The lines of music fans snaked outside the Nokia Theater in New York’s Times Square, a common sight at a venue that hosts pop acts ranging from Pat Benatar (Love is a Battlefield) to Norwegian heartthrobs a-ha (Take On Me).
But this was no ordinary rock and roll band that took the stage on a gorgeous spring Friday evening. On this night, professional singer-songwriters ceded the stage to part-time musicians who have literally written the book.
“We’ve sold more books than the Doors, the Beatles and The Rolling Stones combined,” crowed writer and humorist Roy Blount Jr., vocalist for the Rock Bottom Remainders, a merry band of authors, essayists and critics moonlighting as musicians to support worthy causes.
The band is named after a publishing term used to describe the unsold copies of a book title which is subsequently sold at a reduced price.
The Wordstock Tour
New York was the third stop in the Remainders’ 2010 Wordstock Tour, which raised funds for Haitian earthquake relief in conjunction with the organization World Vision. The tour also helped launch We Give Books, a literary initiative from the Pearson Foundation which puts books into the hands of children through a free website featuring Penguin’s classic children’s literature. For every book read online, the Pearson Foundation donates a hardcover or paperback to a child in need.
Besides Mr. Blount, whose books include Be Sweet and Alphabet Juice, this year’s Remainders troupe band included Amy Tan (The Joy Luck Club) and Scott Turow (Presumed Innocent) on vocals, Mitch Albom (Tuesdays With Morrie) on keyboards, James McBride (The Color of Water) on saxophone, and Greg Iles (Spandau Phoenix) and Dave Barry (The World According to Dave Barry) on guitar. They have sold more than 200 million books between them.
“We’re not half-bad,” was Barry’s cheeky pre-show promise.
Half-dressed might be an appropriate way to describe the attire of Amy Tan, who strutted onstage in an outrageous wig and racy leather outfit to stamp her mark on the Nancy Sinatra song These Boots Were Made for Walking. The standing-room-only crowd roared.
Author-rocker act began in 1992
Ms. Tan was one of the first to join the writers-cum-rockers back in the early 1990s, according to founder Kathi Kamen Goldmark.
By day, Goldmark used to shuttle authors around on their book tours while by night she was singing her own gigs with a country & western band. Upon hearing of her double life, some of Ms. Goldmark’s authors expressed serious musical envy. So she came up with the idea of having them join her onstage, and Rock Bottom Remainders were born.
The Remainders’ gig at the Nokia also included classics such as Mustang Sally and Wild Thing, a couple of Elvis Presley tunes (Love Me Tender and Jailhouse Rock) from Mr. Albom, and an ensemble version of – you guessed it – Paperback Writer.
There were also some clever original numbers. Dave Barry sang about his crush on a Proofreading Woman with impeccable grammar, while Ms. Goldmark sang about the joys and sorrows of getting older in the bluesy Older Than Him.
For spare-time musicians who don’t practice, practice, practice, it was all very accomplished, but the wordsmiths aren’t giving up their day jobs just yet.
“They look stunned when they all hit the right chord at the right time,” observed concert-goer Gene Hult, a New York-based children’s book writer.
Besides New York, this spring’s Remainders tour visited Philadelphia, New York, Boston and Chicago. The Pearson Foundation is donating books to school districts in each city. This year’s tour also helped raise money for the literacy efforts of the America’s Promise Alliance, New York’s 92nd Street Y and the Philadelphia Free Public Library.
‘A Real Privilege’ for Pearson Foundation
“It’s been a real privilege to help bring the Rock Bottom Remainders’ wonderful, enthusiastic mix of rock and roll to their fans, and to help raise funds for Haiti and important literacy efforts,” said Mark Nieker, the president of the Pearson Foundation.
Trish Van Buren, a book editor herself, has caught several of the Remainders’ shows over the years. Does that make her a groupie?
“Well, I don’t throw any undergarments on stage or stalk their hotel rooms,” she jokes. “But it’s really fun to see someone like Scott Turow tearing it up on I Fought the Law (and the Law Won). They all look like they’re having a blast up there.”
Photos from the event. Click on a thumbnail to view the photo