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

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

They wear clingy body suits and thigh-length boots with 6-inch heels, and carry a riding crop while belting out "These Boots Are Made for Walking." (Well, one of them does. No, it's not Stephen King.)

Can you imagine Faulkner and Eudora Welty going out in the 1940s on a Mississippi Delta Blues Jam tour? Or Norman Mailer, Irwin Shaw and James Jones taking a swing-music group on the road in the 1960s? Writers always did crazy things, like getting into fights in bars and hanging out in the Left Bank and Tangiers. They had plenty of self-indulgent moments. But nobody sold tickets to them.

Times change

Now we have a president whose campaign theme song was a Fleetwood Mac number, and who jammed on saxophone with Clarence Clemmons' group at an Inaugural Ball. Now it's just plain different.

And now we have writers coming out of the word processor and onto the stage. The Remainders say they rarely talk about literary matters, except maybe "to give some advice on foreign rights," as Mr. Pearson says.

They'd rather strap on the Strats and play such old garage-band favorites as "Gloria" and "Louie, Louie." The Remainders clearly are having a ball, and the audiences at three shows last weekend seemed to eagerly embrace their blend of oldies covers and comic set-pieces.

Perhaps no one seems happier than Mr. King, who galumphs with abandon on stage and cheerfully acknowledges his modest talents. In Northampton, he prefaced a version of "Stand By Me" with the observation: "I've been singing this song for 27 years and still can't get it right, but f it."

Off stage, he mixes easily with other Remainders. Several band members said they were struck by his lack of ego and willingness just to be part of the group.

High profile

Still, Mr. King's got by far the highest profile, and that was apparent last weekend. He was constantly stopped by fans for autographs and photos when he was in public, and for security reasons was whisked away by private car immediately after the first two shows. "We all know Stephen is the King," Mr. Kooper said, making an intentional play on words. "We're in the band with a cultural phenomenon, and we've all accepted that."

Although at times annoyed by the intrusions, Mr. King takes the attention philosophically. "I've lived with the goony aspects of being a celebrity author for a long time, so this is nothing new," he said. "Yeah, it did hurt when they stuck me in a limo immediately after the show in Northampton. I really wanted to share the post-concert experience with the rest of the band. But at least I can do that the rest of the tour."

Just how good are the Remainders? Mr. Kooper's professional opinion is that "this band has come out of the garage, and by the end of this tour they'll be a good bar band." Then he adds reflectively, "I don't know what we'll do about the singing, though."

Expectations

At nearly every opportunity, someone in the group will toss out a self-deprecatory comment. When Mr. Barry was asked at a press conference how well the group played in Providence, R.I., on the first show of the tour, he deadpanned, "In terms of ear damage, we did very well."

Mr. King understands this approach, but doesn't buy it.

"Below our jokes and put-downs and crap about how awful we are, and how we're only in it for the fun, there's something else," he said before the first show in Cambridge. "We're all successful writers. We're Type A personalities who are driven to be better than everybody else. We don't want to embarrass ourselves. Better yet, we want to be as good as we can possibly be."

Mr. Barry has found out something else.

"Really, the best thing is that we are becoming really close friends," he said. "I haven't made friends like this as an adult in a long time. When you become an adult, that can be hard to do. But we've done it."

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