Who among us hasn’t played in a band? Or had friends who played in a band, with us cheering them on. And anyone who’s ever played in a band, writing their own songs – had a wish to make it big. Even if we never would admit it publicly, anyone who’s ever played in a band has had that little fantasy about hitting the bigtime, living the rock’n’roll life and secretly answering questions for make-believe interviews in our heads.
Watershed almost made it. Hell, they actually made it. Then didn’t. Joe Oestreichs fantastic book “Hitless Wonder” is the book of every band out there that practiced and talked about it, or just practiced and never talked about it.
Back in the 80’s and 90’s, all bands hoped and worked for was a record deal. A contract with one of the big labels, that would ensure that your album would be available in record outlets all over the country and maybe even the world! These days, with the internet (yes kids, that thing hasn’t been around for that many years), and the slow downfall of the labels, it’s strange to think about the music business and how it worked just a few years ago.
If you wanted to listen to music, you went out and bought a tape, or an LP, and after a while a CD. Now you just open up Spotify, and get that same music for free. And the artists “have” to be on there, giving their music away for free – or nobody will know they exist.
Back then, if the labels didn’t pick you up and get you airtime on radio and got you publicity – the most you could hope for was getting big in your own hometown.
Now, the music of Watershed might not be to all of this blogs readers preference, I know they’re not my preference at all – but that really doesn’t matter. Because this book is so damn good. It is the story of a band, it is the story of a bands way to the bigtime, and then back to the little leagues with all the rest of us. And at the same time it’s the story of a relationship in the midst of a band going big – and to finish it off it’s a real coming-of-age story. It’s a story of a life for anyone who’s into music in any way.
Watersheds front men Colin and Joe formed their first band on the bus home from a Cheap Trick-concert. They decided their friend Herb was going to be their new drummer, and they never looked back.
“Hitless Wonder” starts off with Joe (bassplayer and author of this book) driving his wite Kate to the airport. “I’m not happy about this”, is her first words in this book. Joe had promised to spend the winter holidays with her, and then breaks the promise because Watershed is going back on tour.
And then Joe takes us on a trip that’s nothing short of amazing. Watershed is on the road on a two week tour. And Kate further tells us that “Nobody gives a shot about a Watershed tour, except the guys in Watershed”.
Because Watershed is a bunch of guys in their thirties and forties and one of their steady roadies just hit sixty (!), all packed in a van, driving from bargig to bargig, playing for 4-15 people, collecting anything up to 200$ pr gig (if they’re really really lucky. 20$ is usually a good night).
But the main thing is: They have stayed a band since high school. They have never given up. They are a band, and even if they got close, got signed, had a hit and ALMOST hit the bigtime – they never broke up or said “Well, we tried. Now let’s all move on with our lives”.
They love what they do, and travel the country to play their music to small and large fanbases all over.
“I walk through the curtains and out to the floor. There are exactly five people in the audience. Five people who’ve paid five dollars each to see Watershed play a fifty-minute set”
Hailing from Columbus, Ohio, they were once the biggest band in town. They paid their dues, filling larger and larger venues in town, then dropping out of college to really focus on their music.
They send out promo packets, creates mailinglists (the postcard-kind), hangs posters and creates their own buzz. Local legend Willie Phoenix gets them into the studio to make a demo, and that finally finds it’s way to the desk of someone with the appropriate connections – and suddenly they find themselves at The Power Station in New York, recording their first album – with Jim Steinman as a producer. Yeah, THAT Jim Steinman. They get co-managed by Steinmans firm and David Sonenberg. Yeah. THAT David Sonenberg.
This happens at the same time that Steinman hits it big (again) with Meat Loaf and his “Bat Out Of Hell II”. Sonenberg clients The Spin Doctors have a million selling first album, he’s about the break out The Fugees, and when Watershed get signed – it’s by Epic Records president Richard Griffiths himself.
They record their first album at The Power Station, with Keith Richards recording next door. And Aerosmith. And they meet AC/DC at the reception. And Cyndi Lauper. Watershed gets to spend up to 250.000$ on their debut “Twister”. Everyone agrees they are the next big ting!
The calculations afterwards, which tells them that for every 14.98 cd, they might make as much as 90cents would make anyone who’s never played in a band think “why bother?”. Watershed (and the rest of us) would think “what have got to lose? Go for it!”
From there on stuff sort of goes wrong. And right. And wrong again.
The books timeline changes back and forth between the ongoing tour (which is supposed to end with a big show at a large venue home in Columbus. It’s gonna be their “fill it or quit it” show. Telling them if it’s time to hang it up or not), and their backstory from the start until the present tour starts. The story is filled with great roadstories and meetings with would-be-, should-have-been- and how-the-hell-did-they-do-it-bands along the way.
And in the midst of it, it’s four guys (The band and their tour manager Biggie) growing up while following their dream – and then it’s the story of Joe and Kate – and Joes mistress; Watershed.
I’ve read hundreds of rock-biographies and documentaries – but this is my all time favourite.
Most of all because these guys are you and me. They are just regular people with regular jobs, starting a band for the hell of it, and then they do what most of us failed to do – they follow their dream. ALL the way. There’s no band-members hating each other. There are (almost) no drugs and no rehab-misery. It’s just a bunch of guys doing what they love, driving their van hundreds of miles to play their rock’n’roll, and actually having fun doing it.
“The first thing you learn is that you always gotta wait. Wait to get noticed. Wait to get signed. Wait to get famous”.