Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Book: Hitless Wonder, by Joe Oestreich (2012)

Watershed doesn’t get much radio airplay outside the Midwest, as if radio airplay matters anymore. On Rhapsody they’re under “noise pop,” which I didn’t even realize was a category of music. Give a listen to “Anniversary,” a brittle little gem that will introduce you to the memorable phrase “shotgun divorce.” The song’s potency comes from the fact that it’s about a long-term relationship running out of gas; only someone who’s been around can tell that story.

The band built up a following in the Heartland, centered around their hometown of Columbus, Ohio. They were poised to break out in the mid-1990s when they were discovered by rock god Jim Steinman and landed a major label deal. Then the worst of all possible fates befell them: no fate at all. This “surefire Next Big Thing” discovers “it’s damn near impossible to shed Next and Thing and become simply big.”

They’re still around after 20 years, a bunch of guys pushing 40 and in some cases tumbling over it, vacating their day jobs to pile into a rental van and play their hearts out for dozens of people on a good night. Joe Oestreich, the bass guitarist and one of two lead singers – that arrangement may be part of the problem, but hey, the band is the band – explains why they do it in a dazzling memoir. His book is like one of those perfect pop songs that lays bare the meaning of life in a tight 2:20. At its core, Hitless Wonder asks questions that don’t only apply to aging jukebox heroes. When do you give up on the dream? How do you measure your worth when every standard is in flux? What if you’ve got the talent and the drive but none of the luck? What takes more pride, walking away or rocking on?

Oestreich alternates between documenting Watershed’s checkered history and its most recent tour, in support of an album few clamored for and even fewer have purchased. The departure puts strain on his marriage; his wife leaves him at the airport with the words, “No one gives a shit about a Watershed tour except the guys in Watershed.” Oestreich’s chronicle essentially bears that out while observing that it doesn’t matter. His band “would forever play in the minor leagues. But that was okay: a win in the minors was still a win.” Or as the friend of a friend puts it, “That’s the key. Having something to aim at. Whether or not you hit it is immaterial.”

Oestreich is a terrific writer; it will be hard to forget the revelation that singing into the ancient microphones at CBGB is “like licking the screen door at a VFW hall.” He’s particularly strong when detailing changes in the business, like the tyrannical crooked math behind New Band Nites: “This is how rich capitalists convince poor folks to vote Republican. We’re not fucking you; we’re giving you the power to sink or swim on your own – in a system that’s designed to fuck you.” This “generational divide” has affected the music itself. “Watershed belongs to the last wave of bands that dreamed big,” their fantasy futures defined by big label deals and arena gigs. Oestreich contrasts this with one of their opening acts, a duo influenced by Radiohead “but even more experimental and ponderous – all bleeps and bloops and self-indulgent passages that are so damn long, I swear I can see the singer’s beard growing.” Coming of age at a time when artists break on YouTube and roller derby has claimed the arenas, it makes sense for bands to become “uneasy with big.”

But for all his rhapsodizing about the allure of the road – you’ve got to love any band with a philosophy inspired by “John D. MacDonald’s literary hero Travis McGee, the self-proclaimed ‘salvage expert’ who works when he wants, thereby taking his retirement in installments” – Oestreich keeps the focus on hard choices. He and his bandmates are good enough to be paid to do what they love but can’t earn a living at it. When you claim a seat at the table but somehow don’t get anything to eat, you’ve got to find other ways of sustaining yourself. Oestreich details one way that’s possible in a moving book about marriage, friendship, and how Cheap Trick fucking rules.