By Brian Phillips
Someone once said “success is preparation plus luck” or some such, and he was probably right, at least up to a point. But then there’s the other stuff. The love of your life? You just missed him last night because you stayed home to watch Dancing With The Stars. Two weeks ago you would have died in a fiery car accident, but the boss held the team late to crunch the numbers again. Things happen one way or they happen some other way. The course of human existence has an infinite course of possible outcomes. Utter chaos. A collision of genetics, socioeconomic circumstance, talent, and what my high school friend Dan called shit house luck. Organized religion, disorganized religion, psychics, and bars all flourish because the anarchy of existence is too much for us to handle. We want to know what to do, and when to do it. Market research exists as a comforting salve to jittery executives looking for ass cover disguised as a spreadsheet. Test audiences hated Seinfeld and they loved Snakes On A Plane. A few years ago developers were touting software they claimed could actually “hear” a hit single. Juries send innocent men to death, and the LA Angels gave Albert Pujols a 300 year contract because they were 100 percent convinced it was the right course of action given the available information.
Watershed co-founder Joe Oestreich’s debut book Hitless Wonder: A Life In Minor League Rock N Roll is about all that stuff. A good rock show is after all a celebration of, and control over chaos. The Replacements turned that into an art form back in the 80’s. Their shows could be transcendent, as the first song was when I saw them in 1987 (“Hold My Life”). Then Tommy Stinson signaled to the sound man that nothing was loud enough and the rest of the show sounded like the inside of a failing jet engine. The Replacements in that era had a major label deal, critical acclaim, and as Paul Westerberg put it on “Favorite Thing,” I don’t give a single shit. Would they do a great show or a terrible show? It was entirely conditional on how fucked up they were. It was up to you to be fortunate enough to catch them on the right night when a perfect backstage buzz met show time. Shit house luck. I love The Replacements, but it never struck me they ever had a lot of respect for their audience.
As for Watershed, I’ve never seen them do a bad show. Oh they had every reason to snarl. There’s was a cruel fate. Just out of the major label gate (signed to the same Epic Records as their beloved Cheap Trick, perhaps ominously after the Trick had been dropped) and beginning to enjoy some real momentum, Watershed were dropped so quickly it seemed like a practical joke.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve known the principal actors in Oestreich’s engrossing book for years. I’ve heard a lot of these stories over beers at bars, over beers at Airport Golf Course, over beers before Watershed shows…. over beers watching bootleg Kiss videos at Colin Gawel’s house. Anyone who’s been involved in the history of this band has stories, and a thirst that would fill The Great Lakes. It helps if you buy. These are funny, tragic tales of young and not-so-young men attempting to somehow marry their prodigious talents to the whims of the marketplace. Hitless Wonder is in large part of celebration of perseverance in the face of a preponderance evidence indicating the opposite course. Life would hardly be worth living if there wasn’t a middle ground between sane and insane. That’s where the magic happens.
I won’t go into detail here, as my aim is to encourage you to read the book. I ripped through it in three days, and had to put it down several times to make it last longer. I can honestly tell you that even if I knew nothing of the band I would have still been enthralled. It’s brutally honest, but never exploitative. The author is harder on himself than anyone, but for wife Kate, and members of the band past and present, this document I can imagine was sometimes a tough read. I have long marveled at how well Watershed got on with one and other. Other bands are amazed by their brotherhood. Here for the first time one gets a sense it was hardly easy. Kate Oestreich even acknowledges as much referring to band founders Oestreich and Gawel, in so many words, as an old married couple. Marriage can be difficult at times for many of the same reasons being in a band together can be.
I would like to give a personal perspective on one of the key parts of Hitless Wonder as it illustrates the cruelty of fate. Joe Oestreich is humble for a rocker and he perhaps undersells a bit how fucking great this band is. There’s no easily acceptable reason why Watershed didn’t “make it.” They have songs, chops, stage presence, an indomitable spirit, respect for their fans, intelligence, and work ethic. They have Mike “Biggie” McDermott (a true hero in the book). That’s just it, you can’t explain it logically. Watershed’s chance at arena sized fame was, at least in part, torpedoed by a common scourge: politics. They shared record company personnel and management with a band called The Spin Doctors. For a brief period in the early to mid 90’s, the goofy jam band were rather huge. Their Epic Records album Pocket Full Of Kryptonite sold millions. I remember seeing them at the old Polaris Amplitheater with 20,000 other people in the spring of 1994. (Cracker and Gin Blossoms were also on the bill, and I recall scamming drinks and jumbo prawns from the buffet table. In the salad days of rock, success could be measured by the size of the shrimp.) Around that time the Doctors faced the biggest challenge of theirs or any other band’s career; the follow up to a huge hit. Turn It Upside Down was that album, and while not a sales disaster, it sold but a fifth of it’s predecessor. In all my years in the radio business it’s hard for me to recall a high stakes follow up met with as much–not exactly derision–but apathy. A measurable apathy. From label golden boys on the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine to Biblical scale lepers The Spin Doctors plummeted. Their 1996 third record for Epic sold less than 100,000 copies and the band was dumped, and Watershed too along with many of the label people who had championed them in the company corridors. Make no mistake, you need friends in the hallways. There will be some that believe in you, and others who don’t. You’re competing for attention and resources with other bands and records. It can be cutthroat as illustrated brutally in Hitless Wonder. Oestreich does a brilliant job of explaining not just the political realities of being on a major label, but the stark truth of just how hard it is to make money on your recordings, even back in those days.
I’ve grossly oversimplified the entire saga here and I’ll leave it to you to draw your own conclusions. For Oestreich’s part he writes that the band was not good enough at the time anyway. I disagree, but there you go. I will say that Watershed have done their best work over the past decade, long after the A&R scouts stopped attending their shows. Their new album Brick & Mortar, hitting June 5th, can sit proudly along side the rest of their work. The boys ain’t done yet–not as long as there’s a place to play and a resigned spouse at home. Hitless Wonder is hilarious, poignant, wise, and will speak to anyone who’s ever had dreams, especially those who cling to them with a white knuckle grip.
Brian Phillips is the Midday DJ on CD101 @ 102.5 FM, Columbus, Ohio.