"Hitless Wonder" author Joe Oestreich considers the twenty-five-plus years he's spent in Watershed -- a ragtag, never-say-die, tour-til-you-drop, rock-n-roll-forever band if there ever was one -- a success. "It wouldn't mater if I considered us a failure because we're going to keep doing it anyway," he says. [Check out our recent chat with him and video of Watershed here.] In that spirit of rebellion against fame, fortune, and Rolling Stone covers, here are four other memoirs from the fringes of rock-n-roll.
In 1998, Semisonic hit the jackpot with the song “Closing Time,” a catchy sing-along tune that became the “Happy Birthday” of last calls everywhere and thus had a longer shelf life than many a radio smash. It was off the trio’s certified platinum sophomore album, Feeling Strangely Fine, which catapulted Semisonic from indie upstarts to big-time rockers with a ubiquitous prom-closing anthem to promote. Drummer Jacob Slichter takes readers with him on the band’s meteoric rise in “So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star,” a clear-eyed look behind the music industry curtain. It ain’t pretty and that has nothing to do with pools of vomit or rampant cases of the clap.
Slichter isn’t cut from Keith Moon’s cloth; he’s a Harvard graduate with a degree in Afro-American studies. He also has a head for business and a lot of the book’s wittiest moments include firsthand accounts of artists getting screwed by labels that should be their biggest supporters. In Slichter’s brilliant turn-of-phrase, band members are “rhinestone sharecroppers.” Basically, the label owns the band over multiple albums but can drop them at any time. In Semisonic's case, MCA dropped them following their 2001 album All About Chemistry, despite the fact that their previous record -- the one with the massive hit “Closing Time” -- hadn't even covered the band’s debts for things like studio time, promotions, gas for the tour bus, limos to mandatory industry events, and lunch. If Slichter wasn’t so self-effacingly funny, it would be a soul-crushing slog, but he knows few wannabes ever get even one moment of pop stardom, no matter how degrading the process. “So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star” marks Slichter as more than a drummer. So finish your whiskey or beer in a toast to what will hopefully be a long and fruitful writing career. As a wise band once said, “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”
"The Adventures of a Waterboy” by Mike Scott
“I wish I was a fisherman, tumblin’ on the seas, far away from dry land and its bitter memories.” That’s the opening stanza to “Fisherman’s Blues,” the title track off of the great 1988 Waterboys album, which also works as a summation of the eclectic, peripatetic, career of the band’s founder Mike Scott. As Scott explains in his new memoir “The Adventures of a Waterboy,” music is constantly rolling about his head, a “mighty staramash” that’s kept him at it for thirty years as The Waterboys have gone through roughly sixty musicians. Scott comes across as more wayward troubadour than unrelenting perfectionist, though, a man who has always marched to the beat of his own bodhrán, ushering The Waterboys through distinct phases. There was the majestic “Big Music” early days, the “Raggle Taggle Gypsy Days” that incorporated Celtic folk instruments like fiddles, mandolins, whistles and the like, and the resurrection in 2000 after a seven-year hiatus.
As the only permanent member of The Waterboys, Scott is the only one who was present for all the adventures, which allows his memoir to exist a few octaves above the usual sex-drugs-more sex-more drugs-breakup-back together arc. More than anything else, “The Adventures of a Waterboy” is about what music means to Scott and how it defines his life. He’s eccentric and unafraid to express rock star ego: “The evidence of my ears tells me Bono and The Edge were paying rapt attention when we supported them on tour.” (U2 casts a big shadow over Scott, a Dubliner by way of Edinburgh.) Music critics and fans can decide that for themselves, but very few bands ever sell millions of albums or fill Wembley Stadium. Some just have to live with being lesser known, inconsistent, odd, and way more interesting. “The Adventures of a Waterboy” shows Mike Scott as a heady guy on a spiritual quest, rife with fantastical beliefs in what music can do. On a good day, that’s even better than the real thing.
Chris O’Dell is an interesting character -- a beguiling mix of Sancho Panza, Forrest Gump, Euterpe, Marianne Faithful, and let’s say, Janis Joplin. O’Dell was there for all the sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll the sixties had to offer: her headcount includes Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan, and Ringo Starr; she couriered for Keith Richards, and he complimented her by saying she “took them like a man;" and she’s the subject of Leon Russell’s “Pisces Apple Lady” and George Harrison’s “Miss O’Dell." Her book stands apart because she was more than a groupie; in some sideways way, she was always an integral part of the show. A random encounter with the Beatles’ publicity man led to the small-town American girl working at the band’s headquarters, which brought her into the heart, soul, and body of swinging London.
Beyond the debauchery, O’Dell was present for an amazing string of events, both professional and personal. Her organizational attributes and skills at non-rock star tasks (like sewing), made her indispensable during the day, and she could hold her own at night, so she was always around. Here’s a brief list of O’Dell’s noteworthy moments: She sang backup on “Hey Jude,” was in the room when George told Ringo he loved his wife, was on a small plane with John and Yoko that almost went down, acted as tour manager for Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, and sat on the roof and watched the Beatles last-ever performance. Today, O’Dell lives a quietly sober life, but her book doesn’t carry the veneer of shame or regret. It’s a warm and sunny stroll down a hazy memory lane. When rock gods ruled, they all got by -- and yes, high -- with a little help from their friend Chris O’Dell.
“Mom, Have You Seen My Leather Pants?: The Tale of a Teen Rock Wannabe Who Almost Was” by Craig A. Williams
At the tender age of sixteen, Craig A. Williams autographed groupie breasts. He also played a gig with his band Onyxxx on the Sunset Strip, which probably stand as the two gold-record moments for the mini-me version of Motley Crue. Straight out of Orange County, Onyxxx was four high school dudes who got to briefly live out their heavy metal fantasy, complete with hairspray, excessive partying, infighting, HIV tests, geometry homework, and carnal relations with the band’s manager, Barbi, who also worked as a Loni Anderson impersonator.
The last two are unique to Onyxxx, who, in turn, are unique to a certain time in rock history. "Mom, Have You Seen My Leather Pants?" is a microcosm of the entire 80s L.A. hair metal scene, the adolescent version of the typical Behind the Music morality tale where a hardworking band gets a shot, reaches the top, and then blows it all in a epic meltdown. The key thing for Williams is that this amazing Guns N' Roses-esque saga happened, and ended, quickly. Grunge was coming. Soon, groups like Warrant and Winger would be punchlines. There was also college to attend, a writing career to embark on, and and a you-couldn’t-make-this-