When Cousin/Alert Reader Bill K. shared music with me last summer, I found myself grabbing albums by John Cougar Mellencamp. (Or John Mellen Cougarcamp, as a confused radio call-in once referred to him.)
Then, I got home, went through the folder, and asked myself, “Why did I do that? I’m not that nuts about Mellencamp.” Why is that, you may ask?
I was into John(ny) Cougar, which is how he first entered our consciousness, back in 1979, with “I Need a Lover.” That song knocked me out — the driving beat, lyrics like “Some girl who knows the meaning of/Hey hit the highway.”
Ditto for “Ain’t Even Done with the Night, which has those great lines “You got your hands in my back pockets/And Sam Cooke’s playin’ on the radio.” But it was all a scam: Mellencamp has said that some promoter came up with the John Cougar stage name, which he didn’t know about until he saw it on the album jacket. He also made it sound like the music was done by somebody else too.
Oddly, though, he hung onto the Cougar handle for more than a decade. Didn’t want to mess with the brand, I guess. That’s one of the tendencies that sometimes make Mellencamp seem a bit calculating, and less the in-your-face, not-kissing-anybody’s-ass rebel that he channels. “I fight authority …” and all that.
“Small Town” was one of his big hits, a 1985 No. 6, with a lyric that in theory summarized his “I’m just a guy from the heartland” persona. Mellencamp was born in Seymour, Ind., population about 16,000 in 1980 — about 10 times the actual small town where I live. But maybe it seemed small to him as a kid.
“Small Town” also includes the lines “Married an L.A. doll and brought her to this small town/Now she’s small town just like me.” I think back then, Mellencamp lived in or near — as he does now — Bloomington, Ind., a university town and the seventh-largest city in the Hoosier State.
(That wife was No. 2 — out of three, plus relationships with actress Meg Ryan and supermodel Christie Brinkley — for Mellencamp. who was married and a father not long after high school graduation. He had children with all three wives, among them actress Teddi Jo Mellencamp.)
Some of Mellencamp’s better known songs seem to be rather condescending towards small-town people, and average folks: “Pink Houses” and “Jack and Diane,” for instance. Even “Cherry Bomb,” bouncy and nostalgic, has this “we were just a bunch of townies” feel to it.
“Rain on the Scarecrow” seems to rationalize, if not endorse, a violent response to a farm foreclosure. But that single, and the album it came from, were soon followed by Mellencamp’s help in organizing the first Farm Aid benefit concert.
That was a case of a star putting if not money, at least time and effort, where his mouth is. In the 34 years since that 1986 concert, Farm Aid claims to have raised $53 million to aid struggling farmers. Not sure if that is gross or net — Charity Navigator rates its three out of a possible four stars, and reports that the organization spends 78.8 percent of its expenses on programs and services.
Mellencamp is unabashedly well on the left side of the political spectrum, and seems rather acrimonious in his political opinions. But while he metaphorically mans the barricades and considers himself among those standing between freedom and fascism, he also licensed a song to Chevrolet, which used it to sell pickup trucks.
Mellencamp has an impressive track record musically: 22 Top 40 singles, 10 of them Top 10s, including a No. 1 (“Jack & Diane”) and two No. 2s; 11 Top 10 albums, including a No. 1 (American Fool) and one No. 2; one Grammy Award and 13 nominations; and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008.
Mellencamp was inducted by his friend, Billy Joel, who said in his induction speech, in part: “This country's been hijacked. You know it, and I know it. People are worried. People are scared, and people are angry. People need to hear a voice like yours that's out there to echo the discontent that's out there in the heartland.” Perhaps. What we didn’t need to hear, Mr. Joel, is “Uptown Girl.”
No less than Johnny Cash called Mellencamp one of the 10 best songwriters of all time. I’m not going to criticize the Man in Black when he’s not around to defend himself, but I could name at least 11 great songwriters before getting to Mellencamp.
He has written some great songs, made rock that returned to its roots and used instruments that aren’t typical for rock and roll. But my iPod is getting filled up. So I will likely add only one or two of his albums to my library.