HITLESS WONDER: A LIFE IN MINOR LEAGUE ROCK AND ROLL by Joe Oestreich
In 1985, when I was a junior at Worthington High School in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio, I met a guy in American Lit named Joe Oestreich. Joe and three of our classmates had recently formed a KISS and Cheap
Trick-inspired rock band called The Wire. Joe played bass, Colin played guitar, Herb played drums, and Mike (aka Biggie) served as roadie/manager. They printed up business cards that read, "If we can plug in, we'll play," and they did—at talent shows, at the rec center, at the community pool, at school dances, in the smoking section of our local Bill Knapps restaurant.
I think most people assumed The Wire would end after high school, but the band had bigger plans, migrating down High Street to Ohio State, where they changed their name to Watershed and became a fixture on the campus music scene. Soon the guys dropped out of college to focus on the band, and—after a few years of relentless, low-budget touring— they landed a deal with Epic Records.
Alas, their major-label debut, Twister, failed to catapult Watershed to rock stardom, and soon after the album's release, Epic dropped the band. That was in 1995, and Watershed never got another crack at the big time. Seventeen years later, though, the band is still together, still touring (a little), still putting out albums. In fact, they have now been together longer than The Beatles, The Doors, and Nirvana—combined.
Somewhere along the way, Joe decided to try his hand at writing and in 2007 earned an MFA in creative nonfiction at Ohio State (thereby confirming my theory that all rock stars secretly want to be authors, not the other way around, as is generally assumed). It turned out that Joe was not only a talented bassist and singer but also one hell of a writer. He soon began publishing crisp, culturally astute pieces in Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and other magazines. His first book came out this year, a memoir called Hitless Wonder: A Life in Minor League Rock and Roll (Lyons Press).
Disclaimer: not only is Joe a friend, but I blurbed Hitless Wonder, I make a cameo in the book, and my name appears in the acknowledgments. That said, I hope you'll believe me when I say I love this book and would be recommending it regardless.
For starters (and with apologies to Keith Richards, Bob Dylan, George Harrison, David Crosby, et al.), you won't find a smarter, funnier, more compulsively readable book about rock and roll. As Donald Ray Pollock put it in his own blurb:
Finally, somebody gets it right: The real story of rock and roll is not about limos and paparazzi; it's about driving all day in a beat-up van to play your ass off in a scroungy dive for gas money, year after year, hoping for that big break . . . Hitless Wonder is the best and most honest memoir about the thwarted desire for rock stardom that you will ever read.
Hitless Wonder is about much more than rock and roll, though. For starters, it's about friendship. Bands are famously dysfunctional, riven by artistic differences, clashing egos, jealousy, substance abuse, and way too much time on the road together. The guys in Watershed endured all of this—plus the added indignity of sustained commercial failure. Yet they still remain friends. I don't get all gooey over stories of male friendship (the word bonding makes my skin crawl), so let's just say I found this aspect of the book unexpectedly moving and leave it at that.
Hitless Wonder is also the sometimes rocky love story of Joe and his girlfriend (now wife) Kate. It has often been said that guys start bands to get girls, and that's more or less how it worked out for Joe. But once Watershed helped bring Joe and Kate together, it threatened to drive them apart again and again, keeping Joe on the road and in the studio, married to his band mates and music.
Which brings me to Hitless Wonder's central theme: the price we pay to chase our dreams, or—more specifically—to make art. How high a price is too high? And what about the toll on our friends and family? To wit: if you spend twenty years driving around the country in a van, playing your heart out to crowds you can count on one hand, barely earning Taco Bell money, does that mean you're a real rock-and-roller? Or does it mean you're a loser who doesn't know when to quit? And anyway, what constitutes rock success? Making a hit record? Earning a living at it? Producing something you're proud of? Or just not getting booed off the stage?
These are not so different from the questions I often asked myself in the nine years it took me to publish my first short story and in the ensuing ten years before my first book came out. They're the kind of questions I'm still asking myself now, every time I look at my checkbook. Granted, most people who are making music—or writing fiction—aren't in it for the money. But at some point (such as the day I calculated the hourly wage on a story I'd just sold: 26 cents) one can't help asking if one's time might be better spent doing something else.
Hitless Wonder offers no easy answers to such questions, but Joe takes them up with disarming honesty, thoughtfulness, and humor. The result is a winsome book that left me feeling as satisfied and happy as a sweaty, beer soaked, late night show by a band that knows how to leave it all on the stage.
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