MOTOWN MITCH MEETS THE BOSS – IN THE CHORD OF E

Well, the truth is, I didn’t know if I should write this story. It’s not really sports. But Tuesday morning, when I came into work, the first guy I saw chanted, “BRUCE! BRUCE!” and a woman asked if she could, and I’m not making this up, touch me.

So I guess the news is out.

OK. A little history. It’s true, before becoming a sports writer, I roamed the streets of New York as a starving musician. Piano was my instrument. I took any job offered. I worked in clubs so disgusting, the Board of Health hung signs outside that read “You must be joking.”

In those days, the most famous person I shared the stage with was a trumpet player named Phil, who used to wander into the bar after midnight. Phil was OK, but he often showed up to play, and this is hard to understand, without his trumpet. And it didn’t stop him. He would just stand there, in front of the microphone, drooling.

So you can appreciate when I tell you that Sunday night, 15 years later, in a club on a street they call Sunset Boulevard, I shared a stage with — shucks, I hate dropping names — BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN. Maybe you missed that. BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN.

You know? The Boss? And I don’t mean my executive sports editor.

We jammed. We double-jammed. We hit a stone groove, hooked a crazy riff, bopped till we dropped, and other musical phrases.

Actually, my favorite part was when Dave Barry, the humor writer, yelled to Springsteen: “Key of E!”

Like he needed help.

I mean, the song had only one chord.

Which brings me to the other folks on stage, many of whom find one chord musically challenging, and, in some cases, overwhelming. These people included — oh, shucks, I doubt you know any of them — STEPHEN KING, AMY TAN, RIDLEY PEARSON, ROY BLOUNT JR. and other famous writers.

They compose the hot new sensation the Rock Bottom Remainders, a merry band of authors who all share the following 1) a love of old rock and roll, 2) working knowledge of the “E” chord, 3) enough book sales to keep from being laughed at too loudly, at least by publishing types.

When I think of this band’s special qualities, I think of Rob Reiner’s tribute to the group Spinal Tap: “I was impressed by their volume — and their punctuality.”

BRUCE! BRUCE! BRUCE!

I know. I’m getting to that.

OK. How I got into the group: It began at the Lillehammer Olympics, when, one night, with nothing to do but lie around counting salmon, Dave Barry and I wound up at a coffee bar piano, singing songs. They were classical songs, by which I mean they were classics to me, by which I mean, for example, “Wild Thing.”

And, although we sounded like the Everly Brothers on codeine, the Norwegians considered Dave and me great entertainment, mostly because we weren’t salmon.

“You’re good,” Dave told me. “You should play with this band I’m in.”

He then described the Rock Bottom Remainders. They had been together for two years, playing book conventions and occasional nightclubs. Dave called the band “a chance of a lifetime,” meaning the chance for respected writers to flush their hard- earned reputations down the toilet, in exchange for a verse of “Louie, Louie.”

Naturally, I said yes.

And there I was, last week, in LA, at my first practice for their show at the American Booksellers Convention. The band members, which also included rock critics Dave Marsh and Joel Selvin, and Matt Groening, creator of “The Simpsons,” were extremely friendly. Kathi Goldmark, a real singer who started the band, welcomed me like an old friend.

Stephen King? Well. Stephen King greeted me for the first time by walking over and saying — and these are the first words he ever spoke to me —
“Mitch. Who am I?”

He then made a “T” sign and yelled, “TIME OUT! TIME OUT!”

“Chris Webber,” he cackled. “Get it? HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!”

And he walked away.

I did not mess with Stephen King.

BRUCE! BRUCE! BRUCE!

OK. OK. I’m getting to it.

Day after day, we practiced, until our songs were perfect, by which I mean, we were all in the same key. These songs ranged from “Leader of the Pack” by the Shangri-Las to “Midnight Hour” by Wilson Pickett — not that you could tell the difference. The Remainders operate on the age-old principle, first practiced by the Troggs, that the best audience is a deaf audience. So, after cranking the amplifiers to levels loud enough to bring down aircraft, we were ready for the performance of a lifetime. I’m thinking a tadpole’s lifetime.

Did I mention the roadies? One of the great benefits of this band is that, even if you can’t sing within six notes of the actual melody, you still get treated like a rock star. Roadies carry your equipment. They set up keyboards, guitars, mikes. There is food and drink available upon request.

(I’m not sure why the band members are treated so well. I guess because they pay the help. Maybe Stephen King threatened them.)

Anyhow, the venue was the Hollywood Paladium, a great old nightclub with a huge dance floor. It was nearly sold out, maybe 3,000 people — the ticket money went to charity — and when we took the stage, baby, baby, lemme tell ya, that crowd was roaring. I think it was roaring, “LET US OUT!” Too late. We paid off the security people.

We rocked. We rolled. My part, in addition to playing keyboards, was to sing two Elvis songs in full costume, which meant a gold lame jacket, greased-back hair and shades. I think it’s safe to say I thought LA was a lot farther from Detroit than it is.

BRUCE! BRUCE!

OK. When we finished our set, we ran off to thunderous applause from the crowd — “THEY’RE FINISHED! HALLELUJAH!” — and in the wing, stage left, was this bearded guy in grungy jeans and baseball cap. I swear, I thought he was a stagehand.

Then someone yelled, “ENCORE!” — I think it was a band member, throwing his voice — and we charged back out, and this guy with the cap runs out with us. And he picks up a guitar. And I’m thinking “Great. Now the stagehand is gonna play better than we do.”

And he looked at me and grinned, and I recognized that face, from my college record albums and the cover of Time and the Academy Awards. . . .

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Dave Barry said, “we have a guy who isn’t up to our musical standards, but we’ll let him play anyhow. Bruce Springsteen.”

The audience seemed to gasp. Turns out Bruce is friends with a band member, who invited him. And BANG! We launched into the only song we had left, a one-chord number named “Gloria,” which I believe they use in “Hooked on Phonics.”

G-L-O-R-I-A . . . GLORIA!

Esso si, que es!

Bruce played. He sang. He growled into the microphone the way he does — and the place came unglued. Fans were pushing toward the stage in a frenzied sea of hellish emotion. Suddenly, we were the greatest band on the planet. And when we hit that last note — same as the first note — and ran off stage, Springsteen cradled in our midst, that’s how we were remembered.

Bruce hung around afterward. He talked, cracked jokes, told us we were good. He said he liked my Elvis and I responded by drooling on his leg. I think Stephen King best summed up the band’s reaction. King said, “You can kill me now.”

And that’s how it happened. Jammin’ with the Boss. I guess I’m still reeling. All I can say is, if you ever get the chance to play in a band where everyone else is famous, the amps go as loud as you want, and all the songs are in “E,” you should grab it.

Especially you, Phil.

Well, the truth is, I didn’t know if I should write this story. It’s not really sports. But Tuesday morning, when I came into work, the first guy I saw chanted, “BRUCE! BRUCE!” and a woman asked if she could, and I’m not making this up, touch me.

So I guess the news is out.

OK. A little history. It’s true, before becoming a sports writer, I roamed the streets of New York as a starving musician. Piano was my instrument. I took any job offered. I worked in clubs so disgusting, the Board of Health hung signs outside that read “You must be joking.”

In those days, the most famous person I shared the stage with was a trumpet player named Phil, who used to wander into the bar after midnight. Phil was OK, but he often showed up to play, and this is hard to understand, without his trumpet. And it didn’t stop him. He would just stand there, in front of the microphone, drooling.

So you can appreciate when I tell you that Sunday night, 15 years later, in a club on a street they call Sunset Boulevard, I shared a stage with — shucks, I hate dropping names — BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN. Maybe you missed that. BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN.

You know? The Boss? And I don’t mean my executive sports editor.

We jammed. We double-jammed. We hit a stone groove, hooked a crazy riff, bopped till we dropped, and other musical phrases.

Actually, my favorite part was when Dave Barry, the humor writer, yelled to Springsteen: “Key of E!”

Like he needed help.

I mean, the song had only one chord.

Which brings me to the other folks on stage, many of whom find one chord musically challenging, and, in some cases, overwhelming. These people included
— oh, shucks, I doubt you know any of them — STEPHEN KING, AMY TAN, RIDLEY PEARSON, ROY BLOUNT JR. and other famous writers.

They compose the hot new sensation the Rock Bottom Remainders, a merry band of authors who all share the following 1) a love of old rock and roll, 2) working knowledge of the “E” chord, 3) enough book sales to keep from being laughed at too loudly, at least by publishing types.

When I think of this band’s special qualities, I think of Rob Reiner’s tribute to the group Spinal Tap: “I was impressed by their volume — and their punctuality.”

BRUCE! BRUCE! BRUCE!

I know. I’m getting to that.

OK. How I got into the group: It began at the Lillehammer Olympics, when, one night, with nothing to do but lie around counting salmon, Dave Barry and I wound up at a coffee bar piano, singing songs. They were classical songs, by which I mean they were classics to me, by which I mean, for example, “Wild Thing.”

And, although we sounded like the Everly Brothers on codeine, the Norwegians considered Dave and me great entertainment, mostly because we weren’t salmon.

“You’re good,” Dave told me. “You should play with this band I’m in.”

He then described the Rock Bottom Remainders. They had been together for two years, playing book conventions and occasional nightclubs. Dave called the band “a chance of a lifetime,” meaning the chance for respected writers to flush their hard-earned reputations down the toilet, in exchange for a verse of “Louie, Louie.”

Naturally, I said yes.

And there I was, last week, in LA, at my first practice for their show at the American Booksellers Convention. The band members, which also included rock critics Dave Marsh and Joel Selvin, and Matt Groening, creator of “The Simpsons,” were extremely friendly. Kathi Goldmark, a real singer who started the band, welcomed me like an old friend.

Stephen King? Well. Stephen King greeted me for the first time by walking over and saying — and these are the first words he ever spoke to me —
“Mitch. Who am I?”

He then made a “T” sign and yelled, “TIME OUT! TIME OUT!”

“Chris Webber,” he cackled. “Get it? HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!”

And he walked away.

I did not mess with Stephen King.

BRUCE! BRUCE! BRUCE!

OK. OK. I’m getting to it.

Day after day, we practiced, until our songs were perfect, by which I mean, we were all in the same key. These songs ranged from “Leader of the Pack” by the Shangri-Las to “Midnight Hour” by Wilson Pickett — not that you could tell the difference. The Remainders operate on the age-old principle, first practiced by the Troggs, that the best audience is a deaf audience. So, after cranking the amplifiers to levels loud enough to bring down aircraft, we were ready for the performance of a lifetime. I’m thinking a tadpole’s lifetime.

Did I mention the roadies? One of the great benefits of this band is that, even if you can’t sing within six notes of the actual melody, you still get treated like a rock star. Roadies carry your equipment. They set up keyboards, guitars, mikes. There is food and drink available upon request.

(I’m not sure why the band members are treated so well. I guess because they pay the help. Maybe Stephen King threatened them.)

Anyhow, the venue was the Hollywood Paladium, a great old nightclub with a huge dance floor. It was nearly sold out, maybe 3,000 people — the ticket money went to charity — and when we took the stage, baby, baby, lemme tell ya, that crowd was roaring. I think it was roaring, “LET US OUT!” Too late. We paid off the security people.

We rocked. We rolled. My part, in addition to playing keyboards, was to sing two Elvis songs in full costume, which meant a gold lame jacket, greased-back hair and shades. I think it’s safe to say I thought LA was a lot farther from Detroit than it is.

BRUCE! BRUCE!

OK. When we finished our set, we ran off to thunderous applause from the crowd — “THEY’RE FINISHED! HALLELUJAH!” — and in the wing, stage left, was this bearded guy in grungy jeans and baseball cap. I swear, I thought he was a stagehand.

Then someone yelled, “ENCORE!” — I think it was a band member, throwing his voice — and we charged back out, and this guy with the cap runs out with us. And he picks up a guitar. And I’m thinking “Great. Now the stagehand is gonna play better than we do.”

And he looked at me and grinned, and I recognized that face, from my college record albums and the cover of Time and the Academy Awards. . . .

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Dave Barry said, “we have a guy who isn’t up to our musical standards, but we’ll let him play anyhow. Bruce Springsteen.”

The audience seemed to gasp. Turns out Bruce is friends with a band member, who invited him. And BANG! We launched into the only song we had left, a one-chord number named “Gloria,” which I believe they use in “Hooked on Phonics.”

G-L-O-R-I-A . . . GLORIA!

Esso si, que es!

Bruce played. He sang. He growled into the microphone the way he does — and the place came unglued. Fans were pushing toward the stage in a frenzied sea of hellish emotion. Suddenly, we were the greatest band on the planet. And when we hit that last note — same as the first note — and ran off stage, Springsteen cradled in our midst, that’s how we were remembered.

Bruce hung around afterward. He talked, cracked jokes, told us we were good. He said he liked my Elvis and I responded by drooling on his leg. I think Stephen King best summed up the band’s reaction. King said, “You can kill me now.”

And that’s how it happened. Jammin’ with the Boss. I guess I’m still reeling. All I can say is, if you ever get the chance to play in a band where everyone else is famous, the amps go as loud as you want, and all the songs are in “E,” you should grab it.

Especially you, Phil.

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