Joe Oestreich’s ‘Hitless Wonder’ and Watershed’s ‘Brick & Mortar’
Hitless Wonder: A Life in Minor League Rock and Roll
by Joe Oestreich
Lyons Press, 304 pp., $16.95
Brick & Mortar
Curry House Records, $10
Late in Joe Oestreich's rock and roll memoir, Hitless Wonder: A Life in Minor League Rock and Roll, we get an exchange—an argument, really—between him and his wife that goes like this:
"She exhales. Long and slow. 'I want you to quit half-assing. The band and your writing. You going halfway in two directions hurts. It's hard for me to watch.'
I hold the phone away from my head. Look up and down the street. 'I know what I don't want.'
'I don't want to stop.'
'Playing or writing?'
'Then that's your problem to solve, isn't it.'"
The argument gets at the tension at the crux of the book, and also provides us with a counterpoint to the existence of the book itself. Hitless Wonder shows Oestreich not half-assing on any front. Not in this excellent memoir nor in the struggling path and ultimate talent (and irrepressible charm) of his band Watershed. The book tracks the band's past, from its start to its brief run on a major label, but it also dips into the present, in a small yet high-stakes tour as the band continues to strive not for major label success but for a more legitimate credibility. That the band doesn't "want to stop" is clear, but the book also raises questions about when we should stop these kinds of pursuits, when it actually is time to consider family and bills and jobs over a band full of determination but admittedly scraping to make it by.
In this way, rock and roll, once a sort of subversion of the American Dream, becomes another example of it. Oestreich deftly describes the frustration of touring and getting a band off the ground without every drifting into self-pity. Of course, what also makes it exciting is how we see the band come together, from two kids—Oestreich and his friend Colin—buying cheap gear and mugging to each other during bedroom practices to playing South by Southwest. Oestreich deftly shows the small miracles that come with moderate success in music. Something as small as playing a venue with actual tickets can be a heartening peak to a musician already in love with rock and roll ("A hand stamp? Absolutely," Oestreich says. "Wrist band? Sure. But tickets?").
By its name, you'd assume Hitless Wonder was an underdog story, and it is, sort of. Oestreich posits Watershed's hometown Columbus, Ohio—"the swing city in the swing state, test market to the world"—as an underachieving, under-appreciated analogy for the band. They are the local band trying to escape a city that seems to be constantly trying to escape or deny its own mediocrity. Hitless Wonder tells this tale, and gets us routing for Watershed in the process. It's also a story of the strange politics and cold, artless moves of record companies. We've heard these stories before—Wilco's label trouble over their now-classic Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, is documented in the film I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, for example—and so we may be unsurprised by the ways in which the band flounders in major-label territory. We see them fight their way for a contract, get one that seems like it comes with a huge sum of money ($250,000), and then we see how that money disappears, along with any lofty expectations. It's Oestreich's eye for characterization that drives these moments, though, that gets us past our lack of surprise over these overlord companies and makes us feel for Watershed. Jim Steinman, the guy behind Meatloaf's Bat Out of Hell, is their producer/manager as they go in to record their record, and is painted subtly and perfectly as not an artist so much as a guy who knows the major-label game and thrives on it. "Jim Steinman was the executive producer," Oestreich writes, "so the sessions were run his way: locking out Studio A at $2,500 per day; ordering-in sushi to the tune of $500; paying a guy $5,000 to play one piano chord over and over." Oestreich captures the absurdity of these moments because he plays them straight and doesn't oversell them. It also contrasts nicely with the irrepressible zeal of the band, the true pulse of both these ridiculous moments and the book's own loving documentation of music and its deep effect.
It's that effect, the players' deep love, that connects past and present. Despite struggling to find their footing on a new tour, playing to five people here, opening for Heavy Metal Karaoke there, the band still captures the same energy on stage. Once the music starts, the players—and even Biggie, their brother in arms and very much the charming anti-Steinman of this story—are lost in the feeling their music creates. And so it becomes a sort of survival story, the story of a band that nearly made it in the majors, but not quite, and yet never retreated. As the present action of the book takes us from a nearly empty bar show to a showcase at SXSW, where possibility blooms new yet again, what Oestreich drives home is the love of a good song, the friends he's played with all these years, the scraps of praise and beautiful moments on stage that make this thing, this life in music, worth pressing forward with. As the latest tour winds down, as Oestreich lands a teaching job—a real job, the kiss of death for a guy in a band—and his wife does the same, it's Colin that lets him off the hook. "We'll make it work," he says. "We always do." And maybe the biggest feat Hitless Wonder accomplishes is that, as readers, we not only believe Colin, but we want to believe him.
Better than all this, though, is that Hitless Wonder is also a love story, the kind of love story with tribulation that ends in union—the kind that could be a love song if it weren't so complicated and intricate, too intricate to fit any melody. Oestreich, though, builds his relationship with his wife Kate for us, painstakingly, and not without some wide-open honesty. We see them meet with Oestreich in college and Kate in high school and we get the sweet (the two dance at a party, like people do in songs) to the awkward and hilarious (when Oestreich worries Kate is too young, thinking she's 16 to his 20, a friend laughs. "Sixteen isn't what's so funny," Tommy says, and when Oestreich asks why, Tommy replies, "She's fifteen."). We also see them split, Oestreich ditching her for New York and record contracts and rock-and-roll living, which amounts to going to big parties with famous people only to get high and zone out on a couch. In recounting his mistakes, his move away from Kate, Oestreich is self-deprecating, but also captures the hope and naivete that drove him to do what he did in his younger years.
In the present action, as a married couple, Kate and Oestreich provide the very real frame (and tension) for this story. As Kate drops him off at the airport to leave for tour in the book's opening pages she asks, "Why are you doing this?" and later she insists, "This better be worth it." If the book doesn't answer the first question, it provides a sort-of confirmation that Watershed is—for Oestreich and Colin and Herb and Biggie and, eventually, yes, even Kate—worth it. Hitless Wonder may focus on a short major-label run, but it's not about the ills of the record industry, and if it were it would be a lesser book. Instead, it's a convincing story about how we balance passion with life, how we do what we love without alienating and losing who we love. This isn't about tortured art, or about sacrificing for your art, it's about learning how to fit art into a working life. There's no real payoff for Watershed here, but there's no real ending either. And that's the point. Watershed is not Columbus, Ohio. It's not destined to repeat its mediocrity, continues its vicious cycle. It's moving forward, for better or worse.
If Hitless Wonder is about love—of people, of music, of passion for what you do—the band's latest album, Brick & Mortar, is a more direct, if unintentional, indictment of music culture and industry. These fiery, ultra-catchy songs are pure pop joy. They have no artifice, no arch persona, no affectation, no pretension. Since these seem to be what drives music—and yes, that includes the not-really independent music touted by the not-really democracy of internet buzz —Watershed may still not make the splash they deserve with this record, but make no mistake they deserve it. Fittingly, it's a record about not changing. The band accepts imperfection ("Little Mistakes"), still takes joy in the "1-2-3-4!" Dee Dee shouts at the start of Ramones' tunes ("Manifesto (What I Like to Do"), and admits that "you never really leave" home ("Broken").
But this isn't self-deprecation—even on the debauched "Manifesto"—but rather celebration. It's the sound of a band who has figured out who they are and they shout it from the rooftops on this new record, warts 'n all. The hooks run deep here—there are few songs in 2012 that are as catchy as "Little Mistakes" or the more subdued "Set the World on Fire"—but there's also an impressive breadth as the album moves from scrappy rock to dusty balladry and back again. Watershed is at its best when its fiery and lean and baring its teeth, so a glossier moment like "Words We Say" might not hit with the same impact as, say, the hilarious American one-percenter send-up "American Muscle". Still, though. Brick & Mortar, is a great album of guileless pop gems, of songs that are unapologetically catchy, that absolutely want to make you dance, to make you nod your head, smile, sing along. It confirms the band's zeal—and talent—that we see on the page in Hitless Wonder, but more than the book the album confirms just what those major labels, and by extension a larger audience, missed out on. Luckily, it's not too late to catch up to what Watershed is doing on record, and it's just the right time to get on board with what Oestreich does on the page.