By day they bring fascinating stories to life on a page, but give them a stage and they become the Rock Bottom Remainders, a band of best-selling authors who want to rock the world in a whole different way.
The group, on its Wordstock 2010 tour, is playing dates through Saturday, April 24, in four cities—Washington, Philadelphia, New York and Boston—to raise money for children and schools in Haiti and the United States.
Since its debut at the American Booksellers Convention in 1992, the Rock Bottom Remainders—who take the name from the deeply discounted pile of unsold books found in bookstore overstock bins—perform to raise money for charities, most of them affiliated with literacy. Founding member and humor writer Dave Barry quips that without the fundraising element, band members are not sure anyone would listen. They get together to tour about once a year, and, Barry says, “it’s like going to summer camp.”
Besides Barry, the group this week includes fellow lead guitarist Greg Iles; keyboardist Mitch Albom; saxophonist James McBride; bassist Ridley Pearson; vocalists Amy Tan, Scott Turow and Kathi Kamen Goldmark; and Roy Blount Jr., who likes to say he “plays the crowd.”
Missing from this year’s tour is guitarist Stephen King, whose newest book, Blockade Billy, was released this week.
Help from rock pros
Occasionally a professional musician joins their fun. Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Roger McGuinn, 67, makes a special appearance in Washington. McGuinn, a founder of the 1960s band the Byrds, hooked up with the Remainders after he met Barry’s friend, writer Carl Hiaasen. He says the group has “elements of a good band,” but he also quotes Bruce Springsteen, who after a gig with them, said: “You guys better not get any better or you will be just another lousy band.”
Barry, 62, says there is no chance of that. The band’s only real rehearsal happens at sound check on the day of a concert. “Our strength is we try to be entertaining,” says Barry. Or, as Blount, 68, puts it, “We’re enthusiastic.”
Enthusiasm notwithstanding, there is “zero chance,” according to Barry, that this gang of age 50-plus rocker wannabes will ever wholly reinvent themselves. “We are never going to be actual musicians,” Barry says. “We are under no illusions.”
Keeping their day jobs
Besides, all the members have day jobs that still keep them very busy. Pearson’s newest young adult novel Kingdom Keepers III: Disney in Shadow, is out this month. Turow’s latest, Innocent, is due in May, as is Barry’s newest, I’ll Mature When I’m Dead.
Barry will start a book tour after the band’s tour is done. Meanwhile, he has been developing the set list for this tour “because everybody likes me and because I am a reasonable judge of what we can [play] well.”
As may be fitting for a band of wordsmiths who are scattered from coast to coast, talk about what songs they’ll play gets done by e-mail. “I ask people what they want to play,” says Barry, “and then I sit down with a beer and put together the list. Then I send it out for feedback. We vary things depending on who is playing that night.”
Oldies but goodies
They definitely favor oldies, among them Elvis Presley’s version of “Such a Night,” Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “The House Is Rockin’,” the Bob Dylan-penned “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” (popularized by McGuinn and the Byrds) and the 1960s classic “Wild Thing.” They may add new tunes to their repertoire, but there is no danger that anything contemporary will slip in, says Barry. “We have not ventured into modern hip-hop or anything.”
Blount describes their sound as the kind of music that was cool when he was a teenager or in college. “ ‘Wild Thing’ is kept on the set list so that I can come in on the line, ‘You move me,’ ” Blount says. But he’s not there to sing. “I introduce the band. I’m there to remind everyone that we’re not very good, but we have a great time.”
It may go a bit beyond that. Blount suggests there’s a reason the Remainders have been at it for 18 years. “Musicians are the coolest people,” Blount says. “They’re cooler than athletes or actors. When one musician runs into another, they immediately start jamming with each other.” And, yes, they are cooler than authors, he adds.
“Ideally, authors should be read and not heard.”
Lorrie Lynch is a writer and editor in Washington.