John Mellencamp is one of my Eighties music heroes and one of the acts from that decade that means "Eighties" to me, rather than the electro pop schlock that one founds on so many Eighties collections.
I'd read of John Cougar in the NME, when he was under the wing of Tony De Fries, who once also managed David Bowie, and who was the guy who said that Mellencamp would not work as the name of a rock singer and that Johnny Cougar would be the ticket to stardom. It seemed to me that Cougar nearest peers were the likes Steve Forbert and Willie Nile, both of whom were hyped as "new Dylans" and both of whom seemed destined for obscurity after the first burst of pseudo fame. At least Forbert had a semi-successful Eighties career. I have no idea of what happened to Willie Nile.
Anyhow, John Cougar had a massive breakthrough with American Fool (1982) and the hits singles "Jack & Diane" and "Hurts So Good." Over the length of three or four albums he could do no wrong commercially and also received lots of praise for being an American heartland rocker with a bit of a social conscience. In some ways he was the Bruce Springsteen of Indiana. I was very fond of Cougar, or John Cougar Mellencamp or John Mellencamp's music and bought some of the albums in the Eighties, as records and cassettes, and bought even more of them in the Nineties as CDs. After a while the deterioration in the tunes and lyrics got to me and I stopped listening to his music all that much. For my money Uh-huh (1983) and Scarecrow (1985) are the best of the bunch.
The other day I was browsing in Musica and found a double CD called John Mellencamp: Words & Music, a collection of his best tunes for only R59,99 and I bought it. I was kind of surprised to note how many of the songs were familiar before I even played the album. Then I googled the guy to find out what he's been up to since the early Nineties when I stopped buying his albums or tracking his career. It seemed that he had never been out of the studio for long and kept touring. Probably still a major attraction in the heartland. One album name stood out, "Trouble No More" (2003), and because this sounded suspiciously like a blues trope, I investigated the album and found that it was indeed a collection of blues, with some other old-timey tunes. The album was available on iTunes, also for the quite low price of R59,99 and I bought it as well. For 15 years nothing, and then two Mellencamp albums a few days apart.
Tom Petty and John Mellencamp came up at about the same time in the late Seventies though Petty soon aligned himself with the New Wave and found kudos from the trendsetting British music press of the time. After the critical acclaim came commercial success and duets with Stevie Nicks and he became the cool rock traditionalist with a new wave head. In contrast Mellencamp seemed to be a new kind of Bob Seger, the rocker with a hear full of empathy for the working man yet without the pretentiousness of Bruce Springsteen and his claims of redemption through rock and roll.
The best part of Mellencamp's music on albums like American Fool, Uh-huh and Scarecrow was the crisp punch of the drums and the crunch of the guitars that gave a simple, yet kicking, backdrop for the words and tunes. It was not quite country, not quite blues, not quite heavy and not quite pop. It was entirely tasty and satisfactory. From The Lonesome Jubilee (1987) onward Mellencamp abandoned the rocker sound for a time, for something closer to country and country blues with bluegrass instrumentation. Unfortunately he also seemed to really aiming at being a kind of poor man's Springsteen and although I bought the albums there was a sense of diminishing returns. Big Daddy (1989) and Human Wheels (1993) were patchy and mixed some good songs with some real filler and on the latter album any gift for e big tune Mellencamp'd had once deserted him. Groove and arrangements were utilised to make good the patent lack of interesting and arresting songs and it was from this point on that I abandoned the man and his music.
The Words & Music collection reminded me just how excellent the music is and how consistent the quality is. The Eighties have been big in the nostalgia filed for far too long now, especially the crap Eighties pop that is featured in so many compilations and so often regurgitated on radio and on television. Yet somehow John Mellencamp's hits do not receive airtime at all. Greil Marcus would probably agree that there is a secret history of Eighties music and culture in general. I do not know whether he even rates Mellencamp at all, but for me John Mellencamp is part of that secret history that no-one now seems to remember or want to remember. The decade was not all about schlocky synth pop, Springsteen, Michael Jackson, Prince or Madonna. Mellencamp had a simple formula and it was effective in its way. It punched above its weight and it hit home runs, for me at least, most of the time.
"Trouble No More" is still a strange kind of album for an old rocker but then, if Aerosmith could do a "blues" album, I guess nothing should stop Mellencamp from doing one if it is a genre of music he loves. His voice is more suited to blues anyhow, more so than Steven Tyler's. In Mellencamp's case one could also see it as a mature artist's way of reconnecting with roots or simply trying on a different part to the great American songbook than the type of thing Rod Stewart has made a mini-industry of. Back in rural Indiana country must have been a huge influence and the blues is meant to be the basic building block of rock and roll. It seems that he had no great difficulty adapting his heartland roots rock and roll sound to fit the music on this blues and old American folk collection. David Johansen and the Hairy Smiths is another example of an old rocker, and a New York glam punk rocker at that, heading towards blues territory in his mature years and doing a damn fine job of unearthing some less known classics with a more acoustic driven band than that of Mellencamp.
"Stones in My Passway" with its pounding, rollicking rhythm and its fierce, slicing slide guitar sets the tone for the album. It is traditional sounding without being a slavish imitation and it is modern enough to have that sonic kick the old recordings often lacked. The same applies to "Death Letter," a tune performed by so many with so much reverence that they make it sound like a museum piece. Mellencamp imbues it with the rage and defiance the lyrics suggest the song should have.
"Johnny Hart", "Baltimore Oriole", "Teardrops Will Fall" and "Diamond Joe" fall in the category of songster narrative ballads, as much country or Cajun as they are blues and the musical style dovetails utterly with the roots style Mellencamp adopted in the mid-Eighties to emphasise his distance from the rock star style of his youth. These songs are jewels from the great American songbook of the alternative America we know so little about because it is so carefully hidden. Then you get "The End of the World" which is a proper pop song from the Sixties given new life and purpose as a hillbilly country dance swinger.
With "Down in the Bottom" Mellencamp returns to the blues, a great Howlin' Wolf tune (also known as "Running Shoes" as slightly tweaked by Juke Boy Bonner) in a version that has the signature riff and also a more country blues string band take that gives the song a saucy face lift.
"Lafayette" is more Cajun country swing and "Joliet Bound" is a songster prison song Johnny Cash could have done proud performed as a backwoods hoedown.
"John the Revelator" is the second Son House tune of the set. Where House does it as a doomy, preachy a capella, Mellencamp kicks off the tune as if it were a Creedence swamp rocker, then brings in the gospel choir while the band keeps up the swamp boogie. It is eerie, powerful and exalted all at the same time. Pretty much a perfect illustration of the theme of the song. This is a good example of how one can take a standard, like "Death Letter" cut in so many ways over the years, and having the nous to invigorate it to take it to another level.
The final cut is a sweet, tuneful political ditty called "To Washington" that shows us that John Mellencamp is still an activist with the interests of the heartland foremost in his mind.
John Mellencamp's career has run the course from would-be teen pop star to platinum rocker to introspective, thoughtful roots musician, activist and now a kind of musicologist who preserves and energises music not many people still knew about or care for. I salute him for this and, best of all, I thoroughly enjoy this music. Jif this is where he is heading in the future I will definitely follow him on the journey.