I’ve had a rough year. I
had two dogs die, my house has needed some expensive repairs, and my habit of
closely following the news has turned into daily exposure to toxic waste. We
all crave simple comforts in difficult times, and I’ve fallen back into an old
habit: when I’m in the mood to read comforting trash, I reach for Tom Clancy.
And after the current bender, I think we should talk about him a little.
Right now, through time and
space, I can hear the question you’re asking yourself: why do I care
about the work of some hack writer of right-wing airport trash who’s been dead
for a decade? And that’s a good question, one I’ve been wrestling with
inside my head for a while now. I have a few solid answers: first, because the
work of said dead right-wing hack writer really does provide a perfect
encapsulation of one of the dominant forces in our dyspeptic,
sliding-through-disasters-towards-even-greater-disasters political system, and
to understand that is to understand another corner of the current ongoing
shitshow. Tom Clancy’s books are by, of, and for Boomer Dads, and if
understanding the mind of the Boomer Dad isn’t sufficient to understanding what the hell is happening in this
country, I think it’s at least necessary.
If The Bottle Rockets
sags on its back half, it at least ends on a strong, if depressing, note. “The
Lonely Cowboy” is the Rockets in full short-stories-about-small-towns mode, a
character study about a man who feels like he’s living in the wrong time.
There’s an almost rider-on-horseback swagger to the song, but that can’t really
hide the crushing desperation of phrases like
Sometimes he goes down to the local theatre And watches pale riders on the movie screen At times it seems so unbearable and unfair He just falls apart at the seams
This is strong stuff. It’s a rare Bottle Rockets song
written by other members of the band (Ortmann and Parr), but it fits in
seamlessly with the rest of the band’s work, and Henneman fully inhabits the
character he’s singing about. If the Rockets’ small-town mopers can drag
sometimes, this one works really well because it’s so specific; we’re hearing
details about the suffering and interior life of a particular, well-drawn
person, and that makes all the difference (contrast this with the universal
dreariness of songs that just focus at the town or even regional level and say “this
sucks”). No instrumental pyrotechnics on this one, no flashy drums or guitars,
just raw competence that conveys weariness without being wearisome. A damn good
end to a damn good album.
The combined version of The
Bottle Rockets and The Brooklyn Side currently
available on Spotify contains some bonus tracks, but I’ll be setting those
aside for this project, since they’re mostly demos of songs that have already
been covered or will eventually be covered. So that’s it for The Bottle
Rockets. But it’s not time for The
Brooklyn Side quite yet; first, watch for a longer entry about another
high-profile Henneman project that was going down at about the same time.
A light country song, so close to being disposable that I
nearly forgot to do an entry for it. Henneman’s lovelorn narrator addresses the
moon on the subject of the end of a relationship; they guy from “Got What I
Wanted” had a few drinks and went outside to talk to the moon.
The instrumentation is crisp and the harmonies are nice, but
this is fundamentally just the Bottle Rockets in “unusually good bar band”
mode. A very nice John Keane pedal steel part is pretty much the only special
Going back to listen to the song for this piece, I was surprised how fast and produced it is. Not that, in an absolute sense, it’s very much of either; but the version of it that exists in my memory is just Henneman’s voice and guitar creeping along at a carefully-controlled tension-inducing glacial pace. Those are the parts that stick with the memory, at least for me. The surrounding material that enables the effect just got edited away.
It’s not that the back half of The Bottle Rockets is bad by any stretch; it’s just inessential.
And so, “Rural Route,” a bar-band rave-up so similar in form and content to “Manhattan
Countryside” that it once again could be a continuation of the same song. Maybe
there’s an argument to be made that proximity strengthens the two songs; “Manhattan
Countryside” is a guy getting fed up with what’s happening in his town, and “Rural
Route” is him convincing himself to leave.
Of course, the two aren’t one extended song. For one thing, Route is, for the first time we’ve encountered, a Bottle Rockets song not written by Brian Henneman. Instead, Route is the handiwork of Robert Parr, brother of the Brockets’ rhythm guitarist. If the lyrics aren’t as witty as a typical Henneman joint, their description of rural disillusionment is very much in the Henneman wheelhouse (it strikes me now that the two dominant themes of this album are lust and rural disillusionment, sometimes at the same time), and he sings it as fervently as one of his own.
But really, there’s not much here. A great lead guitar part, more fun drum work by Ortmann, and some sentiments we’ve heard before. This runs into the same problem Chad and I discovered on We’ve Been Had as we got mired in the repetitive Uncle Tupelo songs on the back half of Still Feel Gone; there does come a point where even the most intensely-sung complaints about small-town ennui become just the same old thing.
“Manhattan Countryside” is a straightforward bar-band rocker, an extended cry from Henneman’s heart against small-town sprawl. It’s a good song but not a great one, missing some of the weight that elevates the standouts on the first half of the album. The song seems to acknowledge its own minor-work status, hustling on and off the stage in the space of two minutes.
As late fall settles onto Minnesota like an unpleasantly weighted blanket, the natural inclination is to watch some TV. Rebecca and I realized that, while we’d watched the first season of The Office (US) when it aired, we’d drifted pretty quickly. With binge weather upon us, and the clock ticking for the show to leave Netflix, we decided to go in hard on it, and powered through several episodes a night.
And: The Office is
fun! The characters are relatable and human. The writing is sharp, and knows
where to poke at the oddities of spending your days in badly-lit spaces with
other people who don’t want to be there. The observations can be apt: one of
the show’s central (maybe accidental) theses is that often the worst people to
work with are the ones who can’t just let a job be a job but instead have to turn
it into either their family or a crusade that gives their lives meaning (this
is Michael Scott and Dwight Schrute, respectively). The show can also be a
fascinating timeline of cultural change, as with the way the show handles Oscar
being gay moves from turn-of-the-century kid gloves to a more current “so
what?” attitude. And the show gave us Creed Bratton, maybe the most
consistently surreal sitcom character since Andy Kaufman was on Taxi.
But as fun as it was to binge on The Office, I couldn’t help but notice that however sharp the
writing was, it pulled punches. And if you stepped back and looked at the show,
its point of view was weirdly constrained. There’s some value, I think, to
taking a closer look at that.
To this point, a full 50% of the songs on The Bottle Rockets have been about being horny, either in a silly or a desperate fashion. “Got What I Wanted” flips the script, checking in on a man glumly realizing what all these hormones have gotten him; this song could easily be the narrator of “Trailer Mama” waking up the next morning hung over and full of regret.