By Barry Gilbert
Special to the Post-Dispatch
Bottle Rockets drummer Mark Ortmann proved to be clairvoyant five years ago when, on the St. Louis band’s 15th anniversary, he talked about what it takes to survive in music.
“You start dreaming big, wishing you could be the next Aerosmith, and when that doesn’t happen, many bands just collapse,” he said. “But if you’re in it for the long haul, you become a working musician and start appreciating what successes you do have. And if you’re happy with your art, then maybe, somewhere later on, it’ll find some kind of fertile ground.”
“Later on” has arrived. The band’s Chicago-based label, Bloodshot, has reissued its first two long-out-of-print albums, “Bottle Rockets” (1993) and “The Brooklyn Side” (1994), packaged as a two-disc set with 19 bonus tracks and a 40-page booklet. It may not be Aerosmith-style treatment, but it is pretty special for one of the best and most under-recognized roots-rock bands on the planet.
“People who missed us the first time around are getting a second chance with these reissues,” Ortmann said. “It gets people’s attention that we’re still around, and they’re reassessing the early part of our career.”
Frontman Brian Henneman has been doing more interviews than at any time since Atlantic Records picked up “The Brooklyn Side” from indie East Side Digital in 1994. He’s been talking with outlets ranging from Esquire and Country Music Television to blogs he’s never heard of.
“There’s a long-haul way to do it, and a very, very short-haul way,” he says. “Some of the people who blew up big for the short haul made enough money to live on the rest of their life. It’s good. (But) we got the workin’ man’s attitude toward it.”
Indeed, after 10 albums, the current lineup of day-job-holding musicians — Henneman, Ortmann, guitarist John Horton and bassist Keith Voegele — tours frequently and enjoys trips opening for and backing up power-pop legend Marshall Crenshaw. The band will try some of the reissue rarities Saturday at Off Broadway.
“What’s awesome is that some people are getting turned on to it for the first time,” Henneman says of the reissues. “I’m glad we put ’em both out together. Because many people think ‘The Brooklyn Side’ is our first album. So all of a sudden, there’s this one before it. That happened to me with Cheap Trick when I was a teen. I always thought ‘In Color’ was their first album, and then all of a sudden I found out they had one before that, it was like, oh my God!”
The early Bottle Rockets were Henneman, Ortmann, Tom Parr on guitar and Tom V. Ray on bass, a lineup that was intact through the late ’90s. It grew out of the Blue Moons and then Chicken Truck, a band that owed as much if not more to Neil Young and Crazy Horse than to country music.
Ortmann might not have been a part of this story had not the Blue Moons, like Spinal Tap, had problems keeping drummers. Enter “the fifth Bottle Rocket,” Scott Taylor, a teacher at St. Pius X in Crystal City. Taylor, a big music fan, was close to St. Pius students Ortmann and brothers Tom and Bob Parr. He also knew Henneman, who went to Crystal City High School but lived in the same neighborhood.
“All through high school, we were in different bands, had different taste in music,” Ortmann said of himself and Henneman. “High school bands never get very far. You try and play music, and it fails, and people quit. It’s kind of trial and error with band members. And after basically four years of high school bands failing, and with Scott Taylor urging us, Brian and myself finally drifted together … just because there weren’t any other musicians to play with. We tried it, and it stuck, and no one saw it coming.”
Henneman remembers when “this amazing teacher Scott Taylor” came to town with “an amazing record collection” and “was the only other guy in Crystal City who knew about the Ramones at that time.” Henneman knew Ortmann from a high school talent show but wasn’t cool with Ortmann’s taste in music.
“Our band (the Blue Moons) was like this little punk rock band, and he was playing in some band that did covers, they did like Styx songs or some crap,” Henneman says. “I was instantly suspicious, like, uh uhh, I don’t want the Styx guy. But Scott Taylor said, ‘No, no, you should see if he wants to play with you. He’s a good drummer.’ And he came over, we practiced and he’s been here ever since.”
Taylor became a frequent collaborator with Henneman, and has co-writing credits on Bottle Rockets songs including the great “Welfare Music” on “The Brooklyn Side.”
The high school friends from Crystal City made numerous cassette tapes as Chicken Truck, and five tracks from that period are on the “Bottle Rockets” reissue. Among them are early versions of “Radar Gun” (with then-bassist Bob Parr on lead vocal) and “Wave That Flag,” Henneman’s angry blast at folks who display the Confederate flag (“if somebody owned your ass, how would you feel?”).
When Chicken Truck broke up in the late ’80s, Ortmann went to Nashville and played drums for country star Shelly “Jose Cuervo” West. Henneman joined friends Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy on the road, becoming a roadie/guitar tech/guitar player for their groundbreaking alt-country band, Belleville-based Uncle Tupelo.
Farrar (now of Son Volt) and Tweedy (Wilco) got Henneman into a studio to make acoustic demos in 1991, and four of those tracks, with the Uncle Tupelo singers on harmonies, appear on “Bottle Rockets.” The gem among them is “Indianapolis,” which wouldn’t appear on a Bottle Rockets album until 1997. Today, it’s a concert must-play, as are a majority of the tracks from these first two recordings.
The 1991 demos landed Henneman a recording deal with East Side Digital, but Henneman had nothing to do with it. Uncle Tupelo’s manager, Tony Margherita, shopped the demos around and struck the deal with ESD’s Steve Daly. Henneman found out about it on a pay phone in a parking lot outside a Denny’s near San Francisco when the band called to check in.
“I got on the pay phone with (Margherita) and he says, ‘Hey, I got you a record deal,’” Henneman laughs. “It was like, what? I was like, what am I gonna do with that? Then I had to do a mad scramble to get a friggin’ band together.”
“The Brooklyn Side” reissue includes three demos that were sent to Del-Lords guitarist and record producer Eric “Roscoe” Ambel, whom Daly chose to produce the Brox’s second record. Ambel, who calls the Bottle Rockets “one of my favorite bands ever,” remastered the first two albums and the bonus tracks, most of which came from demos and rough cassettes by Henneman and by Chicken Truck.
“But the first time I ever heard this Bottle Rockets tape, it went along and Brian is playing these songs solo acoustic that he sent to me in the mail, and then he introduces this song: ‘This is about when your best friend’s on the road and you’re really kind of diggin’ on his girlfriend and you’re listening to Lindsay Buckingham a lot.’ And then he plays ‘I’ll Be Coming Around,’ ” Ambel says.
“And I’m telling you, I felt like I’d been handed a hot potato. This is one of the best songs I’ve ever heard, I have to come up with something great for this. It’s just one of my favorite musical moments. And (on the reissues), you’ll be able to hear that rough acoustic tape and then the finished record.”
But the Bottle Rockets might never have happened if Scott Summers, who was the lead singer of the high school-era Blue Moons, had not left the band. Henneman began singing only because nobody else would.
“I wanted to be Mike Campbell,” Henneman, laughing, says of Tom Petty’s guitarist. “I wanted to be the one guy onstage that did not have a microphone. I wanted to have my cool guitars and stand over there and play the (crap) out of ’em. But that didn’t work out.”
The story was originally published by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch/stltoday.com