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Saturday, July 14, 2012

Issue #119--15 July 2012

PLEZ-SPLANATIONS for the EVERYDAY MYSTERIES of LIFE
Issue #119; 15 July 2012

An Essay Review of Joe Oestreich’s Hitless Wonder: A Life in Minor League Rock and Roll

            Joe Oestreich’s new book—his first book, actually—isn’t just good in the aesthetic sense of being a pleasure to read and well-written. It’s good in the ethical sense of the word because it does the important cultural work of documenting a disappearing way of life that Joe predicts will one day soon “seem as quaint and outmoded as the Pony Express” (80). It’s not just the story of Joe’s life in a struggling (most of the time) rock and roll band. It’s the story of the rock and roll life for almost every band. This book is the rock and roll equivalent of the Occupy Movement because it speaks for the 99% of bands who work just as hard (harder, really) as the successful bands but never reap the benefits (and actually, more like 99.99% because for every Van Halen or Aerosmith, there are thousands of struggling bands).  If This is Spinal Tap is the true (though fictional) account of life touring in a rock band that is past its heyday, this book is the true account of life in a band that never had one. Thus, the title of the book: Hitless Wonder. This book can stand as the essential document of life in all rock bands except those lucky few who do have a hit record. VH-1’s documentaries of the admittedly sad tales of some one-hit wonder bands tell one side of the story, but in Joe’s version of the story, Watershed’s rock and roll life on the road would have been completely different with just one hit: “One hit and you’re at the Four Seasons, appearing on the Today show. None and you’re sneaking six guys past the clerk at the Fairfield” (213).

But for every one-hit wonder band, there are many more with no hits at all. After this book no one may need to write the story of those hitless wonder bands again, but they still should. Joe’s book could start a whole sub-genre of books about bands that never made it. The bands’ stories would be largely the same, but they should still be documented because, in this age of internet distribution, touring with a small-time band in an Econoline van simply won’t be the way new bands try to get noticed. They’ll use I-tunes and Facebook and Spotify to try to reach an audience, and some will—probably no more than were able to the old way, though—and what will be lost are the small clubs and local music scenes that used to emerge, usually in college towns, when bands in those towns started playing live shows to build an audience. When these clubs shut down and the local scenes disappear, the resulting cultural and creative loss will be as immense as it is inevitable. Thankfully, Joe Oestreich’s book will be here to remind us of how it used to work when bands would pile into vans that smelled like beer and vomit and drive to the next town with boxes full of CDs or cassettes to sell.

            Joe’s band—Columbus, Ohio’s Watershed—may not have had a popular song outside of their hometown, but no one could say they weren’t successful, at least not when measured against the thousands of other bands who try to “make it.” They were signed briefly to Epic Records and recorded their first major-label studio album at the legendary Power Station in New York City. In the mid 1990s, Joe played bass with the band as they toured the country on bills with Cheap Trick, the Smithereens, and Insane Clown Posse (yes, that Insane Clown Posse). But like a lot of bands—Uncle Green, Jason and the Scorchers, and Southern Culture on the Skids come immediately to mind—they were dropped from the label after making only one studio album that didn’t sell particularly well (Twister in 1995). That major-label period in their career occupies only about a chapter and a half in the book, and, to Joe’s credit, he doesn’t dwell on this high point in their lives. Nor does he indulge in the temptation to blame the industry for the band’s failure. “Here’s the honest truth,” he writes. “Twister isn’t a great record. I wish we could duck the blame for this, but the fault is ultimately ours” (193).

            Losing a major-label record deal isn’t the whole or even the main story behind this book, though, and that’s a blessing because, by itself, that’s a story readers are familiar with even if they haven’t read a full-length book about it. The real story behind this book is about the band’s perseverance after being dropped by Epic. Most bands break up after losing a record deal, but Joe’s band didn’t. They kept right on touring and recording no matter what. The major-label support wasn’t there, but they continued loading up the van and playing the small time circuit in Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, New York, Alabama, Louisiana, the Carolinas—wherever they could find a gig—just as they had done before the label booked them on well-funded national tours.

            In the early days, they had developed a hometown following in Columbus partly on the strength of their reputation as a band that toured outside of the central Ohio area. After all, if Watershed was playing in New York and Milwaukee, there must be something to them. Some clever over-hyping of the “buzz” about their out-of-town shows made Columbusites curious enough to start filling up ever larger bars and eventually concert halls in their hometown. “Such is the nature of buzz,” writes Joe (91).  What those hometown fans didn’t know, though, was that Watershed’s out-of-town shows might only draw four or five people a night. When the band finally managed to get their first gig at CBGB in New York, they drove over 500 miles from Columbus to the big city and waited to play last on a three-band bill. They didn’t realize that playing last didn’t necessarily equate to headlining at the legendary club. The capacity crowd that night had come to hear the other two bands, and by the time Watershed took the stage after 3:00 AM (almost two hours after they were told they would start), the crowd was almost completely gone. The soundman said they didn’t even have to bother playing, but true to Watershed form, they decided to play anyway—for the soundman, the bartenders, and a few members from the other bands who had hung around after their sets. They just turned their mic stands toward one another and played for themselves, the only audience that truly mattered night after night anyway.

            That’s a scene that a movie director could play in any number of ways. Is it comic? Sure, there’s some humor in there, but it’s not fair to make Watershed the butt of that joke. They didn’t choose to go on at 3:00 AM after the crowd had left. Is it pathetic? Maybe, but why? Is it pathetic because the band should have just nodded in agreement when the soundman suggested they not play? Not really, because that would have been even worse. Is it pathetic because CBGB, like so many rock clubs, just can’t manage to stick to anything like a schedule? Maybe, but it’s hard to cast the club here in the idiot role because their business model was obviously working. And why should we pity them anyway when the band didn’t engage in self pity? They didn’t want anyone’s pity then. Why should they want it now?

Is it a story of good and evil? Maybe, but who’s the victim and who’s the villain? It’s hard to say. Even if Watershed were to be considered the victim, who victimized them? The other bands that night who started late and played too long? The club for letting it happen? The soundman for suggesting that they not bother playing? The audience for leaving? None of those answers is satisfying.

Is it a dramatic tale about a scrappy underdog who refuses to be told he’s not good enough? That’s perhaps the best angle, but it’s not as if Watershed was like the underexperienced, undersized Rudy finally getting a chance to take the field at Notre Dame despite the objections of the set-in-his-ways head coach. For one thing, Rudy was a terrible football player who was totally unqualified to play for the Fighting Irish, but Watershed rocks. They were and still are a great band by any measure, but the New York crowd just didn’t know that yet. And it’s not as if Watershed would have been shocked by the bar’s inability to adhere to a schedule or by the fickle nature of a club crowd. By the time they played their first gig at CBGB, the band had already played enough out-of-town shows to know they couldn’t expect to be welcomed as rock stars in a new club.

Is it tragically heroic? Are these guys the musical equivalent of Rocky Balboa, the fighter who just won’t stay down no matter what? It could be played that way, but it’s more than that, too, and Joe should be praised for presenting scenes like this in all of their complexity and ambiguity, exactly the way a well-written memoir should.

There should be a movie version of this book, of course, but the sad reality is that if someone does make a movie out of it, they’ll probably destroy a scene like that by trying to pick a specific “angle” for it. And that will be a shame because Hitless Wonder does such a great job of documenting the rock and roll life in all of its variety—comedy, heroism, pathos, boredom—without trying to pretend there’s one overriding theme to it all. It has all of those elements with none presented in hindsight as the predominating one. Thankfully, bookstores can shelve this title in the “rock and roll” section. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have a convenient category for a memoir that can’t be called a comedy and shouldn’t be called a tragedy.  It’s all in there.

            And I know it’s all in there because I have lived this life, too—not to the extent that Joe has, but I certainly lived it back when I was in a series of club-level bands myself. I lived my version of a shocking percentage of the scenes in the book long before reading Hitless Wonder. Sleeping on the floor of a van? Done it. Soundchecking at 5:00 PM for a show that doesn’t happen until 1:00 AM? Done it. Killing the next eight hours of intervening boredom with alcohol? Done it. Playing for eight people on a Wednesday night at a club that smells like urine? Done it. Fighting with bar managers and soundmen over volume issues?  Done it. In one particularly dead-on scene from the book, a hilariously un-self-aware “talent buyer” at one of the band’s 2008 shows takes one look at one of the 100-watt Marshalls Watershed is preparing to load in and says, “Nope-nope. That amp is way too big for this place,” and Biggie, the band’s soundman, proceeds to ignore him and roll the amp in anyway (204).

How about getting blown off the stage by Heavy Metal Karaoke or booed by the crazed and Faygo-soaked fans of Insane Clown Posse? (See Chapter 8, “The Majors.”) OK, no, neither of those has ever happened to me, but no one ever said a comparison had to be perfect in order to be accurate.

Still, as I read the book, my most common reaction was, “Oh yeah, I’ve been there,” but that certainly doesn’t make me special. Like Joe, I’m an example of the “Used-to-Play-in-a-Band-Guy” character archetype, and there are thousands of us all over the country (254). We may not be all that uncommon, but few have spoken for us yet and certainly no one so well, and it’s well past time for our story to be told in all of the depth that Joe tells it. Therefore, I hereby nominate this book as the true document of our lives—Joe’s, mine, and every used-to-play-in-a-band guy.

            I came to know Joe because we work together. The “happy ending” of the book comes when he gets a job teaching creative writing at Coastal Carolina University in 2008.  He joined the English Department that I was still a member of at that time. (I’m the Coordinator of the CCU Writing Center now, so Joe and I still work together.) And on Joe’s first trip to the CCU campus after getting the job, we actually a played a gig together. The band I was in at the time was composed of four faculty members. We’d heard all about Joe and his recent rock and roll past from the hiring committee who recommended him, so when I learned that he was visiting for a house-hunting trip, it only seemed right to invite him to come to the show we had planned for that weekend. Trouble was, we had had to cancel that show. Either the bassist or the singer couldn’t do it, and now I can’t remember which, but with Joe coming, I asked the drummer if he would back me up as I played acoustic and some electric guitar just to save the show and still give us a chance to meet the newly-christened Professor Oestreich. We renamed ourselves Double Impact just for that one show. Then we got ourselves a burned copy of Watershed’s latest CD, Fifth of July, and quickly learned the opening song, “Obvious,” a song about an older man having sex with a young girl and knowing he’ll regret it later. I brought along a bass in the unlikely event that Joe would want to play it with us.

Surprisingly, he did. A lot of used-to-play-in-a-band-guys would have pretended to be above that sort of thing, but not Joe. In fact, he seemed eager to get up on stage with us and fake our way through the song. That’s when I knew that Joe Oestreich wasn’t just your ordinary used-to-play-in-a-band-guy. He’s the true-believer-in-rock-and-roll type, the kind of guy who can’t stand not to play if there’s a chance for a gig, no matter what the gig. We didn’t exactly nail the song that night—it’s not an easy one by any means. In fact, we had to pause in the middle while Joe counted us back in “a-1-2-3-4.” And we weren’t good otherwise, either. Ragged would be a kind description of the music that evening. But Joe just seemed happy to be on stage with us—

happy to have found that at least some people in his new hometown cared deeply about the thing he had spent most of the last two decades of his life working on. Over beers after the show, Joe told us, “That was crushing. Double Impact rocks!” And I don’t think he was just being kind. I mean, the music certainly didn’t rock and he knew it, but I honestly think Joe thought the show “crushed” because he had found at least a few other members of the rock and roll brotherhood in Conway, South Carolina. I can only imagine that he was at least a little afraid that he would never find a new “crew” when he took a job at a mid-sized school in a pint-sized Southern town.

But we were already here.

And I, at least, had been in Joe’s world for decades, in fact for longer than he had because I’m a few years older than he is, and we both started our bands in high school. We both played talent shows and open mic nights in our teens and whatever bars and clubs would have us as we moved out of our teens and into our 20s, the time when you’re supposed to give up the silly garage band dream and get serious about life.

One of the most critical moments in the book and surely in Joe’s life came when his wife, Kate, tried to convince him that he had to choose one career—either his music (which was “going nowhere” at the time) or his writing (which was showing promise at the time and might lead to the very kind of teaching position that he now holds). According to the book, Joe simply refused to choose, telling Kate that he was going to keep on doing both no matter what (256). Of course, there was a time when Joe didn’t want to live both the academic life and the musical dream. He had chucked it all and thrown himself into music—betting everything on one of the longest of long shots.

And if there’s a difference between me and Joe, it’s that I always did both. I had friends during my early band-guy days who also quit school (or never started) because they wanted to concentrate on their bands—friends who moved to Nashville (where it’s allegedly easier to get “noticed”)—but unlike Joe, I always stayed in college and worked toward my English degree and my high school teaching certificate. And this wasn’t just my parents’ influence. I mean, sure, they would have argued against the decision to quit school and pursue a music career if I had made that choice, partly because they both know enough about what it takes to “make it,” and it would have been hard to argue against that logic. Still, if I had gone that way, they would have supported me—not happily, perhaps, but they would have understood. I doubt they would have bought me a used van to tour in like Joe’s dad did (79), but they would have found their own ways to be supportive, I’m sure.

In my early 20s, though, I knew even without parental pressure that I wanted to live in both worlds, so my band, the Pleztones, couldn’t play out of town very often. Instead, we played almost exclusively in my hometown of Johnson City, Tennessee, where we and other bands had built a pretty respectable little music scene. I’m not talking about a town with a group of party bands or cover bands, but an actual music scene with locals playing original music. In a town of about fifty thousand people, there were, at any given time, a dozen or more bands playing live original music: Brian and the Nightmares, Plain Jane Has a Date, Stinky Finger, the Brother Boys, Johnny Atmosphere and the Sky Kings, the Bystanders, Floyd Eats Mayberry, Pinky Slim,
Rob Russell and the Sore Losers, Beat Your Mother, Buck Fifty and the Longnecks, Freak Circus, the Trailer Park Picassos, Chapter Two, Tall Tale, the Prudes.  These bands were at varying levels of professionalism and had varying levels of talent and polish. And not all of them were good. In fact, many of them were just flat out bad, but the point is that people supported this small scene. There were a number of clubs in town—the Pub Outback, the Down Home, Quarterbacks, the Casbah, the Highlander, Richard A’s, the Seahorse, the Crowe’s Nest, Cowboys, and others—who survived primarily or at least partially thanks to local music. Today, only the Down Home remains as an active music club, though I think there are still shows from time to time at the Casbah.

And that’s sad to me.

Joe’s band, called the Wire at the time, began in a similar but much larger scene in Columbus, Ohio, a city of about 750,000. Even if you add up all of the people in the “Tri-Cities” area where we played (Bristol, Kingsport, Johnson City, and other smaller towns like Elizabethton and Jonesboro), our potential audience was, at most, fifteen or twenty percent of Joe’s, and yet, our scene survived and prospered for a while. When Joe’s band stuffed the ballot box and got themselves named Columbus’s favorite band by the Ohio State University student newspaper after playing a few gigs (54), they started moving from Tuesdays and Wednesdays at the smallest clubs to weekends at the bigger ones. They changed their name to Watershed and quit school to pursue the dream of a big-time recording contract and a rock and roll career. A few years and a few hundred gigs later, they finally landed a major-label record deal, something that none of the people from our scene were ever able to do.

Except one: Kenny Chesney.

But he doesn’t count, and that’s not just jealousy talking (though naturally I am jealous, of course). He went to East Tennessee State University just like many of us did. He played in the school’s bluegrass music band, and he played acoustic guitar gigs around town, but he was never one of us. In fact, referring to him as a member of our scene now seems kind of phony because if he hadn’t made it big after leaving Johnson City, I’m sure almost none of us would even remember him. In fact, we thought of him as a laughable character back then. Even for open mic nights, Chesney (I refuse to refer to him as “Kenny” because, well, I didn’t know him and don’t want to pretend in retrospect that we were anything like friends—we weren’t even acquaintances, really) would hang glossy posters with professional publicity photos of himself in the standard cowboy hat and western shirt that all aspiring country superstars know they have to wear if they want to look the part. His posters looked as if they’d been made in a Nashville-based publicity agency, perhaps paid for by a kindly rich uncle who supported this kid’s unlikely dream. Those posters immediately marked him as the kind of guy who didn’t think of himself as belonging to this place. You could tell by looking at them that he at least thought he was going to be big one day. Our crudely made neon-colored flyers, on the other hand, were photocopied at Kinko’s and stapled to telephone poles when the cops weren’t looking. They told the world exactly what we were: teenagers and early twenty-somethings eager for a chance to play for any audience, anywhere, for any amount of money. So even at a time when we were outdrawing Kenny Chesney for local shows, we weren’t in his league, at least not the league he pretended to be playing in at the time.

Just a few weeks ago, someone from Johnson City posted an old Quarterbacks monthly schedule flyer on Facebook. Chesney played one Tuesday night and one Sunday night in July of 1990. Here it is if you need proof:


Think of that: there was a time when Kenny Chesney couldn’t get a weekend gig at a local bar that held maybe 75 people maximum. A few years later, he would be capable of filling up Neyland Stadium—yes that Neyland Stadium, the place where the University of Tennessee plays football in front of more than a hundred thousand fans every Saturday in the fall. So fine—Kenny Chesney got super famous and the rest of us just got old. What about the rest of us, though? What happened to us? And where did we all come from anyway?

By far the biggest band in the local Johnson City scene was Brian and the Nightmares. That’s them and their trademark batwing logo on the schedule on Saturday, July 21. (Frontman Brian Relleva played solo shows at Quarterbacks on five Mondays that month. Sorry, no Pleztones or Scott Pleasant shows that month—a rarity, I’m sure, because I played there pretty regularly.) To say that we were all jealous of the Nightmares doesn’t really capture just how jealous we were. One Friday night in probably 1989, The Pleztones were booked to play the Pub Outback, right next door to Quarterbacks. Any Friday night at Pub Outback was a good booking. You couldn’t always count on a weeknight crowd there, but people always came on the weekends—that is, unless you happened to be up against the Nightmares if they were in town. And we shouldn’t have been competing with them that night, but one of their out-of-town shows got cancelled, so they decided to throw in an extra show at Quarterbacks, which should have held only 75 people or so. But there was at least double that in the bar that night. After the Pleztones soundcheck, bass player Drew Vance and I walked down Walnut Street to Poor Richard’s Deli to grab a quick beer and noticed the overflow crowd that had gathered an hour or more before the show even started. A couple of beers into our drinking session at PR’s, we came up with the idea of calling the Johnson City Fire Department as good Samaritans to report the unsafe overcrowding at Quarterbacks. At the payphone outside the deli, Drew called and posed as a concerned passerby. Our plan was to get the FD to come and enforce the maximum occupancy limit so that their overflow crowd would come see us instead. It didn’t work. The fire marshall never came. For another Pub Outback show, I borrowed a cheap bass guitar from Mark Ryalls, the Nightmares’ drummer, because Drew and I wanted to double up on the bass on one song (why, I have no idea). At the end of the night, though, I pulled a Pete Townshend on that bass and broke the neck off of it. That was a Thursday night, and the Nightmares were scheduled to play on Saturday. After the show was over, the bartender at the Pub Outback agreed to use his cordless drill to screw the remnants of that bass up behind the bar for the Nightmares to find when they got back in town.

Good times. 

Brian and the Nightmares started off as a Jason and the Scorchers kind of act—think of traditional “hard” country meeting garage rock. Here’s the formula: Start with Hank Williams (cool) and then crank it up on electric guitar and play it a lot faster (even cooler). It’s a fairly simple formula, but not nearly as easy to pull off as it may sound. Their first gig in the summer of 1985 had been in a McDonald’s parking lot for the restaurant’s grand opening. Their name that day had been Screaming Brian and the Howling Tomcats, and they did some great rockabilly and early rock and roll tunes—Carl Perkins’s “Honey Don’t” was probably in that set that day. Brian was from Flag Pond, Tennessee, a name that perfectly fits the tiny mountain town he grew up in. The other three members of the band had all gone to high school together at University School in Johnson City, the same school I went to. University School is a laboratory school on the ETSU campus—“lab school” meaning basically that we had a lot of student teachers from the College of Education at ETSU, not that we were used in medical experiments.

By early 1986, they were known as Brian and the Nightmares, and they were selling out the Down Home and drawing big crowds at the Crowe’s Nest and Richard A’s and other local clubs. They had soon developed a large enough local following to justify recording a cassette of their original songs. Those eight songs, with titles like “Desperate Highway” and “Look the Other Way,” were recorded at Classic Studios in Bristol, Tennessee—the same studio where Jimmie Rogers and the Carter family had recorded the songs that are now known as the roots of country music. Bristol calls itself the “birthplace of country music” because of those recordings, and they actually have a legitimate claim to the title. The Nightmares sold out of those cassettes in weeks. After that, the tape trading began. Soon, it seemed like everybody in town had one.

They were so popular in Johnson City that we all thought it was inevitable that they would get a big-time record deal, but they didn’t. Like Watershed, they constantly played out-of-town gigs on what bass player John Smith referred to as the “chitlin’ circuit.” At the time, we had all imagined them playing to capacity crowds at clubs in Cincinnati, Raleigh, and Birmingham, but more often, they were probably playing to five or six people a night on the road just like Watershed did. They drew hundreds in town, though, so the illusion was intact. As Joe says, “Such is the nature of buzz.”

Just like the members of Watershed, everyone in the Nightmares had opted out of college because the band was their plan for the future. Kurt Hagardorn, the main guitar player, bought a van for them to tour in, and I’m sure they told themselves it was just a matter of time before they got the kind of record deal that Watershed actually did sign. But the deal never came. They recorded a second album called Lizards—this time a real vinyl record—but even the local crowds didn’t like it as much as they had that first cassette. In trying to polish themselves up to be a mainstream act, they’d taken too much of the edge off. All of us band guys in town had endless conversations about what had gone wrong with that record. Was there too much effect on the vocals? Too much empty space between tracks? Too little guitar in the mix? Too much guitar in the mix? Was the drum sound too thin? Too heavy? Were the harmony vocals badly mixed? And every one of those critiques may have been valid in a limited sense, but the truth was that they had simply lost their amateur status and were now trying to sound like the pros that they wanted to be. And the local crowd didn’t want the Nightmares to sound like pros. They wanted the raw-edged do-it-yourselfers that they were familiar with. In the intervening years, I’ve spoken with every member of the Nightmares about the reception of that second album, and like Watershed, they all refuse to blame anyone other than themselves for recording an album that just wasn’t successful at winning them new fans.

About a year after the inevitable change of drummers that seems to happen with every band, including Watershed, the Nightmares broke up for the same reason that most bands do. They wanted to move on with their lives. I remember being at Kurt’s house a few days after the band had broken up. I was sleeping off a hangover on his couch when I noticed a note from Brian to the rest of the band. He had broken the band up with a handwritten note. Today, that note would probably be an e-mail instead. He had left the note in their rehearsal spot in Kurt’s house and then had just not shown up for practice one day. It was a private note, but of course I read it. More than twenty years later, I can’t remember much of it, but I do remember this line: “I am almost thirty now.” Say no more, Brian. I get it. It’s time to go back to school and “get a real life,” as the saying goes. Brian wound up moving to Texas first and then to Memphis to work on a college degree. Kurt went to ETSU to study nursing. In short, they all moved on, like band guys do. Eventually, most of them just give up, “face reality,” and move on to the next phase of their lives: responsible adulthood.

In Joe’s version of this story, though, only one person moved on—original drummer Herb Schupp—and his departure didn’t signal the end of the band. After being dropped from the Insane Clown Posse tour, Herb “jumped to the other side of the counter” just like Violent J. from the ICP did when he suddenly quit his job at McDonald’s. Tired of taking abuse from his boss, Violent J. simply took off his uniform shirt and made the leap to the other side of the counter, telling his boss, “I’m the customer now. And, like you say, the customer is always right. So make me a motherfucking Big Mac, bitch” (202). Watershed kept going with new drummer Dave Masica, but the Nightmares were done for good after Brian quit, unless you count two sold-out reunion shows in 2002 and one in 2006. The Nightmares could survive losing their drummer, but not their namesake. The full name of the band was Brian and the Nightmares, after all

In late 1990, Brian had, at least for a while, jumped to the other side of the counter. But it’s hard to quit rock and roll cold turkey, and he didn’t. Brian and two of the remaining Nightmares wound up living in Nashville all at the same time a few years later. They reformed as the Shapeshifters with a Nashville guitar guy (Kevin Abernathy) and recorded a new CD. I have it, and it’s good, but even in the one Tennessee city where getting noticed by the right people should have been relatively easy to pull off, they just never did. Remember: at any given time, there are hundreds of bands in Nashville trying to get noticed. The star makers in that town would have to anoint a new one every day or two in order to give all the deserving bands a shot.

Kurt moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina after getting his nursing degree and formed Gumption with Gary Miller on bass, another Johnson City ex-pat who had played with Buck Fifty and the Longneck and with Kurt’s side-project band Mike and Ike. Drummer Jody Maxwell, formerly of the Sex Police, was also in that band. They recorded a 7-inch EP and one CD on a small label and then recorded the songs for another CD that never came out. “It’s tied up with lawyers,” Gary said to me once. I don’t know what that means exactly, but at least it means the CD never came out. Kurt now lives in Portland, Oregon and has released two solo CDs on small labels—the kind of labels that are a small step up from simply paying your own money for the CDs to be made and marketed. Of course, the music on them is good, but he has remained, like Joe, a hitless wonder.

What of the other local bands? Most of them just quit, as in totally quitting and moving on to “responsible adulthood,” but a few kept going.

Hans Rotenberry had been the main guy in Pinky Slim, a Cheap Trick/power pop-type band. He moved to Nashville and formed The Shazam (they had to have the word “the” in their name to throw DC Comics off the trademark-infringement scent). They are still together, having released five CDs on the Not Lame independent label.  And these are simply great albums from any objective or subjective standard. Godspeed The Shazam and Tomorrow the World equal any album by any band I’ve ever heard. Truly great stuff. And their latest album, Meteor, was produced by the legendary Mack—Reinhold Mack, that is—the guy who recorded ELO, among other bands. (And “among other bands” here means Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Queen, and T-Rex, so yeah, he’s for real.) You’d think with Mack doing your production work, you’d have a shot at the big time, but no. The last time I saw The Shazam play live was in a little club in Greensboro, North Carolina in October of 2011. They were the middle act on a three-band bill. About ten people were there for the opening act—a great powerpop band from Carrboro, North Carolina, called Stratocruiser. When I say they were great, I mean Cheap Trick great, not just great for a bar band. I bought two of their albums, including a “Best of Stratocruiser” CD. Think of that: a record label paid to put out a “best of” CD for a band that draws ten people as the opening act on a three-band bill. Rock and roll is indeed a very competitive world, and there are talented people and great bands all over.

Maybe twenty had gathered by the time The Shazam played. Then, toward the end of their hour-long set, people started flooding into the place by the dozens. I figured these were just late-arriving Shazam fans, but no. These people had come to see the final band of the night: a heavy metal cover band. I stayed for the first song of their set, a song from an early Black Sabbath record, if I’m remembering correctly. And they played it poorly. Very poorly. Like Watershed getting blown off the stage by Heavy Metal Karaoke at a bar gig in New York City, The Shazam simply couldn’t compete with some bad versions of cover songs that people wanted to hear. In addition to being a very competitive world, rock and roll can be terribly unfair.

But still, Watershed and The Shazam keep on performing, no matter what. Right now, Joe is out on a three-week book-signing and Watershed tour, and I’m sure The Shazam can’t have played their last gig. But even if they never play again, they kept The Shazam going for more than fifteen years. The Beatles were together for less than ten, and they couldn’t keep the band from breaking up even with the assurance of huge money and eternal fame.  

            My most active period of involvement in the Johnson City music scene lasted from 1985 through 1993 while I earned two degrees at ETSU. Then, I moved to Auburn University in Alabama to study in the English Ph.D. program there and left the band behind—only, like most used-to-play-in-a-band guys, I never completely left it. Whenever I came back to town on vacation from school, we would try to book a show. We didn’t always get a gig, but we often did, and we found that nobody seemed to really notice or mind that we weren’t all local anymore. If anything, we drew more people after I left than we did when I still lived there. That must have been the rarity factor at work—supply and demand reaching a new equilibrium with me as an ex-Johnson-Citian.

And I started playing in Auburn, too, but not usually original music, and here’s where my musical experience starts to diverge from Joe’s because you know what I discovered in Auburn? There’s money in playing covers, and not only that, but playing cover songs is a lot easier than playing originals. Away from the expectations of the original music scene I had been a part of for almost a decade, there was no pressure to write songs and be part of a “real” band. I could just play guitar (or bass or keyboards) with whoever needed me.

I played bass in a blues band with Lee Roy, the local blues guitar hero. If you’ve hung around many music clubs, you’ve seen this guy before—the one who dresses like a blues man because he wants so badly to be a blues man. He even wore a feather in his hat just like Stevie Ray Vaughan. Between sets once, he asked me to come out to his car to listen to some music. I thought maybe he’d recorded something he wanted me to check out. Nope. He wanted me to listen to the album version of the Stevie Ray Vaughan song we’d just finished playing so that I could hear exactly how Tommy Shannon of Double Trouble had walked the bass line during the studio recording. I was close, apparently, but not quite there. “Sure,” I told him. “I can do that.” And I wasn’t lying, either, because what I meant was that I could easily play that bass line if I chose to. But I had no intention of learning it note for note because I would get the same $75 a night for backing him up with a bass line that was close as I would for one that was note perfect.

            I played guitar with two women who did folk songs and country songs at a tiny little bar called Gentilly Station that catered to the locals who lived in and around nearby Gentilly Trailer Park. The singer—I can’t remember her name now—was a self-proclaimed “witch” who insisted on having her crystals arranged just so atop the speakers before she felt the energy was right to play. Seriously. The name of the band was Die Bose Hexen—German for “The Wicked Witches.” Yes, I was a wicked witch, God help me. We did a lot of folk and country songs that I didn’t even know the names of. To my mind, though, they were just easily-remembered chord structures, not songs exactly. I remember one of them had a chorus that went something like, “I’m riding shotgun down the avalanche.” If I had cared then or cared now, I would look that song up, but I didn’t and I don’t. And it wasn’t a good band or a great gig, but playing with Die Bose Hexen paid $50 every other Friday for about a year.

I hadn’t made as much as $50 at more than a dozen Pleztones gigs at most. And why not? For one thing, we always played for the door in Johnson City (meaning we would get paid only what was collected in cover charges), and the cover charge was usually three or four dollars at most. Plus, we usually split the money from those shows with at least one other band, sometimes among three or four bands. Drink a few beers at one of those shows and, just like the Blues Brothers at Bob’s Country Bunker, you can easily wind up owing the bar for the privilege of having played there. In fact, I always felt lucky not to owe anything at the end of a night.

            But in Auburn, I didn’t have to be “The Plez” from The Pleztones, and I made a few bucks for just playing the guitar. It felt unrewarding in some ways, sure, but I soon learned to like just being a guy who knew how to play guitar instead of the front man in and leader of a band playing original music. I played here and there with a bunch of bands at the college bars in Auburn, and that’s something Joe never did (at least not until he came here to teach at Coastal, but more on that later). He was always in a struggling original band with the stubborn integrity it takes to keep on playing your own songs for crowds that aren’t always familiar with or appreciative of your material. Playing covers is a much more sure-fire way to get crowd approval, though, and I discovered that in Auburn.

            It doesn’t always work, though. At one Die Bose Hexen show, I talked the keyboard player into doing a version of Herb Alpert’s “This Guy’s In Love With You” during the break between two sets. You remember that song. It starts like this: “You see this guy. This guy’s in love with you. Am I in love? Who looks at you the way I do?” Great song—but not a Gentilly Station kind of song. The witch took her break, but the keyboard player and I just stayed on stage and started the song. Sitting at the bar was a woman who was often there but who had never, to my memory, even looked up at the band. She was there to drink, and drink she did. She looked up a few bars into the Herb Alpert song, though—looked up at me with obvious anger in her eyes. She glared at us during the first verse and chorus and then couldn’t take it anymore. This woman then rose to her feet and began walking toward the stage with her eyes trained on me.

            “Quit playing that!” she screached. And then she took two more steps toward me.

            “Quit playing!” Two more steps.

            “You suck! Quit playing!” Two more steps.

            “You suuuuuuuuuck!” And by then, her face was roughly six inches from mine, but she never quit telling me how much I sucked for singing that song. Her husband came to the front to get her and walk her back to the bar, but the keyboard player and I never wavered for a second from the song. We played it right through till the end. How’s that for integrity? No one shall put a stop the Herb Alpert music on Scott Pleasant’s watch.  Nope—not gonna happen.  And the witch wasn’t too happy about the Herb Alpert incident, either, but I don’t think she cast a spell on me, which has to go in the plus column, too. I left that night with $50 and no hex to break.

            In Auburn, I also played in a rockabilly band called The Killbillies. I had showed up at an open stage night with a cheap hollow-body guitar, and Tony Brook, a local musician whose band once opened for Willie Nelson, asked me if I’d like to use that guitar in the rockabilly band he was planning to start. I said yes and didn’t even bother to tell Tony that I knew of at least one other band called the Killbillies. I knew we’d never get out of town anyway, so what difference would it make? I never knew if Tony wanted me to play with him or if he just liked the look of that guitar, and I didn’t care because I knew that he had the connections to get us some shows that could bring in decent money. And once again, the money was surprisingly good, especially for a guy who had become accustomed to making three or four dollars a night back in Johnson City. In the Killbillies, I might make as much as $100 at a single show. For an underpaid graduate student, making in the low triple or even the high double figures for a frat party or bar show that only requires you to play the same three-chord pattern all night long seemed like a pretty good deal. A great deal, actually. And that band really took off, too. We had only two or three practices the week before our first gig, which immediately turned into a series of “Rockabilly Wednesday” shows at the Fourth Quarter in downtown Auburn. Before our second show at the Fourth Quarter, a local beer distributor even had signs printed up saying something like “Icehouse Beer presents The Killbillies. Nickel Beer 7-9PM.” Within the first two weeks, we’d played two live shows on the radio and booked gigs all over town. There were radio ads for those weekly Fourth Quarter shows, too, and a few Auburn girls even started wearing poodle skirts when they came to see us. In the first month, we’d played, including the radio shows, thirteen gigs in the Auburn/Opelika (Alabama) and Columbus (Georgia) area.

It was hard to keep the rockabilly fever hot, though. Two months later, the Fourth Quarter pulled the plug on the regular Wednesday shows when the crowds began to dwindle. At the beginning of our run at the Fourth Quarter, the crowd stayed to hear us after the nickel beers ended at 9:00 PM. After seeing us do “Maybellene” and “Twenty Flight Rock” a few times, though, they started going to the Amsterdam Café or Buffalo’s or the Bourbon Street Grill when the cheap beer ended.  Six months after we started, we had not only been fired by the Fourth Quarter but were down to playing about twice a month anywhere. It was a good run, though, and I sure wish I’d saved the vinyl banner the beer company printed up. The only evidence I have of the Killbillies’ existence beyond my own memory is a flyer for a Cinco de Mayo gig and two songs recorded from one of the radio shows. I like to think we took rockabilly about as far as it would go in Auburn, Alabama.

            I ran an open stage night as a member of the house band on Sunday nights at a place next door to the Fourth Quarter called Little Ireland’s. I don’t remember anything Irish about that club, but I do remember that that open stage gig paid us $50 each. One night, a shy girl in the audience asked us if she could sing Fleetwood Mac’s “Rihannon” with us. The bass player and I both happened to know it—more or less—so I said, “We normally aren’t the karaoke machine like that, but sure. We’ll get you up here during the next set.”

            When we got around to calling her up, she looked pretty nervous. At the end of the introduction, she didn’t start singing, so we played it again. And then we played it a third time, but she just kept staring straight ahead. So at the end of the fourth time through the introduction, I prodded her a little bit with the opening line: “Rihannon rings like a bell in the night, and wouldn’t you love to love her?” (or something like that—I didn’t then and still don’t know the actual words). She started singing with me half way through the line but then stopped again. She looked straight at me, as if to say, “Ok, keep going,” but all I could do was shrug because I didn’t know the next line, either. We quickly launched into one chorus when we realized she wasn’t quite ready to work through her stage fright. Then, instead of singing the next verse, she looked at me and said into the mic, “This isn’t going very well, is it?” What could I say? I shrugged back at her. We pulled the ripcord on “Rhiannon” and thanked her for coming up. She sat back down with her friends and cried a little from what I can only imagine was pretty deep embarrassment.

But a few drinks later that night, she asked to sing again, and we let her. It was a little better the second time—not a lot, but a little. You might think that kind of thing would sour me to the open stage experience. But you have to remember that that gig paid us $50 each, which is not a lot of money, but it’s way more than I was used to making back when I had had integrity. I

            It’s scary how low the cost of selling out can be sometimes.

            In 2004, almost twenty years after becoming a part of the Johnson City music scene, I got a job teaching here at Coastal Carolina University after living at Auburn till 2002 and then moving back to work at East Tennessee State University for a couple of years. It was just a one-year appointment as Visiting Assistant Professor at Coastal, and I should be (but am not) ashamed to admit that a recommendation from my Auburn grad school friend Dan Ennis was a key to my hiring. I’m not ashamed because the job was practically at poverty wages anyway: $24,500 a year. I can’t really feel guilty about a little help getting a job that would barely keep the lights on in my $400 basement apartment. But fortunately, there was an easy way to make a little extra money on the side: play guitar in Dan’s cover band, Virtue Trap.

            A few days after I had agreed to take the job, Dan sent me some CDs and song titles to study before arriving in Conway, South Carolina—rock standards like “Knock on Wood” and “Mustang Sally” and easy three-chord rockers like “Keep Yer Hands to Yourself.” Playing in this band was not going to be problem. I barely needed to practice, and in fact, I barely did. I arrived in Conway on May 5th and had one four-hour practice session with the band before playing our first show at the Pour House on May 7th. It was probably three hours too much practice, really. I could have played that gig just about as well with a list of songs and the keys they were in as my only preparation. And it paid $500 for the whole band, meaning that, even after paying the soundman (Dan’s brother David), I walked away with close to $100 for playing three sets’ worth of covers. I figure “You Really Got Me” alone pulled in at least three or four bucks by itself that night because we played it twice at that show.

            And Virtue Trap really needed me, too, because they had booked an entire summer’s worth of shows, but their guitarist had quit. They managed to talk him into staying with the band until I arrived for the gig on the 7th, so at least they didn’t have to cancel any shows. I remember talking with Dan in the weeks leading up to moving here. He told me about some weeknight gigs at a beach bar during Biker Week that they had turned down because the club owner wasn’t offering enough money.

            “How much were they gonna pay us?” I asked, expecting to hear something like $50 a night.

            “Only $250,” he said.

            “Oh yeah, that’d only be like $80 a show. I don’t blame you.”

            “No, they were offering $250 a night, but I can’t go down there to crowded-ass Myrtle Beach three times during Biker Week for short money.” I nearly choked on my own tongue. These guys has turned down $750 in gig money because that was “short money” to them. At the height of their major-label period, Watershed went on tour as the opener for The Smithereens for $250 a night, and The Smithereens were a totally legitimate band with radio hits and MTV videos. Play your own music and you will jump on a chance at $250 a night. Play covers and that becomes “short money.”

            Read Joe’s book and you’ll learn that, even after Watershed had become national touring veterans, a gig might actually cost them money to play. The last time I saw the Shazam, the guys had come all the way from Nashville to Greensboro to play for fifteen or twenty people. I can’t imagine they made nearly enough money to pay for gas, food, and a hotel room. And The Shazam is maybe the third or fourth best band in the entire world when they’re good, which they were that night.

Here I was, though, joining up with a band that was lucky enough to be playing cover songs in the Myrtle Beach area—a tourist destination where every other bar has a live band on most nights of the week. Even total hacks can make good money playing music down here. And I soon found that, even though Virtue Trap was not exactly a tight musical unit, we were far from the worst that Myrtle Beach had to offer—very far from it. In fact, we were pretty good. Bar and club owners were happy to pay us four or five hundred a night to play even half decent versions of songs that the crowd knew and would dance to. I felt guilty sometimes about actually earning money for doing something so easy and risk free. And I’d love to say that my history as a guy who’d played in a “real band” made it impossible for me to enjoy playing those Virtue Trap shows that summer, but I’m not going to lie. Playing music for people who are listening and dancing is actually quite a lot of fun when it’s going well. In terms of sheer enjoyment in the moment of playing on stage, it really doesn’t matter much if the songs in your set list are your own or not.

But I never got completely used to making what I considered good money for playing in a cover band, and I never lost the urge to do original music. There’s something addictive about the struggle to get your own music noticed, and failure and obscurity become something like virtues—virtues that I felt I needed to uphold, even if or perhaps because I was playing in a working cover band. In that sense, I was probably the only guy in the band who was, in fact, virtue trapped. To be fair, Dan did write songs for that band—in fact, more than I did—but he never seemed conflicted about the idea of being in what was primarily a cover band. He didn’t appear to feel that need to do something else, but I would play my own songs at open mic nights and rooftop bar gigs and the like on off nights.

I didn’t play those shows only because I felt the need to perform my own songs, though. I played them because I wanted to do something other than popular radio songs. I had equated playing for small crowds who barely listened with artistry while in my mind playing familiar songs for happy tourists was basically a job—a fun job, at times, but a job nonetheless. And I needed to feel that I was involved in the art of music, not just the business of music. When people back home in Tennessee would ask me if I still played in a band, I would sometimes sarcastically reply, “No, but I am heavily involved in the alcohol marketing business at some local bars.” What kind of insufferable jerk says something like that?

Answer: A guitar player.

That’s the thing about band guys, especially guitarists (and that goes double for guitarists who are also songwriters). We can be a bit arrogant and self important at times, and we’re not always that pleasant to be around. I know I’m not, and I’m sure everyone I’ve ever played with would agree. The thing is, in a “real” band, being difficult like that can be an important part of the artistic persona that you’re trying to effect. In a cover band, acting that way just makes you an asshole, and I was the worst kind of asshole: I wanted to play in the cover band but be known as a unique musical artist.

And how did I pull that off?

Easy! After meeting a few local ukulele players, I started a small local group devoted to the one musical thing that I knew would never sell: traditional and original ukulele music. Up until that point, the uke had been my mostly private musical passion, but in late 2005, I decided it was time to come out of the ukulele closet. I even recorded a CD of original ukulele tunes in 2007. I spent a lot of time and money making and duplicating it and probably never recouped the money. I still have over a hundred of those CDs in a closet in my music room at home, and I’ve never been prouder of anything in my whole life. Recording those seventeen original ukulele songs that very few people wanted to hear and even fewer wanted to pay for was my way of proving to everyone—myself included—that I wasn’t just a guy who played bar music. I still had integrity. I was an artist.

I started carrying a ukulele around wherever I went. And I mean wherever I went. To class. To restaurants. On a student trip to Europe. I carried a uke into the L’Ouevre and to the top of the Eiffel Tower.

And if you’re suspecting that the other guys in Virute Trap started to resent me for my obvious attempts to differentiate myself from the rest of the band, you’d be one hundred percent right.

Not satisfied with just striking a pose as an authentic artist, I also cajoled Virtue Trap into playing the music for two plays produced by the CCU Theatre Department. I wrote the music and had the title of “Musical Director” for these two plays. I also wrote and performed music as a kind of one-man band for another play. And later I wrote music for a fourth play and used a band made up of students. Then funny thing is, I don’t read and therefore can’t actually write music on the page, so the band had to learn the parts by ear and then write the music on staff paper if they wanted to have sheet music to play from. You can imagine their surprise when the composer and musical director started humming their parts to them. The fact that I talked the Theatre Department into this kind of arrangement not once but four times still shocks me.

I’m not sure if I succeeded in convincing people that I was “above” being in a cover band. And of course, it’s not totally right to say that Virtue Trap was a cover band anyway. We played some original songs—maybe three to five a night on average. In fact, we once got booked as the opening act for the Doobie Brothers at the House of Blues, and except for a cover to open the show and another to end it, we played original music. For thirty minutes in front of a sold-out crowd at the House of Blues, we were a real band playing a real show. In The Pleztones, we had spent years playing our own music to crowds of usually no larger than a few dozen, and now I was finally in a band playing a first-rate gig. And that band was not The Pleztones but Virtue Trap, a cover band that specialized in playing “What I Think About You” and “L.A. Woman” to tourists from Ohio. That’s the band that ultimately got to have its brief moment of major-gig legitimacy (well, mid-major anyway—there were about two thousand people there). Joe would just say that’s how the rock gods treat their worshippers: “[Rock and roll] beats you down and beats you down, and just when you’re curled in the fetal position, bracing for a kick to the head, it offers you a hand. Pulls you to your feet. Gives you a reason to keep going.”  

By the time of the Doobies gig, Dan was playing guitar in the band even though he doesn’t, properly speaking, play the guitar. When I came here to join the band, he’d been our bass player (a very legitimate bass player, I’ll add), but after a series of events too tedious to explain, Dan had been replaced by Jim Solazzo of the math department on bass and had moved to guitar. Some time before the Doobies show, Dan bought a cheap hollowbody guitar, not too different from the one I had played in the Killbilles and tuned it to an open G chord. To play a different chord, he would just bar at the appropriate fret and strum away. Believe it or not, this plan actually worked. We didn’t sound too bad that way. In fact, I think this have been the best lineup Virtue Trap ever had.

But Dan was such a fledgling guitarist that he even needed to have the root notes of each chord marked on the frets when he played. I remember that he went to Lowe’s and bought some small adhesive letters—the shiny gold ones you might use to mark mailboxes in an apartment complex—to mark his frets with. These were adhesive-stripped to the neck of his guitar so that he’d know, for instance, that to play A-major, he would need to lay his index finger across all six strings at the second fret of the guitar. (I don’t honestly know exactly how he handled the minor chords and 7ths and the more complex chords that come along occasionally in rock and roll. I tried not to think about that kind of thing too much.) My one major disappointment from the Doobies show was that Tom Johnston or Patrick Simmons, the two main guitarists in the band, didn’t walk down to the stage after our soundcheck and see Dan’s guitar with the stickers on it. I like to imagine Tom looking at that guitar and at least considering jumping to “the other side of the counter” when he realized who his opening act was. But of course they didn’t walk down to the stage that night to inspect anything. This show may have been the biggest one of our lives, but it was just another forgettable gig for the Doobies and maybe even a little more forgettable than most for a band that had filled arenas in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

In Chapter 9 of Hitless Wonder, Watershed gets booked as the opening act on an Insane Clown Posse tour just after learning that they have been dropped by Epic Records. This obvious mismatch between a power pop band and whatever it is you call Insane Clown Posse (comic book thrash metal rap, maybe?) led to Watershed being booed, flipped off, and pelted with coins and other objects by a crowd of teenagers who hadn’t come to hear Watershed’s pop melodies and tight harmonies. They were dropped from the tour after a few valiant shows, and it was on the way home after being canned by ICP that Watershed’s original drummer Herb quit for good (203). Apparently, Herb could take being ignored by complacent crowds; he could take sleeping on dirty floors; he could take the constant travel; he could even take the disappointment of losing a major-label deal. But he couldn’t take having pocket change thrown at him by the teenage fans of a joke band. I can’t blame him. What could be more ego-deflating and soul-crushing than being on stage in front of hundreds or thousands of people and expecting to be treated as a rock star but instead having to dodge quarters hurled toward the stage by pubescent boys screaming about how much your band sucks?

Our Doobie Brothers experience wasn’t quite that bad, but it’s fair to say we didn’t get the rock star treatment, either. We showed up at the end of a workday in our teaching clothes, but with our gig wear in hand. Expecting to find a dressing room or at least a bathroom backstage to change in, we asked at the end of the soundcheck, “Where can we change?”

“You can do it right here,” said the monitor mix guy. “Sorry, but our dressing rooms are all full of Doobies right now.” And just to be clear: He wasn’t pointing anywhere. He was referring to the stage itself. The curtain was up, and the House of Blues staff was already in there icing down coolers and checking beer inventories. We did what we were told and dressed right there on the stage. Nobody seemed to notice.

At the end of our set, their crew helped us take our gear off the back of the stage. One of them asked us, “You got everything?” and when we told him we did, he pulled the door down and locked it, leaving us out on the loading dock by ourselves, wondering if we were invited to come back in or not.

Our singer Arne said, “Let’s go back in. We’ve got these ‘Artist’ laminates on. I think it’s ok.” So we did. Security at the back door nodded at us on the way in, so we figured we were cool. Then we stood watching Tom Johnston of the Doobies talking to his guitar tech for a few seconds before a security guard from the HOB came over to tell us that we were welcome to watch the show from the audience. And just like that, we were regular crowd members like everyone else. I didn’t even get recognized out in the crowd until I saw my own brother.

He said to the woman next to him, “Didn’t you see this guy on stage? They rocked.”

The woman said, “Oh yeah, I remember that shirt. Cool shirt!”

I was wearing a bright yellow rayon print with a sword-wielding ninja character on it. Thank God they let us change on that stage that night. Otherwise, I might have been remembered as the guy in the khakis and the button-down Oxford. Or not remembered at all.

It was a pretty cool shirt.

That show was on March 9, 2007, and Virtue Trap continued playing up until just a little over a year ago (final VT show: May 13, 2011). We took a few breaks here and there, one of which we announced as the end of Virtue Trap even though I don’t think any of us thought it would be the end. Joe began teaching here in August of 2008, and after he had been here for about a year and a half, we finally sensed that he was starved enough for rock and roll to join our cover band. In January of 2010, we invited him, and he did join us, which is a testament to how deep the need is to rock for people like Joe who really need to rock. Joe says in the book that he made his peace with being forever in the minor leagues of rock and roll, but I’ll have to bet he even surprised himself by being happy with Virtue Trap as his musical outlet. I mean, there’s the minor leagues and then there’s Little League. In Chapter 10 of the book, Joe’s producer Tim Patalan is forced to look for a blowtorch to cook the marijuana resin in his bong because he has run out of pot. He was that much in need of a buzz.  “I’ve got to warn you,” he says to Joe. “This is going to be a little harsh” (226). But Joe took a hit anyway. I could have given him pretty much the same warning when we asked him to join our band, but I bet he would have taken a hit from our rock and roll pipe, too. After all, he knew what we were. He’d been to enough Virtue Trap shows to know what he was getting into. Apparently, he needed a rock and roll high, and as Joe says, “Such is the nature of buzz.”

The narrative of Hitless Wonder takes the band on a ten show tour over a sixteen-day period in 2008, with the last stop on the tour being a big homecoming show in Columbus at the LC, a 2200-capacity venue that Joe suspected  might be beyond Watershed’s ability to fill, even with all of their history of hometown popularity. In the days leading up to the LC gig, they play what amount to a series of warmup gigs, and at each stop along the way, Joe’s narrative connects back to an earlier point in the story of Watershed. We learn about the formation of the band in high school, the increasing local and out-of-town popularity of the band, their signing by Epic and brief period in the major-label spotlight, and their post-major period. The recurring thematic drift in the book is Joe’s attempt to answer a key question: Is Watershed’s persistence admirable or pathetic? In an interview published just today in The Columbus Dipatch, Joe says, “You don’t often get easy, clear answers” to that question in his book, and he’s right. Hitless Wonder is neither an endorsement nor an indictment of the minor league rock and roll life. The better question—or at least the one with the easier answer—is the one that Joe’s wife Kate asks him in the prologue (page viii):

“Why are you doing this, Joe?”

To which he responds, “We write songs and make records. Then we go out and play. That’s how it works.” And of course he’s right. That’s just how rock and roll works.

But a few lines later, Kate says, “Nobody gives a shit about a Watershed tour except the guys in Watershed,” which might be true anywhere outside Columbus, Ohio, except in the opinion of a few “superfans” who follow Watershed on tour no matter where they go.

But ultimately, it doesn’t really matter whether people care about a Watershed tour or not. Colin Gawel perhaps says it best when, before going on stage for their first show of the tour in front of five fans in Detroit, he tells Joe, “I don’t give a shit about the gigs. It’s just great to be hanging out with my friends” (3). Later, he tells Joe, “We’ve got our balls back” (12). And those two statements could sum up the entire book and explain the band’s whole post-Epic career. Why does Watershed continue to play? To hang out with each other and prove they haven’t “lost it” yet. In the end, the story isn’t much more complicated than that.

Jump cut forward to 2012, and Joe’s out on the road with his friends, getting their “balls back” yet again. He just left today, June 5, 2012, for a series of combined book signings and Watershed dates. This time, Watershed will be starting the tour in Columbus, not ending it there, so it’s very likely that, even with the added publicity of the book, their biggest show will be the first one. Maybe that’s the better way to do it, maybe not, but back in 2008, the band spent the entire tour worrying about attendance at their homecoming show. They called home several times during the tour to find that advance sales weren’t strong. The club manager even told them they could back out of the show, but just as at their first CBGB show, Watershed had no intention of cancelling. But Joe was constantly nagged by the question: Will the LC show be a success or a failure? True to the spirit of the book, there is no clear answer. At a club that could hold 2200, they drew by far their biggest crowd of the tour. Joe thought when he stepped onto stage that there might be as many as 1000 people there (278). It turns out the real total was closer to 750 (280). Was it a success? Even the reviewer from a Columbus newspaper is ambivalent: “Watershed drew a respectable crowd, especially for a Columbus band, but at a venue like the LC, it still felt sparse. A smaller showcase might have suited the band’s return better” (287). But the same reviewer also says, “these seasoned professionals sound as good as ever” (286).

In 2012, Watershed will have to answer the same questions all over again, and appropriately enough, given all the parallels between me and Joe, so will my band, The Pleztones. Like Joe, we’ve just finished a new CD, and we’re going to be playing in our hometown after the CDs are released. The difference between our bands is one of degree, not kind. While Joe and Watershed would like to sell many thousands of their new album, I would be more than happy to sell a few hundred Pleztones CDs. While they have fourteen dates throughout the south and the east coast for their tour, ours will consist only of two hometown shows at the Down Home, which seats about 150. (I’ll do one “CD Release Party” show on acoustic guitar in Conway before driving to Johnson City, but I don’t count that as a Pleztones show.) If we can sell maybe 75 tickets a night at the Down Home, I’ll be super pleased. We’re calling these shows our “25th Anniversary Tour” with a mixture of self-deprecating humor and matter-of-fact honesty. We actually did play our first show on July 4, 1987, so these shows on July 6 and 7, 2012 are about as close as you can get to our actual 25th anniversary. But it’s not a tour, and we know it. How many shows does it take to have a tour? I’m not sure, but more than two for sure, and they do have to be in different cities. But somehow, “25th Anniversary Two-Night Stand” or “25th Anniversary Mini-Residency” just doesn’t sound right, so the t-shirts don’t say that. They say “Pleztones 2012 25th Anniversary Tour.” Will anyone buy the shirts? Will anyone buy the CDs? Will anyone buy tickets to the shows? (At $12 each for tickets, that’s a pretty big concern. I’m not sure I’d pay $12 to see The Pleztones.) Still, those questions are as irrelevant for us as they are for Watershed. If it weren’t for my desire to at least break even on the whole enterprise, those questions might not even occur to me because the truth is, I just want to play. I want my “balls back,” too.

While Joe and Watershed have always worked bigger rooms, both literally and figuratively, than the Pleztones, our stories and the characters in them are more or less the same. Joe will play again with longtime musical partner Colin Gawel. I will get together again with bassist Drew Vance, the only other constant member of the Pleztones for the last 25 years. We’ll be asking ourselves why we continue to do this. We’ll be wondering if what we’ve been doing for the last quarter-century even matters, all the while knowing that the answers to those questions don’t matter all that much because we will probably keep doing it as long as we physically can no matter what. Remember: “We write songs…and then we go out and play. That’s how it works.” Joe could have ended the book after that statement in the Prologue, but I’m glad he didn’t. All of us who have lived this life, even those of us who have lived it in lower orbits of the rock and roll planetary system than Joe has, should be glad he wrote this book because it’s good.

It’s good for us to have this cultural artifact, even if none of the rest of us ever writes another to reinforce it. This book has already done the good work of documenting that life. And so, I would make a very serious argument that Joe belongs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for writing it, but that’s an argument for another day, and anyway, that kind of success would probably ruin him, and we don’t want that now, do we? With any luck, the rock gods will continue to reward Watershed with one hand and punish them with the other. If so, maybe in a few more years we will see a sequel to this remarkable book.

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