the movie but he has regular hair and glasses. (laughs) When I watched him singing [at soundcheck]first of all, just standing at the mike doing his Morrison pose and chatting with the bandI could just see that Ray did feel that “wowin a waythis could be Jim.” I could understand the emotions that and run through these guys to have a guy like that who reminds them a little bit of Jim physically, was able to sing the songs well and, you know, Jim himself couldn’t always sing the songs well (laughter) so, anybody who could manage to get through the songs would be on par.
Part I Writers on the Storm
RR: How did you get involved with The Doors book project?
BF-T: To be honest with you, I was called in on an emergency level much like my first book, The Motown Album in which there was another writer who had been in place. Another writer who is a disc jockey, friend and longtime fan was put up by The Doors to be the writer and he began researching, interviewing and apparently at some point, Hyperion The Doors publisher] requested a sample of his writing. I’m not sure why that didn’t happen before. His only writing credit was one book he had written about fifteen years ago. They saw what he wrote and told The Doors that they would need to find another person to do the actual book and that was it.
They gave The Doors the ultimatum and I didn’t hear about this until December . The book was due in March . I did not come on board until January but by that time I was already talking with them so I joined in on video interviewing that had been setup in December for the admiral in Coronado [George Morrison, Jim’s father who submitted to the first interview regarding his famous son after a 40-year silence]. I made that trip pending finalizing the deal to take over the project. I was able to sit in and actually chat with the admiral, briefly, during that session. That is also where the daughter, Anne, was present so I made the connection with her and set up an interview with her later on along with her brother, Andy who I knew had spoken with Jerry Hopkins [co-author with the late Danny Sugarman of No One Here Gets Out Alive, the initial Jim Morrison biography published in 1981] but had not spokenas far as I knowsince then. I scoured The Doors web site and pretty much found every article that involved the family.
In January, it was official and I was given March 15 as my deadline. I pretty much had to begin at the beginning; I couldn’t really depend too much on [previous] material gatheredmostly about fifteen hours of taped interviews with Ray Manzarek. Ray had already written his own book Light My Fire and he has his own CD that tells his story with The Doors so that was not that much use to me. Even at fifteen hours, he had only gone through the third album. I had to begin all over with John Densmore and Robby [Krieger] and the Morrisons and a few other people I thought of as intimates who I had access. I was told that I could use all existing materials that The Doors were part of so I could just pull from Densmore’s book Riders on the Storm, from Ray’s book, interviews that Robby and others had granted, all of Jim Morrison’s materials that he had left behind in terms of interviews that were on CDs or other media, video documentaries and tributes that have existed from some time that are now on DVD and the books and magazines. I just went at it and began to go through everything for probably the first month or so and also setup the various interviews with the various parties and did those interviews. I had those transcribed while I was still scouring all of the other material.
As you know, there have been, modestly speaking, about fifteen books on The Doors and Jim Morrison including a couple of these 400-page tomes on Jim Morrison’s life and beginning to flag all of the inconsistencies, contradictions and different storiesbooks on his life and books on just his death and lyrics and, of course, Greg Shaw and his most useful volume, which was _On the Road with The Doors_most meticulous chronicler of pretty much every move The Doors made professionally. He had it as close as anybody had come to detailing their gigs. These are things that The Doors, themselves, don’t remember, of course. It’s such a blur, so often, for people mired in the activity of those years so you can’t expect them to remember which weekend it was that they were at the Scene in New York and then back to the West Coast and which festival they played when. Nobody can remember that kind of stuff in detail that Greg found out, all of it, by just record and fact checking, looking at posters, talking to promoters, grabbing old itineraries from managers, all of their songbooks and the whole Carry Humphrey’s Doors fan site and his magazineI went through all of those and got interesting articles.
At some point, you have to stop doing that and start writing, organizing everything, working out all of the contradictions and figuring out how best to present the bookchronologically or Door by Door or whatever. Everything was going on at the same time so my life was just a complete wipe out from January until the thing was done.
RR: One of the most significant aspects of the book are the passages with Jim’s father. How did you score interviews with him after all of these years of silence?
BF-T: There were and there still are plans for a couple of other productions. One of them is a film documentary feature about The Doors by Dick Wolf who is a creator of the Law & Order television series. They’ve engaged him to do a documentary on The Doors and he and his team had decided that the parents should be involved and the parents and the family were agreeable because they are now part of The Doors creative family. The way that the wills and the estates worked outthe Morrison and Courson families have some say in all creative endeavors engaged in by The Doors management company, now. They would participate from the profit from any such enterprise so they found themselves willing. First, they had agreed to these events around the 40th Anniversary [of The Doors] and, as such, they were agreeable to participate for the first time ever in many cases so the film crew set up an interview. I was contacted just before to attend that session [with Retired Admiral George Morrison] for my own purposes or to observe or meet Jeff Jampol [Doors’s manager] for the first time. I happened to have a family trip to L.A. so I took a train down to San Diego, joined them for that afternoon and met the admiral.
It was a pretty precarious moment in his life because his wife was in the hospital and visiting with her so it was a tough time for him to be sitting and doing a T.V. interview for the first time in 40 yearsor more than 40 years because he had never done one before. It was a pretty difficult moment for him and he had his daughter, Anne there for support. She agreedI don’t think it was scheduledto sit and talk to the camera so I just kind of observed all of that and made my own inquiries at the end of the session.
RR: The Doors have been overexposed for at least the last two-and-a-half decades so what was crucial for me to regain interest was the family’s input into the book. What struck me was that the admiral was incredibly gracious, loving and respectful towards his son. Perhaps there’s a bit of damage control going on in the new book. However, Jim’s younger brother, Andy appeared bitter in his recollections.
BF-T: Yep. Yep. Yeah, I think that’s the most interesting stuff about the book. Everything’s been said before, pretty much, by all of them and so, it’s the content of Jim and the family because there had been this story told and accepted for all of these years about the fact that there had been this tremendous distance between him and the familyespecially he and his parents after he had decided to pursue rock n’ roll and the father said, “Oh, I think that’s a crock and you shouldn’t do that.” As it turned out from talking to Anne and Andy, they were supportive in their own way. Even though distant, the mother tried to attend a couple of concerts and have communications with him. Whether Jim was resistant or simply just didn’t want to have them involved in his life or, not to have the fallout from what he knew to be the more controversial facet of his career and his behavior is still probably a point of contention. The fact is from this book you get a sense that there was some reaching out, there was a lot of affection, his sister went out and visited him, his brother was clearly in awe of him to the extent that now there is, as you say, a bit of a bitter veneer about him. He still can’t bring himself to say he was a great singer.
RR: I was floored when I read that. For someone from the last several generations not to be able to recognize his singing talent after all of this time saddened me. Alsoit deeply saddened me that the father is having a discussion about his son who has been dead for neigh on thirty-five years while his wife is in the hospital with what would be a fatal stroke. I’m sure that Jim Morrison would be the first to admit that if he knew this would happen, he wouldn’t have completely blown off his family for the last seven years of his life. However, for anyone like me who overdosed on The Doors, this book gives a fresh, new enjoyable perspective on an old tale.
BF-T: (laughs) Well, I’m glad to hear that. (laughs) Given the time I had, there was awfully little time to think about what I can offerwhat’s new here and how do we focus on things that are fresh and new. By the time I was flogging my way through it (laughs), it was difficult to stand back and give it the time that was necessary to give it some kind of perspective. It’s good for a reader and a fan to be able to discern those moments and parts of the book.
Part II Ladies and Gentlemen, THE DOORS
RR: How did you collaborate with the surviving Doors members on the book? Were they cooperative?
BF-T: They were committed to the project because they were considered co-authors and so they had to agree to find time for me and I would say that all of them were cooperative, made themselves available and they all performed to the best of their abilities. When the time came, they gave me the time I needed, they were gracious, Robby came to the Doors’s management office on Sunsetat that timeand we just sat there ourselves, setup the equipment and talked. John had me over at his home in Pacific Palisades, Ray had me at his home in Napa and they were all good. The problem came up when the lawyers became involved because of the litigation between John and the two others. The lawyers got into it and began to tellafter the factwhat could and could not be said so that caused some difficulties.
My job, I felt, was to tell the entire story. The Doors did in fact, in good faith, tell the full story then the lawyers came and tried to do some cleaning up because of the litigation and a possible appeal of this case, we can’t have John say this, we don’t want to have Ray saying this, we don’t want to have too many mentions of this particular project or my client totally disagrees with the way another member tells the story about what happened so we don’t want to have that in there. Each had veto power; it made it very difficult because if they couldn’t agree amongst themselves, it wouldn’t be in the book. There were chunks of things that were in contention after the deadline. My deadline was done so that they would have a month to review the manuscript and argue about what they had said. Of course, they also complained about things that others had said. That’s what led to their factualization in recent years. It all started with Ray and John trading shots in their books about each otherthat carried on and that caused difficulties in the editing process. I had to stand back and let the lawyers do their thing and come back and clean up the mess. (laughs)
RR: You wrote that excellent epitaph “The Death of James Douglas Morrison” at the time of his death in 1971 for Rolling Stone magazine. Do you think Morrison’s legacy is set in place or is it fluid and evolving?
BF-T: I think it has been pretty much set for many years. I don’t know why a legacy would be fluid. Different people come to it in their own ways over the years and it is remarkable how young the range expands into. I would have expected going down to Hollywood for the book signing/jam event that it would be mostly geezers by nowpeople who were in their 50s who could hardly remember where the Whiskey was.
RR: “Wasn’t the Whiskey painted purple?”
BF-T: (laughter) The Doors are one of those bands like Led Zeppelin, the Stones, the Who and, to a certain extent, the Beatles who really last and they draw new fans all the time because of parents who are now grandparents, probably, not having to pound it into them, just playing the music and by contrast with what today’s music isit’s found to be attractive. Bob Dylan, also, you’ve got to throw him in there. Bruce Springsteen and U2its significant music, still. It didn’t necessarily get tied down to a trend or a sound of the times in which it was created. [Author’s Note: I would add the Grateful Dead, the Band, Allman Brothers, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Talking Heads, Prince and Phish to that short timeless list, as well.] That’s because The Doors were of a certain mind. I think all kids go through a certain period like Ray and his brothers, Robby as a guitar playerthey all went through that time of what was on the charts, what a hit record sounded like; therefore, our band is going to do a certain music, our band’s going to do R&B, our band’s going to do frat rockbefore the term was coined.
When The Doors got together, it was just that kind of combination of guys who came in from a world of music and one guy who came in with no music background to speak ofJim Morrisontherefore, he did not know what the rules were and had a certain personality and character that he didn’t care what the rules were. He also knew he wasn’t a singer. He told Ray, as you know, on Venice Beach that he was not a singer and he was very shy about even reciting those lyrics he wrote but if you hear the first album, what a jump he made. He was a superb singer by that point of both ballads and rockers. They had that lucky circumstance of a combination of musical knowledge and ability along with the willingness to not be bound by any rules. They were in the timeframe and place in Los Angeles at Elektra Records where they were given that freedom to do what they wanted to do and they got the professional leadership between Paul Rothchild [producer], Jac Holzman [manager] and the engineer, Bruce Botnick to be able to flower and be supportive through that first album that a lot of bands don’t get anymore. Now you get a track or two on-line and you make it or it’s over. They had that good fortune of a combination of talent, attitude and support to be able to do what they did and because of that, the music resonates today. It’s not a Sixties sound. It’s not an acid rock sound. It’s not tied in with any particular moment in history and, therefore, it resonates with anybody who is open-eared and looking for interesting, new music. As you know, from the articles from Chester Bennington, Perry Farrell and Henry Rollins, each in his own time discovered The Doors and found [the music] to be fresh and influential.
Part III The Last Jim Morrison Interview with Ben Fong-Torres
RR: Can you talk a bit about your interview with Jim in 1971 for _Rolling Stone_which turned out to be his last interview?
BF-T: We had no agenda. I ran into him accidentally at an apartment downstairs from where Pam [Courson, Jim’s common law wife] lived but Diane [Gardiner], as it turns out and I would learn after all of these years, had also been a lover of his. Somehow, she and Pam got along just fine right to the end. There were no planned interviews. I’m always hesitant to say that I did the last interview but, of course, it did turn into one because it was a question and answer exchange of opinions but it was more two-way than the typical interview. He would ask me questions about the Fillmore scene in San Francisco, Jann [Wenner, Rolling Stone co-founder and publisher] and the magazine and the future of magazines. It was a wide-ranging conversation. I was shocked years later when someone came up with the idea of putting it onto a CD. I handed over the cassette, having never heard it since the interview to learn that it ran about 80 minutes. I was not aware that the visit had lasted that longthat was just chatter, other people were running around and joking, Jim ordering Beefeater Gin and potato chips or whatever. Stillit was a long visit and there were a lot more people around than I remembered at that time.
I had no idea exactly when he was going to be heading off to Paris. That stuff was kind of
up in the air; he was working on that album L.A. Woman. He was in very good shape. If you listen to the tape, he sounds very friendly, engaging and thoughtful and calm. A guy like him, I’m sure, was on a see saw. One day was very lucid and then the next day, he might be completely out of itnot able to get up from bed, even or the floor, whatever. On this particular day, he was in wonderful shape, in good humor and we had a lot of fun.
Part IV Interviewing the Rolling Stone Interview
RR: Your Rolling Stone Interviews are rightfully legendary and probably should be included in some sort of collegiate curriculum for journalism students along with Jann Wenner and Jonathan Cott’s work. How did you approach someone like Jim Morrison, Ray Charles or Stevie Wonder without putting them on a pedestal?
BF-T: I suppose so. When you go into Ray Charles’s room or studio, you’re very aware that it’s Ray Charles or Mick Jagger or Bob Dylan. You’re aware of the pedestal but, as you say, you try not to put them on there to recognize them as being on a pedestal. It’s a case-by-case situation. I’ve not really thought about this before or all that much. There are times when people will say, “Which rock star awed you the most?” Then, you think about that part of the question but in terms of an overall approach, there was none. It was really pretty much person-by-person, case-by-case and a lot of timesprobably more than I should admitit was not something I thought about.
You research each band or artist as the time came because Rolling Stone was always on such an urgent deadline. We were cranking out this thing every two weeks. We didn’t have the luxury of a monthly magazine. We were put on the level of being a national magazine quite early on and compared and placed into the context of the national magazines. We didn’t have that kind of timeit was actually more like a newspaper. (laughs) And we were often juggling more than one story at a time. I was always working on four or five things plus Random Notes [news sound bites from the music scene] and, also, administering the music section.
Quite often, the research was grabbing the press release, biography, newspaper article, maybe, a magazine, an album, a previous album’s liner noteswhatever you had. Back then, of course, we didn’t have all of this attention being paid to these musicians the way they are now so there wasn’t all that much research. You listen to the music, think about their history, as such, and go in there and have a bunch of questions and be prepared for anything. Be prepared to discard all those questions if it wasn’t going to work or be prepared for just a rote Q&A thing following your map you had set up. It’s all dependent on the personalities. Grace Slick and Paul KantnerI had known at that time for a few months for a few occasions so it was easy to sit there in their bedroom and chat with them and keep it a chat because it was clear that that was their most comfortable thingnot to just answer these rote questions. Others do need that kind of a thing“yes, this is an interview and here we go, what is it you want to ask me?” In each case, I alwaysI don’t know if I learned this from school or anythingbut I always learned not to be beholden to the questions that I had brought along. I always tried to be conversational, to ask follow-up questions where they seemed appropriate, to throw in a comment of your own, now and again so they didn’t feel that they were just there to answer your questions, to even out the playing field a little bit, to use a sense of humor where it was welcome and, again, to just sort of lighten things up. I’m kind of shocked at your comment that these things could be used in a textbook.
RR: Do you know why I say that? I don’t go back and read too many interviews over the last 10 to 15 years but I cannot tell you how long I’ve been lugging these RS interviews around during my nomadic journeys over the years. The interviews show how to relax a subject in an intelligent manner and define what it is that one is really trying to say in a two-way conversation better than any interview format I’ve ever seen. That makes me feel that the Rolling Stone Interview as practiced in the late 1960s and throughout the 70s and 80s was the definitive discussion format.
BF-T: Right but the funny thing is that Jann went out and did his thing, I did mine and Jonathan Cott, Jerry Hopkins and all of the others who conducted the interviewsthey were all on their own. We never conferred about the methods that we would use for an interview. We never had any kind of workshops within the magazine. (laughs) We’d ask questions or make someone comfortable or do research. We were all on our own and whatever training or lack of, we brought to the table. Each case was completely different. You had to respond to the situation you were faced with and do the best you could.
Againit was so different in that we were given the luxury of time because of the way things were back then. Things were more relaxedpartly because of the nature of Rolling Stone. When they committed to a Rolling Stone Interviewwhether it was a story or a full-on interview. They were committed to it and gave us the time and attention necessary like Playboy didthat was the model, Playboy and Paris Review. They knew that this was going to be a project that they were a partner in and we might need to travel with them, go to different events, activities and settings to ask questions and piece together what would become the Rolling Stone Interview. The chief example of that in my career there was the Ray Charles [interview]. That took place in three different cities; whereas, Grace and Paul was pretty much in their bedroom. David Crosby was several different settings, as well.
Part V Radio Free KSAN
RR: How did you get started as a disc jockey at KSAN?
BF-T: By 1969, 1970it was already established for a couple of years in San Francisco, L.A., parts of New York and a few other areas. I was at Rolling Stone starting in May 1969. I think it was July, I forget now, when the phone call came in. I was doing Random Notes and all the other stuff. One day the program director called to give me an item about [disc jockey] Tom Donahue taking a bunch of people around the country for a movie called Medicine Ball Caravan. As part of the troupe, he was going to take several disc jockeys that he had around at KSAN, a couple of full-timers, a couple of part-timers to be a part of the entourage. He would pickup bands along the way, do free concerts and work out of a bus. It would be like a combination of Merry Pranksters and Woodstock.
While telling me this, it occurred to him that he was losing several DJs that he would have to find fill-ins for starting in August 1970. He was talking to somebody who had been covering radio at Rolling Stone. I had begun at Rolling Stone in part by covering the KMPX strike that led to the creation of KSAN. KSAN had become, of course, the leading FM rock station in town and considered one of the pioneer stations, a flagship, free-form stations in the countrypartly because of Tom Donahue’s leadership. He had also created a similar station, a sister station, setup in Los Angeles at KMET. It kind of came to him when I was talking to him for the Random Note that maybe I could come in and fill-in for that month when jocks would be gone for this movie project.
He said, “Gee, do you think you might want to come in and do a few hours on a Saturday or Sunday during the month of August?” I had not done radio except in college and right after leaving school I did a year, maybe less than a year of what was called then, “beautiful music” [easy listening] on a station called KFOG on an all-night shift in San Francisco. (laughter) That’s hardly free-form rock. It was tight (takes on a deep, resonating radio voice) “Henry Mancini and 101 Strings playing music from “King and I” on KFOG.” [KFOG would become a leading rock station in the Bay Area for over two decades after a format change. Ironically, my father and I both listened to the same disc jockey in completely different eras although our tastes ran from the sublimemy beloved love of rockto the ridiculoushis fondness towards Lawrence Welk.]
Hey, it was radio. I loved radio as a kid and always did and wrote about it for Rolling Stone so when he said that, I said, “SureI’ll be there.” I filled in for what was supposed to be one month and then the various DJs never came back. They got lost in the Himalayans, stayed in Europe or freaked out and didn’t want to do radio again. He had these spots when the project was over so I just stayed on for ten years of doing weekends. It settled fairly quickly into a Sunday afternoon shiftusually either 2 to 6 or 5 to 9. They also began to call on me to do fill-in for other people. Disc jockeys, themselves, would call and say, “Hey, man, I’m too stoned to go on tonight. Can you do the all-night shift?” I would have just finished an entire day at Rolling Stone, which usually ran from around 10am to around 7 or 8pmwhatever it took. I would be home and get the phone call from the disc jockey: “Please, please, please, man, I’m too loaded. You’ve got to go in for me. I can’t find anybody else.” I would schlep down to KSAN, downtown, about 11:30 and do the all-night shift until 6 and then go back to Rolling Stone. (laughter)
RR: You’d throw on Pink Floyd and Yes and nod off for twenty-minute naps?
BF-T: (laughter) No. I kind of liked those shows because walking around on the all-night show, I felt more free to play Gil-Scott Heron, Cheech and Chong and Richard Pryor, an hour of Motownwhatever was in my head that would keep me awake. I would just do it so that was an even freer free-form, as you can imagine.
RR: No formats. No program directors.
BF-T: Nothing like that. Even during my regular show, I was able to bring people in and do whatever the hell I wanted to do, pretty much. It was so loose and, of course, the station found it beneficial because they knew I would write about radio with a bit more knowledge now that I was on the air dealing with office politics and corporate stuff. Also, because of the Rolling Stone connection, I was able to bring in guests who I was already visiting with in San Francisco for stories. They would come in and I would have people like Steve Martin, David Crosby, Ann and Nancy Wilson from Heartlots of people would pop in, sit around and play disc jockey or we would just continue our interview on the air. I would just ask them the same stuff that I was gathering for my articles. It just happened to be on the radio at the same time. It was kind of a bonus, I think, for the station and the listeners to have that as long as they were willing to listen to people rapping for half an hour instead of playing music. It all worked out pretty nicely.
POSTSCRIPT Beyond The Doors
RR: Let’s conclude with current projects. With The Doors book completed, what are you working on now?
BF-T: These days, I am freelancing and that includes writing a radio column for the San Francisco] Chronicle for the Sunday Datebook [known as the Pink Pages’ in the Bay Area because of the colored pages and it is an ultra de rigueur activity to read that section first thing Sunday morning while drinking diesel fuel coffee after a late Saturday night.] I do a bit of programming for some on-line sites including URGE, which is the Microsoft/MTVi initiative. I program a few channels for them. I have a couple of book ideas that I’m tossing around right now with a couple of different people. I freelance for magazines whenever I’m called on so right now I’m already working on a couple of pieces on the Summer of Love for next summer [2007 is the 40th Anniversary]. I get called on liner notes on occasion. There’s a package coming in, I think from Rhino, that’s pretty much also on the Summer of Love or the San Francisco Sound. I’m working on an essay for that.
I’m also called on for a good amount of community events. That includes speeches, MC work and onstage interviews. I just wrapped up a couple of those events including an interview with [actor/director/activist] Tim Robbins. Those are a lot of fun. It requires a different level of interviewingan ability to make it for the audience and not for your own notebook. There you are part of an entertainment situation and you want to be sure the audience gets the most out of the subject so it’s all about them if you work it right and it’s a nice little adventure for yourself, as well.
I never thought about anything down the road. Back thenI don’t know. I never really have given it much thought. I never thought there was a time that I should be giving up rock n’ roll magazine writing or going into teaching [Author’s Note: not that there’s anything wrong with teaching]. I guess that’s one avenue that certain people think about at a certain age. I just never gave it that kind of thought. The work was still always there and if it wasn’t, there was always an opportunity to do some kind of full-time work. I was into a couple of startupsone which had nothing to do with music and one, which did. I’ve been lucky to be in this area and, also, fortunate to have been established fairly young in life so that I do get calls in a wide variety of adventures and ventures. I’m also open enough to tackle things that are not necessarily tied into my background. I think that’s always a good thing to do. Don’t stay roped in by your own reputation.
- Randy Ray stores his work at www.rmrcompany.blogspot.com.