OK, I know, I’m a week late on this Rock and Roll Hall of Fame thing, but I have a good excuse: I was playing in the concert.
No, not that concert. Not the six-hour, Saturday night blowout, which was broadcast around the world and featured rockers from all eras paired together, no matter how unusual (“AND NOW, METALLICA AND THE COWSILLS!”).
I was not in that concert — although I wish I had been, because then I could have asked the question most American viewers were asking, namely:
“Johnny Cash, I thought you were dead.”
By the way, I think the concert missed a great pairing, two of the world’s most incomprehensible rock legends, Bob Dylan and James Brown, neither of whom has said a word anyone understands in 20 years. Dylan now sounds as if he’s singing through a helium tank. And Brown sounds as if his pants are on fire.
Can you imagine them together on “Blowing in the Wind”?
DYLAN: How maneee time mubha wubba d– BROWN: Hit me! DYLAN: beforrr ooh cynn keh dibbe BROWN: HE-AAAY! KISS MAHSELF! DYLAN: dubah himmmeh . . . BROWN: YAMAYIMME! DYLAN: . . . wind.
I did not get Bob and James together. Nor did I get to twang guitars with Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Bruce Springsteen or any other masters of rock.
I did, however, get to play piano alongside horror champ Stephen King, who writes brilliant books and knows at least three chords.
And I did get to jam with humorist Dave Barry, who can play any song in the key of E, provided it was written in March or April of 1963.
I am talking about the world’s most infamous band, the Rock Bottom Remainders, which — regular readers might recall — is a roving tribe of writers with the musical talent of electricians, that gets to play in some pretty amazing places because, basically, everyone needs a laugh now and then.
Hit me! Mistake on the lake Now, how we came to play at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — and when I say we, I mean the whole band, including novelist Amy Tan, thriller writer Ridley Pearson, humorist Roy Blount Jr., “Simpsons” creator Matt Groening and other tone-deaf literary giants — is simple: Someone asked. We don’t know who. We don’t care who. We don’t even know what medication he was on.
All we know is that someone asked us to play, and met our usual high asking price — hotel rooms with running water — and we said, and I’m quoting James Brown here: HEEE-AYY!
What we didn’t know, because we never ask, is who we would be playing for. So it wasn’t until a few minutes before concert time Friday night, in a huge white tent on the shore of Lake Erie, just behind the Hall of Fame, that we peeked from backstage and gasped. Elton John was in the crowd. And John Fogerty. And 3,500 other record biz types, including, you know, real musicians!
This is bad for the Rock Bottom Remainders, who count on several things from their audiences: 1) An open bar. 2) Pity.
Also, we like a tone-deaf crowd. We figure this is given, or else why hire a band whose most impressive solo is when the amps feed back?
“Oh, God,” Stephen King said.
“What?” we asked.
“Ben E. King is at the second table.”
I think I actually saw Stephen shake, which is kind of like seeing Dracula biting his nails. Not that he wasn’t justified. Ben E. King is the guy who sang the classic “Stand by Me,” which the Rock Bottom Remainders also attempt to do. Stephen sings lead. I don’t think I am hurting his feelings to say that the only similarity between Stephen’s version and Ben E.’s version is their last name.
Or, as Stephen put it: “I’m dead.” Who’s the Boss? As it turned out, we weren’t dead, just a little embarrassed. But the crowd actually liked us, and even danced and applauded, which only proves what I’ve always said about the great old rock ‘n’ rollers: They’re deaf.
The best moment was when Bruce Springsteen’s star guitar player, Nils Lofgren, came to our dressing room before the show and asked to play with us. I don’t know why. I can only assume he got stuck at a really bad table.
“I just wanna gig with you cats,” he said, or something hip like that. Then he said, “Please?”
Please? This is one of the great guitar players in pop rock, begging to play with a band that thinks “Louie Louie” is an instrumental challenge.
“Well, Nils,” Dave Barry said, “You’re a little too good for us . . .”
In the end, we let Nils play, which was kind of neat, because it meant one band member was actually in key. Of course, we do seem to be moving down The Boss ladder. Last year, we played in LA, and Springsteen himself got on stage with us. This year, we get his guitar player, Nils. Next year, I suppose, we’re jamming with Bruce’s hairdresser.
So be it. We had a great time. And, as far as I know, Ben E. King did not walk out during our version of his song, although he was seen holding his ears and shaking his head. Then again, maybe he was anticipating Bob Dylan.