Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 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 quartet.

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'" -- 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 Barry

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.'"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.'" -- 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 says, laughing.

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. ... 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?'"-- 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. ..."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 Dictionary

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 ... 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.'"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 lam 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
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.

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.

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).

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.

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.

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."

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.

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?The 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'"; 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."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 programs.