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July 27, 2012

Book Notes - Joe Oestreich "Hitless Wonder: A Life in Minor League Rock and Roll"

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Joe Oestreich's Hitless Wonder: A Life in Minor League Rock and Roll is an impressive memoir of a life making music. Oestreich recounts the twenty year career of his band Watershed with humility, honesty, and humor in this entertaining and enlightening account of being a musician in the modern music industry.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"This insightful and entertaining story of a band that almost-but-didn't-quite make it big in the 1990s is equal parts fascinating autobiography and a hilarious and savvy look at the harsh realities of the music industry. This is not a story of failure, just a different kind of success."

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes. If you don't have Spotify yet, sign up for the free service.

In his own words, here is Joe Oestreich's Book Notes music playlist for his book, Hitless Wonder: A Life in Minor League Rock and Roll:

Hitless Wonder is the story of my twenty-plus years playing in the Columbus, Ohio-based band Watershed—not getting famous. In our long haul through the music biz bush leagues, Watershed caught a couple whiffs of rockstardom: a six-figure deal with Epic Records, gigs in arenas and amphitheatres, a stint opening for the Insane Clown Posse (No bullshit. And if I had to describe the ICP experience in one word, that word would be: sticky). But we never had a video on MTV, never had a song come close to last place on the Billboard charts. We've spent almost the entirety of our career in dive bars, playing for sparse crowds and no money. In that way, Watershed is like almost every band. But unlike almost every band, we can't seem to quit. Even now, in our forties, with wives and kids and mortgages, we're still loading ourselves into the Econoline and living on beer and beef jerky. One question the book tries to answer is, is this admirable or pathetic? After two decades, is Watershed a success or a failure?

A few years back, Pat DiNizio of The Smithereens, after listening to one of the songs on the album we'd just released, told me, "I want you to know that you made a hit record here. It may never show up on the charts, but this record is a fucking hit." I knew it wasn't a hit by any traditional standard, but I understood what he was getting at. Screw the traditional standard.

That's the spirit in which I've made the playlist for Hitless Wonder. There are no Watershed songs on the list. You can track those down on your own if you care to. Nor have I included tunes by the big name artists that make cameos in our story (Keith Richards, Meat Loaf, the Spin Doctors, Ben Folds, the aforementioned Smithereens and I.C.P.). This list is made up of thirteen bands who should have been big, and these are the songs that should have gotten them there. The set opens and closes with tunes that are specifically about the frustrations of not making it in the conventional way. The playlist's gooey center is filled with big hooks and catchy choruses—so sweet they make your teeth hurt.

These aren't just great songs, they're hit songs, even if the numbers don't back that up, even if they're not certified gold, platinum or anything else. What do the numbers know? This is art, not statistics. And these are hits, even if they're not.

1. "The Ballad of the Opening Band" by Slim Dunlap

Already a semi-legend in Minneapolis, Slim took Bob Stinson's spot in The Replacements when the latter was booted from the band. This song, from the first of Slim's two stellar post-Replacements solo albums, does in 4:28 what it took me 300 pages to do. He takes perfect measure of the distance—impossibly far and frustratingly near—between the many bands that haven't made it and the few that have. After Watershed was dropped by Epic, we'd often seek out Slim for his advice and wisdom. "Look down the ladder at all the bands who'd love to be where you are," is one thing he told us. "Never clean the wax out of your ears. It's nature's earplugs," is another.

2. "Just Listen" by Adam Schmitt

The early 1990s saw a power pop resurgence. Suddenly everyone knew who Big Star was, and bands like Teenage Fanclub and Redd Kross were being featured in Spin Magazine. Muppet-looking Matthew Sweet became a radio fixture, but Champaign-Urbana's Adam Schmitt should have been just as big. Not only was he more handsome and a better singer than Sweet, he played most of the instruments on his records and produced them himself. When Epic Records asked us what we wanted our album to sound like, we played them this song. Their response? "It sounds like a demo." Knuckleheads. Note to Wilco fans: Schmitt mixed the major-label debut from Titanic Love Affair, who was fronted by Jay Bennett, who'd later join Wilco. In the Wilco song "Monday," when Jeff Tweedy sings "get me out of TLA," he's talking about Titanic Love Affair.

3. "Girlfriend" by Uptown Sinclair

Another brilliant entry in the Midwest Power Pop canon. Cleveland's Uptown Sinclair was fronted by Dave Hill, who's now a comedian, "This American Life" contributor, and author of the hilarious, just-published essay collection, Tasteful Nudes. He moved from Northeast Ohio to New York City, and now he pals around with Dick Cavett and Malcolm Gladwell. If I could do the summer between my junior and senior year of high school all over again (except this time actually have the guts to talk to girls), and if the do-over of that summer could have a theme song, it would be this one. Do yourself a favor and YouTube the video.

4. "Freezed" by Jonny Polonsky

Chicago's Polonsky got some run in the music press for his first album, which landed on Rick Rubin's American Recordings label via a leg-up from The Pixies' Black Francis (a.k.a. Frank Black), but like Watershed, Polonsky lost the major-label deal after one full-length record. Also like Watershed, Polonsky got better after he was dropped. This song is a good reminder that in rock music, the words don't matter nearly as much as the sound of the words. Look at the chorus here. How the hell can he milk so much awesomeness from a "baby," another "baby," and an "ahhhh?" Two words and a well-placed hum of affirmation. As we say here in South Carolina, where I now live, "Gotdamn."

5. "My Valentine" by Rhett Miller

Best known as the main man in the Old 97's, Rhett Miller is the kind of guy you just want to punch in the face. He's too perfect. Handsome, funny, smart, self-deprecating. His vocals are dead-on, and when he's not writing irresistible melodies and clever lyrics, he's contributing to The Atlantic or modeling for Esquire. Right now he's probably doing Tai Chi in the stock room of a soup kitchen where he has just ladled out his homemade, organic potato and leek bisque to gifted and talented orphans (actually he's on tour supporting his new album, The Dreamer). And yet, if you don't read Paste or Pitchfork, you've probably never bought one of his records. Criminal! An outrage! Somebody needs to right this wrong. If only Rhett Miller were here…he'd know what to do.

6. "Always Love" by Nada Surf

This is the one band on the list that actually scored a hit, 1996's "Popular." I've included them here because they've hung around so long, they don't even seem like the same band as the one that was all over MTV sixteen years ago. More importantly, they just keep getting better, writing one excellent album after another. In 2005, nearly ten years after "Popular," they released the single "Always Love," a song that should have hit big enough to put their grandkids through college. In the Watershed van we refer to this track by its right and proper name: The Best Song in the World. Trivial sidenote: In 1995, when Watershed was on tour with The Smithereens, we used to soundcheck Matthew Sweet tunes with The Smithereens' drum tech, a lanky dude named Ira Elliott, who'd just joined Nada Surf.

7. "List" by The Fags

Not nearly as iconoclastic as the name (which refers to cigarettes) might indicate, our good buddies from Detroit were signed by legendary A&R man Seymour Stein to Sire Records, but the label chickened out and never released the album, Light ‘em Up. The band landed at Dallas's Idol Records (the same label that picked up Watershed after Epic dropped us), but the Light ‘em Up CD release show was the last gig The Fags ever did. Trivial sidenote: The "oh" you hear at the beginning was sung by yours truly.

8. "Charles" by Scrawl

An all-female band from Columbus, Scrawl was lumped into the Riot Grrl movement, mostly because in the late ‘80s, writers didn't know how else to categorize chicks who rocked. This song is a retelling of KISS's "Beth," but this time the woman is in the band and the man is left to "stay up and wait." And since we're talking a hit list here, I'd like to make a long distance dedication, to my wife, Kate, who still waits up—even though rock and roll has given her a million reasons not to.

9. "Sucked Out" by Superdrag

I suspect that if this band had hailed from Manchester or London they could have been as huge as Oasis or Blur. "Knoxville" just doesn't have the same cachet. But together with Nashville's The Shazam, who I've tragically overlooked here, Superdrag proves that sweet, sweet melodies can come rolling down from high on Rocky Top, Tennessee. And man, when John Davis's voice breaks snottily on the word, "feeling," it's so good it makes me want to karate chop my coffee table in half.

10. "My Heart is the Bums on the Street" by Marah

If a band could become big simply by having famous, influential fans, Marah would be on the cover of the Rolling Stone. Springsteen has invited them on stage, crashed their shows, and appeared on one of their albums. Nick Hornby wrote an op-ed in the New York Times heaping praise on them. Stephen King called them the "the best rock band in America that nobody knows…the American U2." And they are. They are. But all that and $5.00 might get Marah a used copy of The Joshua Tree. It's sad. It's infuriating. And yet every Marah show teems with joy, even when they're playing for a tenth the number of people a U2 tribute band would draw. Another thing: remember how I said above in #4 that words don't matter? I'd like to retract that. The lyrics to this song are as good as lyrics get.

11. "On a Rope" by Rocket from the Crypt

Once, a couple hours after watching them open for the Foo Fighters at a small theater in Columbus, I ran into RFTC frontman John Reis at a dive bar down the street. I told him how much I loved this song, particularly how the signature riff so cleverly plays homage to Billy Squier's "Everybody Wants You." I figured he'd give me an elbow and a wink. Maybe buy me a beer. I'd cracked the code, but it would be our little secret. Instead he looked at me with a mix of horror and disgust, as if my teeth and gums were stained black from eating a whole box of Raisinets all at once, and he walked away without saying a thing.

12. "Rock ‘n' Roll Star" by Flipp

I admire this song specifically for it's blatant and unapologetic bigness. Big production values (courtesy of Art Alexakis from Everclear), big career aspirations. This was a band built for arenas. And Flipp doesn't bore us; they get to the chorus. Two verse lines, a cockrocking pre-chorus, then bam: Rock ‘n' Roll Star x 2. As a friend of mine says, "This is some serious rock star shit." But by the second chorus, you realize that for all the apparent bravado, the lyrics actually say "If I was a rock ‘n' roll star." If. Less swagger, more speculation. In the final 30 seconds, the song downshifts into a dreamy outro that seems to confirm that the rock star shit ain't so serious after all. It's ridiculous fantasy. Ephemeral and always out of reach.

13. "No Shame" by Two Cow Garage

The playlist opened with "The Ballad of the Opening Band." "No Shame" is the ballad of the band that can't stop. As someone who plays in such a band, I can testify to the truth in these lyrics. Lots of days you want to stop. You tell yourself there's "no shame in just giving up and walking away." But there is. You see it in the hunched backs and paunchy guts of guys who used to play in bands. You see it in the basements and closets where those guys have stashed their guitars. You see their whole careers reduced to the dust that's collecting on the unopened cases. So you keep going, even though being in a band sucks sometimes, even though that "job application is getting harder to ignore." You keep the guitar out where you can see it, where it can see you. Where, if you ignore it for too long, it can shame you. The Two Cow guys are about ten years younger than I am, but it takes some awfully wise dudes to write a line like this: "There's a guitar that's leaning on my wall, the instrument of my ultimate downfall."

Joe Oestreich and Hitless Wonder: A Life in Minor League Rock and Roll links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

Hypebot review
Kirkus Reviews review
No Depression review
Washington Post review

Columbus Alive profile of the author
Columbus Dispatch interview with the author
The Digitel interview with the author
Emerging Writers Network interview with the author
The Other Paper interview with the author
Raleigh News and Observer profile of the author
Weekend Edition profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
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