On a warm spring night in 1992, the Rock Bottom Remainders took the stage at the Cowboy Boogie in Anaheim, Calif. With more than a dozen best-seling authors, including Dave Barry, Amy Tan, Barbara Kingsolver and Stephen King, the band rocked out, playing covers of their favorite jams to a bookish crowd.
After 20 years and one nine-city bus tour, the Rock Bottom Remainders brokeup last year. The band's founder, Kathi Kamen Goodmark, an author escort who was also Dave Barry's sister-in-law, died of breast cancer in May 2012, and the band members figured their time with the Rock Bottom Remainders was best left in the past.
Last month, the band released "Hard Listening," an interactive e-book to ceremonially cap off their time in rock 'n' roll — and to raise money to pay Goldmark's medical bills and help her husband, Sam Barry, who lost his job right before his wife's death. The e-book features videos, photo galleries, interactivequizzes and essays from band members.
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Printers Row Journal spoke by phone with Ridley Pearson and Scott Turow, who joined the band about four years in, about life as a rock star and "Hard Listening." Here is an edited version of the conversation.
Q: Are you guys really broken up? Say it ain't so!
Ridley Pearson: We're broken up about breaking up. I think there is a song in there somewhere.
Scott Turow: That is a fabulous song title.
RP: A country song, I think. We lost Warren Zevon and Frank McCourt, and then we lost Kathi Goldmark, who had put the whole thing together. I really think there came a moment when we all thought, you know, we will play together again. Certainly we will play in smaller groups because it is just too much fun, but the moment of the Rock Bottom Remainders as the Rock Bottom Remainders had passed and it had passed with Kathi.
ST: Also, it's hard to play rock 'n' roll when you're getting so old you can't hear the music.
RP: You wear earplugs, Scott!
ST: I do, but it doesn't make any difference because I sing whatever I want to sing and, as I always say, I sing in the key of H, so in my case there is no consequence. But, seriously, we are getting older. It doesn't seem to stop The Rolling Stones, but I don't think anybody is up for a bus tour anymore. Ridley is right, the big issue is there was too much loss to feel like we could really call ourselves the same band. With all that said, there is certainly going to be a reunion of sorts at the Miami Book Fair in the fall.
Q: What is a Rock Bottom Remainder?
RP: A remainder is an unsold hardcover book, so the Rock Bottom Remainders are the worst of the worst.
ST: The remainder is the bane of every author's life because you will show up at Borders, for example, and there is a stack of the books that you worked your behind off both writing and promoting and now they are being sold off at $2.99.
Q: How did you guys get together?
ST: My memory is that Kathi was an author's escort in San Francisco and a part-time musician. She met all these touring authors and would talk to them about music and eventually she got the idea to get all these people organized to play a gig. They were not the sensation of the music world, but they were the sensation of the literary world.
RP: What you have to love about Scott, in his writing and in his conversation, is that like a good attorney, he can sum it all up in the least amount of words. Kathi toured us all around individually and saw the opportunity to throw a band together. I think the surprise of it all was that this was back in the day of faxes — no email yet — and we were all queried separately via fax. I had no clue who might be in the band or whom was being asked. I got the invitation and I wrote back, sure I would love to play bass. About three weeks later, I got a fax that says I am in a band with Dave Barry, Stephen King, Barbara Kingsolver, Robert Fulghum and Amy Tan. I about fell out of my chair. We played that first gig at the Cowboy Boogie and, thankfully, it was a book crowd so they adored us even if we couldn't do anything right. On the way offstage, Steve (King) looked over his shoulder at me and said, (imitating Stephen King) "Ridley, we're not done here," and we weren't. We went on for 20 more years.
ST: I hear about all of this and the next time a book comes out I am with Kathi and we are driving down the Bayshore Freeway and I said to her, "You know, Kathi, every writer of our generation who was not invited to join the Rock Bottom Remainders bares a psychic wound," and she looked over at me and said, "Oh, Scott, I am so sorry, I didn't know you played an instrument," to which I responded, "I don't, I can't sing either, but I was wounded anyway." Eventually by playing injured, I was invited on stage to sing in what used to be called the "Critics Chorus" in which writers who were in attendance were invited to stand in the back of the stage and howl along. Somehow my role evolved.
RP: The thing is that if people wanted to be in the band we kind of knew there was a problem because they might have musical ability. I remember, Scott, when you came up in Miami, you were in a suit for goodness sakes, and Dave and I looked at each other and there was just this laser look between us that, within eight seconds of your starting to sing, we both thought we have to beg this guy to be in the band. We are very lucky — don't you think, Scott? — about the way it has worked out, because we all get along like best friends and brothers and sisters. It is a really great combination of people. We would rather go to Dave's house in Miami and play in his living room than get up in front of an audience. It is just that the getting up in front of an audience is what gives us the excuse to go to Dave's house and play in his living room.
Q: What's the difference between a book signing and a rock concert?
ST: I don't know about Ridley, but in my case there are many more people at the rock concert.
RP: I would ask what are the similarities. For instance, one time we were playing a big gig in Texas and one of the chain bookstores, which shall go unnamed, decided that they would have an author event because they had this amazing opportunity, so they invited Dave Barry, Scott Turow, Greg Iles, me and Amy Tan to a single signing. It was a huge deal and we outnumbered the people who showed for the signing.
ST: The other thing I remember about that trip was that unfortunately for us, The Dallas Morning News reviewed the show. The next day our manager is having breakfast and he looks at me and he says, "You got some ink," and he passes me the paper and the review of the band was somewhat laudatory, but it included the following line, "Scott Turow simply cannot sing." Since truth is an absolute defense to any charges of defamation, I had nothing to do but take my lumps.
Q: How did the e-book come together?
RP: Kathi's passing left a lot of debt, and she was married to Dave's brother, Sam. Dave and I got talking and we debated how we could help Sam pay the medical bills. Ideas circulated around and I suggested that since we wrote a book in our very first year of existence ("Mid-Life Confidential") and because we were coming to the end of our time as a band maybe we should close it with a book. Dave is such a pragmatic guy and he said "Rid, we've already done a book and the thing sold like nine copies" and that was true, but that was before we had 20 years of playing around the country.
ST: The nine copies were bought by our mothers.
RP: The idea of an enhanced e-book really appealed to both Dave and me because you would be able to see the band and hear the band and really get a sense of our 20-year experience together, which a print book, although wonderful, just couldn't deliver
(Laughs) I have always been sort of enamored with the "Harry Potter" newspaper video — you know in the movies when they open up the newspaper and the video is running in it. I just love that in this book when you turn a page, a video can run on your screen. Both Scott and I are huge supporters of the printed word, but every now and then a project actually does better as an e-book because you get all this multimedia that you couldn't get in a printed book, so I think we hit the right book for the right medium.
Q: Were there any songs you didn't play that you wish you would have?
RP: "19th Nervous Breakdown" by The Rolling Stones. It was one of the first songs I learned with my junior high rock band, "The Frisbees"; would have brought me full circle! It also kind of describes my personality. Sadly!
ST: "Good Vibrations" by the Beach Boys. We would still be rehearsing.
Courtney Crowder covers the Chicago literary scene for Printers Row Journal.
By Stephen King, Dave Barry, Sam Barry, Roy Blount Jr., Matt Groening, Ted Habte-Gabr, Greg Iles, Mitch Albom, James McBride, Roger McGuinn, Ridley Pearson, Amy Tan and Scott Turow, Coliloquy, 220 pages, $16.99Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun