Appearing onstage as part of a rock & roll band, in front of an audience of real people, was not the fulfillment of a lifelong dream for me.
My fantasy had always been to be a disc jockey–a fantasy I’d actually had the chance to realize once or twice. Let others fool with the open possibilities of “I’d like to teach the world to sing”; the fascist imperatives of “I will force the world to hear” are more appropriate for a critic. For that matter, I knew perfectly well I couldn’t sing, dance, or play an instrument, but any jerk can pick records and rave about them. Or rage about them: My disc jockey hero was Russ “The Moose” Syracuse, master of “The All-Night Flight” on KYA in San Francisco in the early and mid-sixties. People would wait up until three in the morning for the moment when all the sound effects of the Second World War would be marshaled for Russ’s nightly bombing raid on the record he hated most. As the bombs fell, Russ the Moose urging them on, you could hear the record break up: EAT SCREAMING DEATH, CHRIS MONTEZ! And as Chris ate it, all around him played the strangest music, records I’d never heard before and have never heard since: “Need Your Love” by the Metallics, “Drinkin’ Wine” by Larry Dale, mixed in with weirdo hits like Jimmy Soul’s “If You Wanna Be Happy” or the Day Brothers’ “Cleopatra Brown.” As a performer, a DJ was a public secret. If you wanted it that way, no one knew what you looked like, what you did outside the invisible box your noise came from, where you came from, where you went. The DJ was not exposed. The DJ was himself a creature of fantasy–of whatever fantasies he could provoke in his listeners. As a public secret the DJ was every poor kid, alone in her room, dreaming and fearing, wishing and hoping, loving and hating–he alone in his room, you alone in yours.
A voice in the night, without a face–perfect. I had to be dragged into the Rock Bottom Remainders.
Onstage in Anaheim in 1992 at the booksellers’ convention for our first and, we supposed, last show, I made a discovery: the thrills of secrecy and anonymity were slightly overrated. There was nothing quite like the feeling of being absolutely shameless in public. Oh, Dave Barry might actually play guitar or Barbara Kingsolver piano; Stephen King might truly have something to offer “Teen Angel,” some slime of glee the song had resisted all through the years; but no such argument could be advanced for the Critics Chorus. As a five-person assemblage–Dave Marsh, Matt Groening (former rock critic, anyway), Roy Blount, Jr., Joel Selvin, and myself–we could take the stage with the hope that we might be able to hide amongst ourselves, one clumsy move canceled by another, one nonvoice drowned out by a louder version of the same thing, or rather by Selvin, who could sing and reveled in proving it. This sort of subterfuge lasted for about half a song. It was immediately obvious that nobody cared; there were no routines; antisinging or antidancing in the worst way, one was still taking part in some holy rite, joined now to a tradition fated to outlast all who were part of it, “Double Shot (Of My Baby’s Love)” excelsior.
Unfortunately, you had to be there.
Watching the videotapes of this holy rite was precisely as embarrassing as I’d been sure trying or pretending to perform would be. There was talk of releasing this stuff commercially (it happened); from the evidence before us we were so bad not even relatives were going to make it to the end. At a party, conversations by the persons responsible drowned out the recorded sound seconds into each song. As “Bye Bye Love” played, the weather was suddenly endlessly interesting. And what is your philosophy of life, Amy?
The idea of a tour–a heroic barnstorm down the East Coast, Massachusetts to Florida, just a happy-go-lucky troupe of crazy scribblers with their repertoire of sock-hop tearjerkers and frat-house drinking songs–struck me as utter lunacy, all but criminal hubris, the indulgence of infantile fantasies of mastery and sexiness by those less wise than I. I figured the jig would be up by the third gig at the latest.
As rehearsals commenced, and then the first of the scheduled shows, where ordinary people were supposed to pay real money in order to be part of the audience, I kept waiting for the phone call calling the whole thing off, or at least suspending the joke until the concluding among-friends blowout at the 1993 ABA convention in Miami. I stayed home, having signed on for the bare minimum necessary to sustain friendship and assuage guilt. Rehearsals? For five guys to stand up and shuffle around for “Louie Louie”? If I hadn’t learned the words after nearly thirty years (I hadn’t), I wasn’t going to learn them now.
On May 27, I flew in to Atlanta and took a cab to the Roxy, site of the sixth show on the tour. It was late afternoon; I walked into the club and heard a muffled tape of the old records we were going to butcher. But onstage was the band—lip-synching to the tape?
Of course there wasn’t any tape; the band had turned into a music machine. Some people had taken lessons, some people had put in countless hours in the salt mines of karaoke bars; some people had practiced at home. I walked up to the stage, stood in the well before it, looked up, and grinned: this was still funny, but it wasn’t a joke. And then it struck me, an obvious thought that was apparently just too big for the previous year: there was a bunch of writers in this band, but also a guy who had made “Like a Rolling Stone.” If, someday, we ended up as a footnote to a footnote to that footnote, it would do.
For the next two shows, I was as much fan as bellower. In 1992, there were times when I couldn’t bear to look at us; now, some moments were so good I forgot my own bits and stared. The Chorus didn’t do much more than rumble “VRRROOOOM, VRRROOOOM” (motorcycle noise) for “Leader of the Pack,” but I had problems with that, blinded by the light of three flashing lame dresses, blond wigs, with Amy Tan as a Shangri-La (and in Shangri-La), drawing one gloved arm across tear-stained face, choking with grief, stretching her hands to the stunned crowd as if it could somehow save her, or anyway the soul of Shangri-La Mary Ann Ganser, who was already dead.
It wasn’t clear who made up the audiences in Atlanta or the next night in Nashville. There was the inevitable contingent of Stephen King followers–more or less Trekkies with strong backs, as each one seemed to come factory-equipped with an armful of King hardbacks, always carried loose, never in a sack. They didn’t dance much. But otherwise the crowds seemed composed of whoever normally showed up at the Roxy, or Performance Hall in Nashville, on a Thursday or Friday night. “Suspend Your Credibility” was our slogan, and it seemed these people had–it seemed as if they’d shown up actually expecting a good time, not a freak show.
With this kind of energy feeding the stage, we went through the entire history of a band, first blush to cynical fakery, in three shows. Everyone agreed that something clicked in Atlanta, that there was some spirit in the performance that had been missing before: a touch of who-cares nihilism, every gesture extended just a bit beyond melodrama, one note justifying the next. We weren’t going through the motions and neither was the crowd. When the Chorus had nothing to do on a song, I liked to get down from the stage and walk through the audience; people were pumped, laughing for the louder faster numbers, not really caring who was playing, but living inside the songs. There was a snap in the sound, in the air; the irony every one of us had brought to the whole idea of the group was burning off. Backstage in Nashville–well, the very word is wrong, it simply meant “through the curtain over there,” no doors, stairs, barriers you couldn’t blow away–one could have found Lamar Alexander, former governor of Tennessee, secretary of education under George Bush, now already running for the GOP presidential nomination for 1996. But there was no rush, no aura, no importance to glean; he was merely an ordinary-looking guy, and after a minute he started to act like one.
Ah, but it all turned to ashes in Miami. No more scruffy joints, but the biggest, glitziest gay disco in Miami Beach: multileveled, huge batteries of light, VIP rooms, a sound system much too big for us. No more audiences of the curious, the accidental, the fanatical; now it was all publishing people, and we were a hot ticket. If you couldn’t get in to see the band you were nothing. If you could get in but didn’t have a pass to the after-show party you were nobody. If you had a pass but couldn’t get backstage you weren’t somebody, and backstage was crawling with somebodies: base preeners on the order of Erica Jong, throwing her arms wide, the women in the band trying to duck on their way to sing.
The crowd was a mass of–it seemed—fifty-year-old Yuppies. All eyes fixed on our stars and then immediately began scanning the crowd for the people they’d come to be seen by. The audience was dressed up, and I think that threw the band; the audience had come not for a good time but for gossip material. They were bored straight off, and we were off, too. Every song seemed slack, too long, as if depending on the next number to keep its promise. We played two sets, added numbers we were better off without, and began to run out of gas. During a break I headed to the dressing room to sit down; the place was jammed with people, not one of whom had anything to do with anyone in the band. To cap it all, Susan Faludi, who had teased us with a promise to completely discredit herself by appearing as a go-go dancer, went to a wedding instead. Really, it was horrible: the next day, after an overdose, an attempted murder, and refusal of immediate seating at Joe’s Stone Crab, we knew it was time to quit.
Out of the several days I spent on the Remainders tour–days when we pretended to be a rock & roll band, and, in occasional moments, were–one odd incident stands out. I met a woman from Bosnia, or, rather, read her T-shirt.
Now, even in the Rock Bottom Remainders, people in the band got treated like rock stars–that is, like children. Someone else told us when to show up where, drove us from there to somewhere else, pointed us in one direction, then in another, opened the door, closed it, handed us towels when we left the stage, told us to watch our step when we went back up on it, said complimentary things, ran errands. Even on the smallest of small-time levels, such treatment creates a wonderful cocoon; on the right night, only good feeling grows within it. You walk around smiling, shaking hands, feeling friendly, knowing, though, that at any given moment you have something more important to do, something more important than what anyone is saying to you. The real world–any other world–is kept at bay.
We were in Nashville, Al Kooper had a solo spot, the Critics weren’t needed, I was checking out the audience. In fact I was looking for Stephen Greil, former southern rock promoter, now head of the Nashville Symphony, and a long-lost, never-met cousin, the Greils being from Alabama. The club manager had promised he’d be there. Instead, a small, trim, dark-haired woman of about thirty came up to me. She was wearing a T-shirt with “BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA” spelled out on it in block letters, as if the country were a football team and she was rooting for it. It was one of the most pathetic, heartbreaking things I’ve seen in my life.
“My name is Ljerka Vidić,” she said. “I’m from Sarajevo. I’m an ethnomusicologist.” She kept talking, but I couldn’t help thinking back a couple of months to a dinner party in Berkeley. “It’ll be very interesting,” said the professor who invited me. “There’ll be a professor of ethnomusicology from Bosnia.” Oh, that’ll be fun, I thought; I’ll probably end up sitting next to her. It wasn’t and I did.
We talked for three hours about the destruction of Yugoslavia, the risk of rape while conducting field research in Yugoslavian villages, the way the division of Yugoslavia into ever more narrowly defined groups had after a few months of civil war put Sarajevo’s Jews at each other’s throats–after all, some had been there a hundred years longer than… “I hated communism,” Ankica Petrović said to me. “But after the war began, I found a picture of Tito and put it up on my wall. We had a country and now we have nothing.” She had left a month before; she was almost certain her mother was dead by now, couldn’t imagine that she would have survived; she didn’t know about her husband and her son.
“I’ve been here seven years, teaching,” Ljerka Vidić said in Nashville. I realized she had to know Ankica Petrović. “I studied under her, of course!” Vidić said. I’d met two people from Bosnia in my life and they were teacher and student; I figured the chances of that were about the same as finding two Greils in the same room, but of course the odds were much greater, which is why one happened and the other didn’t. People in the same field meet each other sooner or later.
And that was what Ljerka Vidić wanted to talk about. “I understand what you’re doing up there,” she said, pointing to the stage. “You’re music. But why is Stephen King”–he was in the throes of “Sea of Love”–“in this band?” It bothered her. I was about to launch into some disquisition on the malleability of cultural barriers in the United States as opposed to Europe when my eyes went again to the block letters on her shirt and I wanted only to take her by the hand, bring her up on stage, and make her Guest Critic (we sacrificed at least one local writer per show), to prove to her anyone could do it. Instead I just told her about Christine, about Stephen King’s radio station–the one he bought so he’d have a chance to hear something decent in his own hometown—and then said, “Just listen. Wait till he gets to ‘Teen Angel.'”
A while later, I saw Vidić again in the crowd, this time with her husband. Now you could see it all made sense to her. She was less a musicologist than part of the crowd. She was beaming–at King, Dave Barry, the Remainderettes. I stared once more, this time from behind her, but looking right through her, seeing only her version of “GO BOSNIA! PUSH ‘EM BACK, PUSH ‘EM BACK, WAAAAAYYYY BACK!” I realized I was missing the Critics’ cue for our last big number. Fuck it, I said, as if one curse would put Ljerka’s strange affirmation out of my mind. It didn’t, and now that memory is my only real souvenir of the trip, a souvenir that makes every tune we did count for more than we ever had in mind.