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A review of the all-author musical compilation Stranger Then Fiction, produced by Kathi Kamen Goldmark and released by "Don't Quit Your Day Job" records.
By now, most Stephen King fans have heard of the band he's in, The Rock Bottom Remainders, a band made up almost entirely of writers. Awhile back, they went on a real tour which produced a book of essays by band members, entitled Mid-Life Confidential: The Rock Bottom Remainders Tour America With Three Chords and an Attitude. At that point, they were still a fresh band, not really skilled , and deservedly self-effacing.
Somewhere between then and the time I saw them perform in May of 1998 in the Bangor Auditorium, they had somehow become good. They were never going to be anyone's idea of the world's greatest rock band, but they had risen from the depths of mediocrity to put on a truly terrific show.
Now, they seem to have decided that they are good enough to put out a two-CD compilation, and this time, it's not just the Remainders proper. Other authors, including Maya Angelou, Ken Follett, and Norman Mailer, were invited to contribute.
Is this insane? Isn't this akin to sports stars trying to be actors? And, above all, is any of Stranger Than Fiction worth it?
I'll tell you this: I thought it was better than I assumed it would be. And I think people who enjoy rock and roll (and country, and ballads) will enjoy this collection. Some tracks are better than others, some are oddly good. So, without further delay, let's take a look at the songs:
(Personal note: I'm one of the few reviewers who try to find something good to say about the work I review, so you'll find more positive reviews in here than negative. Don't let that dissuade you; a lot on the CDs actually is good, believe it or not.)
1. Bo Diddley - Stephen King: Backed with the amazing guitar work of Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, "Diddley" is a fast, fun opener. King's vocal skills may not be on par with Springsteen, but he's having a good time here, and it comes through on this well-sung lead-off.
2. Jungle Hop - Amy Tan & Kathi Goldmark: A "Mr. Sandman"-style track, packed with "jungle stylings" (lots of monkey and insect sounds), and a Tarzan impersonator. Again, a lot of fun, and Tan and Goldmark actually achieve some respectable melody here.
3. Alimony Blues - Norman Mailer: Mailer channels Johnny Cash in this rough-voiced country lament, boasting the first of many kazoo solos on this collection. Perhaps the best part of this track is the fact that you know it's Norman Mailer singing. Kind of blows the mind.
4. Proofreading Woman - Dave Barry: A Dave Barry original, this hilarious and tuneful track borrows some calypso backbeats from Jimmy Buffet and some of the more amusing bits from Barry's own "Mr. Language Person" columns. In my opinion, Barry has the best voice in the Remainders proper, and it's a shame that his cover of "Gloria" was not included on the set.
5. Right, Said Fred - Maya Angelou and Jessica Mitford - This isn't about the band who did "I'm Too Sexy." Our poet laureate takes on this British novelty song, a classic and classy rendition complete with yet another kazoo solo.
6. Roly Poly - Roy Blount, Jr. - In the first of a duo of eating songs, southern gentleman Roy Blount, Jr. sings about the food-fun adventures of "Daddy's little fatty." Bizarre and somehow fitting in this collection of oddities.
7. I Want to Eat - Oscar Hijuelos - Speaking of bizarre, this song about "the consumptive nature of love" takes a couple of listening before you get over the "What the hell?" first impression. Then it becomes really fun. Sample lyric: "I want to eat your sister (can't resist her) / I want to eat your map of Arabia." And it gets weirder from there.
8. Baby, It's Cold Outside - Cynthia Robbins and Billy Philadelphia: The old duet standard, presented here with nothing really new but gender reversal. One of the very few boring tracks on the set.
9. Act Naturally - Leonard Maltin with Meg Mackay - Fitting that Leonard Maltin, movie critic, would cover this song all about the movies. Perhaps the best-known version of "Act Naturally" is the Beatles version, and from what I can hear, Ringo might actually have a run for his money; Maltin is a surprisingly good vocalist. One of STF's real surprises.
10. Rave On - Bob Greene - Those who read Greene's first fictional foray, All Summer Long (all three of us) or his terrific nonfiction collection He Was a Midwestern Boy on His Own know all about Greene's deep love for rock music. Here, he's given a chance to prove it, in an eerily exact Buddy Holly cover. One of the ones that make you want to get up and dance.
11. Steamroller Blues - Susanne Peri - James Taylor wrote this? This sultry, sweaty torch song succeeds on all levels: the vocal is low and smoky, the lyrics are extremely suggestive and symbolic, and the backing band is simply terrific. One of the few tracks here that could have been commercially released - it's that good. Blues at its best.
12. Double Shot of My Baby's Love - [Too many to List] - A Rock Bottom Remainders staple, this one utilizes a huge portion of the group in a sort of harmony (and kazoos!) to create another well-done cover. It's hard to explain how much fun a song like this is without hearing it - you'll find yourself, purely by accident, taping your feet, bobbing your head, and singing along to this one.
13. It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels - Molly Ivins - "This song was sung a long time ago by a lady named Kitty Wells." A Patsy Cline-esque country song that is surprisingly feminist, sung to a sarcastic edge by the columnist Molly Ivans. Her vocal is fine, but by her own admission, "If [she] had a sense of rhythm, [she]'d be fabulous."
14. Chain Gang - Robert Reich - The only real problem with this one is that Reich has the lyrics down pat, but he doesn't seem to have the soul. His singing seems too much a recitation. The best part is his long spoken-word fade out, bashing the Republican party (even funnier knowing he worked for Bill Clinton at one point.)
15. On the Good Ship Lollipop - Tomie dePaola - This children's book author sticks with his genre here, covering the old Shirley Temple tune. From the liner notes: "When he was three years old, [dePaola] wanted to be Shirley Temple. This is his chance." Oh boy.
16. Stand by Me - Stephen King - As a member of the Rock Bottom Remainders, King has seemingly made this his signature song, somehow apt due to the filmed version of his novella "The Body," released as the movie Stand By Me. Again, his vocals aren't great, but that doesn't really matter here - we've got the "rock star monologue" in the middle - so much fun that King cracks up at the end. Above all else, it's worth it to hear King's infectious laugh, and his "Disneyworld" coda.
1. Rainy Day Bookstores - Ben "Bobby" Fong-Torres and Ben "Elvis" Fong-Torres - A parody of Bob Dylan's "Rainy Day Women #12 & #35," this track has a lot of fun with "book humor." ("They'll stone you when you want to take a chance / they'll stone you when you ask for your advance.") Book people will love it, non-book people will just scratch their heads and say "Huh?" I loved it.
2. Hot Rod Lincoln - Blanche McCrary Boyd - Gender bending the original guy-and-his-car classic, this track puts the pedal to the metal and a woman in the driver's seat. So much fun it should be illegal.
3. Tupperware Blues - Dave Barry - Another Dave Barry original, this hilarious track praises the merits of Tupperware, that bastion of food freshness. ("Don't forget to burp the lid to make the seal secure" is just one of the lyrics.) Also a highlight is Warren Zevon's terrific lead guitar work - great as always. A keeper you'll continue to laugh with even after repeated listenings.
4. Man Smart, Woman Smarter - Peggy Orenstein - More calypso, with fun lyrics and a peppy backbeat that makes you almost forget the blatant man-bashing. Almost.
5. If I Had a Talking Picture of You - Leonard Maltin - Slow, basic standard that once again shows off Maltin's vocal prowess, but doesn't really stand out. Gentle, affectionate, but with no real depth.
6. Johnny Get Angry - Walter M. Mayes -- Talk about gender-bending! This song, shockingly misogynist when sung (as it originally was) by a woman, stands out here in a jokey, hokey, funny track sung by Mayes (who, by the way is married; yes, to a woman!) One of the best tracks on the set, you will listen to this one over and over - it's so much fun. Plus: kazoos.
7. These Boots Are Made for Walkin' - Amy Tan - The stage performance of this song is capped off by Tan, dressed in one of many slinky dominatrix uniforms, whipping the boys in the band and calling them "very bad." Here, you get the sound effects only, but it's still darn fun to hear Amy Tan, author of The Joy Luck Club, get sadomasochistic. Ah, rock and roll.
8. Happy Birthday, Mitzi Gaynor - Molly Ivins, Bob Livingston, and Jerry Jeff Walker - Molly Ivans can't sing that, can she? Apparently so, in this freaky polka about the insatiable Mitzi Gaynor. The only song you'll ever hear with the phrase "barbecue-flavored vaginal gel" in it.
9. Wall of Death - Louis B. Jones - Jones plays it straight here in this extraordinary cover of Richard Thompson's original. Not only are the lyrics among Thompson's best (a sort of anti- "Tunnel of Love" for you Springsteen fans), but Jones's delivery is terrific, as is the backing band and the harmony vocals by Kevin Griffin. Above all others on this two-CD set, this one is simply perfect.
10. You'll Come Back (You Always Do) - Norris Church Mailer - Another torch song, sung with sweet surety by Mailer, who has an endearing, sympathetic voice. The backing choir really makes this track work, along with the modern country guitar work. Sad, slow, and beautiful.
11. Wild Thing - "Critical Mess" - Get a whole bunch of rock critics together and try to get them to sing The Troggs. It works out better than expected, mostly due to the guitar work and Roy Blount, Jr.'s "I looove you" solos.
12. Busted - Mary Mackey - This type of song (a fiddle-driven country song) used to be really popular, but I find it had to listen to. I know the vocal is supposed to be screechy, but I just don't like it.
13. Proud Mary - Tanarive P. Due - Starts off "nice and easy" and finishes off "nice and rough." (They do it better rough.) A shifting-tempo version that would make John Fogarty proud (except, I thought it was "pumped a lot of 'pane" not "pumped a lot of 'tane.'" Oh well.)
14. I'm Your Hoochie Coochie Man - Damn Right I Got the Blues - Ken Follett sings the blues, with a rough voice akin to that of Norman Mailer. Great stuff for those who are into the blues - it's tuneful and skilled, something Stevie Ray Vaughn could do in his sleep. I just wasn't terribly impressed.
15. Hit the Road, Jack - Digby Diehl and Kay Diehl - Great minimalist cover, with a real fun spoken word fade-out ("What about my books? My Stephen Kings, my Amy Tans? … My signed Dave Barrys?) Terrific vocals and a nice sax solo round this enjoyable little classic.
16. You Can't Judge a Book by the Cover - Stephen King and Kathi Kamen Goldmark - This finale, a duet between Remainders "Band Mom" Goldmark and its most well-known member King, is a great send-off. Especially apt (due to King's turn as Jordy Verrill in Creepshow) is the chorus: "You look like a farmer." / "I'm a lover." Also fun is Goldmark's fade-out question, "Where do you get your ideas?" A fun way to finish off a mostly well-done collection. Way to go
. Until next time, kids, keep on smiling, listen to some good music, and for Pete's sake: READ!
Kevin Quigley, November 30th 1998