Write On!

A Report Back from The Rock Bottom Remainders Concert
at The Roxy: Boston, Massachusetts, November 16, 2000


It’s hard trying to explain to people why going to a Rock Bottom Remainders concert is so much fun. “They’re a bunch of writers trying to sing – why do I want to hear that?” is one common complaint. Another is the irritating, “Well, I like Stephen King (or Dave Barry or Amy Tan) but I don’t really read the others, so what’s the point?”

The point is this: these people – these writers – are not here to read from their books. They’re not here to postulate theorems on the current state of American literature. No, tonight, these authors are here for one reason only: to rock and roll.

Standing forefront on the stage, under spotlights of alternating red and blue, Dave Barry introduces his bandmates, one by one. They burst from backstage, kings and queens of rock and roll bravado: Amy Tan, Mitch Albom, Ridley Pearson, band Mom Kathi Goldmark ... and, of course, Stephen King.

King strides onstage looking far less gaunt than he has in previous public appearances. He brandishes his guitar like a loaded weapon, walking easily – if slowly – to his point near center stage. Any sign that he’d been in a life-threatening accident a little over a year ago is not in evidence. The King is back in black (okay, okay; he’s wearing a t-shirt with a big rooster on it) and ready to kick out the jams.

Last time the Remainders were out, they brought rock legend Warren Zevon along for the ride. This time, they’ve got Roger McGuinn, lead singer of The Byrds, in their corner, and they couldn’t express their happiness more (short of actual genuflection.) Dave Barry then proclaims to the audience that every rock group needs three chick singers; with Tan and Goldmark filling the first two slots, Barry brings out Scott Turow, author of Presumed Innocent, in an untamed blonde fright wig. (This is just the first of many incredibly weird costume ideas – it’s as if the Rocky Horror thrift store had a sale and the Remainders bought everything.) Rounding out this wacky cast is Tabitha King, dancing like an insanely happy madwoman in the background.

They start out hard and rough – a big ol’ wallop of “You Can’t Sit Down” – almost a command to the people in the audience. It’s about this time that these people cramming the stage realize that they’re not at a book signing; they’re at a concert. Some of the more nimble folk (myself included) start to rock out with the band. It’s not much – not at first – but as the night progresses, the folks in the audience start to tune into what the Remainders are all about, and climb aboard their magic bus.

The momentum keeps with a high-octane “Mammer Jammer,” but it’s not long until things slow down and King turns in a beautiful rendition of his standard “Stand By Me.” Roger McGuinn steps up to the mike early on and the Remainders join him in a wonderful “Mr. Tambourine Man” – it’s straight-up rock here, none of the usual band antics, but it doesn’t matter. Watching these literary greats match licks with an icon of rock and roll would be cool even if the backup instrumentation was subpar. As it stands, the Remainders have improved supernaturally since their early days of playing at the Cowboy Boogie. They’re not some garage band struggling to keep up anymore; they’ve become a lot better than they give themselves credit for and the music doesn’t jar when they play with McGuinn: it melds.

Mitch Albom – whose assured singing style blew the roof off the Roxy – blasts through a rockabilly “Oh Boy”; later, he’ll don gold lamé and a pompadour and swagger out a medley of Elvis hits. Barry hauls out his signature “Proofreading Woman” (with audience participation, of course; when Barry gives out “I’m in love,” the audience screams back, “HE’S IN LOVE!”). Stephen King surprises everyone with a laid-back rendition of “Iko Iko” (replacing the screamer “Cum on Feel the Noize” this time around) and the gruesome centerpiece of the evening, “Teen Angel.” (“The fact that I was recently in a car accident makes this even sicker,” King says of the teen tragedy tune with a wild gleam in his eye.) Kathi Goldmark, tucked into leather and wearing her sunglasses at night, moans and wails through “Secret Agent Man,” with Scott Turow hamming it up as the eponymous “Man.” And Amy Tan – oh, that vixen, author of The Joy Luck Club Amy Tan – kicks ass with her trademark, “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’,” in full dominatrix regalia, making the boys in the band bend over to receive lashes from her whip.

Throughout all this, Roger McGuinn is quiet, focused (even when they put a fake tinsel halo on his head during “Teen Angel,” he retains some dignity). While performing “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better,” he’s smiling, but cautious. What kind of a crowd is this? What kind of a band is this? But as the Remainders bring him toward the end of “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” he smiles widely, performing surprising flourishes with his guitar. He breathes the words “...a time for peace / I swear it’s not too late,” and for a moment everything stops. Roger McGuinn gives a reassuring smile to the audience ... and flashes two fingers up in a peace sign. It’s a quintessential rock and roll moment; I have never been to the sixties, but I’m there now, and this is one giant love-in, right in the middle of Boston, Massachusetts.

Near the end of the night, the band buzzes through, “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘N’ Roll Star,” and it couldn’t be more apt. These folks, who spend most of their lives watching words move slowly across a screen or a piece of paper, are now realizing their own rock and roll dreams. Watching them, you can’t help but wish you were one of them, in all their delightful insanity. The show closes with the Goldmark/King duet of “You Can’t Judge a book by Its Cover,” Dave Barry’s always amazing “Gloria,” and the arena rocker, “If the House is a-Rockin’ Don’t Come a-Knockin,” and I realize I can’t wait to see them again. Tune in, read on, rock out: the mantra of a Rock Bottom Remainders groupie.