In his book Hitless Wonder A Life In Minor League Rock and Roll Joe Oestreich pulls back the curtain and shines a bright light on what it's like to slug it out in a band that never quite made it to mass commercial success.
Here's what we see: a battered van loaded with middle-aged dudes with day jobs like English professor, country club cook, and barista, criss-crossing the country to places like Toledo and Youngstown and Milwaukee. They could all use a shave and shower and maybe they drank one too many beers the night before after playing a dive bar.
Electronic gear is scattered around, iPods, DVD players, cell phones, various jacks and plug-ins to make it all work. They're packed in among their instruments and amps, and they probably smell a little gamey. There's one other thing:
They couldn't be happier.
"It's fun, of course. Hanging out with your buddies on a Friday night at a bar and getting up on stage to play songs that you really like for people is fun," Oestreich said in a phone interview from his home in Conway, S.C., near Myrtle Beach.
Thirty or so years ago, Oestreich and his Worthington, Ohio, buddy Colin Gawel vowed to rock out and follow in the footsteps of their heroes Cheap Trick, forming a band that would become Watershed. More importantly, though, they began a relationship that transcends rock.
"Colin and I are really good friends, and so we're not going to break up as friends. Every time I go back to Columbus we're just going to hang out anyway, so we might as well hang out writing songs, recording songs, hanging out in the band.
"And once you decide you're going to do any kind of art you can't not do it. I don't think I could not write songs. I don't think I could not play shows. It's just so much of who I am at this point that we're doomed. We can't quit now."
Oestreich and Watershed will hit Frankie's Inner City Friday night, performing songs from their new album, "Brick and Mortar" along with tunes from their '90s near-major label run.
It's all detailed in Hitless Wonder (Lyons Press, 292 pages $16.95), an excellent memoir that's funny, painfully honest, and fascinating to anyone who's seen a really good veteran band plugging away in a bar for just a couple of dozen people watching disinterestedly.
Watershed achieved a high level of popularity in Columbus in the 1990s and recorded one album, "Twister" in 1995 for the Epic record label before being dropped quickly, the result of corporate politics and bad luck. The band plays an aggressive form of anthemic power pop -- "three minute pop songs that rock," as Oestreich said -- that never quite caught on with a wide audience.
They played Toledo regularly during their first run and it's a town that Oestreich views fondly because, "Toledoans are scrappy, and they've got civic pride."
He tackles all the existential questions that go with playing in a rock band in a conversational and intelligent manner, addressing what it takes to follow your passion all over the country for what looks like a lost cause.
He's lucky to have that first love from a career perspective: rock and roll. But it comes at a steep cost.
"In my case that meant missing out on a lot of other parts of life. It meant missing out on money to some degree. It meant missing out on big events in my wife's life. Like, I can remember missing her sister's wedding for a gig that didn't mean anything in the grand scheme of things. And I think lots of people risk losing relationships, loved ones, all to follow that one thing," he said.
Eventually Oestreich, 42, gravitated toward writing and received a masters degree in English from Ohio State University. Hitless Wonder resulted from his masters thesis, and he now teaches at Coastal Carolina University where he lives with his wife and two young children.
The band is on a two-week jaunt, pushing both the new album and the book, and Oestreich said they're just as fired up as they were in their 20s.
Watershed will play at Frankie's, 308 Main St., Friday with doors opening at 9 p.m. Tickets are $8 in advance and are available at all Ticketmaster outlets, by phone 419-474-1333, www.ticketmaster.com, and/or locally at Culture Clash (419-536-5683), and Ramalama Records (419-531-7625). Tickets are $10 day of show at the door.
Contact Rod Lockwood at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6159.