My Back Pages: Joe Oestreich’s Hitless Wonder: A Life in Minor League Rock and Roll

Back in 1994, Epic Records sent Nightlife a promotional copy of a live EP by Columbus, Ohio trio Wat
Chris Wissmann

Back in 1994, Epic Records sent Nightlife a promotional copy of a live EP by Columbus, Ohio trio Watershed that left me floored. Three Chords and a Cloud of Dust embodied alternative-rock guitar-pop heaven played by the true heirs of Cheap Trick. Every song was catchy and came with potent, anthemic kicks. One of Nightlife’s editors, Kim Bratcher, née Blum, caught hold of Watershed’s full-length debut, Twister, and was similarly captivated. She reached out to the band, befriended them, and before long they landed a show in Carbondale. Nightlife put them on the cover that week. Watershed’s terrific single, “How Do You Feel,” was climbing the charts. They were destined for superstardom.

But Epic dropped them, seemingly when they were just about to take off.

Kim recently sent me a copy of Watershed bassist Joe Oestreich’s Hitless Wonder: A Life in Minor League Rock and Roll (Lyons Press, paperback, 294 pages, $16.95), which recounts the band’s sad story with the kind of humor that life would have crushed out of lesser people. The footnotes will especially bring laughter to readers and they contain some of Oestreich’s best writing.

Hitless Wonder opens as the aging rockers are embarking on yet another tour, the end of which will bring them to a large hall in their hometown. All members of the band are struggling with families and day jobs while trying to keep their rock ‘n’ roll dreams alive.

Hitless Wonder flashes between present and past. While the current tour goes comically awful (especially at a Tuesday-night pay-to-play gig in Baltimore, where a would-be promoter lectures the bands with an asinine motivational speech about how to climb the ladder and play the club on Wednesdays), the band’s camaraderie and alcohol intake keep their spirits high. Throughout Hitless Wonder, Oestreich uses present-tense experiences as perches from which to view Watershed’s crazy past, which took them to where they could see rock’s promised land and even brush against it, but never quite enter, even as they dramatically improved as a band.

The band’s producers played tug-of-war over Twister’s direction. Their record company incurred huge losses because Michael Jackson’s HIStory didn’t meet sales expectations and the second Spin Doctors album tanked. Watershed shared managers with the Spin Doctors, causing their management to lose clout with Epic. Watershed’s record-company publicist hated them and refused to promote Twister. Post-Epic, Watershed had two more big opportunities, both of which fell apart— the second when Oestreich developed a painful nodule on his vocal chords and lost his voice right before a record-company showcase at the Metro in Chicago. And the band made plenty of bad decisions as well.

Nobody could live through such disappointments without bitterness, including Oestreich. He’s honest about the angst he felt at the time, but Oestreich leaves most of those feelings in the past. The joy of performing and the lifelong friendships within and surrounding the band allow him to keep finding humor nearly everywhere, and have given Watershed bonds that have kept them together since 1987— an amazing feat of longevity for an independent act.

But if Hitless Wonder contains a central conflict, it’s that an insecure Oestreich’s lifestyle causes neverending marital strife— weeks on the road during tours that barely break even while his wife stays home to work and support his music addiction are bound to create irreconcilable tension.

Hitless Wonder may surprise general readers with cautionary tales about the music business, but younger musicians will probably find them a little obvious, something Oestreich acknowledges toward the book’s conclusion. Today’s musicians don’t dream big in the same way that Watershed’s generation did, and they’re more savvy when it comes to the ripoffs that sadly remain almost standard industry practices. Besides, the current state of the music business leaves terrestrial-radio airplay and major labels, and the attendant stadium-filling superstardom they once conferred, out of the calculations of most contemporary musicians. Most of today’s musicians are content to self-release downloads through iTunes or even give away recordings while playing a regional club circuit.

In Oestreich’s eyes, that’s not all good. At its best, he writes, music should bring audiences together to celebrate common experiences, but earbuds and shoe-gazing isolate people from their environment.

So Watershed continues to plug away, and while Hitless Wonder shows a band that could teach lessons to any college music-business class, the band has also clearly learned a little from their juniors. Not enough to prevent them from jumping in a rented van and driving three-hundred miles to play a series of shows with no guarantee of making enough money to cover their gasoline expenses— no, Oestreich makes it clear, that’s what Watershed does, in defiance of all logic and reason. But now they, too, are content to just play for the sake of so doing, and to take joy in the spirit of community that music can, at its best, create, both within a band and among listeners.

Superstardom eluded them, but Oestreich and Watershed still are living one hell of a dream.

A quick listening guide:

While reading Hitless Wonder, those familiar with Watershed can practically watch the band’s songs come to life as Oestreich introduces themes they would later set to music. But while the book stands on its own, so does Watershed’s music, nearly all of which is worth buying.

In retrospect, Twister (1995) sounds cold and harsh, lacking the warmth of Three Chords and a Cloud of Dust. But the earlier live EP is the real deal. The band delivers songs with so much heart, and the crowd laps them up with such enthusiasm, that few people will care if some of the choruses are a little hokey— or notice, at first, the subtle barbs dropped throughout the verses. (Don’t confuse this disc with an excellent sequel recorded some thirteen years later.)

Star Vehicle (1998) is everything Twister tried to be and more. The songs are far more cynical, and while the band takes sharp-edged swipes at the music industry throughout, they remain true believers in rock ‘n’ roll transcendence.

The More It Hurts the More It Works (2002) is a wonderful left turn for the band— sort of their combination of Rubber Soul and Revolver (or maybe Dream Police). The Watershed formula is rendered far more complex as they add studio effects, acoustic guitars, keyboards, a little rootsy rock, some nifty rock allusions, and a lot more buzzsaw distortion.

While so many rockers mellow with age, Watershed moves in the opposite direction but never forces it. With The Fifth of July (2005), they shed some (but not all) of the weirdness on The More It Hurts, retaining the previous album’s fury and melding it to the catchy melodies of Star Vehicle. Their voices deepen here and lose a lot of their Robin Zander affectations.

This process continues with Brick and Mortar (2012), though Watershed lightens the mood with a little political and social satire and more pronounced acoustic-guitar rhythms.

Bottom line: If Rhino Records decides to put out a 1990s version of the seminal Nuggets 1960s anthology, several Watershed tracks belong on it. More ringing praise hardly exists.