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Writers Rock

They're famous authors by day, garage band by night. But after 20 years, the Rock Bottom Remainders — the group made up of best-selling writers like Stephen King, Dave Barry, Amy Tan, Matt Groening, and Mitch Albom — are packing up their gear for good

The Beatles had their farewell rooftop concert. The Band had the Last Waltz. Today, in a Los Angeles recording studio, a very different kind of rock group — one made up of well-known authors — is rehearsing for its own final performances. In two days they'll close out their 20-year career with a June 23 concert at the least rock & roll-sounding venue imaginable: a librarians' convention. First, though, they need to nail down their rendition of the 1964 Shangri-Las song ''Leader of the Pack.'' After the umpteenth attempt breaks down midway through, the band's rhythm guitarist, who happens to be Stephen King, steps up to his microphone with a wry grin. ''Ladies and gentlemen,'' he says to an imaginary audience, ''welcome to the clusterf--- that we call the Rock Bottom Remainders.''

Every so often since 1992, the all-star crew of writers — which has included Dave Barry, Amy Tan, Barbara Kingsolver, Mitch Albom, Scott Turow, and Simpsons creator Matt Groening, among others — have stepped away from their day jobs to indulge their rock-star fantasies. The lineup of the Remainders, who mainly play enthusiastic but shambling covers of rock classics, has changed a little over the years. But one thing has been constant: They've never been especially good. Bruce Springsteen once told them, ''Don't get any better or you'll just be another lousy garage band.'' Then again, making great music wasn't the point of the Remainders. The point was to raise money for various literary organizations — which they have, to the tune of more than $2 million — and to get a more visceral thrill than, say, a book signing can deliver. ''We're a novelty, like a dog that can dance,'' Barry says. ''Our audience are fans of writing, and they usually have a good sense of humor — thank God. And ideally they've had a few drinks.''

But now, following the death of their founder, Kathi Kamen Goldmark, in May, they're calling it quits. It was Goldmark who, while working as a publicist for authors on book tours, came up with the idea of assembling an all-author rock band for a booksellers' convention. King, a die-hard music lover and, in his words, ''an educable retarded guitarist,'' was one of the writers who received Goldmark's proposal. ''I made a demo tape of myself doing 'Sea of Love' and sent it in,'' he recalls. ''I thought, 'No way are they ever going to let me in this band.''' While a few of the members had some genuine musical expertise (Barry, for example, had played guitar in a college band called Federal Duck), that wasn't really a requirement. ''I know my limitations,'' says Tan, who joined the band as a singer, donning a dominatrix outfit for part of their stage act. ''Kathi helped me understand that when you don't have a lot of talent, you use attitude and humor.''

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