[Editor's note: Ben Westhoff is a former staff writer at Riverfront Times and currently serves as music editor for our sister paper LA Weekly.]
I started at Washington University in 1995, not long after the release of Festus roots-rockers Bottle Rockets' groundbreaking album The Brooklyn Side. Growing up in St. Paul, Minnesota, I'd spun alt-country like the Jayhawks but had no idea this anachronistic, melancholy music would soundtrack my formative years — when I lost my virginity, found my calling, tried drugs and otherwise engaged in growing up awkwardly.
My freshman year music-dork conversations focused on Belleville, Illinois, alt-country heroes Uncle Tupelo, who broke up in 1994. Upperclassmen bragged about seeing the band in the cramped former basement bar of Cicero's (now Blueberry Hill's Duck Room), and when the seminal group disbanded, everyone was forced to choose a splinter act — Wilco or Son Volt. I took Son Volt, of course, as Jeff Tweedy's new outfit sounded too much like the Replacements and was too concerned with catchy tunes. As if those were bad things.
But though Still Feel Gone, Anodyne, Trace, A.M. and Being There are classic albums, none killed me like The Brooklyn Side, whose title references a bowling term. There was something enchantingly, desperately local about it. I didn't know much about Missouri back then — couldn't tell you where south county was, couldn't have described a "hoosier" without referencing Indiana — but the sound immediately imprinted on me, and I'd later experience that gritty milieu in the works of Daniel Woodrell, author of Winter's Bone. The music was nasty, in both a positive and negative sense: Over lumbering tempos and heavy guitars, the Bottle Rockets, fronted by former Uncle Tupelo roadie/guitar tech (and sometimes live contributor) Brian Henneman, savaged Cape Girardeau native Rush Limbaugh and called out high-school-assholes-turned-crabby-cops.
Much more so than Missouri, Minnesota has a history of progressive politics, but the state's reputation for niceness tends to win: Republicans are not just tolerated, you have beers with them at barbecues and talk politely about the Vikings. But the liberals farther south seemed a lot more outspoken, perhaps because there were fewer of them. The tenor and lyrics of Henneman remind me of Texas native Steve Earle, not just in the twangy rock sound, but also in the defensive, almost-shrill outrage against the evil empire.
I was down with outrage politics, crafting a zine called The Nomad at Wash. U., which before mocking the Greek system and the business school, published lefty opinion pieces and hackneyed investigative stories on the administration. (It took some chutzpah to critique the student government while also accepting funding from them.) Politics and art at the time went hand in hand for me, and a dream about changing the world through art was partly why I loved the Bottle Rockets. There was no more powerful lyrical passage to me than this one, from "Welfare Music":
Quit school when she was seventeen
Senator on TV calls her welfare queen
Used to be daddy's little girl
Now she needs help in this mean old world
I used to get stoned and pick up the Ray Hartmann-era Riverfront Times in the Loop, read the editorials about the failures of congressional Republicans and imagine a progressive future in which poor people could adequately support their families. I was inspired, even if, as the son of a doctor and an academic, I hadn't experienced the American hardships I lamented. And my heroes mostly hadn't either; the bulk of the alt-country heroes came from middle-class backgrounds, worshiping at the altar of Bob Dylan, a regular kid from Minnesota who fancied himself a vagabond troubadour in the Woody Guthrie mold. I was a facsimile of a facsimile. This was all basically an excuse to indulge in self-pity, which can be fun, but gets old quickly.
So perhaps it's not surprising that, before long, I abandoned alt-country in favor of something that felt more real: hip-hop. While, again, I couldn't relate to the experiences described in rap songs, the messages seemed to come from a place of greater truth. The genre felt closer to human struggle, and as a budding journalist I appreciated the street-level perspective. Further, with time I came to associate the themes of roots-rock — yearning, solitude and heartbreak — with weakness and no longer wanted anything to do with that eighteen- and nineteen-year-old kid so deeply affected by those emotions. The more I thought about it, the more I didn't want that pain (or the accompanying quixotic politics) in my life at all. I wanted to celebrate each day, to meet women and to exude confidence. Hip-hop was a perfect soundtrack.
But upon recently hearing that the Bottle Rockets would be rereleasing both The Brooklyn Side and its self-titled 1993 debut on the occasion of the latter's twentieth anniversary (November 19, Bloodshot Records), I put The Brooklyn Side back on. I tried to listen with a new perspective — without being embarrassed about who I once was, without self-hatred. What I heard this time wasn't alt-country pathos, but rather craftsmanship and inspiration that defy genre, with choruses and bridges that seem eternal. "Welfare Music" remains a Springsteen-caliber heartbreaker while "Thousand Dollar Car" and "I'll Be Coming Around" sound like radio songs that just so happened to not get much radio play. "Gravity Fails" has one of the album's best lines — "Calling you my better half/Is always good for a laugh."
Don't get me wrong, the production is great — New York producer Eric Ambel deserves much credit — but the songs' structures are so solid that with a little rejiggering and a savvy programmer they could likely slide into just about any format in just about any era.
That group had only a short run on a major label and never broke big. This seems tragic, and the idea of Henneman still having to hustle hard through middle age makes my stomach churn. But, given the choice, it seems better to have crafted enduring art than to have briefly shone bright. Too often, the latter seems to be the goal in hip-hop and in my own work as well. As a journalist and editor, I'm often tempted to set aside the enterprise pieces that take great effort in favor of blog posts that quickly go viral on the Internet (and are just as quickly forgotten). Hard work is no guarantee of any payoff. It has got to be its own reward, and I suspect that for Henneman it is.
That's not to say fetishizing or wallowing in pain (which continues to be an alt-country trope) is a good idea, or that hip-hop's good-time anthems carry any less validity. But it's clear now that the Bottle Rockets stirred many real emotions in me. Life is a painful thing, after all — for everyone, poor or not — and the acknowledgement of that remains cathartic. Sadness isn't an emotion monopolized by college students, and attempting to paper over it is no recipe for long-term happiness.