Some of the world’s best-selling authors put down their pens and pick up their instruments in the name of big fun and bigger fund-raising.
By Steve Houk
Imagine a novel that had the satirical humor of Dave Barry, the relationship astuteness of Amy Tan, the spine tingling titillation of Stephen King, the intricate plot twists of Scott Turow, the inspirational touch of Mitch Albom, the humorous wryness of Roy Blount Jr., and the thrills and chills of Ridley Pearson.
Well….that’d probably be one jumbled and pretty darn tough-to-follow read.
Luckily for them, they don’t write together. But lucky for everyone else, they occasionally do rock and roll together, and for very good causes to boot.
The Rock Bottom Remainders (“remainders” is a bookseller’s term used for books that languish on the shelves so long they need to be dumped for a discount) will be bringing their aptly named “2010 Wordstock Tour” to Washington next week for two big events: April 20th at Sidney Harman Hall (which also includes a conversation with the band and Sam Donaldson) and April 21st at the 9:30 Club with special guest Roger McGuinn. Proceeds from the shows will benefit World Vision’s Haiti relief effort and America’s Promise Alliance, the nation’s largest partnership network dedicated to improving lives of children and youth. The Pearson Foundation is also very involved in the tour, and in it’s name will be donating books to DC Public Schools.
The group has raised over $2 million for charity in their 18-plus year existence. Band member-author Kathi Kamen Goldmark says she founded the wordsmith rockers in 1992 after seeing there were a lot of frustrated musicians among these well-known scribes.
“I used to be a media escort for authors, “Goldmark told me, “and on the tours, the authors would ask me about myself and I’d tell them I was in a band, and they would get so wistful, saying things like ‘Oh you’re so lucky, I wish I could find a way to play music.’ So one day I just sent a fax around to the authors that said, ‘Hey there’s a bookseller convention coming up, you want to do a show with me?’ You know, I figured we could do one show and raise some money for charity. And to my complete surprise, everybody said yes. Amy Tan was actually the first one to respond with, ‘What are we gonna wear?? Let’s go shopping!’ ”
As word got out, and given the celebrity-status of the authors involved (together the “band” has sold over 200 million books and counting), Goldmark received offers of donated equipment, nightclubs to rehearse and play in, even the services of legendary rock producer Al Kooper as interim musical director. But perhaps the most unusual perk was the use of Van Halen’s tour bus to transport the band across town for an early gig. Did some of the wild shenanigans that went on during Van Halen’s tours go on when these authors rode around in it?
“Not quite. We watched the McNeil-Lehrer Report. And when we cheat, it’s with a piece of pie. I remember at one point, one of the guys coming up to me and nervously saying, ‘Don’t tell my wife about this’, and he was smoking a cigar.”
The current lineup that’ll hit Washington is without King, but has Barry and Greg Iles on lead guitar, Albom on keyboards; Tan, Turow and Goldmark on vocals; Ridley Pearson on bass; James McBride on saxophone, and Roy Blount, Jr. on…well, not sure. Past versions of the band have included Simpsons creator Matt Groening, Barbara Kingsolver and yes, even Maya Angelou.
“I didn’t audition anybody,” Goldmark continues, “I just asked people on the basis of what they told me they played. So it could have been, really, a train wreck. But it turned out to be regular old ‘bad frat party’ rock and roll. And it was a lot of fun from the start. And as far as personas, for example, Amy Tan plays opposite her image. She really has fun with it and plays the most with her onstage persona. And I think Dave is pretty much always Dave Barry: always funny, always charming, always real quick, and a pretty good guitar player.”
In his typical style, Barry’s quote from the press release reads, “This concert is a rare chance to see a band hailed by critics as ‘not as bad as you would expect.’ Rock Bottom Remainders are excited by the response to this tour from our fans. There are only three of them, but they are very responsive.”
The RBR has had famous musicians like Bruce Springsteen and the late Warren Zevon sit in with them before, and their upcoming 9:30 Club date is no exception: Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and Byrds founder Roger McGuinn, who has played with the group many times before, will be on hand to jam.
“Carl Hiaasen wrote a book called ‘Sick Puppy’ and in it he named a dog McGuinn, after a guitar player that he liked,” McGuinn told me. “So we surprised [Hiaasen] at a book signing, and after that we got together and he mentioned he had played with Dave Barry and Stephen King and Amy Tan, and it was a fun band. I had played with Max Q, the band of astronauts, and that was fun, so I thought it would fun to play with the RBR too, and I’ve been doing it for about ten years now. It’s basically a garage band, with a ‘real’ drummer, and it’s a lot of 50’s and 60’s oldies, just fun stuff, it’s really cool. Dave and Ridley are kinda the core of the band, there’s some fine musicianship, although they kinda downplay that. I think Bruce Springsteen once told them, ‘You guys better not get any better, because if you do, you’ll just be a lousy band.’ ”
For tickets to see the Rock Bottom Remainders, go to http://www.930.com/tickets or http://www.shakespearetheatre.org/plays/details.aspx?id=9362&source=t