Jamming with Matt Groening

Matt Groening, Amy Tan, Kathi Kamen Goldmark, Nury Vittachi ARRGGHH. This was mission impossible!

The goal: To hold a concert to raise money to build facilities for poor people in rural parts of Asia.

The problem: None of us could sing or play music.

But we were all authors, which meant we knew from experience that the only factor to determine the success of a creative project is luck/ destiny/ prayer.


The cunning organizers, Michelle Garnault and Tina Kanagaratnum, were taking a calculated gamble.

This potentially ghastly concert at the Shanghai International Literary Festival would be witnessed by an audience of book lovers. If the authors did well, they would be moderately entertained. If we made utter fools of ourselves, they would be HUGELY entertained.


The band, called Rock Bottom Remainders, has a motto composed by Dave Barry: “We play music as well as Metallica writes novels.”


Launched 20 years ago by Kathi Kamen Goldmark (below), there is a shifting roll-call of members and guests, from superstar writers like Amy Tan and Matt Groening to nobodies such as me.



During the pre-show soundcheck, there was a surprise. The doors opened and deliverymen arrived with an easel ordered for an event the following day.

Our first impulse was to send it away.

But then we thought maybe fate had sent us a gift. We looked at each other. Matt had a twinkle in his eye.

It may be destiny, we said. “Leave it here.”


Moments later, the doors opened again, and the audience trooped in to the main hall at M on the Bund, Shanghai’s finest restaurant.

The concert began. We sang and played our instruments as loudly as we could, occasionally EVEN IN THE SAME KEY. Yeah, how about that?! Audience reactions ranged from laughter to horror to sniggers to wild- eyed astonishment.


Suddenly, one of the performers, Matt Groening, had a brainwave. He grabbed the easel and pulled out a marker pen. "You guys keep performing," he said. "And I'll draw pictures that express the emotions the music inspires."

So the rest of us continued to murder popular songs while he drew characters from his best-known work, The Simpsons.

As we played one song in four different keys at once, I was reminded of a quote made by a movie critic about bad films: “Sometimes the hero of the movie is the audience member who sits through it.”

Perhaps there should be some sort of literary award giving to any audience member who sits through an hour of authors singing?


At the end, organizer Michelle Garnault had a brainwave. She held an impromptu auction of The Simpsons sketches.


The audience went wild. Novelist Xu Xi paid 16,000 yuan (HK$19,700) for one of Bart Simpson suffering horribly.


The images made a fortune. The mis-delivered easel had been the key to the event's success.

Afterwards the charity organizers were thrilled: Thanks to this event, hundreds of poor people will get access to bathrooms.

Our musical talent is being commemorated by the construction of toilets? Hmm, how appropriate.


wu tong

Chinese musician Wu Tong joined the fun


Shanghai line-up: Wu Tong, Sam Barry, Kathi Kamen Goldmark, Amy Tan, Matt Groening, Nury Vittachi



The video included with this column includes some brief images of the Rock Bottom Remainders, plus a song of thanks for literary festival organizers for putting up with the bad behaviour of authors… It was first performed at the Ubud Writers Festival and then at the Shanghai festival recently.


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