The Rock Bottom Remainders are a weird idea. The concept of famous writers like Stephen King, Dave Barry, and Amy Tan getting together to form a mediocre rock band brings to mind your middle-aged dad and his drinking buddies declaring that they’re gonna get the old college band back together, someday. But it’s different than that, richer than that. The RBR’s previous jam-book memoir, Mid-Life Confidential, went a long way toward explanation. One of the benefits of having your vanity band made up of all talented writers is that they have no trouble articulating what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. For some, it’s a way to try something outside their comfort zone; for some, it’s a way to connect with people who understand the unique problems of bestselling writers; and for some, it’s about discovering whether they can be good at anything besides the thing that made them famous.
This de facto sequel, Hard Listening: The Greatest Rock Band Ever (of Authors) Tells All, updates us on the real lives, the writer lives, and the rock and roll lives of the Remainders. Things have changed with the band. Rock legend Al Kooper no longer manages them; that job has been given over to tireless A-type personality Ted Habte-Gabr (rumors that he occasionally sleeps are apparently unfounded). Warren Zevon, who was such a presence with the band during their mid-90s heyday – and performed on the offshoot record, Stranger Than Fiction – died in 2003. Roger McGuinn of The Byrds later took over as their “legitimate” music presence. Accidents, marriage, divorce, bestseller lists… and perhaps most important and tragic of all, “Band Mom” Kathi Kamen Goldmark passed away before the Rock Bottom Remainders’ final benefit shows. This book is dedicated to her.
As with Mid-Life Confidential, we are treated to revelatory essays by a number of the Remainders. Amy Tan relates her transformation from meek singer to “rhythm dominatrix,” comparing it to the feminist leap of “bad girl” singers of the 1960s. James McBride’s story manages to be sweet and deep and funny, all at the same time. Greg Iles mostly avoids talking about the accident that took half his leg, and instead focuses on his moment of panic when Roger McGuinn told him to take a guitar solo. Dave Barry, of course, tells a tale of waking up and thinking that rogue organ harvesters took his spleen.
Stephen King’s “Just a Little Talent” relates a guitar-playing history that runs parallel to that of his writing history, and underlines the importance of trying to do well at something that doesn’t come naturally. It’s a gentler, more elegiac essay than Mid-Life Confidential’s “Neighborhood of the Beast,” but King manages to inject it with the same marveling tone of someone just barely on the inside of rock and roll, telling tales from the road. One story, in which King learns how to play a particular chord he didn’t know before, sums up the themes of the book perfectly: mastering one craft doesn’t mean you can’t grasp another, and that it’s okay to be ridiculous if it something makes you this happy.
Every essay in this book offers different shades of the Remainders experience, and how coming together as bandmates and friends changed the lives of those in it… but the essays are only a piece of the puzzle. If Mid-Life Confidential was candid, Hard Listening is downright voyeuristic. Because Hard Listening is presented as an eBook, readers are afforded a deeper look into the world of these famous people doing this strange thing. We are allowed to read emails, letters, and faxes (as some of the correspondence goes back to the early '90s) between members of the band. We get short Q&As with the Remainders, on subjects ranging from mash-ups to Twilight fan fiction. And, because it’s an eBook, we get multimedia: songs, picture slideshows, videos, and quizzes illuminating the meat of the book, making Hard Listening a truly epistolary experience for the 21st century.
Rounding off the content is a “contest” of sorts: four members of the band – Dave Barry, Ridley Pearson, Greg Iles, and Stephen King himself – are tasked with the challenge of writing a story in the style of Stephen King. The reader then tries to determine which story is written by which writer (and there’s a neat piece at the end written by the experts at the Book Genome Project, explaining how they scientifically determined who wrote what). I wouldn’t dream of revealing the identity of the proper authors here (although the book does, and no fair reading ahead to find out; all the stories are worth a read), only to say that the answer will probably surprise you.
Who will Hard Listening appeal to? Is there a market for fans of bands made up of famous people who aren’t musicians? Probably Stephen King completists will download it, hoping for (and getting) a classic piece of nostalgic King nonfiction and a fun slice of fiction to boot (with a bonus video of King laughing so hard he’s crawling on the floor of a backstage green room). There will be those drawn to Dave Barry’s brilliant and hilarious stories of his brilliant and hilarious life. Perhaps Amy Tan fans, looking for her unique female/feminist perspective, or die-hard Byrds fans looking for Roger McGuinn to talk about rock music, even if it is with a bunch of authors.
All these demographics are valid, but really, this book is for everyone: everyone who ever looked at a guitar and yearned to play it; everyone who got up on a karaoke stage and tried to be Bruce Springsteen; everyone who realized they were very good at one thing and wished they were good at other stuff, too; and everyone, everyone, who believes in the soul, the spirit, and the redemptive power of rock and roll.
Readers can download copies of Hard Listening from Amazon, iTunes, Kobo, Google Play and Barnes & Noble (follow the link to each).
Kevin Quigley is an author whose website, CharnelHouseSK.com, is one of the leading online sources for Stephen King news, reviews, and information. He has written several books on Stephen King for Cemetery Dance Publications, including Chart of Darkness, Blood In Your Ears, and Stephen King Limited, and co-wrote the upcoming Stephen King Illustrated Movie Trivia Book. His first novel, I’m On Fire, is forthcoming.