Rock Bottom Remainders’ last chapter is at El Rey, ALA convention

Pick a fight with Stephen King? Roger McGuinn has no fear.

Asked if he’s a better writer than King is a musician, McGuinn — a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer with ‘60s Los Angeles band the Byrds — laughed, but didn’t hesitate.

“I think so,” he says, speaking from a solo tour stop in Nashville. “That’s not saying a whole lot, though. Stephen still needs to work on his F chord.”

McGuinn and King, an amateur guitarist and singer, are sometimes-members of the Rock Bottom Remainders, a pickup band of mostly authors which for the last 20 years has played charity concerts of rock classics and a few originals. Now the good-natured jokes are flying as the band’s members gear up for what are billed as the band’s two final shows.

“You need to put in that Steve learned to play the F sharp minor chord,” King crows, confirming his real-life reputation as a nice guy from his home in Maine. “You can tell Roger that F chord is put to bed, baby.” It’s been seven years since King last played a Remainders show, he notes, and he’s been practicing.

They’ll both be here for two Southern California shows, Friday at the El Rey Theatre and Saturday in a private concert at the American Library Assn. Convention in Anaheim — the very place and event at which the group made its debut two decades ago. King and fellow charter members Dave Barry and Amy Tan (“The Joy Luck Club”) will be in the lineup, along with long-timers Scott Turow (“Presumed Innocent”), Mitch Albom (“Tuesdays With Morrie”), “The Simpsons” creator Matt Groening, humorist Roy Blount Jr., Greg Iles (“The Devil’s Punchbowl”), suspense writer Ridley Pearson and James McBride (“The Color of Water”).

McGuinn is the “ringer,” a role that in the past has also been taken by the late Warren Zevon, Ronnie Spector, Judy Collins, Al Kooper (the Remainders’ original musical director) and, in one memorable instance, Bruce Springsteen.

But these concerts, benefiting L.A. assistance organizations the Midnight Mission and the Downtown Women’s Center, plus the new Emerging Authors Series at Live Talks Los Angeles, are also slated to close the book on the Remainders.

This two-date Past Our Bedtime Tour comes just weeks after the breast cancer death of Kathi Kamen Goldmark, the person who brought the Remainders together in the first place. She got to know many writers in her job coordinating book tour stops in the Bay Area and discovered that many harbored rock star fantasies, as did she.

A few phone calls later, a band was born. Annual ALA shows followed the Anaheim debut, plus some short tours and a book, “Mid-Life Confidential,” featuring photos by King’s wife, Tabitha, and essays by the participants, with roughly $2 million raised for various causes.

When Goldmark’s health took a turn recently, it was decided that the Remainders would gather one last time in her honor.

“It’s not really possible for any of us to imagine playing without Kathi,” says Barry, whose brother Sam (also a Remainders member) was married to Goldmark. “No question these will be our last shows, but it will be a tribute to her. Not that it will be maudlin. That’s not us, and certainly wasn’t Kathi.”

Indeed, the spirits are high and the tales are tall as McGuinn, Barry and King look back over the band’s legacy. King cackles while telling of Tan, wearing the skintight cat suit that became a signature for her rendition of “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’,” being booted from the band’s L.A. hotel lobby before its first-ever gig.

“The manager thought she was a ‘working girl,’” he says.

Barry’s highlights include Springsteen serving as his backing vocalist on Them’s “Gloria” — “The ultimate waste of Bruce Springsteen,” he says — and Tan’s husband, Louis DeMattei, acting out the car-crash death scene from “Leader of the Pack,” dramatically falling to the stage.

“Just to be humorous, I went over to kick the body, and he writhed around, and Stephen came over and kicked him,” Barry says. “After the show we went, ‘Where’s Lou?’ He was at the hospital. He’d fractured his collarbone falling to the stage, and then we kicked him.”

Barry also recalls King singing “Teen Angel” at a show in Nashville when a woman approached the stage, hands raised and flames rising from all 10 fingernails.

“I thought, ‘Wow, Stephen’s fans can be scary,’” he says. “Ridley came over and whispered in my ear, ‘I don’t ever want to be that famous.’”

King notes, “She probably was not strictly 100% sober. And Dave is careful to tell the audiences, ‘The drunker you get, the better we sound.’”

That said, the music isn’t really so bad. Several of the Remainders are, in fact, accomplished (or at least competent) musicians. Before they were successful writers, Tan studied piano, Albom played lounge piano gigs and both Iles and Barry spent a few years playing guitar in rock bands. McBride still maintains a parallel career as a composer and saxophonist and Pearson is an experienced bassist. And not taking any chances, they’ve got a real pro drummer in Josh Kelly.

“It’s solid,” McGuinn says, even when they cover such Byrds hits as “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Turn, Turn, Turn.”

“Really it’s just a matter of mixing,” he says. “My Rickenbacker [12-string guitar] is there, my vocals, the harmonies are decent. It sounds very much like the Byrds.”

Barry is a little less diplomatic.

“Ridley’s a good bass player and Josh is a ringer,” he says. “The rest of us turn down. So you have Roger with two competent musicians and we sound like the Byrds.”

All three cite Springsteen’s remark that they shouldn’t get any better because then they’d just be “another lousy band.” King’s fine with that.

“People come up after and say, ‘You guys suck,’” he says. “Yes, but we can, because it’s for a good cause.”