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LOS ANGELES — It took 20 years but the group Bruce Springsteen once praised as being almost as good as a lousy garage band is finally calling it quits.
The Rock Bottom Remainders, a contingent that has made it clear with every performance that literary giants like Amy Tan, Stephen King and Scott Turow really did make the right decision when they set aside their musical ambitions to write books, is calling it a career after two Southern California shows later this month.
“We’ve gotten as good as we’re ever going to get,” says lead guitarist and best-selling humorist Dave Barry, explaining the band’s decision. “You can’t get any better,” Barry continued. “Well, you actually can get a lot better. But we can’t get any better. We’re up to almost four chords now, and the Beatles quit at that point, I’m pretty sure.”
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Truth be told, the Rock Bottom Remainders were always a lot better than they gave themselves credit for. Especially for a band whose members’ busy writing schedules prevented them from doing more than one or two gigs a year and who rarely had time to rehearse.
They’ve decided to wrap things up in part because of the death last month of the group’s founder, book publicist and lead singer Kathi Goldmark. It was she who persuaded each one of them to join as she drove them around on book tours over the years.
“We sort of felt this would be a good time to end it because it just isn’t going to be the same without Kathi,” said Barry during a rare moment of seriousness.
The group’s Past Our Bedtime Tour (because real musicians don’t get up early like writers do) will include a public performance June 22 at LA’s El Rey Theatre, followed by a private show the next day for the American Library Association’s Anaheim convention.
All profits will go to charity, as has been the case with every Remainders concert since the group formed for a booksellers convention 20 years ago. They have raised an estimated $2 million since then.
“We’re always stressing that we’re not getting any money,” said Barry, adding concert-goers would likely be very unhappy to learn they’d shelled out $40 a ticket if they thought the money was going to a band no better than one they could hear for free in their neighbor’s garage. But despite their musical limitations, the Remainders, (who take their name from the industry term for books nobody wants) have managed to share stages with an impressive list of musicians over the years.
Among them, Springsteen, Warren Zevon, Judy Collins, Ronnie Spector, Al Kooper and the Byrds’ Roger McGuinn. It was Springsteen, Barry recalled, who after playing with the group told them they weren’t that bad, then offered this advice: “Don’t get any better or you’ll be just another lousy garage band.”
McGuinn, who will join them for this tour, met the band’s members through writer Carl Hiaasen a dozen years ago and has played with them off and on ever since. His assessment of them is a bit kinder.
“Now Dave will tell you that they’re just a lousy band, but in fact they’re pretty good,” McGuinn said recently by phone as he traveled between gigs in Nashville and Tucson, Ariz. Then he couched that, adding, “They’re not as bad as they claim to be.”
He has high praise for several members, including keyboardist Mitch Albom (Tuesdays With Morrie), bass player Ridley Pearson (Middle of Nowhere) and guitarist Greg Iles. The latter was actually a touring musician before he wrote his first best-seller, Spandau Phoeniz.
Another member, James McBride, is a respected composer as well as a writer. Tan, meanwhile, studied classical piano as a child, something that in no way seems to have prepared her for the sometimes-goth-dressing, bad-girl rock vixen that The Joy Luck Club author portrays onstage when she belts out the old Nancy Sinatra hit “These Boots Are Made For Walkin.'”
The group’s specialty is ‘60s rock ‘n roll with a few original tunes by band members thrown in. Still, among the most entertaining segments of a Remainders performance, Barry says, is watching Roy Blount Jr. and Simpson’s creator Matt Groening clap out of time during an entire show while pretending to sing along with other band members.
Neither, he said, will get close enough to a microphone to let the audience hear them. “We’re fun. We’re not good but we’re fun,” Barry says, laughing. “And they do serve alcohol (at the show). This is key. For us as well as the audience.”
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