There’s been plenty of rock star autobiographies over the years, almost always penned by a ghostwriter whose job it is to turn the endless pursuit of happiness—that is to say, sex, drugs and rock n’ roll—into a page-turning bestseller. Hitless Wonder: A Life in Minor League Rock And Roll, by Joe Oestreich, is not one of those books.
Yes, it is an autobiography and it is about rock n' roll, but that’s where the similarities end. To provide a baseline of comparison, let’s remember that rock stars have hits. As the co-frontman of Columbus, OH-based Watershed, Oestreich most assuredly never had any of those.
Instead, after years of paying dues, his band briefly signed to Epic Records in the early Nineties, only to see the label to pull the plug on its debut faster than you can say Silverchair (the act that Watershed’s promo budget was promptly blown on instead).
But while getting dropped from a major label usually marked the end of a band’s career in those days, Watershed never got the memo and instead slogged on in perpetuity under its own steam. Today, the band is a mainstay on Columbus rock radio, where 20 years of independently released albums have been greeted with airplay worthy of a new Green Day CD. But outside of Columbus—say, in a New York bookstore where I stumbled across Hitless Wonder—no, nobody’s really heard of them. Certainly I hadn’t.
Given his less-than-rock-star status, it sort of goes without saying that no ghostwriters were involved in the making of this book. Instead, Oestreich penned Hitless Wonder himself, and it's a task he’s well-suited for as his day job now is teaching creative writing at Coastal Carolina University in the South. The result is that his tales of rock dreams gone awry aren’t just amusing; they’re also very well-written.
Watershed; author Oestreich is second from left.
For instance, you'll feel every drop of “why do I even bother” self-loathing when the current-day Watershed, halfway through a dismal East Coast tour, pulls its van up to the next gig only to find itself booked for a pay-to-play amateur night—with the rest of the acts less than half Oestreich’s age, to boot. Capturing indignities like these throughout the book with charming bemusement and a refreshing lack of bitterness, he recounts the band’s arguments as to whether they should play the show, and if so, who’s going to cough up the pay-to-play money?
While the book features lots of smart, engaging stories that will make aspiring rockers think twice about their chosen profession, producers and engineers stand to gain some insights, too, about handling bands and pulling the best creative efforts out of them. While Oestreich waxes nostalgic over meticulously recording for Epic at New York City’s legendary Power Station studios, it’s the band’s later-day indie efforts with producer Tim Patalan at his Saline, MI studio, The Loft, that really get him going.
There, the band’s eyes-on-the-clock work ethic clashed mightily with Patalan’s less-than-structured methods. Recounting how Patalan would vanish for days at a time, leaving Watershed with little to do but rework songs, jam and get loaded—all of which resulted in better songs—Oestreich marvels at the producer’s aggressively hands-off approach:
It took me years to figure out what Tim was doing. Most musicians don’t cotton to having their genius questioned. They want the producer to get the song on tape and get out of the way. By keeping us drunk and bothered, Tim was crippling our defenses so he could make the necessary arrangement changes most musicians resist. He was ripping us from our comfort zones, knocking us off-axis so we could tap our creative right brains. It was production as basic training. Break us down, then build the songs back up.
Or maybe Tim just liked to drink. He’d lean back on the couch, eyes closed, cradling a highball of Carlo Rossi on the rocks and say, “Almost, almost. Everything is kick-ass except for the rhythm, the tempo and the pitch. Other than that, flawless.”
Alternating between a current-day tour—will the final, homecoming gig be a disaster?—and the band’s meteoric rise to also-ran-dom, Hitless Wonder unspools a fun and occasionally moving tale that explores the boundaries of friendship, the deterioration of the music industry, and all the difficulties that come with maturing in a business that prizes immaturity above all else (especially the kind usually found in rock autobiographies). Fortunately, by ignoring the ‘sell by’ date on Watershed’s career, Oestreich and his pals went on to have a longer—and arguably more gratifying—career than many of their more successful contemporaries. That mix of tenacity and temerity help make Hitless Wonder a fascinating read for musicians and board jockeys alike.
Hitless Wonder on Amazon