Disc 1 track 2
And then, after two minutes of quiet rumination with a banjo, the entire band takes the stage and the amps are turned on. The expectation that this was going to be a quiet, folky album gets tossed on its ass. These guys are here to rock.
Now that they’re all here, let’s take a second to acknowledge the members of the rest of the members of the first Bottle Rockets lineup. There’s Henneman, of course, singing, playing guitar, and writing most of the songs. Mark Ortmann plays drums, and joins Henneman as being a constant presence throughout the band’s lineup shifts. Tom Parr plays additional guitar, and Tom Ray (sometimes credited, awesomely, as “T.V. Ray”) plays bass.
In the intro to this series, I talked about the Bottle Rockets as sounding like the world’s best possible bar band; “Gas Girl” is exhibit A. It’s a song whose construction is hard to imagine going over in a stadium or arena, but I’ve seen it blow the roof off of venues whose capacities are in the low hundreds. “Gas Girl” opens with a giant everyone-in-the-band-piled-on descending riff (check out the way Ortmann works his toms to expand the sound) before rollicking around for the verses. In my younger days, I was an avid mountain biker, and the structure of this song reminds me a lot of the way a lot of my favorite mountain bike trails worked: giant, dramatic, heart-stopping descents, followed by less-intense up-and-downs in the smaller hills. While several of the guys in the band will have virtuosic moments later on, the dominant mode here is more of ass-kicking competence. Everybody’s tight, nobody fucks up, and the big descending riff is a hammer that they keep swinging at you and then setting down.
It’s always hard not to bring Uncle Tupelo into Bottle Rockets discussions, and something on that front struck me as I was thinking about this song. There are a lot of Uncle Tupelo songs that rock as hard as “Gas Girl.” There are a handful of Tupelo songs that are fun. But there are no Uncle Tupelo songs that are both rocking and fun, the emotional register for Tupeloid rocking-out tending more towards either fury or desperation (Wilco, on the other hand, would have a lot of fun, rocking songs from the jump; guess who played lead guitar on their first album). This feels like an important thing to me. If the Bottle Rockets lacked the gravitas (or self-importance?) of their peers, they were consistently a lot more fun.
Lyrically, the song is a goof, as Henneman (or his character; as usual, we don’t know) tells about the serious crush he has on the girl who works at a gas station. How serious? “This is not a joke / Tell you I stopped by for cigarettes and I don’t even smoke.” Not to worry, though, it’s a self-service station so she don’t have to work too hard.
In this charming goofiness, another point of comparison suggests itself: on the Replacements’ first album, Paul Westerberg also tells us what it’s like to be tormented by a gas station crush:
Of course, Westerberg’s a kid who can’t drive (even when he became an adult, he was an adult who couldn’t drive) and the Replacements of that vintage were in full-on bratty-punks-who-could-barely-play mode, which contrasts sharply with the Rockets’ tight party machine. I have trouble deciding which approach to gas station love I like better; they both have ample, but very different charms. But the whole discussion does make me see something else, something fairly jarring for someone who’s been making music in Minneapolis for a couple of decades: the Bottle Rockets are that rarest of things, a Midwestern guitar band who, confluence of song subject aside, never seemed to give a shit about the Replacements (by contrast, there’s an early Wilco bootleg where Jeff Tweedy announces that “everything Wilco does is based on the Replacements” before the band attacks the Mats’ “Color Me Impressed.”).
“Gas Girl” is over before two minutes have passed, the band maybe knowing that the premise, while awesome, isn’t really enough to sustain more. But the ending is strange, almost unfulfilled, as though someone missed a beat. Almost as if it was all leading to-