During the mid-’90s, the power-pop trio Watershed seemed to have a lock on the rock-and-roll dream. The guys from Columbus, Ohio, had radio airplay, a contract with Epic Records and a studio date with Jim Steinman, the composer and producer who birthed Meatloaf’s schlock-rock opus, “Bat Out of Hell.” The Spin Doctors’manager was their manager, and the Spin Doctors were selling a lot of records. Watershed was an MTV buzz-clip in waiting, a sure thing.
And then, like so many other young and hopeful bands of the alternative decade — including the Spin Doctors themselves — they fizzled. But even when the buzz shushed, Watershed kept going. Ten years later, when bassist and singer Joe Oestreich’s memoir, “Hitless Wonder” picks up the story, Watershed is a band badly in need of end-of-life counseling. The fans are mostly gone. The money is all gone. They’ve slipped from opening for their heroes, Cheap Trick, to being billed as the warm-up act for a heavy-metal karaoke night. Concerned spouses and loved ones have begun to tiptoe around the inevitable question: Why not pull the plug? Some don’t even bother to tiptoe: “Nobody gives a [expletive] about a Watershed tour,” Oestreich’s wife informs him. “Except the guys in Watershed.”
Oestreich, now a teacher of creative writing at Coastal Carolina University, spends much of “Hitless Wonder” trying to rationalize his band’s continued existence. With a wry sense of humor and only a smidgen of residual bitterness, he charts the band’s progress through a purgatorial two-week tour undertaken in support the group’s 2007 live album, “Three Chords and a Cloud of Dust II.” Between tales of under-attended gigs in lowbrow bars, Oestreich recounts Watershed’s path from high school garage band to would-be next big thing and, ultimately, to glorified guy-time. He mostly skips over the performances in order to write about the things that really occupy a touring band’s time: driving, moving gear and waiting.
Success, be it among the masses or the magazine scribes, is key to the allure of rock band biographies, which provide readers with the opportunity to project themselves into extraordinary and rarified circumstances: fame, groupies, artistic renown and all the TV sets you can hurl out of a hotel window. But while they inspired a few tattoos and at least one baby’s name, Oestreich admits that Watershed never fully broke through on either count. “I’m thinking what a shame it is that success in the music business is always measured one of two ways: commercial or critical,” he writes, searching for a kernel of meaning amid years spent supporting himself by working crummy jobs between crummy tours. “There must be some other way to compute it, one that doesn’t depend on the acceptance of record buyers or rock critics.” As the tour drags on, Oestreich and his bandmates seem to continue because calling it quits has become analogous to backing down. Denied the fuel to burn out, Watershed refuses to fade away.
Major label dalliances aside, to read “Hitless Wonder” is to experience rock and roll as played by the unglamorous 99 percent, living with public indifference and not making any money. “By most quantifiable standards, being in a rock band is stupid,” writes Oestreich after crunching the numbers on a Detroit concert for which Watershed is paid only $6.25 per band member, which none of them will ever see anyway because they’re already in the red on gas. But the band has also become a kind of social glue, tethering Oestreich to his best childhood friends. And even when the crowd is thin, populated by only a few old friends who were willing to stay out late on a work night, he enjoys playing the music. It’s an account of band living as most of us will experience it, both the good parts and bad.
Watershed never had a hit but, man, they wanted to have one and their guilt-free swan dive into the record industry’s next-big-thing machinery — a now extinct world of managers, A&R reps and in-studio sushi dinners — is as fascinating as any critically beloved punk band’s more angst-ridden ride.
Leitko is an editorial aide for The Post’s Reliable Source column.