By Barry Gilbert
In 1994, St. Louis’ Bottle Rockets sang about that “angry fat man on the radio (who) wants to keep his taxes way down low” in “Welfare Music,” one of the band’s finest songs. Almost 20 years later, that radio guy is, if anything, fatter and angrier, and the Bottle Rockets, thankfully, are still a working, blue-collar, roots-rock band.
Chicago’s Bloodshot Records has reissued the band’s first two out-of-print albums, the self-titled “Bottle Rockets” (1993) and its 1994 follow-up, “The Brooklyn Side.”
Fans who were present at the creation and have stuck with the band through 11 albums and its odyssey to Major Label Land and back will be familiar with this music; indeed, more than half of the original CDs’ 27 songs are in the Bottle Rockets’ concert rotation.
For relative newcomers to the band – those who came aboard with “Zoysia” (2006) and the current lineup, or may have discovered the Brox in recent years on its tours with power pop legend Marshall Crenshaw – these reissues will be an eye-opener.
But both groups will be thrilled by the package, which combines each album on a separate disc along with a total of 19 bonus tracks and a 40-page booklet full of essays and testimonials from critics and peers. Steve Earle, for example, says that when he first heard “Radar Gun” on “The Brooklyn Side,” “at least for that moment, I believed that there was hope for the future of rock and roll.”
The bonus tracks – demos, rarities and live cuts – were selected by the band’s two original members, singer/songwriter/guitarist Brian Henneman and drummer Mark Ortmann. Frequent Brox collaborator Eric “Roscoe” Ambel of the Del-Lords, who produced “The Brooklyn Side,” remastered the music, some of which came from old cassette tapes.
The music on these two albums shows a band unafraid to rock its ass off one moment, then turn topical and sensitive the next on the strength of Henneman’s empathy for real people, their problems and their stories.
Uncle Tupelo is generally given the nod as creator of the alt-country genre with the 1992 release of “No Depression,” the title of which spawned a magazine and another name for roots rock/alt-country/Americana. However, the Bottle Rockets and its predecessor, Chicken Truck, were right there with them. Uncle Tupelo front men Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy can be heard harmonizing with Henneman on several of the demos that landed Henneman a contract for “Bottle Rockets” on East Side Digital Records.
The links between the bands go back to the mid-’80s, when Ortmann, Henneman, guitarist Bob Parr and singer Scott Summers were playing as the Festus-Crystal City-based Blue Moons. They did a show across the Mississippi in Millstadt, Ill., with Tweedy and Farrar and their band, the Primatives.
A few years later, Chicken Truck – Ortmann, Henneman, Bob Parr and his brother Tom on bass – played a St. Louis gig at Cicero’s basement bar with Uncle Tupelo – or, as Ortmann remembers it, “Hey, it’s those guys again.”
Fans and historians can argue about the founders of this music – why not Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman? But no one can argue about the music the Bottle Rockets made at the beginning and continue to make.
Four of the bonus tracks can only be found here. Two of them are covers: a Henneman demo from 1991 of Bob Dylan’s “Wallflower,” and a Bottle Rockets live performance from 1994 (with Gary Louris and Syd Straw aboard) of the garage classic “Farmer John.”
The other two are originals. “White Trash” (“Yeah two kids, maybe more, a divorcee for sure”) from a 1989 Chicken Truck cassette, and “Building Chryslers,” from the 1994 “Brooklyn Side” demos.
“Building Chryslers” especially merited an official release; the gritty acoustic demo would have been killer plugged in:
“He’s got the Bass boat/ he’s got the new house/ he’s got a wife and a kid on the way/ he’s building Chryslers/ he don’t care how they turn out/ he’s got bills to pay/ He’s building Chryslers/ driving a Toyota/ ’cause he knows lots of guys on the line.”
Henneman says “Chryslers” never really fit in, although he won’t rule out recording it with the band someday. Ortmann, however, has another theory.
“At the time when it was demo’d, people were indifferent to it,” he says. “I think Brian actually was indifferent to it. He wrote it. It may have been just too close to home at the time, meaning he had friends (working at the now-torn-down Chrysler plant in Fenton, Mo.).”
The guy in the story could be the same guy a decade later collecting his workman’s comp checks in “Lucky Break” from the “Blue Sky” album.
“Right, yeah, exactly,” Ortmann laughs. “There’s a theme that goes through the band’s catalogue, and that’s part of it. I always liked ‘Building Chryslers’ and decided to put it on this reissue.”
Two other bonus tracks were released as is on compilation CDs. “Truck Driving Man,” from “The Brooklyn Side” sessions, found its way to a trucking compilation called “Rig Rock Deluxe” in 1996. And a 1993 acoustic Brox performance of “Get Down River,” commemorating the Great Missouri Flood of 1993, appeared on Bloodshot’s “Hell-Bent Insurgent Country” sampler from 1995. It would later appear in an electric version on “Leftovers” (1998).
In fact several of these early demos and Chicken Truck recordings would appear in new arrangements as much as a decade later, including an acoustic “Indianapolis” with Tweedy and Farrar (“24 Hours a Day” in 1997); “Dead Dog Memories” (“Brand New Year,” 1999); and “Coffee Monkey (“Leftovers,” 1998).
It’s a testament to Henneman, frequent co-writer Scott Taylor and his bandmates that so many of these very early songs had the goods to appear alongside much later efforts. Indeed, five of the six earliest bonus tracks, from Chicken Truck cassettes in 1989, are in the Bottle Rockets catalog and set lists: “Lonely Cowboy,” “Coffee Monkey,” the great “Wave That Flag,” “Brand New Year” and Steve Earle’s favorite, “Radar Gun” – but sung in Chicken Truck by its writer, Bob Parr.
Producer Ambel recognized this band’s talent immediately when Henneman sent him the demos for “The Brooklyn Side.” One of the songs, an acoustic treatment of what became the concert staple “I’ll Be Coming Around,” is “one of my favorite musical moments,” Ambel says. “This is one of the best songs I’ve ever heard.”
Its title? “This Is What It Sounds Like When You’re Listening to Lindsey Buckingham and Thinking of Your Friend’s Girlfriend At the Same Time.”
So where did the name the Bottle Rockets come from? Henneman credits Farrar and Tweedy.
After Chicken Truck broke up, Ortmann moved to Nashville, and Henneman went on the road with Uncle Tupelo. He was signed to East Side Digital (Uncle Tupelo’s manager made it happen) in 1993 and had to scramble to assemble a band and get to Athens, Ga., to record.
Farrar and Tweedy drove down from St. Louis to help out, scribbling possible band names along the way because, Henneman says, they had to label the recording tapes with something.
“We couldn’t think of nothin’, we were too busy trying to make a record,” Henneman says. “And so they just had a piece of notebook paper, and they were just scribbling things down on the way – they had all sorts of names, probably 30 names scribbled down.
“And about half way down the list was ‘Bottle Rockets’ because, right when you’re goin’ down to Georgia, when you hit that Tennessee-Georgia border, there’s all these fireworks stands right there. And if you go down there you’ll see big signs for bottle rockets.
“That was just one of the names they jotted down, and as soon as we saw that, it’s like, there it is right there. … It looked the most like a band name to us, It was like, yeah, that reminds me of an old-school band name. Let’s go with that.”