Disc 1 Track 5
In the house in Blair, NE, where I grew up in the late 70s and early 80s, our next door neighbors had a son named Sammy. He was maybe 8 years older than me, so we weren’t exactly pals, but we were friendly and he’d occasionally come over and slum it with the younger kid; the two things I particularly remember were him helping me build an elaborate Ewok village on the side of a tree for max DIY Star Wars guy fun, and him proudly showing off the new set of nunchucks he’d just gotten.
One summer, when I think I was 8 and he was 16, Sammy died in a nasty car accident, literally wrapping his car around a tree at the bottom of Blair’s only big hill. The crash was a big deal, putting both our neighborhood and the whole town in shock. For some reason, cars that had been in accidents in Blair were always towed to a lot just off of one of the main highways into town, and my family—along with many, many other families—drove over to the lot to gawk at the car Sammy had died in. It was mangled beyond belief, and there was still blood visible. In retrospect, this seems like an unbelievably ghastly thing to have done; at the time, it just seemed like what you did.
The tree he had hit also bore huge, visible scars. The car went away eventually, but the tree was always there as I grew up, a reminder every time I drove past that a person I knew had died there.
These kind of physical reminders of tragedy are everywhere (I recently went into a kind of mental overload at the prevalence of them in Berlin), but they have a particular resonance in a small town; you know the people involved, and the tragedy is more tightly wound into your reality, without the layer of anonymity that a city can provide.
And so, “Kerosene,” co-written by Henneman and Scott Taylor. I don’t know the specific incident that this song is written about, but the narrative scene is clear enough: the speaker is encountering one of those physical reminders of tragedy, in this case the burned-out shell of a trailer that had been lit on fire. It’s not clear if the arsonists are known or not, but their motives are; the residents were poor and despised, and died for it.
If The Bottle Rockets starts out light and fun, the back-to-back presence of “Wave That Flag” and “Kerosene” is an extreme counterweight. These are some heavy-ass songs. But “Kerosene” manages a fascinating artistic trick. It’s about as grim as a song can be in terms of subject matter, but it manages not to be awful because musically, it’s hauntingly beautiful. The chords are simple and repetitive, with acoustic guitars stepping back in favor of a haunting pedal steel part (uncredited, but given John Keane’s presence and the fact that he played similar pedal steel parts on March 16-20, 1992, I’m guessing it’s Keane). The full band goes in and out with verses and choruses, with Ortmann doing expressive drum work to bring them in (much the same way doing We’ve Been Had has elevated my opinion of Mike Heidorn, this project is really making me appreciate how good Mark Ortmann is).
This is yet another song that works really well with Henneman’s voice; he’s hardly a trained, polished singer, but he has an extremely specific, lived-in singing voice, and his delivery and accent here once again help give the feeling that this is a member of a community telling you about it (I’m really coming around to the idea that each Bottle Rockets album is essentially a collection of short stories about small town life). Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy come in to back him up on the chorus, although Farrar’s voice comes through a lot more prominently than Tweedy’s (and sounds great; if there’s any Bottle Rockets song whose mood work well with the Farrar gravitas, it’s this one).
I’ve never been able to completely decipher the literal meaning of the chorus: “If kerosene works, why not gasoline?” My best guess is that it’s something along the lines of the internal monologue of the arsonist as they decide to burn the trailer down, seeing that the pariahs in the trailer are so poor they’re reduced to using kerosene lights. Really, it doesn’t matter. It’s a song about arson, the chorus is a list of flammable liquids, and somehow they sound beautiful when sung. That’s enough, and it’s not like a little bit of mystery isn’t good for the song.