The sign reads “Haircuts $6″, painted across the window so boldly as to obscure the interior and with no especial concern for aesthetics. Inside, the salon is decorated much like the back room of a thrift shop at the edge of a bad neighborhood: A doll-sized chair made from a Budweiser can on the counter, generic cleaners used so often they’ve left their own trail of gray, ashtrays, clutter. The barber in back is giving a trim to a uniformed cop, in silence. Three beauticians up front trade tequila war stories from the night before, which would have been Monday.
The woman in tight pink with the free chair doubtless turned heads 20 years back, but is far enough removed from those days that the memory no longer concerns her. She has lettered “Brushes Not Garbage” across a small plastic garbage can at the foot of her chair, is playing a St. Louis new country station on the solid state stereo in the corner, and is smoking a long, unfiltered cigarette between deep, fluid coughs. Her scissors don’t draw blood, quite.
“You making fun of my music?” she jokes with a regular. “I like this new country, not that old cry in your beer stuff.”
One forgets to ask if she likes the Bottle Rockets.
Brian Henneman, principal singer and songwriter of the group voted St. Louis’ best country outfit two years in a row, lives only a few blocks from the salon. (So, for that matter, does Jay Farrar, only on a nicer street.) He shares a comfortable apartment atop a neighborhood bar with someone he identifies only with deep and wry affection as “mah wo-man” until she comes home from work. Sometimes Brian whiles away the nights sitting in the kitchen playing his guitar along with the jukebox.
See, it’s been a long time since the Bottle Rockets had much of anything to do, except wait.
But at last they have a release date — July 8, on Atlantic — for 24 Hours a Day, their third long-player, which means it will come out almost exactly one year after it was recorded, and 14 months after the band last formally toured.
During those intervening months, the Bottle Rockets flirted with bankruptcy (the unwritten sequel to The Brooklyn Side track “1000 Dollar Car” involves a $250-a-day diesel bus), changed management and booking agents, watched as Atlantic reabsorbed the TAG imprint to which they were signed, and spent some months wondering if they would be among the acts dropped in the restructuring Atlantic (and virtually every major label) has been going through.
All of which follows two years of touring behind The Brooklyn Side, a process extended when TAG chose to re-release the album in the fall of ’95 after signing the Bottle Rockets from East Side Digital (which had originally released the album in the fall of ’94). Oh, and ESD, for whom the Bottle Rockets recorded their eponymous debut, recently evaporated, which leaves their first album in some kind of limbo. Henneman and Tom Parr (drummer Mark Ortmann lives in Minneapolis; bassist Tom Ray lives in Chicago) just look at each other and start laughing.
“That’s a good question, what will happen with the first album?” Brian says. “Who knows? Should we make it again? We’ll make it as our next album.”
“Only 5-10,000 people bought it anyway,” Tom shrugs.
“There was some small little contract,” Brian says, rubbing his beard, “but … I don’t know. We could probably call a lawyer somewhere and find out, but I don’t know.”
“Well, we’ve got plenty of lawyers,” Tom says, emptying a can of Busch.
For those keeping score at home, that makes three labels with whom the Bottle Rockets have been associated that are no longer in business, counting the Rockville release of their first single, “Indianapolis”. Happily enough, they’ve re-recorded “Indianapolis” for their latest. Kind of had to, the way things worked out.
“We figured the song could stand a little better chance,” Brian says. “And it kind of fit with the whole vibe. By damn, we were recording in Indiana, and it had the whole John Cougar reference, and we were doing it in Mike Wanchic’s studio, who’s Coug’s guitar player. And he played the rhythm guitar part on the very guitar that was used on ‘Jack & Diane’. So that was enough reason to do it right there.”
“So when you listen to it, just when you think of the acoustic guitar, think of …” and Tom starts singing the Cougar guitar part.
“That’s the one,” laughs Brian. “I was playing through a silver-faced Fender Deluxe Reverb that actually had ‘Cougar’ stenciled on the back of it. The Coug was all over the place, man, it was just like the ghost of…”
So why isn’t he singing on it?
Brian drops his voice into a smoker’s drawl. “Well, Coug don’t do that.”
“It’s his guitar player’s studio, he won’t go there,” Tom says. “He’s never been in that studio.”
“You gotta keep 30 feet back from the Coug,” Brian says. “That’s a fact, too, ’cause we opened for him one time. The band’s cool as hell, they’re hangin’ out in the dressing room. Then it’s like, okay, Coug’s coming, get the hell out of the dressing room. Including his band. Then we go out in the parking lot, and some guy’s saying, OK, 30 feet, you gotta keep 30 feet back.”
“He needs his space,” Tom says.
“That’s right,” Brian nods. “Keep 30 feet. That’s why he only plays big stages, because the band’s got to keep 30 feet away.” They laugh for a time, then Brian looks up. “Naw, I’m not trashing the Coug. I’ve seen more Coug concerts than anything else. I’ve always gotten free tickets somehow. I thought he was the best thing at Farm Aid, not this year, but the year before.”
So much for fashion, but then St. Louis — much less Festus, 35 miles or so south, where Brian and Tom and their friends all grew up — isn’t much concerned with the tyranny of style.
See, the Bottle Rockets’ roots go back to a few crucial nights in Festus when Brian caught Cheap Trick and then, mere weeks later, the Ramones, on “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert” and decided maybe he really could play guitar. A previous fondness for Rush had somehow eroded his confidence. “Here I am with this guitar my parents bought me and I’m listening to Rush and Aerosmith and I’m not relating with this G chord I learned from the Mel Bay book. But after Cheap Trick, it was like, man, I gotta pick this thing back up. Originally, I wasn’t going to play guitar, it was going to be bass. Bass has got four strings, and you’re watching the Ramones and Cheap Trick, and you’re going I can definitely play that,” he chuckles.
“And I woulda got a bass, except I found a Stratocaster for less money. The bass was going to be like $375 at Robert’s Music in Festus, Missouri, and then in the Trading Times they had a Fender Stratocaster, $275. ‘Damn, for the same money I could get that and an amplifier.’ So it was teenage economics that made me a guitarist.”
Tom Parr’s brother Robert bought a bass, they found a singer and the usual string of drummers, and they dubbed themselves the Blue Moons. The apogee of their success as a cover band came the same day Ricky Nelson died. “Our biggest gig ever was $250 on New Year’s Eve,” Brian chuckles. “And there was like eight people in the bar. The bar owner called me aside after the third set, and I thought he was going to tell me he couldn’t pay us. Instead he says, ‘Look, man, I’ll give you $210 if you leave right now!’ I said, Buddy, you got a deal.”
That was about the end of the Blue Moons. Brian and Robert hung out in Festus for about a year, pretty much doing nothing. “I think the punk excitement was over by like ’85,” Brian recalls, “and the rock coming out at that time was just not doing anything for me at all. So it was time to find something else.” That was when Bob stumbled across John Anderson’s first hit single, “Swingin’”, on the radio.
“We got the album, and there were better songs than ‘Swingin’,” Brian says, opening another can. “So we got infatuated with John Anderson. It was like, ‘Whoa, that’s it! We don’t look like Aerosmith, let’s be country, that’s the answer, that’s why we failed. Look at John Anderson, that’s us. We can do that. Those chords are as easy as these chords, and they don’t even go as fast.’ So that was our big plan, to get down in the trenches and decide to be country. But we didn’t want to learn country songs, we wanted to take what we knew and write our own country songs.”
So they re-enlisted the last Blue Moons drummer, made Robert’s little brother take up the guitar, and named the new band after John Anderson’s second single, “Chicken Truck”. (“We made sure it was one of the ones he wrote,” Brian said.)
But Anderson was only half the new equation.
“John Anderson was the woodpile,” Brian says, struggling to get the history in order, “and Jason & the Scorchers was the gasoline and the match on the woodpile. I’ve always been lucky with MTV, seeing the one video that they might play once, and I saw them doing ‘Absolutely Sweet Marie’. And then, just by fate, I was driving somewhere and I heard on the radio that Jason & the Scorchers were coming to Mississippi Nights, which is the big club here in St. Louis. So it cost $4 and they were great, just totally great.” Connect that to an early fondness for ZZ Top, Lynyrd Skynyrd and a binge of Kinks, and you get the picture.
Chicken Truck went on to acquire a small kind of legendary status, though Brian shrugs it off. “It’s a local thing, a band that had an entire career in one tavern in St. Louis. Did the whole thing, got crazy, did punk rock, performance art, the whole bit. We’d just get out of hand. And it was all country, though, all country music.”
Well, sorta country. “We tried to be a country band, tried playing country songs, but nobody liked us,” Brian admits. “We didn’t know about the whole country dance thing. There’s certain rhythms that you two-step to, the whole bit. We just knew that Buck Owens was cool and John Anderson was cool and…”
“Neil Young was cool,” Tom chips in.
“Yeah! Neil Young, that’s country.” Brian shakes his head and laughs hard. “People just hated us, so we failed as a country band. We tried it for a while, tried to come to St. Louis and get a gig, it didn’t work out. … It ended up Uncle Tupelo, who used to be the Primitives, which we played with when we were the Blue Moons — see, this is all shit that’s getting forgotten and remembered in bad order. We opened for them, blah blah blah, turned into a punk rock band, blah blah blah, the whole bit. Opened for Meat Loaf.”
Later Brian digs up the tape of a Chicken Truck show, offering the explanation that the band got four pitchers of beer and, at the time, he was the only one who drank. The second set opens with Springsteen’s “The Ties That Bind”, segues into the Stones’ “Waiting For a Friend”, then drifts through Gene Davis into Chuck Berry, through a Ted Nugent medley into Hank Thompson, then Webb Pierce, then their own “Wave That Flag”, a Paula Abdul cover, and a closing Neil Young shambles. (That’s right, Paula Abdul.)
And, yes, “Wave That Flag” is the same song, more or less, that shows up on the first Bottle Rockets record. Indeed, the Bottle Rockets are still pulling tracks from a 90-minute tape of original Chicken Truck compositions. Including “Perfect Far Away” (“I wonder if she’s real/I really couldn’t so/Well I don’t wanna know/’Cause she’s so perfect far away”) on their latest, one of the cuts being considered for release as a single, though Brian had to find his advance copy of the CD to remember which tracks were on it.
“There’s a whole ‘nother album that didn’t get put out on this one,” he explains, looking down at the pre-release disc. “We recorded 20-something songs out there.”
That’s almost Wilco-length.
Brian laughs again. Over dinner later, he recalls having first heard the Wilco two-disc set over CB radio, one Bottle Rocket tour van transmitting it to the other, and whoever else happened to be listening as they drove to Minneapolis.
“Well, if we really wanted to, I guess we could go back and do a triple,” says Tom. “We’ve got enough songs sitting around.”
“This record’s been so long, I’m totally ready to go make another one now,” Brian says. “It’s interesting now because we have played this stuff live maybe five or ten times in the last year.” He pauses, blinks. “Oh boy, we played five times last year. But the songs are already goosing up. Just from the five times we’ve played it, it’s already like leaning forward and poking you in the chest. If we were on the road for a week straight, it would definitely be poking you in the chest and stealing your lunch money.”
On disc, anyway, the newest Bottle Rockets songs are less rambunctious than their predecessors. In part this is because it is their second outing with producer Eric Ambel, and in part it’s because they had more time in the studio. Mostly, though, the songs are more personal this time out. Brian and Tom look at each other, nonplussed by this assessment, their memory of the disc fogged by time and the number of unreleased tracks it produced. “Maybe the stuff that didn’t get on there is the crazy-ass stuff,” Brian decides at last.
“There was no desperation, other than our own personal desperation,” he adds, struggling to remember exactly. “The thing was, we had twice as much time to make this one.”
“And The Brooklyn Side had twice the amount of time as the first one,” Tom picks up. “Really, we did that one in three days. All the tracks were down by Tuesday morning, and we came in there Monday evening.”
“Yeah, the first one was done and finished in three days,” Brian says. “The second one was finished in eight days, and this is like one of those sprawled out major-label affairs. It was finished in three weeks, and then it was finished again six months later, after three days of mixing.”
He pauses, reflects for a moment. “I kind of like the panic of the fast, I don’t like that slow stuff. Too many choices.”
Some of that abundance came from the six songwriters who play with and/or contribute to the Bottle Rockets (and the still-open-for-plundering legacy of Chicken Truck). Bob Parr is now a fireman but chips in the odd song, as does Scott Taylor, a record-collecting schoolteacher back home in Festus who sometimes co-writes with Brian.
And, despite the joyous bluster of their live shows (there’s a reason Brian wears a Motorhead T-shirt), it’s the songs that make one take notice of the Bottle Rockets. Those of us with more education than sense tend to romanticize the virtues of the working class; either that, or totally discount their wisdom and survival skills. At the same time, there is nothing more desperate than a scrawny dog roped to the porch of a sagging double-wide.
It is the Bottle Rockets’ virtue that they are able to render their world hard and smart, in plain English. It’s tough to get confused when, as Tom must eventually, you’ve got to run off to your job as a janitor at the insurance office. (“It’s the cockroach of jobs,” Brian says, and he knows.) 24 Hours a Day comes straight outta South St. Louis, complete with an homage to “Slo Toms”, one of those bars you can get tossed out of for not drinking enough or fast enough. Or “One of You”, a curiously touching love song about the drive home.
Mostly, there’s a kind of world-worn resignation to the thing, wrapped up nicely in “Rich Man” and “Turn For The Worse”. The protagonist of “Rich Man”, to paraphrase, dies of a heart attack without ever having made time to use that organ. “Turn For The Worse” is the other side of the coin, a commentary on the fragility of what Henneman calls “the Taco Bell lifestyle.”
There is still the sense, in other words, that the Bottle Rockets are getting away with something by not quite having normal careers.
No, that’s just where ideas come from. “Smokin’ 100′s Alone”, for example, is probably the best song of the set. It’s the story of a woman who’s tossed out her worthless boyfriend, again, waiting and wondering if he’ll come back, again. A touching song, nearly conventional country in its structure, it’s written with wonderful detail and from her perspective. It is almost a sequel to Tom Parr’s “What More Can I Do?” from The Brooklyn Side, an almost tongue-in-cheek explanation of domestic violence from the batterer’s perspective.
“Smokin’ 100′s Alone” marks a quiet breakthrough for Brian. “That was the first time I’ve written from a fictional perspective, other than the silly songs,” he says. “We were sitting at Bob Evans restaurant eating breakfast one morning, and there was a lady sitting behind us, smoking. Well, my friend, this total character, he just says [in a deep voice] ‘Oooh, she’s smoking 100′s alone. You should write a song about that.’ Well, it sounded too cool, so I had to totally make it up.”
He stops for a second. “Well, you know what? That is not the first fiction. The first fiction was ‘Financing His Romance’, which was recorded for this album but didn’t make the cut. But the thing about ‘Financing His Romance’ which was funny was that it was totally fiction, but it turned out to be a true story in my life about six or maybe eight months after it got written.”
In the right hands, real life and fiction come to about the same thing. In the Bottle Rockets’ hands, the Ramones, John Anderson and Neil Young come to about the same thing. And the beauty of South St. Louis — other than cheap rent, and $6 haircuts — is that it doesn’t seem like anybody much cares.
Grant Alden drove to St. Louis in his $2,000 car, and lived to tell about it.