Rockin' Writers Rock Bottom Remainders strike a chord for literacy and 'tonal diversity'

May 24, 1993|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Book Editor

CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — Cambridge, Mass.

Some fans had their autograph books out. Others took pictures. Most everyone wanted Stephen King, of course, but there were calls for Dave Barry and Amy Tan, too. When you've got a collection of hot-shot authors, there's bound to be interest -- especially when they're doing rock and roll, too.

After the writers had done two shows at a club here Saturday night, the tour bus for the Rock Bottom Remainders -- the improbable name for this most improbable band -- was ready to pull out. Then Tad Bartimus waved over to some reporters.

In a group filled with well-known and successful writers -- and, in the case of Mr. King, at the top of both categories -- Ms. Bartimus, Colorado-based author of a nonfiction book about the American West called "Trinity's Children," was the least likely to claim celebrityhood. In almost every group appearance, you could see onlookers pointing to her and whispering, "Which one is she?"

But that was then.

On this night, Ms. Bartimus handed back a pen and piece of paper to a woman who had already made the autographing rounds with Mr. King and Mr. Barry. "I want you to record this," Ms. Bartimus said in mock triumph to the press. "You have just witnessed the first rock and roll autograph of my life!"

With that, pleased as punch, she stepped onto the bus. Soon the Remainders would hit the road, making the 10-hour drive to Washington, where a show awaited them tonight at the Bayou in Georgetown. Then there would be dates in Philadelphia, Atlanta and Nashville before the conclusion of the seven-concert tour Sunday in Miami.

Such is the literary life of the '90s.

Roll over, de Beauvoir. And tell Dostoevski the news.

"People ask us why we're doing this," Mr. Barry, whose love of rock music is well chronicled in his humor columns, said Friday in Northampton, Mass., before the group's second concert date. "We do it because it's fun -- uncomplicated fun. I told my wife that this is like rock camp. I remember last year, the first time we played together, coming off the stage in Anaheim [Calif.] and thinking, 'This is the most fun I have ever had in my entire life.' "

The Rock Bottom Remainders came to life in Anaheim in May 1992, at the annual American Booksellers Association convention. Kathi Kamen Goldmark, who runs an author escort service in San Francisco, had noted while ferrying writers around town on book-promotion tours that some shared her enthusiasm for rock music. A veteran of bar bands of all ilk, from punk to her current country-rock group -- "I'm just a music slut," she says jokingly -- she came up with the idea of a writer's rock and roll band.

Mr. Barry and Mr. King -- a full-tilt rock lover whose books are filled with references to favorite songs -- signed on as guitarists. Suspense novelist Ridley Pearson, who plays in bar bands around his Idaho home, was the bassist. Novelist Barbara Kingsolver ("Animal Dreams") handled the keyboards.

Ms. Kamen, Ms. Tan and Ms. Bartimus were the mini-skirted singers, and a group of writers -- Dave Marsh and Joel Selvin, both well-known rock critics, and humorist Roy L. Blount -- was dubbed the Critics' Corner. ("We celebrate tonal diversity," Mr. Blount said.)

Adding 'ringers'

Ms. Kamen wisely padded the band with a few music "ringers" -- drummer Josh Kelly, sax player Jerry Peterson and rock legend Al Kooper, who was hired as the group's music director. Then she turned it loose at the ABA convention.

The group was "frankly, terrible," acknowledges Mr. Kooper, but the ABA crowd charitably overlooked its middling talent and general (and understandable) sloppiness.

Mr. Barry later wrote of the show: "The audience whooped and screamed and threw underwear. Granted, some of it was extra-large men's jockey briefs, but underwear is underwear."

Too much fun

The Remainders agreed after the Anaheim show that this was too good an experience not to repeat. So the current East Coast tour was arranged, with proceeds to go to various literacy groups. Naturally, there had to be a book, with each participant contributing a chapter.

"I was like most high school girls who would not dance but stood by the band and fantasized about what it would take to go out with the lead singer," said Ms. Tan, author of the best-sellers "The Joy Luck Club" and "The Kitchen God's Wife," who cuts quite an exotic figure on stage in a short, clingy skirt and shades.

She began to giggle. "And now I get to go out with all of them."

The Rock Bottom Remainders. The Few. The Loud. The Shameless.

They jump around on stage and sing silly songs from their adolescence, like "Leader of the Pack" (Ms. Tan gives out a terrific scream at the end) and "Teen Angel" (Mr. King no longer changes the words in the latter to include a reference to "a vial of crack" -- the song's publisher threatened to sue).

They crank up their guitars as loudly as possible and duck-walk like Chuck Barry.

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