Always in mind, if rarely in tune

by | Jul 1, 2012 | Comment, Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

The band broke up.

We hit the final chord. We heard sweet applause. And then, after 20 years together, we walked away.

There was no fighting. No “musical differences.” You need to be musical to have musical differences.

We were not really musical.

We were writers. Novelists. Memoirists. Humorists. Stephen King was in the band. So was Matt Groening, who created “The Simpsons.” So was Amy Tan, Dave Barry, Ridley Pearson, Scott Turow, Greg Iles, Roy Blount Jr., James McBride – many others over the years.

We were called the Rock Bottom Remainders, and when they write the penultimate history of rock ‘n’ roll, we will not be in it. Not even a footnote. But we performed all over the country and we brought people to their feet, even if those feet were headed toward the door.

We sang old rock ‘n’ roll, stuff from the 1950s and ’60s. We played it on guitars, bass, guitars, keyboards, more guitars, and when I say “played,” I mean we moved our hands around in the way that real musicians do when they are making, you know, music. Only with us, the discussions went like this:

“Hey, what key were we just in?”


“Oh. That explains it.”

Visits from the Boss and Zevon

But we laughed. We made feedback. We broke strings. We dressed in costumes. Tan wore a dominatrix outfit for “These Boots Are Made for Walkin'” that would make “Fifty Shades of Grey” turn 50 shades of red. I donned a gold lamé jacket and did a very bad Elvis Presley imitation, wearing a wig whose sideburns, by the end, more closely resembled a Hasidic rabbi’s than the King’s.

We played for charity, and our audiences were charitable. They laughed. They sang along. We filled nightclubs and ballrooms and outdoor stages. Now and then, someone would throw underwear. Sometimes it was men’s underwear. Once, a Stephen King fan lit her fingernails on fire.

Over the years, some real musicians hopped on stage with us. Bruce Springsteen. Darlene Love. Judy Collins. Lesley Gore. Warren Zevon was a frequent member. Roger McGuinn toured with us for years. I don’t know why. Maybe pity.

Or maybe this: It was fun.

And we felt young.

And nobody talked shop.

The ravages of time

People form bands for lots of reasons. To make music, sure. But also to meet girls. To rebel. To wear spandex.

We did it, I think, to remember. Lives get complicated. Fun becomes a luxury. The Remainders got together each year and, in a way, it was like summer camp. We left behind the trappings of everyday life. We wore T-shirts and sneakers. We rode buses. We curled up and napped in tiny dressing rooms. We ate pizza at 1a.m. We sang simple songs from our youth, with lyrics like, “Da doo ron ron” and “Papa oom mow mow.”

We made noise.

It was beautiful noise, the sound of happy adults not taking themselves too seriously. Springsteen told us: “You’re not that bad, but don’t get any better. Otherwise, you’ll just be another lousy band.” So we aspired to “lousy.”

That’s OK. We knew our place. As Barry often said, “We play music as well as Metallica writes novels.” We were not quite a garage band. More like a shed band.

But life goes on. We used to call ourselves the ever-expanding band because pretty much anyone who ever wrote a word wound up onstage with us. But then Frank McCourt, who played harmonica, passed away. And Zevon passed away. King battled injuries from a terrible accident. Greg Iles lost a leg.

Then, five weeks ago, the woman who invented the band, Kathi Kamen Goldmark, died from breast cancer.

And for the first time, the crowded stage felt a little empty.

We discussed it. Everyone agreed. The winds were blowing. The band would end.

We played two final shows last weekend in southern California, and fittingly, the closing number, the easiest song we do – and in this band, that means pretty damn easy – we screwed up. It was “Wild Thing.” How do you screw up “Wild Thing”? We blew the open, and then Blount was supposed to sing, “I love you.” Instead, he crooned, “You love me.”

I think it was the band talking through him. You love me. We did. Two decades. Never made a record. And we had a blast. You think about the groups you join in life, the ones with instruments and the ones without, and you’ll conclude what could, essentially, be an epitaph for the Rock Bottom Remainders; as long as you are in tune with one another, you don’t really need to be in tune.

Contact Mitch Albom: 313-223-4581 or Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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