Ben Fong-Torres may be best known for chronicling rock music’s glory decades with Rolling Stone magazine, even turning up as a character in the Oscar-winning film Almost Famous. But that storied career was still to come in 1967, when he was just 22 years old. During the Summer of Love, Fong-Torres was a DJ in San Francisco, spinning really golden oldies.
(Interview edited for length and clarity.)
Where were you in the fabled 'Summer of Love'?
I was on the radio. I had studied broadcasting at SF State, and journalism, and the first thing I got out of school was this weird gig on KFOG, which [today] is a rock station. But back in 1967 and before that, it was what was called a "good music" station, or "beautiful music." So they played Henry Mancini, 101 Strings, musicals. But the weird thing was, of course, the fact that I was playing music I would never listen to.
The rest of the time, I was living this existence with these guys who were all into rock, the culture that was building all around us, in and around the Haight-Ashbury. So we would go to these concerts at the Matrix, or at the Avalon, or the Fillmore and out in the parks, out in the streets.
So you're listening to some of the most exciting bands at the time, rock bands, and then going to work and spinning Henry Mancini?
Exactly. But you know, at the Fillmore and the Avalon, when Janis [Joplin] or Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis were playing, I was always humming Mancini in my head. It was odd. I would imagine songs like "Down On Me" in an orchestral style.
Just trying to imagine that! I mean, you know, Mancini had talent, too.
Well, yeah. That's why it was called good music!
What was it about the music -- the Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Jefferson Airplane -- that was so appealing?
Sometimes, it wasn't the music. Sometimes, it was the sense of community that the bands were the epicenters of. It wasn't as if there was a San Francisco sound, or psychedelic rock. Each band had various members who came from their own musical bands and interests. So it could be folk or classical. It could be jazz or blues. It could be country. All of it was welcomed into whatever the repertoire was of the band, as long as the other people dug it and could play it. Even if they couldn't, they would learn how to do it. A lot of bands were formed for the fun of it, including people who hadn't played those instruments.
Were there people who believed at that time that rock music would save the world?
By then, because of Bob Dylan and other folk musicians, we were hearing messages in music. Sometimes, of course, music can be a gel. It can be a binding force, a rallying cry. "We shall overcome."
I think more and more young people began to see music and hear music as something more than pop songs on the radio. They became, really, a soundtrack to this emerging counterculture: not just a culture, but specifically, a counterculture.