To paraphrase a former Secretary of Defense and closet alt-country historian, when it comes to the Bottle Rockets, there are known-knowns and unknown-unknowns. This year the country rockers mark their fifteenth anniversary as a band. While the Festus, Missouri, group had its beginnings in the band Chicken Truck, and their classic albums (The Bottle Rockets, The Brooklyn Side and 24 Hours a Day) are as known as known can be, the details of their long, strange trip have been washed out by the roar of guitars and the humor and insight of their songs. So it's time to set the record straight with fifteen things you don't know about the Bottle Rockets, directly from the band members themselves.
15. The origin of their name. Actually, the band doesn't even know. Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar, in perhaps their last extracurricular activity together, were driving down to Athens, Georgia, to help out on the Bottle Rockets' first album. They made a list of names for Henneman and Co., who had previously toyed with "Look Out Joe" as a moniker. Halfway down the page was "Bottle Rockets." No one knows who wrote it.
14. How many times they've seriously considered quitting. "Every year," Henneman says, "it's like having a baby. The older you get, the harder it is. You can just insert us into that scene from The Last Waltz where Robbie Robertson talks about the road: 'Sixteen years.' That's right now for us. 'I don't know if I can think about twenty years, I don't even want to discuss it.' Making the records never burns me out. It's the touring, unless you're doing it like the Rolling Stones. It's not so hard to be on the road when you have people setting up pool tables for you."
13. Its best paycheck for a show was $10,000. In the mid '90s it opened for the Band at a festival in Indianapolis, but all the money went to paying off a touring debt from the previous summer. The net result was original bassist Tom Ray quitting. "He thought he was getting screwed on money," Henneman explains. "And I had just gotten a house at that time. In 1997, it was cheaper to get a house in south St. Louis than to change apartments. If you're Tom Ray, you see that we just made $10,000, he got nothing, and I got a house."
12. Its worst gig was with the Beat Farmers in San Diego. Slated to open for the roots-punk legends, the members of the Bottle Rockets did what they always did: drink until they reached that perfectly wasted stage. But the bill was flipped, the band had to headline, and it went from buzzed to obliterated. "That was the night the bartenders introduced us to chocolate martinis," drummer Mark Ortmann recalls. "Songs were coming and going, in and out of focus, power went out, amps went out." The band did receive an impressive compliment from Country Dick Montana: "You guys were drunk."
11. Two people in recent memory have walked on the tables at the Bottom Line in New York: Bruce Springsteen and Brian Henneman. But only one of them fell. "I got tripped up," Henneman says, "cracked some guy in the head with Tom Parr's Les Paul, then as I was laying on the table, I drank his beer. Turns out that guy was the head of Sony Records."
10. They're all virtuosos and could form a jazz-prog art-rock band. "But it would still sound like ZZ Top!" Henneman laughs. Or would it? Second guitarist John Horton knows his '70s and '80s art rock dudes: Steve Hackett, Richard Lloyd, Robert Quine and Robert Fripp. "Fripp is the Hannibal Lecter of guitar players," Horton says. "Very erudite and urbane, but he can play really psychotic things." Ortmann takes cues from jazz drummers like Art Blakey and Joe Morello: "I love Blakey's primal aspect, his grunts, his loose and ragged and righteous approach. Joe Morello was totally the opposite." Henneman's least-known influence is Richard Thompson: "But I can never sound like him. Even when I play a Stratocaster, it sounds even less like Thompson."
9. The last time Henneman had a drink was New Year's Eve 2002. Location: Abbey Pub in Chicago. "I got drunk for the twenty-katrillionth time," he says. "I was just bored. I was thinking about quitting for six months before that. But I kept on doing it. The romance was over."
8. They don't know how to arrange songs — sort of. "Oh, we'll arrange them all day long," Henneman admits. Enter Eric Ambel, producer of The Brooklyn Side and notorious rock & roll air traffic controller. The Bottle Rockets are returning to New York to work on a new album this summer; Ambel will guide the arrangements. "There's only one guy I trust who can make those decisions," Henneman adds, "and make them more or less painless. They might be philosophically painful for a little bit, then they spin in a better direction."
7. Brian Henneman once woke up on a fold-out couch with his face in Jeff Tweedy's ass. "Alcohol-related accident." On a more pleasant note, Tweedy gave him the pretty little guitar hook for one of their catchiest tunes: "I'll Be Coming Around."
6. The band is huge at a pizza joint in Nina, Wisconsin. That's in the Green Bay area. "It's just like the vibe of the Uncle Tupelo shows at the old Cicero's," Henneman says. "The crowd is jammed in, right up in your face, everybody knows the songs, people jump up and down, and it all smells like pizza."
5. Biggest regret as a band. Firing their original manager, Bob Andrews. "This was around 1995, 'Radar Gun' was doing good," Henneman explains, "and we thought we needed something bigger than Bob Andrews [who has since been rehired]. Right at the moment when we shouldn't have made a change, we changed managers and booking agents, and it shut the shit down for a decade. We're only now crawling out. On the ascent we decided to jettison the engines, and see what would happen. We all crashed like Skynyrd and some of us survived."
4. They had a beret period. Or at least Henneman did. "That was the Richard Thompson influence. I couldn't get it on the guitar so I got it that way."
3. Henneman originally wanted to be a bass player. "When I was just getting serious," Henneman explains, "the bass at the guitar store cost as much as the used guitar and amplifier. So economics made me a guitar player. Also, I was absolutely in love with Thin Lizzy. I wanted to have an Afro and a mustache. And even today, I still don't want to be a singer. I want to be Mike Campbell in the Heartbreakers. But there was no one else to do it. I kinda wanted to be a songwriter, so I got that right. But I wonder what kind of songs I'd have written on the bass!"
2. The legendary street brawl in Austin was a draw. After a show at SXSW 2002, Henneman and longtime comrade and guitarist Tom Parr went toe to drunken toe in the street. Parr was immediately fired. "Maybe I won that fight because I'm still in the band," Henneman laughs. "Or maybe that makes me the loser. He's probably making more money than I am. But I did come out with my glasses intact."
1. They are not the "world's greatest bar band." "It's funny watching time erode this shit," Henneman says. "Nobody knows what a bar band is anymore. If you want to get anything out of our music, you have to pay attention to it. And that's the opposite of a bar band."
9 p.m. Saturday, May 3. Blueberry Hill's Duck Room, 6504 Delmar Boulevard, University City. Sold out.