I lost one of my best friends of the last 20 years this week, the Bottle Rockets, when the band stunningly announced that they were calling it quits. The decision actually came solely from the group’s ornery but always inspirational leader, Brian Henneman, the everyman-hero and steadfast driving force behind the Bottle Rockets since the band’s inception in 1993. Henneman posted a statement (see below in full) in characteristic no-bullshit style, in which he basically stated he’d just had enough, that the internal forces that once drove him to being a musician now compel him to stay home. “I want to experience a normal life,” said Brian, “just as badly now as I did NOT want to in my youth.” I get it. Still, it’s a devastating blow, an absolute gut punch, to their hardcore, worshipful, if always inexplicably limited base of fans. Personally, as the wave of vaccinations finally gains traction and a potential “return to normalcy” floats tantalizingly closer into view, I’m going to have to come up with another first-band-to-see-after-the-pandemic plan.
Not long ago my friend and fellow fanatical fan, Greg, related to me “You have no idea how many moments in time I have said to (wife) Julie ‘there’s a Bottle Rockets song about this!’” (though certainly he knew that I did have an idea). In ways like the singular Bruce Springsteen, Henneman wrote of ultra-relatable people, situations, and life events, sometimes painfully so. Work-a-day struggles, searches of self, and, perhaps above all, regrets, were themes that peppered Henneman’s tunes throughout the years. But unlike Springsteen, who by his own later-life admission did so almost entirely “in character” (The Boss never actually worked in a factory), Henneman’s writings logically seemed to follow a more autobiographical trajectory. Ever the underdogs, the Bottle Rockets – whether due to bad record company deals, off-course promotion, an inability to find a home on radio, or just bum luck – never quite “made it,” at least in the way that their mountain of formidable output so obviously merited. One can imagine that some of that could even have been due to Henneman’s aforementioned prickly personality; forever true to his own voice, and with a seemingly visible chip on his shoulder that might understandably have developed from feeling underappreciated for some three decades, he was never someone you’d imagine kowtowing or having much interest in playing the music industry game.
Of course, you could also readily set aside Henneman’s penetrating and poignant life portraits and simply revel in his, and the band’s, righteous rip-snorting tunes. As I once previously wrote, “Out of a boulder of misery, Henneman can still reliably chisel a rock and roll jewel.” Variously thought of as alt-country, Americana, roots, cow-punk, and straight-up rock, I prefer to simply describe the Bottle Rockets as consistently, uncompromisingly, producing some of the most ass-kicking music I’ve ever known in any genre. And they’ve been doing that throughout 13 brilliant albums – the most recent, and sadly now their last, being 2018’s “Bit Logic” – and across 28 indelible years. Until this week.
My connection with the Bottle Rockets began with the discovery of their 2006 album, “Zoysia,” a raucous yet multi-textured affair that was both familiar-sounding and yet sounded like nothing else I’d ever heard. I was an instant zealot, from the very first track. This is that song, ‘Better Than Broken.’ Over its punishing, ultra-fuzzy, descending guitar chords and Henneman’s typically mournful theme, the chorus gives way to the lines, “These days my heart’s better than broken / Not as good as new.” Listening to it following this news was surprisingly gut-wrenching. In truth, as the blistering guitar solo rang out in round after round over the final minute-and-a-half, it literally brought tears to my world-weary eyes. A small but deeply meaningful portion of my life has come to a sudden end, and I’m crushed. But, perpetually enriched by Brian Henneman’s unforgettable words and indomitable music, I consider myself, at least, better than broken.
A message from Brian Henneman…
Well friends, it’s time. Time to say “so long”. I’m givin’ it up. Packin’ it in. Retiring. I’m done. Been thinkin’ about it this entire time off. I’m more certain of it than anything I’ve ever been certain of before. I’m turning 60 this year. Including my time with Uncle Tupelo, I have been doing this recording/touring thing for 30 years. I don’t consider myself too old to do it anymore, but I do consider myself too old to want to.
Every musician has their own shelf life for doing what they do. Some go on into their 80’s, some quit in their 20’s and never look back. Ol’ Number 60, that’s me. 60 o’clock, that’s quittin’ time for this guy. Kickin’ off my travelin’ shoes and slippin’ on my house shoes. Home is where my passion lies these days. That excites me now the way the band used to.
I have no problem at all with the band. That’s not why I’m leaving. It’s all about where I’m at on the walk of life. I no longer want to travel, don’t really have any burning desire to write songs anymore either. I just want to be a good husband. A good neighbor. A responsible homeowner. A little dog’s daddy. A guitar repairman. A guitar player in my kitchen, and in some local country cover band whenever that scene comes back around. That’s how I want to spend the rest of my days. I want to be home for supper and home for bedtime. Winter, Spring, Summer, and Fall. I want to experience a “normal life” just as badly now as I did NOT want to in my youth. While I’m still healthy enough to enjoy it. Before I get ancient and impaired. Things change. That’s life. I’m ready and eager for change. Being home for a solid year made me certain of it. I don’t want to miss ANYTHING here anymore.
Mark, John, and Keith all understand where I’m at. That’s such a relief. But they’re damn good guys. The best. Those guys have been the greatest partners a man could ever have. Dedication. Devotion. Turnin’ all the night time into the day. No tellin’ what’s next for them, but knowin’ them like I do, I’d say the sky’s the limit. They all have the musical skills to do anything. A truly “hot shit” band. And, unlike me, they still have the desire to get out there and do it. And they are ULTRA professionals. Keep an eye out for ‘em. I wouldn’t be one bit surprised to see them show up in phenomenal places. I am rooting for them. Them’s my boys. My team. My life partners. Please support them. I know I will. They are the longest running members the band ever had for a reason. They’re the best on so many levels. I love them forever. Gotta salute Robert Kearns, Tom Parr, and Tom Ray too. All were members of the band I’m bidding farewell to. Everybody did a great job in their own time, in their own way. Everybody.
I gotta be honest, I’m not sad that this is really finally happening. It was bound to happen someday. What does make me kinda sad is that it’s already that day. WTF??? Where did that time go??? See? That’s my point. That’s what made me go through with this. Knowing how the time goes SO fast. I wanna get goin’ on this next phase, before it passes me by as fast as everything else did. I’ve finally reached an age where things get urgent. Available decades are gettin’ slim. Gotta find what you REALLY want and go for it. So I did.
I want to sincerely thank you all from the bottom of my heart. You all supported us for so long. I will never forget that, or take it lightly. I am forever humbled and grateful. It’s been fun, but now it’s done. Surprise ending, yes. But the band had a surprise beginning too, so it seems that’s just how we roll. Maybe the band’s not done at all. Who knows? I just know I won’t be in it. ‘Cause I’m done.
With a year off, and nothing on the books, this was the perfect intersection of time and timing. There would never be a time when leaving would disrupt less. That’s why I did it now. Didn’t wanna make a big deal outta my big deal. Wanted it to be as painless as possible.
So this is where the cowboy rides away. Goodnight now ladies and gentlemen. It’s the end of the show, now it’s time to go.
Maybe I’ll see ya at Home Depot or somethin’…