The Rock Bottom Remainders’ last performance was in 2016 in Miami. The band will reassemble in Tucson on Saturday.
Sam Barry jumps around as if he has a pogo stick. Amy Tan sports her police hat and accompanying whip. Greg Iles plays lead guitar to Led Zeppelin’s “Nobody’s Fault But Mine.”
They’re not the most musically inclined and you definitely won’t see them on the Billboard Hot 100 any time soon.
They’re the Rock Bottom Remainders — a rock ’n’ roll cover band made up of famous authors.
“One time Bruce Springsteen joined us on stage, and we had only one song left, which was ‘Gloria,’” Dave Barry says. “This is not a difficult song. If you throw a guitar on the ground, it will play ‘Gloria.’ Nevertheless, I had to ask Bruce if he knew it. He said he did, and he performed quite well. After that, his career really took off, although he never gives us credit.”
After nearly two years apart, the Rock Bottom Remainders will reunite at the 10th annual Tucson Festival of Books on Saturday, March 10 for a free concert to the public.
But let’s backtrack. The late Kathi Kamen Goldmark started the band in 1992. At the time, she was a media escort in San Francisco, showing famous authors around the city. But by night, Goldmark was a musician.
“Kathi would point at a bar and tell the authors she was playing there later that weekend,” says Sam Barry, Goldmark’s husband and member of the Rock Bottom Remainders. “All these authors would tell her that she’s so lucky to be a musician. She thought it was funny because — they’re famous authors.”
“She loved when other people would get up to play,” continues Sam who plays the harmonica, keyboard and the penny whistle. “But she really loved when somebody wasn’t good, but was daring enough to do it anyways.”
Goldmark eventually came up with the idea to start an all-author musical group. She faxed famous authors a list of requirements to join the band. Among them: You couldn’t be a musician.
Despite the requirement, a few band members, including Sam, did actually have experience in music.
“I’m one of those odd men out, in that I’m a real musician,” Sam says. “I’m a rock ’n’ roll guy. I’ve been at it since I was 10 years old. But Kathi really liked when people weren’t musicians. That was the spirit of the whole thing. We’re just clowning around.”
The Rock Bottom Remainders’ band members include Sam and his brother Dave, Mitch Albom, Ridley Pearson, Alan Zweibel, Greg Iles, Scott Turow, Amy Tan, Mary Karr, Josh Kelly and Erasmo Paolo.
The band also includes many others, such as Stephen King, though he won’t be performing at the festival.
“When Amy Tan was asked to join, the first thing she said was, ‘When do we go shopping?’” Sam says. “For Kathi, that was the right thing to say.”
You might ask: Why start a band if most of the members lack musical training? The answer is simple. It’s about fun. It’s about friendship.
“It’s like summer camp for adults,” Sam says. “We really miss each other and we’re dear friends. We’ve been through a lot together. We’re like a family.”
“Some of the most fun I’ve ever had with the band has been in the green room before the show,” he goes on to say. “It’s so hard to get all of us together; that’s what’s so great about Tucson. They did all the hard work and got us here.”
Dave says the best part about being in the band is learning from one another.
“Specifically, we’ve learned that we’re bad at music,” says Dave, who plays lead guitar. “That’s a joke. Sometimes we are not terrible! And we have fun. That really is the best part. We really do have fun and we try to make sure that the audience does, too.
“It helps a lot if the audience has been drinking.”
The authors value their friendships so much that they did the one thing they all do best. They wrote a book.
“Hard Listening: The Greatest Rock Band Ever (Of Authors) Tells All” was released in 2013 and tells the many stories and memories behind the Rock Bottom Remainders. The book was written by Stephen King, Scott Turow, Mitch Albom, Amy Tan, Matt Groening, Dave Barry, Roy Blount Jr., James McBride, Ridley Pearson, Greg Iles, Sam Barry and Roger McGuinn.
One of the last times the Rock Bottom Remainders performed was in 2012, shortly after Goldmark’s passing from breast cancer. The concert was performed in honor of her.
After the 2012 tribute to Goldmark, the Rock Bottom Remainders slowed down and played only a few more times at book festivals. According to Sam, their last performance was in 2016 at the Miami Book Fair.
Despite years apart, the Rock Bottom Remainders will only have one rehearsal before taking the stage in Tucson.
“Having one rehearsal is ridiculous,” Sam says. “But that’s the way we do it. That rehearsal, everyone is like, ‘What key is this in? Who does what?’ It’s our only rehearsal and our only soundcheck. Thank God we have a sound guy.”
According to Dave, however, the band has already started rehearsals.
“We’ve been rehearsing via email, which we understand is how all your top musical groups such as the Rolling Stones prepare for a big gig,” Dave says.
This year, fans of the Rock Bottom Remainders can expect to hear a few songs that the band has never played before.
“We plan to attempt a few new songs, which is usually fun for the audience and terrifying for us,” Dave says.
“I bet we’ll totally screw them up,” Sam says.
Besides new cover songs, Sam also mentioned that there will be kazoos involved — but that’s all he would say.
To accompany the performance, food trucks and a cash bar will be available.
Brenda Viner, one of the Tucson Festival of Books founders, says the concert is the perfect way to celebrate the festival’s 10th year.
“We’re excited for the community to come together and have fun,” Viner says. “The authors in the band are all very well-known, and the band is really about their friendships. They have this camaraderie and love for entertaining their fans. I also think they have to be very outgoing to be able to get on stage and do what they do.”
Viner says their performance is contagious — the band has fun, so the audience has fun.
“Having the Rock Bottom Remainders play at the festival was an opportunity we didn’t want to pass up,” she says
“It’s a party, is what it is,” Dave says. “We love it when people in the audience dance, and especially when they sing along, because they are usually better at singing than we are.”