Topping the bestseller lists is OK; winning literary awards may be fine, but several of America's most famed authors had other words on their minds.
Like, for example: "I said a nah, nah nah nah nah, nah nah nah nah, nah nah nah, nah nah nah . . . nah nah nah nah. . . ."
If not immediately evident, that was the sound of Pulitzer-packing humorist Dave Barry kicking off "Land of 1,000 Dances" with the group the Rock Bottom Remainders. The band played Monday night at the Cowboy Boogie Company in Anaheim to a random house full of publishers, book dealers and others in town for the American Booksellers Assn. convention.
Barry was joined onstage by fellow writers Stephen King, Amy Tan, Roy Blount Jr., Robert Fulghum, Barbara Kingsolver, Matt Groening, Michael Dorris, Ridley Pearson and Tad Bartimus, rock critics Dave Marsh, Greil Marcus and Joel Selvin, and '60s rock vet/writer Al Kooper.
Along with two ringers--actual musicians drafted by bandleader Kooper (organist on Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" and all-around super-session guy)--the lineup was rounded out by event organizer Kathi Kamen Goldmark, who runs an authors' escort service.
No one with half a brain seems to want to be President anymore, and there's too much unpleasant stretching and bending involved in being a Stephen Seagal-style kickboxing killer cop. But the dream of becoming a rock star still seems to be running hot and heavy.
Tan stormed the literary world with her debut novel, "The Joy Luck Club," riding the bestseller lists for nine months and hailed as mesmerizing, poetic and important. But when asked if she'd trade all that for rock godhood, she immediately said, "Why do you think I'm here?" There was little doubting her, decked out as she was in a shiny beetle-black skintight outfit and dark shades.
The writers seemed to be playing their rock fantasy to the hilt, with press conferences, an appropriately fictitious bio penned by Dorris, a huge band bus, a stage heavy with big amps, enough fog to enshroud any two King horror flicks and a multi-camera video shoot (including one mounted on a 20-foot crane that continually threatened to conk the heads of those crowded on the club's dance floor).
Nearly all the writers were rock novices, except for Barry, who explained at the press conference: "I wrote a blues song about Tupperware, sort of in the tradition of the blues, how slaves would sing about things that mattered to them like freedom and Tupperware. And I performed it in front of 1,000 Tupperware distributors, and I got a standing ovation. And so did a set of ovenware."
Of the less-seasoned performers, Blount perhaps spoke for all of them when he said, "All I know is there are 19 'nahs' in 'Land of 1,000 Dances.' "
Despite their inexperience, none of the authors was particularly reserved on stage. Even the typically bow-tied Fulghum (writer of "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten") was sporting snazzy black overalls and got marginally loose on "I Got a Woman"--during which groupies stormed the stage--and the Grateful Dead's "Ripple."
The Remainders (the term used in the book world to describe the discounted turkeys that didn't sell) kept to a set of what Kooper described as "a potpourri of '50s and '60s chestnuts." The greatest obscurity of the 17-song bunch was Don and Dewey's "Mammer Jammer," though most was familiar party fare, like "Double Shot of My Baby's Love" and "Gloria."
For all the writing talent on stage there were few liberties taken with the lyrics. The exception was rhythm guitarist King, easily the best singer of the bunch, who aptly applied himself to a brace of teen death songs. On "Teen Angel" he made a macabre urban update on the baneful high school ring of the original lyric:
What was it you were looking for that took your life that night? They said they found my vial of crack clutched in your fingers tight.
King's glottal rockabilly vocal on Jody Reynolds' "Endless Sleep" was accompanied by the female singers, dubbed the Remainderettes, feigning sleep, while the rock critics, called the Critics Chorus, made dour funeral faces.
"Louie Louie" was sung with frat-party gusto by the Critics Chorus, which seemed to revel in the set of ridiculous pornographic lyrics obtained from the FBI files through the Freedom of Information Act by critic Marsh. (In the early '60s, the FBI actually ran a 30-month investigation of the song's purportedly dirty mumbled lyrics). Not to say that the critcs sang flat, but if they were tires, everybody would have been walking home.
The band dynamic was explained by Barry during the press conference earlier: "Although there's a certain amount of natural tension between the critics and the people who aren't critics--normal humans--we found that, once we've all rehearsed and played together, they really suck. But we're loud enough to handle that."
Barry did prove a sizable guitar god, playing several very important-looking solos, which, true to the greatest rock tradition, the sound man didn't bother to make audible in the mix.
As bands go, the Remainders sounded about the way your bowling league might if it had Al Kooper to whip it into shape (given Kooper's career of late, he might just be available). But, as the malt liquor ads say, "It gets the job done ." The party sprawl emanating from the stage helped the convention's bookish types to get loose, if not loutish, and the two shows raised what Goldmark estimated to be $15,000 for three organizations, the Homeless Writers Coalition of Los Angeles, Literacy Volunteers of America and the anti-censorship Right to Rock Network.
It also clearly was a success with the participants. Standing outside the club amid a crowd of admirers after the first show, King explained the lure of rock and roll for him, "It's liberating! Real powerful. And what I normally do, I do in a room all by myself. I very rarely do it in front of a thousand screaming beered-up patrons."
Barry, his lank Ringo haircut wet with honest sweat, echoed that sentiment:
"Never that I can think of in writing columns has a woman come up and given me her underpants. That was one major difference. Oh sure, occasionally a woman has come up and given me some undergarment, but never that."
The Remainders' future is uncertain, although the members queried said they'd gladly do it again. Said Blount, "It's great to come to ABA for no ulterior purpose other than to be godlike for three hours."