Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Watershed, The View From The Side Of The Stage, pt. 1

As I posted in a previous blog, Joe Oestreich - bass player & co-lead singer of Watershed - has a new book out, Hitless Wonder, his memoir/history of the band he co-founded in 1985 as a high school freshman. That's 27 years ago, people. It's great, of course, but anybody who has ever seen a Kurosawa film knows the real story is always all about perspective, about point-of-view. This is my memoir/history of Watershed, told from The View At The Side Of The Stage.

I first met the band Watershed in 1990 when they were still called The Wire. (I may have been one of the first people who pointed out to them that there had been an English post-punk band called Wire in the late 70's, but the news was largely shrugged off because, as Joe states in his book, Wire had never been played on Columbus' lumbering dinosaur of a classic-rock station, Q-FM 96.) They were just kids, maybe 21 years old at that point, but they carried themselves younger and I perceived them as 17 or 18, tops. (Somehow it never occurred to me that would make them underage to play in bars.)

At that time I was employed as a roadie for Willie Phoenix & The True Soul Rockers. Willie had taken The Wire under his wing, was working on songs with them in preparation for producing their first record (which resulted in the Rise e.p.) and thus they were our opening band when Willie held a monthly residency at a Columbus club called Ruby Tuesday. (see Willie Phoenix blog entry, May 2012.)

They were fun, they had a lot of energy and a good attitude, but really the songs weren't that great. And, as Colin has said, "We were just learning. We were flailing. One song would sound like U2, the next song would sound like Rush and the one after that would sound like John Cougar Mellencamp. We were all over the place." Partly I liked them because they were a power trio with dual lead singers playing pop music, a configuration you just don't see that often. I always enjoyed watching them as I tuned the arsenal of eight or nine guitars in different tunings that Willie and his lead guitarist Mike Parks deployed in those days. Somewhere over a couple of months of Ruby Tuesday opening slots they changed their name to Watershed and the songs improved somewhat but really it was just a normal young band learning curve of grindingly gradual improvement, nothing really special.

Then one month as I was at my station tuning guitars on the side by the soundboard, Watershed took the stage and launched immediately into a song called "Rise" that stunningly crystallized all the slow improvements they had made in the previous months. It was just a flat-out GREAT power pop tune - great clear positive lyrics, instantly memorable melody, hook after hook in the vocals and in the arrangement - I really, in a way, couldn't believe my ears.

Even more stunningly the entire set that followed just compounded and improved on the new set-opener. It was like it wasn't even the same band I had seen 30 days before, and 30 days before that, and 30 before that. I have never to this day seen a band improve so radically almost literally overnight.

I sat there open-mouthed watching them go through a stage act full of Pete Townshend-styled stage jumps from Colin, bass swoops from Joe and drumming from Herb that was a weird conglomeration of Ringo Starr crossed with Alex Van Halen. I hadn't seen a trio that good since my beloved Boston boys The Neighborhoods circa 1980-1986. I forgot all about tuning and getting ready for Willie's set and just watched as Watershed powered to a great finish.

To make matters worse Willie and his True Soul Rockers chose that night to come out of the rock & roll gate kinda flat and lackluster, plus they looked kinda old & tired that night after the burst of fresh-faced rock that had just been thrown down by Watershed. By the middle of Willie's first set there were scattered calls from the audience of "put the first band back on" and "Watershed" and I wondered if Willie fully realized just how completely he had just been blown off the stage by his proteges.

The next month when we returned to Ruby Tuesday Watershed had been replaced by some lame rock assemblage that was absolutely no threat to the True Soul Rockers. Never let it be said that Willie Phoenix does not know a contender/competitor when he sees one.

I kept up with Watershed over the next couple of years as they went from strength to strength. They worked their asses off; first in Columbus and then, after quitting college, they hit the road in earnest, playing any rock & roll dive bar that would have 'em. Plus weirdly, they were just such nice guys that I partly kept up with them because I wanted to know how long it would take for them to turn into rock & roll assholes.

They were cute, they had gotten great, they were pretty massively popular in Columbus, so why wouldn't they become egotistical assholes? I remember, in particular, one Willie Phoenix gig at this crappy one-cut-above-a-crack-bar we used to get booked into during Willie's "We're gonna play EVERY WEEKEND" phase of 1992 or so. Watershed had an off-night and came to Willie's gig just to show their support. I remember Colin, Joe, Herb and Biggie sitting at a big round table in the middle of the bar with their girlfriends of the time (including Kate, who has persevered) and they looked impossibly young, well-scrubbed and healthy, even with a truly impressive amount of drinks on the table. They looked like the princes in a court of young, affluent rock & roll royalty. It was Sonic Camelot. I was in my 40's at the time, Willie's act was going down the tubes, the True Soul Rockers were on the verge of collapse, Watershed was in the process of getting signed to Sony and I remember they just made me feel impossibly old. Thanks, guys.

When the band got their quarter of a million dollar record deal with the Epic Records division of the Sony empire I was sure that's when the asshole process would really kick into high gear. And, truly amazingly, it didn't. They remained the same boys from the mean streets of Worthington, Ohio, that they had been all along. And then, in the space of two years when Sony well and truly fucked them on their record deal, that was the time I was absolutely CERTAIN rampant assholism would set in. I had seen that kind of disappointment and bitterness ruin better people than Watershed.

I ran into Colin at a CD-101 Day Show that Howlin' Maggie was playing. Howlin’ Maggie was Columbus' new up & comer band that, strangely, was that year's model being signed to Sony and I was certain the shit was gonna hit the fan. I liked but didn't love Howlin' Maggie and made some comment to Colin about how much more Watershed deserved a major label deal than Happy Chichester's crew. But Colin shot right back with, "No, these guys are great, they deserve every bit of success they get." with the same unguarded generosity and unbounded optimism he displays to his fellow rock & rollers to this day. I remember being truly astounded he could be that magnanimous and positive. I'd have badmouthed Howlin' Maggie up one side and down the other if I had just gotten dropped by a major label, but that's just the kind of guy I am.

So I kept up with Watershed through the 90's, right up through the early 2000's. I played softball with Herb at musician pick-up games at Schiller Park in German Village. I'd run into Colin at different shows or exchange a few words after their sets. Strangely I don't think I ever had a credible conversation of more than ten words with Michael "Biggie" McDermott, who is now probably easily my best friend in the band.

In 2002, after a long break from performing and releasing records Watershed blazed back onto the scene with their CD The More It Hurts, The More It Works and I was just fucking floored. It was easily the best thing they had ever done, a masterpiece of blazing rock combined with truly great quiet tunes. You show me another band capable of "Can't Be Myself," "Merchurochrome," "Over Too Soon," and "Romantic Noise" ON THE SAME RECORD and I'll show you Big Star in the early 70's. It was their fifth or sixth full-length release and definitely the best thing they had ever done. And NOBODY has their best release come that late in their career. To this day I think it's the best record to come out of Columbus, Ohio, EVER.

(coming soon; Watershed, The View From The Side Of The Stage, pt. 2; Fifth Of July and Ricki C. joins the road crew)

© 2012 Ricki C.

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