The Rockets' Red Glare

Songwriter Brian Henneman makes peace with his place in music

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click to enlarge ON THE LAUNCH PAD: Prior to blast-off, Brian Henneman (far left) relaxes with his Bottle Rockets bandmates. - Cary Horton
Cary Horton
ON THE LAUNCH PAD: Prior to blast-off, Brian Henneman (far left) relaxes with his Bottle Rockets bandmates.

As a songwriter, The Bottle Rockets' Brian Henneman has always been given to plainspeak. His lyrics are sometimes clever, sometimes poignant, but nearly always blunt — never more so than on "I Quit," from the band's 2006 CD Zoysia.

"When I drink, I drink and when I quit, I quit/ And it's not my problem if you can't handle it," he sings in a crusty twang over a rolling R&B groove. No metaphor to wade through here: Henneman quit the bottle some 10 years ago, and he willingly talks about his path to abstinence, which serves as kind of an object lesson for folks who choose the life of an itinerant musician.

"I got to the point where I just drank to get shit-faced drunk, and it took more and more to get to the same place," he said by phone from his home in St. Louis. "I didn't have to go to rehab or drunk meetings. My last drink was on a New Year's Eve, and it was the only New Year's resolution I've ever stuck with.

"Really, I got bored with it. When you're in a band, the hardest time to find anything to do is between sound-check and the show, which is a good four hours. And you're sittin' in a place where they'll give you all that you can drink, and it's every night of your life. I started hitting 'repeat' — sayin' the same shit, doin' the same shit, pissed off at the same shit, laughing at the same shit, pissing my wife off for the same shit.

"I was drinking straight Irish whiskey, which was serving the same purpose as six beers when I was 17. By not drinking, I'm able to see that there's a lot more variety in the day. It works for me."

Henneman, 45, sings and plays guitar for The Bottle Rockets, along with original drummer Mark Ortmann and newer members Keith Voegele (bass) and John Horton (guitar). On Zoysia, the band still trucks in heavy roots-rock, with doses of country, blues and Crazy Horse-esque guitar squall. No less a music critic than author Stephen King named the disc to his Top 10 of '06.

Bottle Rockets music emerged from the weird little ferment of Festus, Mo., a small burg about 30 miles south of St. Louis. The only radio station in town was a country outlet, which was on all the time in his parents' house, Henneman says. He rejected the likes of Merle Haggard (only to embrace it later) in favor of a St. Louis rock station. It was on a late-night TV rock show that Henneman saw The Ramones. "When I started to learn to play guitars, I'd hear Lynyrd Skynyrd and Rush, and you didn't sense that you would be able to do that," he says. "With The Ramones, you figured that you could play like them if you practiced a little harder."

Stuck in something of a cultural wasteland, Henneman says he "plucked all the weirdos in town and made a little society and started playing music 'cause we liked guitars and stuff." About 30 miles to the northeast, in Belleville, Ill., a younger group of misfits called Uncle Tupelo rose up (destined to inspire the current alt-country movement and spawn Wilco and Son Volt). "When we finally started playing shows in St. Louis, the people who owned bars would put us together 'cause we weren't like anything else in town," Henneman says. "We knew those guys when their moms were driving them to shows."

Did Henneman sense that something musically important was afoot? "Nah," he retorts. "St. Louis is one of those cities where no matter what the hell's going on with a band in town, they'll always prefer a band from out of town. St. Louis is not an arts city, it's a sports city."

After a blush with success with the excellent 1994 album The Brooklyn Side, The Bottle Rockets have endured a rocky career, nearly calling it a day on a few occasions. Henneman even considered getting out of the music game altogether.

But he always butted up against the same question: What to do then? "There ya go," he says with a laugh. "I'd always ask myself that whenever I'd think about quitting. I don't really get tired of [the musician's life]. I wish it would've gone further than it did, but after awhile you start appreciating where you're at. You start to get wisdom out of the stuff that used to vex and confuse you. We're not a helluva lot further than in '94, but we're still doing this, and it's still fun. More fun now than ever."

About The Author

Eric Snider

Eric Snider is the dean of Bay area music critics. He started in the early 1980s as one of the founding members of Music magazine, a free bi-monthly. He was the pop music critic for the then-St. Petersburg Times from ‘87-’93. Snider was the music critic, arts editor and senior editor of Weekly Planet/Creative...
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