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Rockin' with the Rock Bottom Remainders

By Helyn Trickey
Special to CNN

Greg Isles and Dave Barry sing loud and sing strong during a Rock Bottom Remainders concert in San Francisco.

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SAN FRANCISCO, California (CNN) -- Most cover bands know hundreds of rock 'n' roll songs and at least a dozen chords. The Rock Bottom Remainders cheerfully admit to knowing less than a handful of tunes, and they outright refuse to play any songs that aren't in the keys of A, E or, in a pinch, B.

"We know three or four songs," admits Remainders lead guitarist and vocalist Dave Barry at a press conference earlier this month. "But we play about 50."

"We have trouble changing the chords, so we were thinking about getting the roadies to change the chords for us," he adds.

Of course, Barry isn't known as a guitarist -- he's known as a humor columnist and bestselling author. And if switching musical chords is challenging for the nearly decade-old band, then selling millions of books is not.

The Rock Bottom Remainders were founded on a lark in the early '90s after Kathi Kamen Goldmark, a semi-pro musician and book publicity professional in San Francisco, asked the best-selling authors she escorted around the city to join her band.

The idea took hold and in 1992 literary luminaries including Barry, horror writer Stephen King, Amy Tan and Ridley Pearson rocked the stage at the American Booksellers Association Convention in Anaheim, California.

The concert was a hit, and the Remainders, many of whom could not be coaxed to put down their guitars after the crowds had dispersed, decided to start a part-time rock band.

Their motto: "We play music as well as Metallica writes novels."

'Three pairs of women's underwear'

Amy Tan
Amy Tan attracts attention with a leather minidress and a whip, all the better to sing "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'."

Sure, these best-selling writers are more accustomed to musing over word choice than mulling over which guitar to use to play "Mustang Sally," but for one week each year they lay down their dictionaries, dust off their latent musical talent and become bona fide rock stars.

Like rock stars, they want beefy security escorts, hoards of screaming fans and women's undergarments thrown at them while they play.

"We had three pairs of women's underwear on stage after our show in Seattle," says Barry. "Of course they were on the large side ..."

This year, Tan, Pearson, Barry, Scott Turow, Goldmark, Greg Isles and Mitch Albom -- along with several musically talented family members and friends -- gathered to rock for charity during a week-long tour.

The concert proceeds will benefit America Scores, a national nonprofit organization that involves inner-city public school kids in a soccer, writing and community outreach program.

"This is a band that loves to play for a good cause," says America Scores President Paul Caccamo. "They (the band) would say we are the first cause to ask them back."

The Fire in the Belly Tour raised nearly $250,000 for the non-profit program, making it possible for more than 300 kids to become involved in the after school program, Caccamo says.

Polkas and kazoos

Like the Beatles, the Remainders have been willing to take risks with their music. They've been known to play a polka or two, and kazoos are a staple instrument for the band.

start quoteWe know three or four songs. But we play about 50.end quote
-- Dave Barry

"We are the kind of people who obsess over one word," says Tan, "but we have only one shot to get it right in concert. It was hard the first time I practiced with them. I was so nervous that my vocal chords were paralyzed for about a half-hour."

Apparently Tan recovers easily.

The author, best known for novels such as "The Joy Luck Club," now commonly struts on stage in a tiny, shiny black leather dress, knee-high stiletto boots and a leather whip -- all the better to do her signature song, "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'."

The others are equally outré. Harvard-educated Scott Turow, of "Presumed Innocent" fame, stands on stage in a frizzy blond wig and screams the lyrics to "Wild Thing." Barry and Pearson abandon their guitars in favor of Day-Glo kazoos, and just when the band looks as though it may have forgotten the song lyrics, they all scream "WILD THING! YOU MAKE MY HEART SING!"

Their fans appreciate their efforts.

"I am just such a huge fan of Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson," says Jenny Dietzen, 32, who threw her self-described "sexy underwear" at the band. "I thought they were a lot better than I expected, and I don't care which one of them gets my underwear," she says.

So, what has changed for the band over the last decade?

"We've actually gotten better musically over the years," says Barry backstage before the concert. "But we've come to realize that we will never be good."

At least, not as a rock band.

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