Young rockers examine the Small Town Life

By Bill Wyman

     "A day in the life of Festus, Missouri," is the way Brian Henneman laughingly describes the Bottle Rockets' second album, The Brooklyn Side. This quotidian panorama is of ceaseless interest to Henneman. "Festus is getting bigger than it used to be," he reflects. "It's got to be 10,000 people. It's practically a suburb. It's getting there, and they won't rest until it does."

     It is a credit to both the extravagant pathologies of small towns like Festus and the talents of the Bottle Rockets' four members that The Brooklyn Side isn't boring at all. Eschewing both the over-romanticism of many small-town chroniclers and the smirky contempt of others, Henneman and the Bottle Rockets embody the ambivalence any open-eyed product of rural America must radiate. "You hate it, you love it, you miss it, you can't get away from it," Henneman says.

     While the band's first, self-titled album was full of impeccable country rock and set in rural America as well, The Brooklyn Side is a much more focused affair, a gimlet-eyed song cycle on rural themes that encompasses both the hapless idiosyncrasies of the small-town loser (watching "championship fishing on channel 5") and some of his more lethal ones (like wife-beating). The Brooklyn Side is about things like just how small small-town battles can be ("Radar Gun") and how hard it is for the inarticulate to articulate something like love ("Gravity Fails"). But while the band isn't afraid to distance itself from its fellows in the bloody "What More Can I Do?" and the desperate ennui of "Stuck in a Rut" the end of The Brooklyn Side finds the Bottle Rockets, first in the irresistible singalong "I Wanna Come Home," and finally, the bar-ballad-with-a-twist "Queen of the World," where the band started, and where it belongs: back home.

     The members of the band -- which, by the by, rocks like Crazy Horse -- don't exactly celebrate the rural haplessness they see around them. When they have to they'll take a stand, as on the first album's scorching "Wave That Flag," which with a touch of earnestness tries to confront a guy flying the Confederate flag. ("If somebody owned your ass / How would you feel?") But they're not condemnatory either, for a lot of reasons: because for better or worse it's a part of them, because they know there are plenty of others around who'll do the trashing for them for them, and because if put in the position of choosing will come down solidly on the side of their peers. The result captures elegantly an ambivalence somewhere between hate and love, clear-eyed but somewhat rueful, all bound up in a metaphysical freefall -- call it the Love Song of J. Alfred Sixpack, in 4/4 time and with plenty of distortion.

     But no one will mistake the Bottle Rockets for rock stars: Henneman, who looks a lot like the roadie he used to be, is given to rhapsodizing about the 1970s, "when bands could be ugly." His burly, bearded and beglassed mien, however, hides a mordant wit ("Altamont in a can," he says of a bad concert experience) and a strict attention to craft. A few years ago, he was the "mandolin-playin', van-drivin', roadyin', T-shirt-sellin', all-purpose guy" for Uncle Tupelo, the Missouri country-rock band. Meanwhile, Tupelo's manager, Tony Margherita, liked the sound of the demos Henneman had recorded. "Tony was shipping it around without me knowing about it," Henneman says. "And one day he said 'I got you a deal.' I said, 'You're shitting me.' So I had to put a band together."

     Most important is a songwriting partner of Henneman's: another old friend, now a schoolteacher in Missouri, named Scott Taylor, who's responsible for some of the The Brooklyn Side's most felicitous lyrical moments. Take this cameo, for instance:

"Angry fat man on the radio
Wants to keep your taxes way down low
Says there oughta be a law
Angriest man you ever saw."

     "He's never been in a band cause he can't play guitar," chuckles Henneman about Taylor. "He writes these great lyrics, and then tries to put them to songs, but they all sound the same. Most of the time I take em and put new music to them, or change the lines and phrasing to fit the music I have."

     Out of this mishmash of writers, the band and producer Eric Amble, formerly of the Del-Lords, put together a good-old fashioned concept album. "We made a decision to do that," Henneman says. "We had a bunch of songs, and we picked certain ones with the theme in mind. For the first one, we had to do the easiest ones we could do at the time, because Tom had only been in the band a week and we had to get it down in three days

     That aggregation is now known as the Bottle Rockets. Guitarist Tom Parr and drummer Mark Ortmann go back to old Henneman groups like Chicken Truck and the Blue Moons. The band shares bassist Tom Ray with Poi Dog Pondering. While Henneman's music, husky, shit-kicking drawl, and Neil Young-style guitar-assaults dominate the record, he had some important help from the other members of the band and even some outsiders. Guitarist Tom Parr contributes a key pair of songs in the middle of the album: "Take Me To The Bank" -- a "Johnny B. Goode" rewrite that Parr constructed as a pre-teen -- is a sexy rural not-so-still life; right on its heels is "What More Can I Do?," the Brooklyn Side's sober center, whose startling lyric ("I'll be beating on you, honey, tonight for sure") are delivered by Parr with a chilling calm. "I don't know where the hell he made that one up from," Henneman confesses. "His thought processes are hard to understand. I don't know. Holy shit."

     "For the second one we thought a lot about it. Eric Ambel helped a lot about that. He was totally into the concept of making an album." That's how "a day in the life of Festus" made it onto record. "That's the way it works every single day down here," avers Henneman. "If you listen to the record 365 times it would be just as boring as a year in the life of Festus."

     Not quite: rescuing the band from boredom are tunes, tunes, tunes. Take "Gravity Falls," the album's giddy pop confection. "That's something I'd never done before," Henneman says. "I don't even know how that came out. Scott said, Make it like a pop hit, make the music fit the lyrics.' " In those lyrics, Taylor outdoes himself: "Maybe it's something in my genes," warbles Henneman on the track, "Maybe it's something in my jeans." There's also friendly, loping ballads (Henneman's "I'll Be Comin' Around") and full-bore rockers, most notably the grinding "1000 Dollar Car" and the thunderous "Sunday Sports," with its priceless picture of the armchair sportsman.

     While a song like "Gravity Fails" deserves radio airplay, MTV and today's alternative rock stations don't take much to rurality. The Bottle Rockets knows this, and don't much give a fuck, leveling a Scud missile at alternative hipsters in "Idiot's Delight:

"Well she likes Dinosaur Jr. but she can't tell you why
She says if you like country music, man, you deserve to die
She's got that whacked-out hair, got them second-hand clothes
She's got an itemized list of everything she loathes."
     Henneman notes that modern day roots rock -- the classic rock and country inflected music played by his group and Uncle Tupelo -- is conceptually different from the so-called rural rockers of the recent past. "Like the Long Ryders from a few years back," he says, "it always sounded like they were listening to someone's record collection: they didn't make a move that John Fogerty wouldn't have done. It all sounds so hip and it's all bullshit. There's no Marshall distortion-box freakout."
Copyright 1995 Chicago Reader, Inc.
First published in the Chicago Reader.

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