Whenever--and whatever--he wants
John Mellencamp deserves something. Sure, he's a mouthy, pushy, arrogant guy who seems to take himself very seriously and often has a chip the size of an asteroid on his shoulder. In the past, he's made much hay over "bad-ass" episodes like the punching out of a rock writer who'd dissed him early in his career, and can natter on about his paintings (which are actually better than you'd ever expect) and art with a focus that can make Babs Streisand's pursuit of such legitimacy seem downright relaxed, but Mellencamp is a man who has been one place most of us can only imagine: deep in the belly of his own rock 'n' roll nightmare.
Eddie Money was setting the standards for pop then, so none of Mellencamp's early history seemed quite as ridiculous when it was happening as it does now. A tousle-haired lad from Seymour, Indiana, when he came to the attention of David Bowie's Main Man label, Mellencamp's forgettable 1976 debut Chestnut Street Incident was released under the name "Johnny Cougar," much to Mellencamp's surprise and chagrin. A second album confirmed that Cougar was fascinated by the small-town lens that growing up in Seymour had given him, and he began to get a reputation as a poor man's Springsteen.
He managed to get out from under "Johnny" by 1979; by 1983 he had made Cougar his middle name, with Mellencamp restored to its proper spot. During this time he began to sharpen his act, capturing first fairly ordinary pop ubiquity with such numbers as the No. 1 hit "Jack and Diane," and "Hurts So Good," a clap-happy bit of disposable pop seared into the collective memory by a video of world-class cheesiness featuring Mellencamp cavorting with a bunch of his biker pals, what appear to be some well-used titty dancers, and a bunch of cheap bondage equipment.
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By 1983, heartland was coming back in, and Mellencamp began to receive a much warmer welcome. In between derivative (but still attractive) cuts like "The Authority Song" and "Crumblin' Down," real gems started popping up, like the self-defining "Small Town" and the dynamic but direct "Pink Houses." In 1985 the missing piece of the puzzle dropped into place with the growing awareness of the plight of the American farmer and the impetus it lent that year's Scarecrow. The album's best-known cut, "Rain on the Scarecrow," is simply a great song--relevant, hooky, and carrying an emotional directness that stayed the naysayers. Even standard approaches like the ones behind "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A." and "Lonely Ol' Night" showed new clarity. Two years later, he beat most of the biz to the Americana punch with Lonesome Jubilee, expanding his band and including now-familiar instruments like mandolin, violin, and accordion.
With Jubilee Mellencamp had made it, finally establishing his own (good) reputation. He could now allow his work to go deeper, to reflect the internal struggles that every writer longs to get into. From 1989's searching, confused Big Daddy on, Mellencamp shoots less for hits and more for self-expression, releasing albums of joy (1991's Whenever We Wanted, which finally laid the "Cougar" to rest), melancholy musing (Human Wheels, 1993), and back-to-class basics (1994's Dance Naked). Mellencamp now sits astride his productive adult years, a comforting creative plateau for an artist. From a marketing perspective, however, it's a maintenance position that takes the artist from huge outdoor shed to huge outdoor shed while other, younger, hotter bands get the limelight. This situation--together with his lack of '90s chart-toppers--might fool some into regarding him as having passed it, but in reality Mellencamp's show is one of those that continually surprises you as significant song after significant song keeps turning up. Just when you can't remember a single song not done, another starts up and you go, "Oh, yeah--of course!" Fifteen minutes later, you're still saying "Oh, yeah," amazed that you could've ever forgotten those last four songs. Even "I Need a Lover" now seems less a silly ball of pop fluff and more a chapter in the story; anyone who can pull off a change like that deserves your attention, if not your respect.
John Mellencamp plays Starplex Amphitheatre Wednesday, June 4.