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John Mellencamp

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From the American heartland tradition of SEGER, SPRINGSTEEN and SOUTHSIDE JOHNNY, introspective singer-songwriter JOHN MELLENCAMP has shielded from the slings and arrows thrown by critics who’d accused the man of stepping on the toes, or, indeed, in the footsteps, of his aforesaid idols; they’d said similar things about Australian equivalent RICK SPRINGFIELD and Canada’s BRYAN ADAMS. Ignoring the musos to concentrate on his own rootsy agenda, influenced – John admits – by The ROLLING STONES, DYLAN and WOODY GUTHRIE, over a dozen Grammy nominations and a string of FM-friendly smash hits (`Hurts So Good’, `Jack & Diane’ and `R.O.C.K. In The U.S.A.’) arguably his biggest and best-known compositions), the Cougar man has proved the doubters wrong.
Born October 7, 1951 in Seymour, Indiana (of German ancestry), his life was tough from the get-go, having rolled out of his mother’s womb with Spina Bifida, that resulted in corrective surgery and hospitalization right up until he was an infant. After graduating from high school (where he’d played for covers act, Crepe Soul), John joined Snakepit Banana Barn, a local band who’d dispense with his services not long afterwards. The rebellious and troublesome MELLENCAMP left home at 18 and eloped to the small town of Valonia, where he married and settled down with his pregnant girlfriend, Priscilla Esterline.
Although he formed glam-rock outfit, Trash (alongside Larry Crane) in the early-to-mid-70s, it would be some time before MELLENCAMP made any serious inroads into the music business proper. By 1974/75, he’d graduated from Vincennes University, was laid off by his bosses at a telephone company, and separated from his wife and child. Giving up alcohol and drugs, but not on music, John travelled to the Big Apple, where his devotion to the NEW YORK DOLLS helped land him a deal with management company MainMan (home to BOWIE), after sending on a demo to producer Tony DeFries. Released for M.C.A. Records in 1976, his debut album CHESTNUT STREET INCIDENT {*2} was credited – unbeknownst to the singer/guitarist – to JOHNNY COUGAR, a billing DeFries had christened him. Not that many people noticed anyway, poor sales and arriving on the scene when the RAMONES and their ilk were breaking new ground was, on reflection, ill-timed; alongside his own SPRINGSTEEN-esque, self-penned flop 45, `American Dream’, were unimpressive renditions of ROY ORBISON’s `Oh, Pretty Woman’, ELVIS’s `Jailhouse Rock’, The LOVIN’ SPOONFUL’s `Do You Believe In Magic?’ and The DOORS’ `Twentieth Century Fox’.
In the aftermath, JOHN COUGAR’s self-scribed sophomore set THE KID INSIDE {*2} lay dormant on the shelf for half a decade. At 26 going on 16, his career looked all washed up. However, his perseverance paid off when Riva Records (an imprint run by ROD STEWART’s manager Billy Gaff, and indeed the recording home of the leopard-print-trouser legend himself), gave the singer his second break, and moved him to London, England.
At this stage, John’s recycled rock’n’roll struggled to even match the negligible quality of STEWART’s air-brushed fodder, and both the UK-only A BIOGRAPHY (1978) {*3} and the eponymous JOHN COUGAR (1979) {*4}, failed to come up with anything resembling originality, though the latter set nevertheless re-tested a home-soil Top 30 hit in `I Need A Lover’, and one not so major in `Small Paradise’.
The appallingly-titled NOTHIN’ MATTERS AND WHAT IF IT DID (1980) {*5} –produced by STEVE CROPPER – continued in the same empty, rock-posturing vein, although for the first time it saw JOHN COUGAR inside the Top 40, while attendant hits `This Time’ and `Ain’t Even Done With The Night’ were buoyant and big enough to lift him above the mediocrity and swagger he’d channelled previously.
Finally managing to combine hard-bitten authenticity with epic anthem-rock a la TOM PETTY, COUGAR scored a surprise near-No.1 with the sugar-coated favourite, `Hurts So Good’. The accompanying album, AMERICAN FOOL (1982) {*7}, duly topped the chart and spawned the resonating No.1, `Jack & Diane’, and other Top 20 breaker `Hand To Hold On To’.
Now commanding a bit of commercial leverage, JOHN COUGAR MELLENCAMP – as he was now billed – ensured that UH-HUH! (1983) {*7} and the equally-fruitful Top 10 platters, `Crumblin’ Down’ and protest piece `Pink Houses’ (`Authority Song’ reached #19), rumbled into the hearts of Midwest America, announcing the arrival of a major league contender.
Placing MELLENCAMP’s small-town ideology into the context of his nation’s farming crisis, SCARECROW (1985) {*8} was a work of seemingly heartfelt conviction with cast-iron rock-outs to match; the record spawned five big hitters (including the Top 10 triple whammy of `Lonely Ol’ Night’, `Small Town’ and `R.O.C.K. In The U.S.A. (A Salute To 60’s Rock)’), plus `Rain On The Scarecrow’ and `Rumbleseat’ – its impact even lending extra weight via his role in organising Farm Aid (alongside NEIL YOUNG and WILLIE NELSON).
Expanding his troupe of backing musicians to include the likes of LISA GERMANO (here playing violin), the proletarian rocker embraced a more folky approach on THE LONESOME JUBILEE (1987) {*8}. Painting a bleak picture of contemporary life for the average down-at-heel, blue-collar American, the record included some of JCM’s most memorable songs, not least the bitter `Paper In Fire’. The latter track reached the Top 10, as did the album itself and, for the first time, the singer began making an impact in Britain where the Mercury Records set almost went Top 30. Capturing the spirit of America in all its fist-pumping glory and hopes for the future, the other major hits on parade were `Cherry Bomb’ and `Check It Out’.
Perversely enough, after splitting from second wife Vicki, MELLENCAMP’s most introspective Top 10 album to date, BIG DADDY (1989) {*7} – he’d recently become a granddad! – was his most successful UK release; utilising a distinctively more subdued musical approach, the rootsy, melancholy backing, echoed the more intensely personal lyrical fare on `Pop Singer’ and `Jackie Brown’.
The early 90s proved a difficult time for JOHN MELLENCAMP as he re-evaluated his musical direction, as on the Top 20, WHATEVER WE WANTED (1991) {*6}. A solid and steely recording shaped by his insistence to beat a rhythm to the doors of Jagger & Richards, it had a lot of good points in `Get A Leg Up’ and `Again Tonight’ (both Top 40 entries), while there was sing-a-long or cool-hand-Bruce factor in `I Ain’t Ever Satisfied’, `Love And Happiness’ and the title track. In a different perspective, John would direct and star in the film, Falling From Grace (1992), his only ever real foray into this medium; he also supplied the unreleased soundtrack. That October, he wed former model Elaine Irwin.
While SPRINGSTEEN had his “Human Touch” a year past, MELLENCAMP’s HUMAN WHEELS (1993) {*6} worked on the bleak emotions and affectations of his loyal fanbase. Opening with the earthy `When Jesus Left Birmingham’, but only scraping the Top 50 with the 60s-sounding title track, John’s heart was pining for something, as `Beige To Beige’ and the simple `To The River’ suggested. The album was dedicated to his keyboard player, John Cascella, who met an untimely death, aged only 35.
MELLENCAMP, himself, suffered bouts of nervous exhaustion, and would come face to face with his own mortality in 1994, when his touring plans were abandoned following a heart attack. Ironically, that year’s album, DANCE NAKED {*6} was arguably his finest of the decade so far, following on from the return to harder roots-rock territory of his previous sets. While the best cuts were probably the minor hit title track and `When Margaret Comes To Town’, it also spawned the rather unlikely Top 3 duet with ME’SHELL NDEGEOCELLO on a cover of VAN MORRISON’s `Wild Night’.
One would be hard pushed to come up with a more bizarre choice of co-producer for a MELLENCAMP album than New York DJ don, Junior Vasquez, yet that was exactly who took the helm for the Top 10 MR. HAPPY GO LUCKY (1996) {*6}. While the likes of MADONNA could successfully change her spots at will, a man with such an honest rock’n’roll pedigree was never going to benefit to any great extent from such an ambitious pairing on such deeply rooted hit items as `Key West Intermezzo (I Saw You First)’ and `Just Another Day’. Still, it did suggest a willingness to explore creative avenues, something which didn’t hamper the back-to-basics sound of his eponymous JOHN MELLENCAMP (1998) {*6}, as straightforward an album as the title might suggest – perhaps too straightforward; as well as promo-only singles, `Your Life Is Now’ and `I’m Not Running Anymore’, it failed to reach the Top 40, an affront he hadn’t suffered since the late 70s.
While the latter marked the beginning of the man’s new deal with Columbia Records, ROUGH HARVEST (1999) {*5} was an interesting hodgepodge of covers and acoustic readings of old favourites, ostensibly released as a contractual obligation to Mercury; check out his renditions of `In My Time Of Dying’, DYLAN’s own `Farewell Angelina’ and a 1986-recorded `Under The Boardwalk’ (once a hit for The DRIFTERS).
A self-produced MELLENCAMP found himself back in the album charts (Top 20) with CUTTIN’ HEADS (2001) {*7}, an easy-going return to form with guest appearances as varied as TRISHA YEARWOOD and PUBLIC ENEMY’s Chuck D, proof if nothing else that the veteran troubadour was something of a minor American institution. Their respective contributions flowing through `Deep Blue Heart’ and the title track, a third collaboration of interest was faltering single with INDIA.ARIE, `Peaceful World’.
Ostensibly inspired by a well received reading of ROBERT JOHNSON’s `Stones In My Passway’ at a tribute gig, TROUBLE NO MORE (2003) {*6} was MELLENCAMP’s first full-blown covers album; the aforementioned track opened the set. Unsurprisingly, the emphasis was squarely on great American songs, from blues (WILLIE DIXON’s `Down In The Bottom’ and SON HOUSE’s `Death Letter’) and folk (WOODY GUTHRIE’s `Johnny Hart’ and LUCINDA WILLIAMS’ `Lafayette’), to Tin Pan Alley standards (Hoagy Carmichael’s `Baltimore Oriole’), with the mood fairly downbeat and edgy throughout. An interesting diversion from the man’s usual fare, the record stalled just outside the Top 30 and anticipated further similar excursions.
Country-rock was his next port of call on 2007’s wholly self-scribed FREEDOM’S ROAD {*6}. Augmented by Alabama’s LITTLE BIG TOWN on backing vocals and the great JOAN BAEZ on a duet of `Jim Crow’, the Top 5 “comeback” album was greeted with the usual mixed response: Uncut magazine were none too pleased, but rated highly by All Music there were of course rally cries to his large nation on `Our Country’ (a minor hit from a TV truck ad), `Ghost Towns Along The Highway’ and `The Americans’ – as if one needed reminding he was born in the U.S.A.
Switching camps to the Hear Music enterprise, Rolling Stone were next to sing his praises on the folk/country/roots CD/DVD package, LIFE, DEATH, LOVE AND FREEDOM (2008) {*7}. Produced by T-BONE BURNETT and featuring MELLENCAMP’s best DYLAN impersonations or self portraits (yes, he’d actually rid himself of “The Boss” albatross), the gritty Top 10 album showed another side of his freewheeling nuance by way of `Longest Days’, `If I Die Sudden’, `Young Without Lovers’, `John Cockers’, `Country Fair’ et al; only the BUDDY HOLLY-ish `My Sweet Love’ took him further back than the 60s. The need then to extract more coin from the concert follow-on set, LIFE, DEATH, LIVE AND FREEDOM (2009) {*6} – cut in Toronto, Philadelphia and Los Angeles in 2008 – was one for fans to argue over.
Another Top 10 set to raise the pulses of most critics was John’s next T-Bone stake-out of Americana folk: NO BETTER THAN THIS (2010) {*7}. “Thirteen new songs by John Mellencamp” (as depicted on the jacket/sleeve), recorded in mono on an Ampex 601 tape machine at the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, GA., the Sun Studios in Memphis, and a San Antonio hotel in Texas where ROBERT JOHNSON cut “Stones…” c. 1936, it indeed looked the part of something folks would’ve purchased pre-mid-50s, especially if one preferred the now back-in-vogue vinyl version. Extending his dream of becoming the all-American born-again hero, it was simple, direct and raw, recalling the days of JOHNNY CASH on the 6-minute `No One Cares About Me’ and `Coming Down The Road’, CARL PERKINS on the title track, and JOHNNY BURNETTE on `Each Day Of Sorrow’; MELLENCAMP, ironically, divorced the same year.
While he’d never quite lived up to the “new Springsteen” tag which greeted his 70s arrival, MELLENCAMP had certainly earned his place as a pillar of traditional heartland rock by dint of sheer hard graft, honesty and not a little talent. That was never so true as on 2014’s PLAIN SPOKEN {*7}, although sales had dropped down to Top 20 status. Now 60-something and sounding a tad brusque compared to his days as a James Dean wannabe, John’s country-rock aesthetics stood steadfast on `Troubled Man’, `Sometimes There’s God’, `The Company Of Cowards’ and the lamenting `Tears In Vain’.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/GRD-BG/MCS // rev-up MCS Feb2016

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