Robert Fulghum brings his lighthearted tour to town for serious cause Author's lightheartedness can do some serious good

October 29, 1993|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Book Editor

The last time Robert Fulghum went on the road, he was playing rock and roll with Stephen King, Dave Barry and Amy Tan, as members of one of the most literate garage bands ever, the Rock Bottom Remainders.

Now the 56-year-old author of such best-selling books as "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten" and "Uh Oh" is touring to promote his most recent collection of essays and homilies, "Maybe (Maybe Not)." And he's doing it in an unusual way: with benefit concerts in 22 cities, in which he sings a little, reads a little from his writing and dispenses a little homespun wisdom.

"Every city has gone extremely well," says Mr. Fulghum, who will appear at Towson State University's Towson Center tomorrow night at 8 in a benefit concert for Maryland Special Olympics. "Our lowest figure so far was $12,000 net in St. Louis. In Denver, we raised $121,000 in one evening. And we've had anywhere from 800 to 1,700 people coming out to each event.

"Above the money being raised, I hope we've called attention to all the various charities," Mr. Fulghum continues. "I've been told the charities have also gotten a lot of volunteers. That was my fondest hope -- to do something useful."

It might seem strange to go from playing rock and roll in your sixth decade to embarking on a series of benefit concerts, but it's entirely in character for Robert Fulghum. As his books make abundantly clear, this former IBM salesman, teacher and Unitarian minister doesn't do what's expected of him. He's serious about living life to its fullest, but not too serious about how he regards himself.

jTC Take his stint as a rock and roller. "It was a hoot," he says ."You got to be the 17-year-old that your mother didn't want you to be. Stephen, Dave, myself -- we're all closet air guitar players."

Mr. Fulghum, a Santa Claus look-alike with a sagacious attitude, cut quite a figure on the stage in May, strumming the mandocello and singing such songs as "Mean Woman Blues" and the Grateful Dead's "Ripple."

As for how well Mr. Fulghum plays rock and roll for a somewhat elderly guy, Mr. Barry was consulted. Reached in Denver, where he is on a book publicity tour of his own, the humorist says, deadpan, "Robert Fulghum is the best mandocello player in any rock and roll band I have ever heard of, and I include the Sex Pistols in that statement."

On his benefit tour, though, Mr. Fulghum has had to cut back on the music-playing, due to a bout with carpal tunnel syndrome caused by signing thousands of books at a time. "I had numbness on all four fingers, so the doctor put my arm in a sling for a while," Mr. Fulghum says. "But I played last night, and it was all right, and I can sign books again." (He is to appear at a book-signing at Encore Books in Towson tomorrow from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m.)

Though Mr. Fulghum has been criticized for what some reviewers call an excessively simplistic, even cornball style, he's become a publishing phenomenon nonetheless. "Kindergarten," which grew out of some observations he had been putting down on paper as a minister in the Seattle area, stayed at No. 1 on the New York Times' nonfiction list for 96 weeks when it was published in 1986. He stressed basic values in life: Play fair. Put things back where you find them. Don't hit people.

And he had this observation on attaining peace on Earth: "Think what a better world it would be if we all -- the whole world -- had cookies and milk about three o'clock every afternoon and then lay down with our blankies for a nap."

Perhaps having more than 10 million books sold would make any author serene, but Mr. Fulghum says convincingly that he doesn't care about nasty comments from reviewers.

"I'm not out for critical recognition," Mr. Fulghum says. "What's important is that my writing is word of mouth -- that someone will read my book and then recommend it to four or five others.

?3 "That's about as good a review as you can get."

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