Rock On, Mr. Chips: A Conversation with Joe Oestreich

Hitless Wonder: A Life In Minor League Rock and Roll

“Watershed’s long haul hasn’t been all sparse crowds and dive bars. At one point we almost made it. We were limo’d around Manhattan. We recorded in the same studio as AC/DC, Aerosmith, and Springsteen.  We played arenas and amphitheaters, headlining shows in front of thousands, opening for bands everybody’s heard of. We were treated to fancy dinners and promised by insiders that we were the Next BigThing. But we never had a hit song. Never had a video on MTV. Never won the notoriety that comes measured in songwriting residuals or on the Billboard Hot 100. And yet somehow we’ve stayed in the game for two decades, like a hustling utility man with a great glove but no bat, a hitless wonder.”

The above passage is from a new book, Hitless Wonder: A Life In Minor League Rock and Roll by Joe Oestreich [Lyons Press; $16.95], which arrives in stores on June 5. 

At first glance, Hitless Wonder might be a rollicking Rock and Roll novel about a band from Columbus called Watershed – rolling around from club to club and state to state on a raucous two week tour in an Econoline van – the way they have done it for 25 years, give or take the variables along the way – up to and including getting signed by Epic in the 1990s, getting dropped by Epic in the 1990s – and the pit bull tenacity to keep on keeping on.

But this is no novel.  This is the real deal, a deft memoir by Watershed co-founder Oestreich – every page dripping with inside-the-biz gems and enough well placed and thoughtful references to satisfy the most demanding pop culture or literary junkie. These are the highs and lows of Watershed – from great expectations to pragmatic conclusions – and these guys are lifers with no plans to stop rocking.

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A look at the press release for Hitless Wonder reveals Oestreich’s literary accomplishments:

“Joe Oestreich’s work has appeared in Esquire, Sports Illustrated, Ninth Letter, Fourth Genre, and other magazines. He’s been awarded a fellowship from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, honored by The Atlantic Monthly, and shortlisted for The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2007, The Best American Essays 2008 and 2009, and The Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses 2010.”

He also holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Ohio State University.

But TheDigitel Myrtle Beach is all about locality and community, you say. What does this rocker and author from Columbus have to do with that?

Here’s the beauty part:  Oestreich now lives in Conway and is Assistant Professor of English at Coastal Carolina University, a post he has held since 2008. We spoke with him last week, and here’s what went down:

Hitless Wonder feels like a kick ass rock ‘n’ roll novel. The fact that it’s true makes the experience even better.

I appreciate that, because I will say that I don’t think there has been a definitive rock ‘n’ roll novel yet. I was kind of hoping that people would look at my book that way – even though it’s a memoir.  You say it’s a true rock ‘n’ roll novel. That feels great, and it’s kind of what I was going for.

What made you decide to take the teaching post at CCU?

The first question I guess is why did I get into writing in the first place. The true answer is that I knew I needed to find some kind of day job. Going to school for writing, I was like, “you know what – maybe I can kill time in school while I figure out what I could do for a day job.”

It’s the “killing time in school” thing, and I talk in the book about how my wife [Kate Faber Oestreich] was in grad school – and I kind of followed her toward Ohio State. I have always been interested in writing, and I didn’t really know that you could go to school and learn how to do it.

But you left college to pursue Watershed and then returned later?

Yeah – I was out of school for ten years and then went back in 2000 to finish up my senior year. But then I was out again for five years after my undergraduate [degree]. And then at that point I was like, I’m 36 now – and it finally started to dawn on me that rock stardom probably wasn’t in the cards. I was going to have to set up my life in order to keep doing these shows [with Watershed]. That’s when I decided on going out for the MFA in writing.

You mentioned in Hitless Wonder something like – when plan B becomes viable or feasible…

That’s when you’re screwed…

But this is not so with you?

Well, I’ve been lucky. The job at CCU is part of that luck. And I am really lucky because my wife and I both teach English at Coastal. The fact that both of us have jobs at the same school and in the same department is really kind of a coup.

The great thing about the teaching gig at Coastal is that writing is my job.  So Coastal not only encourages me to write – they require it. If I had any other kind of job, I would have to sneak it on the side - pretend that I was looking at my computer when I was really writing on my computer.

How long does it take your students to figure out that Mr. Chips is a rocker?

I try not to talk about myself too much.  I never really liked professors that did that when I was a student.  But – on the first day of class when everybody is going around and asking them something personal about themselves – so we can all get to know each other – I do share the fact that I’ve written a book and I’ve been in a band. I briefly share that – because to leave it out would almost seem like a lie…

A sin of omission?

Yeah – “I’m professor Joe Oestreich and I like to go jogging…” It doesn’t seem like a definitive component of my personality.  So I do mention it briefly but I don’t harp on it.

Is Hitless Wonder going to be required reading in your classes?

No. If students want to find it on their own and read it – that’s great.  I’m always happy to answer their questions.  But I don’t want to assign the book because that way it would feel too much like school. I’d rather have them just read it on their own. 

But when you do reveal a bit about yourself or Watershed, what sort of reaction do you get?

It varies from blank faces - or it doesn’t quite compute, like, “You’re in a band? What?”  “You play covers?” They don’t quite understand what it means, so it varies from that to students who go out and buy all of the CDs. 

The demographic in your classroom is mostly young people – but you’ve got people returning to college who might dig it a little more?

Those students tend to get it a little bit more – probably because it’s the kind of music that they listen to.  I mean, let’s face it – if you are 20 years old right now, a lot of these kids are listening to more rap, more electronic type stuff – stuff that’s made with Apple MacBooks instead of guitars.

I mean – there’s always a new crop of kids – 

And they’ve got the ubiquitous AC/DC T shirt –

Right.  There is always going to be new crop of eighth graders that like AC/DC and Zeppelin, and that is great. But still – these days when I am just out and about, I don’t hear a ton of guitar-based rock ‘n’ roll. I just don’t hear it.

What was the motivation to start writing Hitless Wonder in the first place?

When I was in graduate school I needed to write a thesis no matter what. That had to happen as part of the requirement for the program.  And when I started writing in school, I intentionally did not write about the band because I didn’t want to be pigeonholed, like “hey that Oestreich dude – he used to be in a band. You know what he writes about?  He writes about being in a band.” 

I didn’t want to just be the guy in a band who writes about being in a band.  But then when it came time for the [book-length] thesis, I said – you know what – this material is pretty interesting to me. I think it will be interesting to other people – because other people can relate to this story – whether they have been in a band or not – even if their dream is to become a professional fisherman – they can probably relate to this story.  

So that’s “write what you know.” I know this world so intimately – this is what I should write about.  

So that morphed into Hitless Wonder?

It morphed into it.  I’ve probably written six drafts of the thing before we got to the draft that was published.  The first draft was four hundred pages long and I barely got the band out of high school.  At that rate it was going to be 2000 pages long.

The reason for that is that the first time through I didn’t really know what the story was yet.  I knew that I was writing about the band but I didn’t really know what I was writing about the band.  It wasn’t until later that I realized that what I was writing is the story of middle aged guys who keep doing it when all of their peers have broken up – and what compels them to keep doing it.

What was your takeaway at the end of the writing process? Did you feel like you went through an exorcism or feel a sense of relief now that it is all documented and out of your head?

I guess I wanted some kind of easy epiphany or something like that. I can’t say that I got that.  But in the writing of the book I came to love the band more.  I think when I started, it was like, “Oh – we’re still in this band. Why do we keep doing it?”

But now that the book is out, I’m like, “Hell yeah – I’ve been in a band for 25 years and we’ve done all of this stuff.” That’s badass and there is nothing to be ashamed of.

How was the book shopping process?

It was hard trying to get a book deal, just like trying to get a record deal was hard.  I mean I shopped the book around for six or nine months trying to get an agent.  And then once I got the agent the book deal wasn’t that difficult.  It didn’t take that long.  Finding the agent was harder, and the reason why is because agents didn’t think they would be able to sell the book because the band isn’t famous.

This is what I heard nonstop. They said, “If your band can’t sell any records, why do you think you can sell any books…”

I tried to tell them how stupid that is.  Not every book or every movie has to be about the winner.  I mean, Rocky doesn’t win in Rocky 1 – but it’s still great.  

Have your band mates read Hitless Wonder?

Yeah. They read it and as far as I know, they like it.  They tell me they like it – they either like it or they are lying.

Did you keep any journals on the road?

I did keep journals.  When we were on that two-week tour, I knew that that was going to be the “present” in the book.  I told the guys that it was because I looked at the string of tour dates and I knew I could tell the story of my whole career just looking at these cities. It all lays out perfectly. 

The funny part was those dudes doing things on the tour – hoping to end up in the book.  “Hey Joe – if I punched you in the face right now, how will that end up in the book?” That sort of thing…

I was taking notes all through that time.  The past stuff – although I had some journals – I relied a lot on memory, but the thing that helped me the most to try to capture stuff that was 20 years in the past is that Biggie [Mike McDermott – longtime friend and de facto Watershed roadie] took rigorous notes at every show we ever played.  So there is something there when we played CBGB for the first time – something in the book where he is writing notes in his Day Planner. He kept that up through our whole career.

When was the last Watershed tour?

We played in Columbus in November and a couple months before that. We still play in Columbus a few times a year.  But the last time we did a full-on tour was 2009.  We played Athens, Raleigh – and actually played MB at Droopy’s.

So you have played Myrtle Beach…

Way back in the day – in the mid 1990s – we played Myrtle Beach a bunch. We played here on that Smithereens tour. I want to say it was around Restaurant Row – called the Headroom [aka The Purple Gator].

We used to play all of the time at Sandpipers in Murrells Inlet and actually played The Social in downtown Myrtle Beach.  We toured with Insane Clown Posse and played with them at House of Blues.

 Have you put down roots on the Grand Strand?

Yeah, man.  I am now the proud father of two native-born South Carolinians [Beckett (2) and Eleanor (2 months)]. That’s the local angle right there.  

How the hell do you manage to keep all of this together? You are a dad now…

Honestly – a lot of times I feel like I’m doing everything half-assed.  Because you just don’t have time to focus concentration on things the way I did before I was a parent. The great thing is that with my teaching schedule I get my summers to write and do music and things like that – that’s kind of where I can get caught up. Days like today.

 Much of your book deals with the dynamic of your relationship with your wife. You found yourself gone much of the time, pursuing all things Watershed. You have already said that you now work together at CCU – but is Kate bracing for another Watershed tour?

 She’s ready.  Really her whole stance from the beginning has been – just make it count. Don’t do it half-assed. If you are playing shows try to make them good shows. But the trouble with rock ‘n’ roll is that you don’t always know what shows are going to be the good shows… you don’t know.  

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Watershed kicks off a 14-date tour on June 7 in support of its latest offering, “Brick & Mortar.” For more about the band, go to www.watershedcentral.com 

Joe Oestreich will be on hand at a book event for Hitless Wonder on Thursday, June 21[6PM] at Barnes and Noble at the Market Common. For all things Oestreich, hit up www.joeoestreich.com 

Also on June 21 [9PM], Palmetto Studios plays host to Oestreich and Watershed for a combined book and CD event. Admission is $10 and includes adult beverages. See Facebook for the rundown. 

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