Joe Oestreich. Hitless Wonder: A Life in Minor League Rock and Roll. Guilford, CT: Lyons Press, 2012. 304 pp. $16.95, paper.
Joe Oestreich begins his new rock memoir Hitless Wonder with the lesson of waiting: “Wait to get noticed. Wait to get signed. Wait to get famous.” By the end of the book, however, “waiting” for Oestreich and his band Watershed takes on a different finish. As a rock memoir, Hitless Wonder rubs shoulders with rockumentaries like Anvil! The Story of Anvil and even Rob Reiner’s mockumentary This is Spinal Tap. However, Hitless Wonder plunges headlong into the ultra-gritty physical and mental terrains that come with building and sustaining a rock band primarily fueled by intangible rewards. Watershed’s doggedly loyal “superfans” often travel long distances for a show, and Oestreich never underestimates the motivating power of “drinking a lot and sleeping late and wallowing in the kind of behavior that’s frowned upon in everyday life.”
Hitless Wonder pulls back the curtain on Watershed’s struggles with everything from hunger, hangovers, and manhandling amps to long-distance relationships, negotiating record deals, and the knotty dynamics of touring into middle-age. Oestreich toggles between self-deprecating humor and transparency as he records his transition from a young, ambitious singer and bass player to an equally driven but older veteran of Watershed: “I wanted to look like Tom Petersson on the Cheap Trick In Color album cover: all hair and aviator glasses on a Fatboy chopper. But locked in the bathroom, armed with two mirrors so I could measure the full 360-degrees of my male-pattern baldness, I looked like Phil fucking Collins.” But while Oestreich jokingly longs for a rock-and-roll exterior, he also lets us see the internal workings of his ego. Standing on the streets of Manhattan after cutting a deal with Epic Records, Oestreich reflects on his desire for stardom:
I was momentarily hit with the same jealousy that had spiked the last three years as Colin, Biggie, Herb, and I watched our friends graduate from college to adult-size paychecks. My insides tightened. My mental defenses stiffened, constricting a layer of armor that shielded my ego from the sight of other people’s success. I wanted to fire back at those Brothers Brooks, at those Taylors Ann – to shout into the Manhattan morning, Listen up, you Nouveau-Yorker yuppie fucks. You should all be jealous of me.
But Oestreich undergoes a number of transformations throughout Hitless Wonder. In the bathroom of a Toledo club called Frankie’s, Oestreich confronts the reality of aging alongside an ever-morphing music scene when he recalls having Wallflower Child tattooed on his shoulder. Wallflower Child, a popular song written by Oestreich, acts as an important line to separate his style from Colin’s, Watershed’s other singer and Oestreich’s lifelong friend. However, as Oestreich ages, he looks into the mirror and sees a distorted version of his past and rock and roll: “The tattoo has faded in the sixteen years since Speck inked it, and the letters have gone blurry. It looks like it says CAULIFLOWER CHILI […] Over the sink someone has written WATERSHED ROCKS! Underneath, somebody else—surely one of the emo kids—has responded with, WHAT IS ROCK?”
Questions about Watershed’s future linger as Oestreich’s transition into writing collides with the tour near the end of the memoir. Oestreich continually explores his motivations for continuing to play in a band increasingly faced with small-scale shows, new waves of music built on “bleeping” and “blooping,” and his burgeoning career as a writer and professor. After abandoning university life as an undergraduate to pursue music, Oestreich later returns to school to expand his creativity and studio energy into an MFA in creative writing and a teaching position at Coastal Carolina University. Compared to a lifestyle of touring and performing on stage, the institutional qualities of a professorship seemingly stand in opposition to Oestreich’s identity as a musician: office hours, meetings, lectures, and conferences. And yet, we see traits of a writer and professor in Oestreich during Watershed’s recording sessions. The studio becomes a classroom where Oestreich learns to edit, to give and accept constructive criticism, and to patiently pick apart songs like an essay in order to rebuild them stronger.
By the end of Hitless Wonder, success becomes difficult to measure, and instead of waiting to get noticed, signed, and famous, Watershed relaxes into the next opportunity to pile into the van one more time and play to a loyal following. The reportage alone keeps the memoir moving steadily along through the entertaining and unpredictable gauntlet of rock and roll. Through Oestreich, we experience the unease of sleeping on the floor of a speeding van, knowing a sudden stop will result in decapitation by guitar amp. We share the thrill of big-time music producers ordering the entire left side of a menu in an upscale Manhattan restaurant. We feel the frustration of broken-down vans, unpaid shows, tightfisted bartenders, disinterested record execs, and crowds who protest by throwing batteries. We relive the experiences of too many PBRs and picking at deli trays. We wait with Watershed as fans chant “Wa-ter-shed!” And we weigh the significance of playing one crowded arena versus several modest clubs and dive bars, questioning alongside Oestreich: Is it worth it? Band members and ex-band members will surely find familiar ground in Hitless Wonder, but the memoir offers much more than minor league rock. Oestreich layers in family, his youth in the suburbs, the bond between Watershed’s members, and his relationship with his wife from day one, all while grappling with success, disappointment, and reconciling the two creative worlds of music and writing.