August 10, 2012 11:23:59 AM
"On the bus ride home, Colin said, 'We have to start a band.'" That was the pronouncement, within the first pages of Hitless Wonder: A Life in Minor League Rock and Roll (Lyons Press), that changed the life of the author Joe Oestreich forever. It's not an uncommon story, for there are lots and lots of rock bands playing in venues in every town in America. Colin Gawel and Joe Oestreich were the best of friends then, thirteen years old and coming home from a Cheap Trick concert. They are best of friends still. Oestreich has done other things; he writes for magazines, and he teaches writing at university, but Rock And Roll Is His Life, and his delightful book shows how it got that way.
In some ways I am too old to be reviewing this book. I'd recognize a very top Cheap Trick song, I guess, but I had no idea that Oestreich's band, Watershed, existed. Well, that's not too surprising. Watershed has been big in its home turf of Columbus, Ohio, and you'd think (and the band-members would think) that if you can rock out in one city, you can rock out in another. That sort of fame has eluded them, however; they are not in the big names of the generational begats that Oestreich lists with affection toward the end of the book: "Our generation modeled ourselves after the arena-rockers we grew up with. We begged our moms for Christmas guitars because we loved Springsteen and Aerosmith, KISS and Van Halen - bands who played to the back row. Our heroes picked up guitars because they'd watched The Beatles on Ed Sullivan. And the Beatles did it because they'd heard Elvis and Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins and Eddie Cochran."
Put me into that Beatles timeframe. It isn't really important that much of the current music Oestreich writes about here is stuff of which I am ignorant. Sure, he writes plenty about music making, and the mechanics of making a show go well, and the economics (or lack thereof) for a band of long standing. His book plays just as well as a memoir of friendship, however, and a splendid demonstration that having a dream and sincerely chasing it is its own reward. Watershed isn't going to be Cheap Trick, but they are going to play some concerts that they will take seriously, even if the crowds are small. They will enjoy their work. They will please audiences, if they can get them. They will support and entertain and love each other. They don't have great commercial or critical success, but toward the end of the book, Oestreich asks how you gauge a band that has neither of those things. "Standing here in the hallway, with the crowd chanting, 'Wa-ter-shed,' I sure don't feel like a failure. But are we a success?" Well, that crowd wants an encore; and Watershed does have fans who are wild about the band and even follow it from gig to gig (they are too old and too settled to have full-on groupies). "Money and fame would have been nice, sure, but I think what we wanted most of all was to be included - in the scene, in the record store, in the critical conversation. We wanted the chance to stick around the big leagues for years and years, like KISS and Cheap Trick. The odds against a career like that were so astronomically huge, I suppose the cause was lost from the beginning. But we were too young to know that, thank God. Now we're too old to stop." And he would not, this thoughtful memoir makes clear, have done it differently if he had been told at the beginning that big league success would never have been possible.
The book is framed around a recent, raucous two-week tour in which the band traveled in its Econoline van to bookings in several states. Oestreich thus tells us about his current tour, but every few pages lurches back into his childhood, or the extensive history of the band which has, after all, been playing together for more than two decades. Being back together for this tour isn't a matter of caring about gigs, as Colin says: "It's just great to be hanging out with my friends." And friendship is the foundation, sure, but Oestreich reflects that the gigs are important, too: "We need this tour to tell us there's still a place in rock and roll for old lizards like us. But neither of us can say as much. Not out loud. Not when we're about to take the stage for five people."
In the funny recounting here of the most recent tour, success may be friendship, and success may be pleasing the fans, but it all rests on finance. Toting up, Oestreich writes, "Tomorrow, tonight's twenty-five dollar take will get us a third of the way to Milwaukee. Here in the minor leagues, bands don't play for sex, fame, and fortune. They play for gasoline." It wasn't always this way for Watershed. Once upon a time they had a contract with major label Epic. There was a studio album and a live album, and they were told to expect to go platinum. They had a tantalizing vision of penthouses and limousines, before being dropped. It was a combination of corporate politics, bad timing, and bad luck, all detailed here, that kept them from achieving the fame their fans think they deserve. The rock and roll gods are fickle; Epic was also the label for Watershed's beloved Cheap Trick, which band it also dropped.
Watershed will not be signing onto another label, it seems. They are still playing their hearts out, but they have been doing it long enough that the entire way of doing the music business has changed. Albums are of course not the way to go anymore. The guys love being on the road, with all its hardships, but even that has changed. "The Internet, however, makes touring seem as quaint and outmoded as the Pony Express. Bands today don't need to squeeze into a van. They can just post a song to MySpace and upload the video to YouTube. Bam. Listen for free then download with a mouse click and a credit card. Why drive from town to town, when you can drive Internet traffic instead?" The answer, having to do with fraternity and friendship, pervades the book, but he specifically answers the modernity / computer question: "Could it be the sensory experience of playing with people in front of people? The fun of drinking a lot and sleeping late and wallowing in the kind of behavior that's frowned upon in everyday life? Because we're like an old battleship that doesn't easily change course? Yes, yes, and yes."
Much of the attraction of playing on tour is that there are fans, and superfans, who value the group and like being part of the large Watershed community. One couple wrote to say that Watershed lyrics had saved their marriage. "Another husband and wife sent a note asking if they could name their kid after one of us. A few months later, they dropped our names into a hat - then carried little Colin home from the hospital." These are affirming relationships, as are the ones band members have among themselves. Continuing to go out on the road, however, can cause domestic disharmony. Oestreich has a wife who obviously cares for him, and is supportive intermittently about his being with the band, but informs him, "Nobody gives a [expletive] about a Watershed tour, except the guys in Watershed." It's not quite true, but she's right that the guys in Watershed are the ones who really care. Toward the end of this enlightening and humane book, Oestreich and Colin are having a conversation about the band's future, given difficulties in changes of home towns, logistics, and the rest. "'We'll make it work somehow,' Colin says. 'We always do.'" I believe him.