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Rock Bottom Remainders, the Literary All-Star Band With Stephen King, Scott Turow, Amy Tan and Dave Barry, Plays Its Last Show

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Thu, Jun 21, 2012 at 6:00 AM
click to enlarge ILLUSTRATION BY DAVID HORSEY
  • Illustration by David Horsey

The Rock Bottom Remainders -- that all-star band made up of the country's most beloved, best-selling literary luminaries, including Dave Barry, Amy Tan, Scott Turow, Mitch Albom, Matt Groening and even, yes, Stephen King -- wouldn't exist but for Kathi Kamen Goldmark.

The noted "author schlepper" (officially, a consultant and author escort for publishing houses) put the group together to blow some minds at the American Booksellers Association conference in Anaheim in 1992. And for its 20 years of existence -- and the $2 million it raised for charity -- the group was bound together by Goldmark's love of life. Turow even referred to her as "an engine of joy."

That sense of joyful whimsy extended to Goldmark's final moments. Just before she passed away on May 24, 2012, after a battle with cancer, she let out "Rosebud," a la Citizen Kane, as her final word, to the teary-eyed chuckles of those present.

As a tribute to Goldmark, the band will make a final public performance at the El Rey (and a private, final performance at its American Booksellers Association birthplace in Anaheim) before heading up to her memorial service in San Francisco.

We caught up with various Remainders via phone, email and carrier pigeon last week to talk about how these non-hack writers got together as a hack band, kind of made it as a hack band and now are disbanding. And, of course, Goldmark.

The lineup has changed here and there, but there are some consistencies. Barry plays co-lead guitar, along with whoever the resident ringer happens to be (past ringers include Warren Zevon), with King on rhythm guitar, Tan on keys, Ridley Pearson on bass and professional musicians and non-authors Josh Kelly and Erasmo Paolo handling the drums and the sax, respectively.

The remaining Remainders are a hodgepodge called the Remainderettes. Tan explains: "In the tradition of the '60s girl groups, like the Ronettes, Kathi named the harmonizing back-up female singers 'The Remainderettes.' We never learned to harmonize, but we did turn 60, and we allowed Scott Turow to be a Remainderette without a sex-change operation."

Turow explains. "I once told Kathi, 'Every American author of our generation bears a psychic wound because they aren't in the Rock Bottom Remainders.' Kathi said, 'Oh, Scott, I didn't know you played an instrument.' I said, 'I don't, but I'm wounded anyway.' And then I found myself in the band. Now I am literally in the band as a sight gag. I wear wigs; I dance around."

Lending the band a bit of rock-star credibility is former Byrds frontman and current resident ringer Roger McGuinn, who has accompanied the Remainders on tour for the past 12 years. He got into the group through his friendship with former Remainder Carl Hiaasen. McGuinn says, "Dave [Barry] always downplays them, goes on about how terrible they are. And I don't want to betray him, but Dave and Ridley are pretty good. Stephen King has a real heart for rock & roll, but he's still working on his F chord."

So is this all Hall and no Oates time -- the Remainders' "go for broke" moment to see if they can make it as solo artists? "If I 'go for broke' as a solo artist," Tan quips, "I would go broke."

Barry says, "Funny you should bring that up, since both Hall and Oates begged to be part of this show. But no, we're not planning on solo careers, except for Roy Blount Jr., who wants to try to be a male underwear model. Or female. He is not picky, as long as he can wear underwear, which is a new concept for him, as he is Southern."

The craziest (printable) thing that ever happened? Once, on a cab ride to a show in Austin, the driver offered Remainders manager Ted Habte-Gabr a Harley for the band to use in its signature rendition of the Shangri-Las' "Leader of the Pack." After some wrangling with the venue's staff, and with the promise that the bike would not be turned on, they got it in there. Of course, they bucked the staff and revved it on cue anyway, basically freaking out everyone, including a good portion of the band. "I had to go outside and get yelled at by the venue staff," Habte-Gabr says. "Take one for the band."

They were not always an easy group to wrangle. Habte-Gabr says, "You try sending an email with a typo in it to a group of 12 authors. Two days later, the original intent of the email is out the window and it has turned into complete chaos."

But a young Van Halen they ain't. "Because of our advanced age, we're currently scheduling the late-night hotel brawls for 6 p.m.," Barry says. "Also, we're paying surrogates to brawl for us."

After the band's 20-year run, the Remainders promise there are no plans for a rock & roll future after the final show: no Rock Bottom Wilburys, no Rock Bottom Starship, no Remainders Remainders. "If that happens, or threatens to happen," Barry says, "I hope the federal authorities will step in."

Even though they're planning an update, The Remainders' published 1994 tour diary, Mid-Life Confidential, is an actual rock-bottom remainder now; a wiseacre like Kathi Kamen Goldmark would likely love the irony. If nothing else, she'll definitely have the best seat in the house to watch her literary rock & roll offspring make one final giant, boisterous ass out of itself.

The Rock Bottom Remainders play their final public show June 22 at 7:30 p.m. at the El Rey Theatre; theelrey.com.

Follow me on Twitter at @paultbradley, and for more arts news follow us at @LAWeeklyArts and like us on Facebook.

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