Rock Bottom Remainders

Posted: June 4, 2007, 16:23:02

What kind of rock band gets up before noon? For that matter, what kind of band reads and writes? The Rock Bottom Remainders do both, and have also been known, while on tour, to tune in to “The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer.” At a little after 6 on Thursday morning they turned up at the studio of “Good Morning America” to do a promotional spot for a Friday-night benefit coinciding with BookExpo America, the big publishing fair that took place in New York over the weekend. The green-room spread included, instead of greenies and quarts of Jack, platters of fresh fruit and, at the request of Roy Blount Jr., one of the band’s founding members, a big pan of grits.

Remainders is a booksellers’ term, used for books that languish on the shelves so long they have to be dumped at a discount. Most of the members of the band inhabit a different part of the literary universe, the loftier reaches of the best-seller list. Besides Mr. Blount, members include Amy Tan, Dave Barry, Ridley Pearson, Stephen King, Scott Turow and Mitch Albom. At least notionally Maya Angelou is also a member, but she has yet to show up for a gig — a word that members of the Rock Bottom Remainders delight in using whenever possible.

The band was created in 1992 by Kathi Kamen Goldmark, a singer and musician who was working part time as a media escort in Los Angeles, driving authors around on their book tours. “When they heard I sang in a band, that’s all many of them wanted to talk about,” she recalled on Thursday. “They’d say: ‘You’re kidding. You’re so lucky!’ ” She came up with the idea of putting together a literary band to give a benefit concert at a Los Angeles book fair that year and sent out a dozen or so faxes. Those who responded became the Rock Bottom Remainders, and with a few additions the band has been together ever since.

They are what every garage band dreams of becoming: a bunch of middle-aged people with word-processing day jobs who every now and then get to go on tour, not in a rented van but in Aretha Franklin’s old bus. They have played benefit concerts all over the country, before live, paying audiences, and even have groupies. A few years ago the bus broke down late at night in Alabama, Mr. Barry recalled, and out of the darkness a fan suddenly materialized with a copy of “The Stand” that he wanted Mr. King to autograph. In Nashville once another King fan was so carried away that she lit all 10 of her fingernails on fire.

“What we all gain from this is just the friendships, the hanging out,” Mr. Barry explained. “There’s no other group of people I spend this much time with. Writing is a pretty solitary activity to begin with, and, you know, once you get to be a certain age, once the kids are grown up, you just don’t make that many new friends. But it’s really intense here. It’s like camp for grown-ups.” Ms. Tan said, “I’d kill the whales to do this.”

In the beginning, by all accounts, the band was pretty awful, and over the years the members have memorized a great deal of self-deprecating patter. “We play music about as well as Metallica writes novels,” Mr. Barry likes to say. Mr. Turow says, “We’re a band that specializes in meeting low expectations.” And Mr. Blount characterizes the Remainders’ particular brand of music as “hard listening.” He should know. Easily the most sonically challenged member of the band, he has a voice so bad and pitch so uncertain that he is usually discouraged from singing at all, except during the chorus of “Wild Thing,” when he is allowed to solo on the “You move me” part.

In truth the Rock Bottom Remainders are not terrible, and harbor a certain amount of genuine talent. Mr. Pearson was a professional musician before turning to writing; Mr. Barry played in a college rock band, Federal Duck. Stars like Bruce Springsteen and Warren Zevon have occasionally made guest appearances, and over time the band has carefully added some ringers: the nonfiction author James McBride, for example, who still works as a professional saxophonist, and the novelist Greg Isles, who for years played in the band Frankly Scarlet. A key acquisition was Mr. Albom, the sports columnist, who in 1994 replaced Barbara Kingsolver (who had left to have children) at the keyboard and as a bonus brought along his wife, Janine Sabino, a professional singer. Before becoming a writer, Mr. Albom recalled at the “Good Morning America” studio, he played the piano for a living. “I used to play in an Irish bar about 30 blocks from here,” he said. “It was called McSomething’s, and it used to be just me and the drunks. I’d get about $10 a night. Now look at me. I’m in a band where they have people to carry our stuff for you.”

On Friday night, just before the band’s benefit concert at Webster Hall, Mr. King ducked into a bathroom to slick his hair back into a ducktail. Mr. King, who sings and plays rhythm guitar, confessed that he had been practicing at home for weeks. “Dave and Ridley and Greg take this very seriously,” he said. “It’s like watching three type-A people prepare for the G.R.E.’s. I’m just a hood ornament on this band, but all the same you don’t want to make a fool of yourself. There’s always that fear of failure.” As it turned out, Mr. Barry and Mr. Pearson, who are in effect the band’s co-leaders, had prepared so carefully that when the group’s members came onstage, they found on their music stands not just a playlist but also a list of the chord changes they would need for some new songs they were trying out. “We have about 70 or 80 songs we can do,” Mr. Pearson said. “But all of them use the same chords.”

The evening featured guest appearances by Frank McCourt, Andy Borowitz and Leslie Gore, who belted out her ’60s anthem “It’s My Party” and was so pumped she stayed onstage for the rest of the evening, dancing and vamping. Halfway through, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Roger McGuinn came out, transcendently cool in black pants, black shirt and black fedora, and over the course of a couple of Byrds songs lifted the band way off rock bottom. For a while it wasn’t just not bad — it was pretty good. For the rest of the time it rocked at least, and even wailed during a couple of harmonica solos by Mr. Barry’s younger brother Sam, who is not an author, strictly speaking, but close enough. (He works for a division of HarperCollins.)

There was no fingernail ignition, but the audience swayed, danced and took countless cellphone pictures. Near the end Mr. Albom did an Elvis impersonation, appearing first in a wig, sunglasses and gold lamé jacket and then, for “Jailhouse Rock,” stripping down to a sleeveless undershirt and striped prison pants. Then Larry Portzline, of Harrisburg, Pa., who had paid $2,800 at a charity auction for the privilege, joined the band to sing “Wild Thing.” Afterward he was still wired. “I can’t believe it,” he said. “I even got to rehearse with them. But I wasn’t worried. I’ve known ‘Wild Thing’ all my life.”

Packing up, Mr. King said, “You never know for certain, but I’m pretty sure we never sounded better.”

Thanks to Bev Vincent

To the news archive