Rock Bottom Remainders






Monday, September 4, 1995

Dateline: <CLEVELAND>

I have many memories of the historic opening weekend of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but what I'll remember the longest is getting into an argument with Bruce Springsteen's guitar player.

To understand how this happened, you need to know that I belong to a rock band called the Rock Bottom Remainders, which consists mostly of authors. The other members include (in alphabetical order) sports columnist Mitch Albom, humor writer Roy Blount Jr., media escort and singer Kathi Goldmark, Simpsons creator Matt Groening, rock-book author Dave Marsh, thriller writer Ridley Pearson, one-person horror industry Stephen King, rock critic Joel Selvin and actual literary person Amy Tan.

If I had to describe, in one phrase, the type of band we are, the phrase I would select is: "A pretty bad type of band." I'm not saying that we are 100 percent totally horrible all the time. Sometimes, when people hear us, they give us compliments such as, "Hey, you didn't suck so bad on that one song." But mostly people tell us, "Don't quit your day jobs!" I would venture to say that we hear that particular phrase more than any other band in history.

That is why I am still baffled by the fact that the Rock Bottom Remainders were invited to perform as part of the ceremonies surrounding the opening of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland. Specifically, we were asked to perform at the big gala Friday-night dinner party to benefit the Hall. This made no sense. Having the Rock Bottom Remainders perform on behalf of music is like having Mike Tyson teach a course on dating etiquette.

But we did get invited, and since we have very little talent and play only about once per year, we thought it would be a good idea to rehearse. Band members started arriving in Cleveland on Wednesday, and that night some of us went to watch the Indians play the Blue Jays in Cleveland's beautiful new baseball stadium. As it happened, TV actor David Birney was sitting two rows in front of us. A woman sitting directly behind him recognized Birney; she wanted to get his autograph, but didn't have a pen, so she turned to us and asked if anybody had one. One of us handed her a pen; she got the autograph, then turned around and handed the pen back. She was so excited about getting David Birney's autograph that she failed to notice that the person she was returning the pen to was: Stephen King.

I started to feel like a real rock musician on Wednesday night, when we rode back from the ballpark to the hotel in a limo. The driver informed me -- I swear I am not making this up -- that I was sitting in the exact same seat where Courtney Love once threw up.

The Rock Bottom Remainders spent most of Thursday rehearsing our repertoire, which consists mostly of "classic oldies rock" songs, defined as "songs that contain three or fewer chords and reached the zenith of their popularity before Kurt Cobain was even born." We also spent a lot of time getting nervous as various people reminded us, repeatedly, that (a) our audience was going to contain many heavy hitters in the music industry, not to mention performers such as Elton John; and (b) the tickets cost $1,000 apiece.

And so we practiced relentlessly, whacking away at our instruments hour after hour until finally, magically, it started to happen: We stopped sounding lame and sloppy, and we started sounding lame, sloppy and exhausted. So we quit.

That night, at the hotel bar, the gala's producer, Mark Cheplowitz, told us how we got invited to play. "We were talking about Cher or maybe Tina Turner," he said, "but then we thought, hey, let's try taking this in a completely different direction."

Oh, swell. Us instead of Tina Turner.

I did not sleep well Thursday night. I felt like a prisoner on Death Row, except that at least a prisoner on Death Row has the hope that the governor will decide, at the last moment, that the prisoner does not have to sing in front of Elton John.

Friday night, as the sun set over Lake Erie, we got on our bus and headed to the big tent where the gala would be held. As we were led through a black-tie crowd of VIPs, I almost walked right into a tall man. I looked up: It was Steve Cropper. Who is only a guitar god. As the pathetic excuse for the Remainders' lead guitarist, I felt really swell, knowing that Cropper was in the audience. I was seriously thinking of playing with a paper bag over my head.

The band was led back behind the tent, where two motor homes had been parked so we'd have a place to become even more nervous. I was sitting with some band members in the motor home when a small, headband-wearing man came in. This was Nils Lofgren, who for many years has played lead guitar for Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band. He is really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really good.

He wanted to play guitar with us.

He -- Nils Lofgren -- wanted to play all night, on every song.

And I had to tell him no.

Here's why: We'd heard that he might want to join us for the night, and the consensus of the band was that, because Lofgren is really (repeat nine times) good, he would make the rest of us look even worse than we already are. So the band decided to let him sit in on one song, period. The band also agreed that, as spokesperson, I would be the one to tell Lofgren this.

And thus I, a humor columnist, had to stand there in a motor home and tell a world-class rock musician -- a musician who, the next night, would be on stage playing with Bruce Springsteen, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis -- that, hey, thanks for the offer, but we can only use you on one song.

So I told Nils Lofgren this, and he would not accept it. He argued with me. At times he was almost pleading. This was just too surreal, so finally I caved in and told Nils, OK, two songs near the beginning, plus you can come up at the end for a few more songs, including our big production-number version of These Boots Are Made For Walking, featuring Amy Tan dressed as a total slut.

And Nils Lofgren thanked me. He was actually grateful for this opportunity to potentially flush his career down the toilet. The guy just really loves to play.

As it turned out, our performance went well. The crowd -- perhaps this is an indication of how much drug usage really goes on in the music industry -- actually seemed to like us. People clapped and danced and sang along, screaming "WILD THING!" when we play Wild Thing, and "LOUIE! LOUIE!" when we played Louie, Louie (not that there is, technically, any difference between these songs). And the crowd went berserk when, as we concluded our rendition of the 1958 Royal Teens hit Short Shorts, four male band members dropped their pants and bunny-hopped off the stage in their underwear. Despite the musical subtlety of this and our other songs, Nils Lofgren seemed to have no trouble following along and playing killer solos.

In other words, it was cool.

The next day the band visited the Hall of Fame and Museum, which is also cool, featuring all kinds of exhibits, guitars, contracts, letters, costumes, posters and more, including Roy Orbison's geeky high school yearbook photo. My only criticism is that they don't play the music loud enough, so that at times it feels a little too museum-y and not enough rock-y. At one point I was with a group of people watching a museum movie on the history of rock, featuring clips from many songs; we were getting a little rowdy, singing along at times, and a very serious suit-wearing man in the row in front of us whirled around and glared back at us and said, "Please stop talking!" Then he went back to studying the movie intently, as though it were a rare manuscript, instead of Ozzy Osbourne. This seemed wrong. If you can't yell and stomp in the house of rock 'n' roll, then where can you? So my advice to the people in charge of the museum is: Crank it up. But otherwise, as I say, it's great. On Saturday night, we got to go to the big stadium concert, featuring real musicians, including our bandmate Nils, up there playing with The Boss. The concert also featured a surprise appearance by Bob Dylan, who, in one of the evening's highlights, dropped his pants and did the Bunny Hop in his underwear.

No, he didn't. In fact, you will be shocked to learn that, in the entire six-hour concert, not a single band performed Short Shorts. But it was still excellent.

Sunday morning, as I was getting ready to leave Cleveland, I ran into Lofgren at the airport. I told him we thought he did a pretty good job, and could play with the Remainders any time.

"Rock 'n' roll," he said.

I have to agree.

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