Song 2: Cuppa Joe – “Bottlerocket”

August 21, 2020

Cuppa Joe – “Bottlerocket”

By early 1993, I’d sort of envisioned that Dromedary would be a label that specialized in indie pop with a tinge of punk, in the vein of the labels I admired at the time, like Simple Machines, Pop Narcotic, Harriet and the like.  We’d only been running Dromedary for a few months and had just one release under our belt, and I was smitten with the homemade quality of the independent music I was listening to at the time – sort of a low-fi sound with open strings droning behind jangly, melodic chords and performances that were interesting and unique, if not exhibiting tremendous technical skill.

There was a look to it, too – how it was packaged, how it was marketed.  It had sort of a cutesy, mid-Century flavor with ads that had snarky headlines and tongue-in-cheek descriptions, maybe a stray curse word here and there for shock value (a device I use to this day).  Gimmicks abounded; bands included handmade zines with their records, handwritten notes, drawings, mail art, stickers – anything to scream “I made it myself!”  It was fun, the records were often beautiful and educational and sometimes included visual art and printing that was even better than the music on the record.

Cuppa Joe was a group of interesting guys from Trenton who were tied in with the music scene in Princeton and at Trenton State.  They sent me handwritten notes that used zero capital letters (a device they used in everything they did), their artwork included wonderful illustrations by their drummer, Steve (or “steve”), and subject matter that was typically offbeat and weird (for instance, the opening lyric to the song “French Toast” was “Vitamins and cinnamon French toast is all I’ve got in me right now/I bought some bagels and coffee for the guys, but I forgot the sugar, so I’ve got to go back down to the deli.”).

The songs were generally written by their singer and guitarist Doug Larkin, who would record his music direct to four-track cassettes, perfecting these little, low-fi nuggets complete with multiple guitar, vocal and percussion parts.  Then, once he was happy with that recording, he’d surrender the song to the rest of the band, who would deconstruct and reconstruct it until it had the entire band’s imprint on it.  The results varied wildly – occasionally songs wouldn’t really go anywhere, or have an odd sour note, but more frequently they were these gorgeous doses of indie pop with lyrical concepts that were, at the time, best described as “quirky” (which was how I described them).

Doug has always been an intellect, and his lyrics weren’t just goofy indie rock lyrics, even if it felt like they were.  Doug (a college science professor and author today)  was a devotee of progressive author Jonathan Kozol and spoke frequently about the inequalities in our education system.  When he mailed me the tape of the final version of “Bottlerocket,” I was knocked out by the melodies, that droning, open-string guitar strum, the backing vocals in the chorus.  I didn’t pay much attention to the lyrics.

cuppa joe at the nurture release party, 1994

cuppa joe at LoveSexy in Hoboken, 1994

The song became the A-side of the Busy Work 7”, a three-song record at which I threw as many 1993 indie-label gimmicks as I could afford: a limited first pressing on “cherry red” vinyl, the first 500 records individually numbered, and, the best part, each black-and-white printed cover individually hand-colored, in crayon, by the band.  Every record in the first run was unique.  I advertised “Bottlerocket” as “The best song ever written,” using the snarkiest and most jaded-reading ad headlines I could think of (the headline for their record release party advertisement was “FUCK SEATTLE”), and in the process of being a cutesy indie label, I totally missed the point of the song.

“Bottlerocket” is a song about systemic racism, a topic that was central to Doug’s passion in 1993, while my passion was making cute indie pop records.  Doug was singing about cops racially profiling Black kids in sports cars, tearing the car apart on the shoulder of the highway, looking for drugs that weren’t there.  I’m writing “FUCK SEATTLE.”

The Cuppa Joe “Busy Work” 7″ sold out long ago (though I recently latched onto a few I might sell someday), but the song “Bottlerocket” also made an appearance on the band’s first CD, “Nurture” (which I’ll write more about later).  Same mix and performance as the single.

If you choose to buy a download of this song today (August 21, 2020), we will donate all the proceeds to the North Star Fund, a social justice fund that supports grassroots organizing led by communities of color in New York City and the Hudson Valley, our new home.  They have directed resources to communities that are organizing to improve schools, housing, healthcare, provide living wage jobs and  immigrant rights, and more.  You can make a donation of your own to the North Star Fund here:

~ by Al on August 21, 2020.

One Response to “Song 2: Cuppa Joe – “Bottlerocket””

  1. I preferred Signore’s Lounge LOL!

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