Los Angeles Times, by Special Permission

Calendar Section

April 28, 2003

The book festival's all-star comedy band Toes are tapping, hands clapping as authors bring music, hilarity to the event. By Bettijane Levine, Times Staff Writer

A funny thing happened on the eve of the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. Actually, it was a hilarious thing called "Besides the Music: A Repartee." It featured Steve Martin as moderator and the Rock Bottom Remainders as the panel of guests who declined to be moderated.

The Remainders are a no-hit rock 'n' roll band composed mostly of hugely successful authors who get together for one week each year to raise money for charity. Their motto is: "We play as good as Metallica writes novels." That should tell you something.

The literary lineup on stage in a packed Royce Hall at UCLA on Friday night included Martin, who is not a member of the group, along with authors-band members Amy Tan, Mitch Albom, Dave Barry, Kathi Kamen Goldmark, Scott Turow, Ridley Pearson, Roger Iles and Matt Groening. Special guest performer on this year's tour -- which plays San Francisco, Los Angeles and Seattle -- is guitarist Roger McGuinn, co-founder of the Byrds, who said little but looked very cool in all black with cowboy hat to match.

What would this group talk about, if not books and music? Well, just about anything absurd that came to mind, it turned out. If there'd been a laugh meter in the house, it would have broken. But to simply transcribe the antic patter would destroy it. Timing and context were everything. The curl of Martin's lip, the archness in his voice, his retorts aimed precisely -- like unexpected arrows through the head -- kept the audience howling. Martin started the evening with: "How do you begin to interview a band you know nothing about?" He was fibbing. He obviously knew something about it, because he'd flown to L.A. from an undisclosed movie location just to participate this evening.

He may have been auditioning. He has the credentials to join the band: He writes books and plays and has big talent on banjo. What's more, he's rich -- an attribute band members said they value highly. For example, Stephen King, the horror maven and the group's usual rhythm guitarist, isn't participating this year because he's still recovering from his famous accident. But he was frequently and fondly referred to by bandmates. Not for his riffs but because he once paid to rent a plane for them to tour in so they didn't have to travel in their usual scruffy bus.

The tour bus was a big subject of panel conversation: sex on the bus; roadies waiting for the bus in backwater towns at 4 in the morning. Well-coiffed Pulitzer Prize winner Barry, author, syndicated humor columnist and the band's lead guitar player, discussed the horrors of bus hair, roadies and difficult chords.

Groening (author, creator of TV's "The Simpsons" and the band's vocalist and cowbell player) read to the audience a list of crawl lines he'd written to parody those on the Fox News Channel, ending with "Ashcroft declares breast of chicken obscene."

Martin peppered the panel with penetrating questions for which they had no answers, like: "When you're in the middle of playing a song, what are you thinking?"

Dead silence.

"I mean, are you thinking about the song? Or are you thinking, 'I am so rich?' "

Or this from Martin: "You're all fine writers. What goes through your mind when you have to sing a lyric like 'I ain't gonna love you no more....'?"

You had to be there.

Amy Tan (author of "The Joy Luck Club" and "The Bonesetter's Daughter" and a Remainderette) said she's the one "who brings family values" to the group. Turns out she wears tight black leather and metal spikes and wields a whip while gyrating and doing vocals. She told the audience how, on her way to join the tour one year, airport security opened her luggage, found all her dominatrix gear and held it up to show the public.

Attorney Turow (author of such legal thrillers as "Presumed Innocent" and "Reversible Errors") is brunet and balding but plays "the blond chick" in the band. He performs in wig, he said, when he does back-up vocals.

And Albom, the syndicated sports columnist and author of "Tuesdays With Morrie," told of the horrors of being interviewed by media types who haven't read his books. His favorite was a radio disc jockey who started an interview with the question, "Why Tuesdays, Mitch?"

The panelists asked Martin some questions too. Like, what really happened backstage at the Oscars when Michael Moore gave his famous antiwar tirade. Martin said he'd had a few tough moments, trying to quickly gauge what he should say when he returned to the stage. He thought of a great line, which he didn't use. "I was gonna say, 'Be sure to buy Michael Moore's book, "Stupid White Men," which is evidently an autobiography.' "

Martin opened the discussion to questions from the audience. One person asked what the writers think of editors.

"Editors are the enemy; they're evil; they're scum," said Barry.

With that, the Rock Bottom Remainders got down to business. Barry, Martin, McGuinn and Pearson (author of "No Witnesses") performed a stunning guitar and banjo set, with the rest of the group providing light vocal backup from their chairs.

Los Angeles is the second stop on their tour. The night before, in San Francisco, they'd raised $75,000 at a performance in which they were joined unexpectedly by Robin Williams. They expect to have raised more than $100,000 from their weekend appearance at the Festival of Books at UCLA and hope for about the same in Seattle, their next stop.

All money raised goes to America Scores, a nationwide after-school creative writing and athletics program for underserved children.