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Writers rock

They’re famous authors by day, garage band by night. But after 20 years, the Rock Bottom Remainders — the group made up of best-selling writers like Stephen King, Dave Barry, Amy Tan, Matt Groening, and Mitch Albom — are packing up their gear for good

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The Beatles had their farewell rooftop concert. The Band had the Last Waltz. Today, in a Los Angeles recording studio, a very different kind of rock group — one made up of well-known authors — is rehearsing for its own final performances. In two days they’ll close out their 20-year career with a June 23 concert at the least rock & roll-sounding venue imaginable: a librarians’ convention. First, though, they need to nail down their rendition of the 1964 Shangri-Las song ”Leader of the Pack.” After the umpteenth attempt breaks down midway through, the band’s rhythm guitarist, who happens to be Stephen King, steps up to his microphone with a wry grin. ”Ladies and gentlemen,” he says to an imaginary audience, ”welcome to the clusterf— that we call the Rock Bottom Remainders.”

Every so often since 1992, the all-star crew of writers — which has included Dave Barry, Amy Tan, Barbara Kingsolver, Mitch Albom, Scott Turow, and Simpsons creator Matt Groening, among others — have stepped away from their day jobs to indulge their rock-star fantasies. The lineup of the Remainders, who mainly play enthusiastic but shambling covers of rock classics, has changed a little over the years. But one thing has been constant: They’ve never been especially good. Bruce Springsteen once told them, ”Don’t get any better or you’ll just be another lousy garage band.” Then again, making great music wasn’t the point of the Remainders. The point was to raise money for various literary organizations — which they have, to the tune of more than $2 million — and to get a more visceral thrill than, say, a book signing can deliver. ”We’re a novelty, like a dog that can dance,” Barry says. ”Our audience are fans of writing, and they usually have a good sense of humor — thank God. And ideally they’ve had a few drinks.”

But now, following the death of their founder, Kathi Kamen Goldmark, in May, they’re calling it quits. It was Goldmark who, while working as a publicist for authors on book tours, came up with the idea of assembling an all-author rock band for a booksellers’ convention. King, a die-hard music lover and, in his words, ”an educable retarded guitarist,” was one of the writers who received Goldmark’s proposal. ”I made a demo tape of myself doing ‘Sea of Love’ and sent it in,” he recalls. ”I thought, ‘No way are they ever going to let me in this band.”’ While a few of the members had some genuine musical expertise (Barry, for example, had played guitar in a college band called Federal Duck), that wasn’t really a requirement. ”I know my limitations,” says Tan, who joined the band as a singer, donning a dominatrix outfit for part of their stage act. ”Kathi helped me understand that when you don’t have a lot of talent, you use attitude and humor.”

The Remainders’ debut performance was pretty rough. Reviewing the set for LA Weekly, Don Henley of the Eagles called their version of ”Louie Louie” ”a cacophonous frat-party nightmare.” But King had caught the rock & roll bug. ”I thought this was a one-off,” says Barry, ”but as we were leaving the stage Steve said, ‘We aren’t done yet.”’ He laughs. ”We made Stephen King. Had anyone even heard the name Stephen King before 1992? I don’t think so.”

Over the years the band became a little more polished, especially as a few skilled musicians, like Greg Iles and Albom, joined. Even King (who once called himself ”a hood ornament on this band”) has improved his guitar playing to some degree, as Roger McGuinn, a founding member of the Byrds who’s made many guest appearances with the Remainders, can attest. ”Stephen was working on his F chord for a while,” says McGuinn, ”but he’s got that down now.” Still, a few members, like Groening and Roy Blount Jr., have clung proudly to their total lack of musical ability. ”I feel like one of the band’s mascots,” says Groening, who sings backup. ”I’m not even sure my mic is turned on.”

In the Remainders’ final days together, there’s been a lot of shared laughter over old stories: about the time Tan, while decked out in her bondage gear, was thrown out of a hotel lobby after being mistaken for a ”working girl,” or the time the guy driving the band’s tour bus was so stoned it was a miracle they got to the next gig. It’s clear that there’s plenty of affection among the members. Iles relied on the band for emotional support last year while he was recovering from a car accident that resulted in the amputation of his lower right leg. Despite being past his deadline on his next novel, he wanted to be there at the end. ”I wouldn’t miss this for anything,” he says.

It’s no surprise, then, that during rehearsals someone brings up the prospect of getting the Remainders back together for a reunion. Barry, for one, sounds skeptical. After all, he says, they’ve already made such a big deal of retiring: ”We’d have so much explaining to do!” When you think about it, though, that wouldn’t be too great an obstacle. Say what you will about their music — these people are pretty good with words.

Meet the Remainders

Though the group’s roster has shifted over the years, the lineup for their last performance included, as always, not just writers but also a few ringers (you know, real musicians)

1. Josh Kelly drums

2. Dave Barry lead guitar and vocals

3. Greg Iles lead guitar and vocals

4. Amy Tan vocals

5. Matt Groening cowbell and backup vocals

6. Stephen King rhythm guitar and vocals

7. Scott Turow backup vocals

8. Roy Blount Jr. backup vocals

9. Sam Barry harmonica and backup vocals

10. Roger McGuinn Byrds cofounder and guest artist

11. James McBride saxophone

12. Erasmo Paolo saxophone

13. Mitch Albom keyboard and vocals

14. Janine Albom vocals

15. Ridley Pearson bass