Johnny Cougar, like all of us, had to grow up sometime. An awkward, lanky boy from The Heartland of America, he was an anachronism in the late 70s musical world of disco, funk, punk and new wave; forms of music that harkened back to the nightclubs and basement bars of major cities and coastal urban culture. His adolescent early work, in which he more or less played the role of a male Pat Benatar, gave way, thankfully, to an earnest type of Heartland Rock which defined the peak years of his career.
He confidently donned the “Canadian Tuxedo,” (blue jeans, denim jacket and sweaty white t-shirt) and became who he was, John “Cougar” Mellencamp, a gritty tough-shit bard of the plains, the poet-laureate of the Midwestern farmer, the small town diner waitress, and the working class dreamer. He was more or less the Midwest analog of Bruce Springsteen, who himself was the voice of the Rust Belt assembly line workers. Eventually, he would even shed the last vestige of his showbiz kid youth, dropping the “Cougar”, eschewing his feline credentials and becoming less cat-like, and ever-more every-man-like.
Despite his James Dean meets John Deere swagger, Mellencamp never shook the ghost of Johnny Cougar. He remained decidedly more bubble-gum in the eyes of music critics than his roots-rocking contemporaries, never attaining the near-operatic heights of Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run, or the epic hipness of the swampy, LSD-flavored power-pop of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ Damn the Torpedoes. Simply put, Mellancamp never took himself seriously enough to attempt the lofty, streetwise poetry of Springsteen, and was not the sneering, maladjusted teenage punk that Petty effectively conjured with such mystical ease. The boyish Johnny Cougar, cigarettes rolled up in his sleeve, carefully selecting the next song on the luncheonette jukebox, remained with him, innocently guiding him through his simple artistic visions. To put it even more simply, what Mellencamp lacked in cool-kid street credentials, he made up for in not being completely full of shit, a titanic feat for anyone in the pop music sphere. “It’s never been cool to be John Mellencamp,” he once joked. Perhaps it is in the absence of the need to be relevant in an ever-changing, ever-cheapening world that the best pop art is made.
After all, here was a guy that wrote earnest tunes about holding hands meaning something. He sang about the land, the beliefs, the dreams and the lives of regular people in little pink houses. His lyrics spoke of a collective longing for security and community in a time when other artists sang of running away alone to join the big city circus. As Boy George was painting his face like a likeable John Wayne Gacey and comparing his gay lovers to amphibians, Mellencamp sang “my family and my friends are the best thing that I know.” As Madonna sang that her love was being pushed over the border line, he drew his listeners back to home, back to The Heartland, a place where love had roots and was expected to stay.
1985’s Scarecrow and its follow-up LP, 1987’s The Lonesome Jubilee stand out as his greatest works, and in a sane world, would be celebrated as two of the era’s greatest rock records. Though, as the title suggests, Scarecrow is thematically a country and folk album, Mellencamp delivers a headlong shot of rock and roll in the most classic of senses. The album is as urgent and hard-rocking as any punk album and the simple, concise narrative spun in the lyrics is never unnecessarily obscured. This album has a message more bold and refined than any classic concept album from the over-indulgent 70s pantheon of hard rock monstrosities. The lyrics are not invocations to dream of a psychedelic beyond, but instead insistent pleas to see the present in light of the past, to understand the reality of the small town boy living in a world ever in peril of the encroaching big city, the world outside, a world that just doesn’t care about the people it leaves behind. “We live in a world that turns minutes into memories” he sings authoritatively, with Kenny Aranoff’s restrained yet hard-hitting drum beat behind it, a percussive pronouncement that would make any clock or drum machine blush. Like Neil Young before him and countless alt-country artists after him, Mellencamp blends rural and Americana imagery with crunching guitars and down-home stomp on Scarecrow, but with more precision and a pop-friendly sonic clarity that stands alone in the annals of country rock.
The Lonesome Jubilee rocks and stomps onward as well, but with the addition of rollicking accordion and almost Cajun-like fiddle playing in every song, as if the pitch-perfect studio band has been turned into a cross-roads roadhouse attraction. The female backing vocals carry Mellencamp’s lyrics beyond his own chest and into the mouths of the community, remembering together, singing together, and seamlessly creating a sonic hybrid somewhere between the church hymns and the field hollers. Wailing Dobros and jangling acoustic twelve string guitars give the album a folksy, bluesy feel, completing the Americana motif and, at times, even evoking the folk music of the Old World. Fresh-sounding and emphatic, Jubilee is an absolute joy to listen to; if Scarecrow is a desperate warning of what is to come, Jubilee is an album of hope and an invitation to experience the best of American traditions.
Much critical ink has been spilled lauding the achievements of “seminal” country rock acts such as The Jayhawks and Uncle Tupelo (and, believe me, I’m a big fan of both) but the fact is that Mellencamp not only made his own enduring mark on the genre, but he made his own brand of Americana a commercial and artistic success while giving a powerful voice to the over-looked and much despised inhabitants of flyover country.
Yeah, I know, he’s a liberal. Of course he is.
Robert E. Lieberman is a misanthrope, malcontent and unprincipled racist. His hobbies include sulking, brooding and just barely getting by.