by Special Permission
Stranger than fiction
May 18, 2003
By Teresa Weaver
LOS ANGELES -- It's not enough
to say that the Rock Bottom Remainders lower the bar of musical expectations.
They lower the bar as far as it will go, and then they do the limbo under it.
They revel in their mediocrity. What they lack in talent they make up for with
volume. If all the band members happen to hit the same chord at the same moment,
they appear genuinely shocked. Even if they all manage to begin a song, or end
it, at the same precise moment, they look a little flustered.
And yet this band sells out such
hallowed venues as San Francisco's Fillmore auditorium and New York's Roseland
Ballroom. In 1995, the Remainders were invited to play for the opening gala at
the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,
and this is the band that gets the gig?
There's a story here. Matt Groening
to the crowd: "Are these microphones on?" "YESSSS," the crowd roars back. Groening
to the sound technician: "Well, please turn them off."
In their real lives, the members
of the Rock Bottom Remainders are authors. Among them, Stephen King, Dave Barry,
Amy Tan, Ridley Pearson, Scott Turow, Mitch Albom and the rest have published
150 books. Those books -- which range from "The Stand" to "Tuesdays With Morrie"
to "Presumed Innocent" to "The Joy Luck Club" -- have sold somewhere in the neighborhood
of 150 million copies and have been translated into 25 languages.
In their fantasy lives, though,
these disparate writers share a dream of being rock stars. For four or five days
every year, they arm themselves with guitars, keyboards, tambourines and cowbells
(and feather boas, big wigs and leather whips) and take to the stage, belting
out cover versions of "Rock Around the Clock," "Mustang Sally," "Wild Thing" and
other garage-band classics.
In 11 years, the band has had
no hits and made no records -- and never will, members vow. "The thing is, we've
heard ourselves," says Barry, the lead guitarist. "People will make tapes of us,
and we're always appalled at how much worse we sound than we thought we did."
And so, in a multimedia world,
the Remainders remain a rock spectacle you can hear only live. Los Angeles was
the third and last stop on the Rock Bottom Remainders' recent "Fire in the Belly"
tour, following sold-out shows in Seattle and San Francisco. Altogether, the tour
raised more than $300,000 for America Scores, a literacy organization.
On April 25, a full house paid
$20 to $200 per person to see the Remainders in conversation with actor and author
Steve Martin, who flew in from an undisclosed movie-set location just to do the
show. After the freewheeling discussion, Martin joined Remainders Pearson and
Barry and special guest Roger McGuinn, of Byrds fame, in a self-styled string
The following afternoon, the band
reconvened on an outdoor stage on the UCLA campus, site of the Los Angeles Times
Festival of Books. An hour before showtime, festivalgoers began to recognize some
of the authors wandering in for a sound check and started swarming, staking out
spots near the stage.
By the time the band launched
into its first number -- "Well, the house is a-rockin', don't bother knockin'Ý"
-- the university plaza was packed, and people were perched on every rooftop and
exterior stairwell within view of the stage.
"There's not a lot of pressure
on us to be good." -- Dave BarryÝ
From its inception in 1992, this
unlikely musical group has enthralled fans and mystified critics.Kathi Kamen Goldmark
gets full credit or blame -- depending on whether you ask a fan or a critic --
for creating the band. In the early 1990s, she was a literary escort, ferrying
visiting authors from one bookstore appearance to another in San Francisco. In
her spare evenings, she sang with a couple of country-western bands.
Struck by how many of the visiting
writers expressed envy about her singing gig, Goldmark hatched the idea of forming
a band of musically inclined authors. The perfect place to make their debut, she
figured, was at the 1992 American Booksellers Association convention, a huge annual
gathering of publishers, booksellers, writers and readers, in Anaheim, Calif.
She fired up the fax machine and
sent invitations: Want to be in a rock 'n' roll band?"I didn't audition anyone,"
Goldmark says. "I just invited people I really liked -- people I thought were
sweethearts. I had one rule, and that was if anybody volunteered, they were automatically
disqualified. What I wanted was someone to say, 'Who, me? Oh, I don't think I'm
good enough, but I'd love to try.'Ý"To Goldmark's great surprise, most of her
sweetheart authors said yes. "Amy Tan was the first," she says. "She wanted to
know what we were going to wear. "To this day, the Remainders' "rehearsals" consist
mostly of Tan and Goldmark discussing what their outfits will be.
Stephen King signed up to play
guitar and sing, along with Barry; Ridley Pearson volunteered on bass; and Barbara
Kingsolver was happy to lend her talents on keyboard.In a brilliant, if obvious,
tactical move, the original Remainders included a "Rock Critics' Chorus" featuring
humorist Roy Blount Jr. ("Be Sweet"); supercritic Greil Marcus ("Mystery Train");
oral historian Dave Marsh ("The Heart of Rock & Soul"); Matt Groening, creator
of "The Simpsons" and "Futurama" and an L.A. music journalist in the mid-1980s;
and Joel Selvin, longtime pop music critic for the San Francisco Chronicle.
"It was only supposed to be one
show," Goldmark says 11 years later.But the band fell quickly and deeply under
the spell of rock 'n' roll and the road, very loosely defined."Van Halen's tour
manager got us their official tour bus to go 10 blocks, from the hotel to the
show and back," Goldmark recalls. "On the way to the show, we were all just so
excited. And then after the show -- after people had screamed and yelled and thrown
their underwear and all that -- we got back in the bus and we couldn't find the
driver. Matt Groening finally found him, asleep in the luggage compartment. It
just felt so like rock 'n' roll."We thought, 'We gotta have more of this!' You
know, the show was fine, but we wanted more bus."
"I said, 'Can I go bluejean surfer
girl?' And they said, 'Oh, no -- slut. Serious slut.' And I said, 'OK, I prosecuted
enough of those. I think I've got the look down.'Ý" -- Catherine Crier
Many interesting phenomena have
sprung up around the myth and music of the Remainders. Perhaps most surprising
of all is that perfectly respectable writers desperately want to be part of the
band, and other celebrities clamor to serve as musical ringers, backup singers,
whatever is needed.
"This has turned out to be the
most in-groupy thing in publishing since the Algonquin Round Table," Goldmark
For the "Fire in the Belly" tour,
comedian Robin Williams surprised everyone as emcee of the Remainders' show in
San Francisco. Guitar god McGuinn was front and center at every performance in
Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Nationally syndicated radio host Dr. Demento
mugged with Tan as she sang "Leader of the Pack" in L.A.
And among the backup "chick singers"
in the last show of the tour, wearing a fashionably ripped black miniskirt and
fishnet stockings, was Catherine Crier of Court TV. Crier has all the qualifications
for this particular rock 'n' roll band: She is a willowy blonde who can dance,
she is a published author ("The Case Against Lawyers"), and she has no discernible
singing talent."I scare myself in the shower," Crier admits. "But they said if
I wore a short skirt, they'd get me on."
The lineup of the Remainders fluctuates
a bit from year to year. When Kingsolver bowed out of keyboard duties a couple
of years ago, Barry brought in his sportswriter pal Albom.When the band members
realized that "chick singers" usually come in threes, Goldmark and Tan were joined
by Scott Turow, barely recognizable in a vastly oversize curly blond wig. "On
a book tour several years ago, Scott confided to me that everyone our age who
was not asked to be in the Remainders bore a wound," Goldmark says. "And I said,
'What? Really? What do you play? I never knew you were musical.' And he said,
'I play nothing. I have no musical talent, but still I bear this wound.'"It was
so sweetly said that we invited him to be in the next show. And he kind of stuck.
.Ý.Ý. Maybe it was because he was willing to be a chick singer.
"Greg Iles, a mystery writer from
Natchez, Miss., is the newest recruit. A veteran of a rock 'n' roll band called
Frankly Scarlet, he's a little overqualified for the slot of rhythm guitar. He's
confident, though, that talent won't hold him back."I think they only wanted me
in the band because I have the right hair," Iles says.
"When we're playing, I spend a
lot of time thinking, 'Oooh, was that me?'Ý"-- Mitch Albom
The self-deprecating shtick has
worked well for the Re-mainders, keeping audiences' expectations low and band
members' comfort levels steady.But really, how bad are they? Press them a little
and you eventually learn that several have extensive musical experience. Beyond
Iles, others have done time in bands. King played in rock bands in high school
and coffeehouses in college. Barry earned spending money in college in a Philadelphia
rock 'n' roll band called Federal Duck. Pearson spent 11 years on the road with
a folk-rock band and still plays occasionally. Goldmark is the singing cowgirl
in front of a band called Train Wreck in San Francisco. Albom toyed with the idea
of being a jazz pianist before he became a sportswriter. And James McBride, who
wasn't on the Remainders' most recent tour but is still a member, supported himself
as a jazz saxophone player while writing his first book, "The Color of Water."
At the other end of the spectrum, there is much good-natured competition for the
mantle of least talented. "I am the true rock bottom," insists Chicago lawyer
Turow. "For everyone else, it's a name. For me, it's an adjective.
"Tan is a consistent crowd favorite.
Her off-key rendition of "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'," done in full dominatrix
attire, has become a defining moment in every show. "In the beginning, I used
to just stand there and sing it," Tan recalls. "It was Al Kooper, our first musical
director, who said I should whip all the boys during the song, which I thought
was just disgusting. But all the boys thought it was really great. .Ý.Ý."Now I
know just to be really silly," Tan says. "I don't have a great voice, but the
whole song is really about attitude, and I have that. That's basically what our
band is about, too. Costumes and attitude. "A typical song set consists of golden
oldies and some frat-house perennials, from Buddy Holly's "Oh, Boy" to the Talking
Heads' "And She Was."
Some of the Remainders' renditions
are more recognizable than others, but there's a frenetic energy throughout their
performance that's infectious."We're not a listening-to band," Barry warns the
crowd in Los Angeles. "We're a band you need to dance to." A row of large, unsmiling
security men stand guard in front of the stage, just in case any of the librarians
or booksellers in the audience get too rowdy and climb the barricade.
"remainder (re-MAIN-der): noun.
a copy or number of copies of a book still held by a publisher when the sale has
fallen off, usually disposed of at a greatly reduced price."-- Webster's New World
The security detail may not have
been entirely necessary at the Remainders' Los Angeles show, but it's a precaution
they've come to appreciate in light of some scary, weird moments as rock 'n' rollers."Stephen
King is a very normal guy," Barry says, "but his fans .Ý.Ý. I just hope they're
not here." He recalls one especially eerie encounter during an early-morning rest
stop on the band's 1994 East Coast tour. "We got off the bus somewhere in North
Carolina at 4 a.m.," Barry recalls, "and there are people standing there holding
hardcover copies of 'The Stand.' How did they even know we were coming?" While
playing a concert in Nashville, several members of the band noticed a young female
fan standing in front of King, holding both hands in the air so he could see that
all 10 of her fingernails, ostensibly false, were aflame."Ridley Pearson looked
at me," Barry remembers, "and said, 'I don't ever want to be that famous.'Ý"King
wasn't on the Remainders' tour last month, because of professional obligations.
But his absence was a dominant presence throughout."It's a different vibe when
Steve's here," says rookie Remainder Iles.King inspires a passion among his fans
that can change the nature of a crowd. Without him onstage, audiences tend not
only to be more restrained, but also more evenly split in their loyalties.
Groening, an original member of
the Remainders who now joins them only on occasion, has a cultlike following of
his own.Many young girls can be seen clutching their tattered paperback copies
of "The Joy Luck Club," hoping Tan will grant a few autographs before or after
the show. And when Albom slips backstage and re-emerges in an Elvis wig and a
gold lamÈ jacket, squeals worthy of the King himself ripple through the crowd.
"I've got a kazoo. And I'm going
to use it."-- Matt Groening
If this isn't a true rock 'n'
roll experience for these best-selling authors, it is at least very close."I think
we have more fun than anybody who comes to see us," says Goldmark.But that, too,
is a very close call.They don't quite have all the rock star behaviors down: Most
bring along their spouses and children on tour, and they typically turn in early.
Barry's 3-year-old daughter, Sophie, rides around a $200-a-ticket VIP reception
on her dad's shoulders. Tan's two Yorkshire terriers, Lilly and Bubba, peek happily
from the black leather carrier she keeps with her at all times, offstage and on.The
humor tends toward the sophomoric.
Pearson remembers a typical moment
on the road."For our 10-city bus tour, we got a bus with no berths to sleep in,"
he says. "So we slept sitting up. Once I fell asleep and my loving, trusting friends
were putting candy bars in my mouth." "Those weren't candy bars," pipes up Groening,
and all the bandmates dissolve into laughter. These writers, mostly middle-aged
Type A personalities who are brilliant at what they do and well rewarded for it,
take obvious pleasure in one another's company and in the refuge of doing something
they're not so good at. Bruce Springsteen, who knows something about rock 'n'
roll, played with the Remainders at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His advice
to the star-struck band was as casually eloquent as his best songs."Your band's
not too bad," said the Boss. "It's not too good either. Don't let it get any better,
or you'll be just another lousy band."
THE LINEUP FOR THE LATEST ROCK
BOTTOM REMAINDERS TOUR ïÝ
Mitch Albom is the author of the gazillion-selling "Tuesdays
With Morrie," a nationally syndicated sports columnist for the Detroit Free Press
and a radio and TV commentator. His next book, a short fable called "The Five
People You Meet in Heaven," is due out in September.ïÝ
Dave Barry is a Pulitzer Prize-winning
humor columnist for the Miami Herald and the author of a slew of best-selling
books, including "Dave Barry Slept Here," "Big Trouble" and "Tricky Business."
His next book, titled "Boogers Are My Beat: More Lies, But Some Actual Journalism,"
comes out in September.ïÝ
Kathi Kamen Goldmark is the author
of "And My Shoes Keep Walking Back to You," a novel about country music. She's
working on her second musical novel, this one about the blues. "I'm falling in
love with my main character, an 82-year-old blues guitar player in Chicago," Goldmark
says. Also, Goldmark is "president and janitor" of "Don't Quit Your Day Job" Records
in San Francisco (www.dqydj.com).ïÝ
Matt Groening, creator of TV's
"The Simpsons" and "Futurama," is also the cynical brain behind the "Life in Hell"
comic strip. A former music writer for alternative newspapers in Los Angeles,
he edited "Da Capo Best Music Writing 2003," due out in September. He's also working
on a top-secret new "world" for television.ïÝ
Ridley Pearson is the author of
many best-selling thrillers, including "The Diary of Ellen Rimbauer," written
under a pseudonym and recently made into a TV movie. His most recent novel, "The
Art of Deception," comes out in paperback in September.ïÝ
Greg Iles is the author of eight
thrillers, including "Sleep No More" and "24 Hours," which was recently made into
the movie "Trapped." He's working now on a novel called "The Footprints of God,"
about artificial intelligence and the future of humanity. "I'm not interested
in doing some formulaic book," Iles says. "I'd shoot myself in the head if I had
to do the same thing every time."ïÝ
Amy Tan is the author of four
novels -- "The Joy Luck Club" (a finalist for both the National Book Award and
the National Book Critics Circle Award), "The Bonesetter's Daughter," "The Kitchen
God's Wife" and "The Hundred Secret Senses" -- and several books for children.
Her first work of nonfiction, a memoir called "The Opposite of Fate," is scheduled
for publication in October. "I was raised with a mother who believed strongly
in Chinese fate," Tan says, "and my father, who was a Baptist preacher, believed
absolutely in Christian faith. I often felt like I was running between these dichotomous
pillars of belief." Her fifth novel should be out in the fall of 2004.ïÝ
Scott Turow, a practicing attorney
in his hometown of Chicago, is the author of "Presumed Innocent," "Reversible
Errors" and other legal thrillers. He also has written one book of nonfiction:
"One L: The Turbulent True Story of a First Year at Harvard Law School." Scheduled
for publication in October is "Ultimate Punishment: A Lawyer's Reflections on
Dealing With the Death Penalty."
WANT MORE?ïÝThe Rock Bottom Remainders
have never made a record. But in 1999, Kathi Kamen Goldmark oversaw a compilation
disc, titled "Stranger Than Fiction," that included songs by many of the Remainders,
backed up by studio musicians. Among the selections: Stephen King performs "Stand
By Me"; Amy Tan does her signature song, "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'Ý";
and Dave Barry sings "Tupperware Blues." The CD is available at the "Don't Quit
Your Day Job" Records Web site (www.dqydj.com) and elsewhere online.ïÝ"Mid-Life
Confidential: The Rock Bottom Remainders Tour America With Three Chords and an
Attitude," edited by Dave Marsh (Penguin, 1994), told the story of the band's
first extensive tour. Each band member wrote a chapter. The band's official Web
site is www.rockbottomremainders.com. It's the best place to check for news about
the band's concert plans, but it's not always updated in a timely fashion. The
band's next scheduled concert is Nov. 8 at the Texas Book Festival in Austin.
SOCCER AND POETRY All proceeds
from the Rock Bottom Remainders' concerts and appearances go to charities, primarily
those benefiting literacy efforts.For four years, the band's main charity of choice
has been America Scores (www.americascores.org), an organization that claims much
success in inner-city neighborhoods with its intriguing program of soccer, poetry
and community involvement. Chapters so far include Boston, Chicago, Denver, Los
Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington.America Scores trains
adults to serve as teacher-coaches, who first teach boys and girls the sport of
soccer and then take that teamwork idea into the classroom, where they teach the
youngsters to express themselves through poetry."The teamwork bonding of soccer
really is a key to getting kids to write and to read," says Paul Caccamo, president
of America Scores for the past 3 1/2 years. "It could be a key to getting kids
to do anything."The Remainders' "Fire in the Belly" tour -- with stops in Seattle,
San Francisco and Los Angeles -- raised more than $300,000, according to producer
Ted Habte-Gabr. In its 11-year history, the band has raised $800,000 for literacy