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John Mellencamp reminds me of home



After graduating from college in May 1985, I worked my way east from Illinois, and by late August I'd landed in New York City. I had grown up in a small northern-Illinois town surrounded by cornfields, and I'd gone to school in an even smaller town in eastern Iowa. I was 22 when I got to New York, on my own for the first time, in a city that was dirty, ugly, noisy, confusing, thrilling, energetic, and strange. It was an exciting, scary time, and I had a lot of fun, but I missed my home a lot too.

I'd heard that John Cougar Mellencamp, as he was called at the time, was readying an album that would touch on the farm crisis that was then raging, and on other midwestern themes. Mellencamp already had impressed me with Uh-Huh, the 1983 collection of Rolling Stones-derived rockers that began his rehabilitation from an irritable, confrontational singer of dumb, insubstantial guitar-driven songs into an irritable, confrontational singer of smart, substantial guitar-driven songs. I had nothing to play it on and no money to buy it with, but when Scarecrow came out I went into a Crazy Eddie's record store just to look at it. Reading the lyrics on the back of the album and seeing the picture of Mellencamp hunched over a barbed-wire fence, wrapped in a blue jeans jacket, his face somber, reminded me why I was homesick.

A lot of people will tell you that there are no distinct regional identities in the United States anymore, that television, fast-food chains, and shopping malls have turned every place into the same place. That view may be true of the suburbs, and is precisely the reason I don't want to live in one. But I don't believe it for the rest of this country. The midwest, especially in rural areas, has a character all its own. I hear much of what is distinctive and valuable about this region in Mellencamp's songs, both in the music itself and in the themes and concerns of his lyrics.

As with the nation's other unique regions, the midwest's character originates in the land, the great plains of farm property that can extend for miles until their outermost edges touch the horizon line. People complain that this landscape is boring, but I see beauty in the open space and feel a sense of assurance and wonder at its vastness. As a kid, I'd ride my bike past a half-mile-long expanse of cornfields to reach the movie theaters where I'd watch weekend matinees. Like most people who grew up in my hometown, I earned money for college during the summer by detassling corn plants in the fields outside of town--long hours of hot, dirty work. In the late 80s my job required traveling through central Illinois and eastern Iowa, and as I drove along the highways and back roads I'd see farmers in their tractors, plowing in the spring, harvesting in the fall. I grew up thinking of these fields as part of my home. That's why, even though my involvement in agriculture was limited to that summer detassling job, the farm crisis of the mid-80s upset me.

In the 1970s, farmers, at the encouragement of lenders and consultants, took on heavy debts to expand their operations. In the 80s, a sudden decline in land values and commodity prices and an increase in interest rates and production costs left many of them unable to meet their payments. Between 1983 and 1987, more than a quarter of a million farms in the U.S. were lost to foreclosure, bankruptcy, and restructuring. The majority of these were middle-sized farms owned and run by families who derived most of their income from farming. These families lost their land, which often included the family home. The ripple effect meant town stores, schools, and banks went under too, and entire communities--tiny, close-knit places where people had lived all their lives--were decimated. A lot of farmers, proud men accustomed to self- reliance, committed suicide, ashamed of their failure, unable to believe that the world had anything left to offer them, or both. In one instance, a farmer's wife immolated herself in a haystack bonfire.

"Rain on the Scarecrow" is Mellencamp's account of the crisis, in the words of a farmer who has lost the land that had been his family's for generations. The song conveys the idea that something whose value to the country could not be measured in economic terms alone was being destroyed. From the song's opening notes--one guitar tolling mournfully like a church bell, the other coming at it like some ravenous animal, while Kenny Aronoff slams his drums behind them like an angry four-year-old--there's a sense of high stakes. The song breaks open into a churning twin-guitar riff that suggests a plow's blades tearing up the earth and then surges forward hard. Mellencamp's voice comes in haunted, desperate. The images he uses are biblical: "Scarecrow on a wooden cross. Blackbird in the barn / Four hundred empty acres that used to be my farm. . . . Rain on the scarecrow. Blood on the plow." The musicians seem to hurl themselves at the song as if everything is riding on it. It's a moment of absolute commitment, and it's thrilling and frightening.

When Mellencamp performed the song at the Rosemont Horizon in late January, I was struck by how out of place it is amid the rest of his material. Only a few minutes earlier he'd delivered the obligatory rendition of "Jack & Diane," his oafish, inexcusably nostalgic, and enormously successful hit about how great it was to be a teenager and how crummy it is to be an adult. Like most of his songs, it obeys the cardinal rule of stadium rock and roll--it gives the audience a reason to feel good, even if only about a part of their life that's gone. On "Rain on the Scarecrow," though, he speaks in the voice of a man defeated, and the waste he describes is absolute. "Scarecrow" shares its apocalyptic sensibility--and its anger--more with "Anarchy in the U.K." than with "Jack & Diane." Except that in "Anarchy," Johnny Rotten's fury is turned on a fatuous, banal world that, for good reason, he wants to see destroyed. In "Scarecrow," Mellencamp's anger is caused by the destruction of a noble, valuable world that, for good reason, he wanted to see endure. It's the only one of his songs that could be described as dangerous.

For a person with little or no experience of life in rural areas, the difficulties faced by this country's farmers may at best prompt the same obligatory, detached sense of remorse I feel whenever yet another natural disaster ravages an underdeveloped nation. It may help to think about farming in terms of more than just the produce section of the nearest Jewel or Dominick's. The song matters not only because the farmers themselves were devastated, but because their way of life is an essential part of the fabric of this region, one whose influence on attitude, values, and spirit extends even to big cities like Chicago.

Farmers are intensely practical. Spending a lifetime working with tangibles--machinery and livestock, dirt, seed, fertilizer, crops, weather--teaches a person not to place much importance on things that are frivolous or insubstantial. A lot of farmers are wealthy men despite the economic precariousness of their profession, but you're not likely to see one wearing an Armani suit or driving a Mercedes. Their emphasis is on fundamental things--hard work, family, neighbors, church.

It's this emphasis on the simple and practical that is the midwest's hallmark. It's apparent in the scattered farm complexes that dot the open terrain (the white, two- story house, a barn, a few large sheds, some grain silos) and in the small towns that appear amid these fields to provide for basic needs (schools, churches, libraries, gas stations and banks, hardware stores and drugstores, taverns and diners). A spare, plain quality prevails in these communities and in comparatively larger places like my hometown, and it's this plainness that extends from the fields to Chicago. For all the glitter and glitz on Michigan Avenue, for all the industrial dance beats in the clubs, and for the considerable big-city problems, Chicago is at heart an unpretentious, gritty town with a tough, muscular vigor. I'll bet anyone who's been in the crowd at a Son Seals show or a Los Lobos concert will agree with me, too. It's the blend of vibrant cultural offerings with this down-to- earth quality, in fact, that makes the city so appealing.

Kids in small towns, who grow up without shopping malls, all-ages clubs, and skateboarding ramps, acquire a sense of the importance of the ordinary, a sense of the value and worth of those familiar elements of human experience--friendships, family and home, school and church. There's a strong emphasis on community, for example, an appreciation of being part of a group bound together by a common concern. While friendships formed in youth tend to last longer than others in general, the insularity and size of small-town schools may strengthen those bonds. My best friend is a guy I met in fifth grade. I'm struck by and grateful for how many of my high school friendships, and those from my tiny liberal arts college in its tiny Iowa town, have endured, how after years of noncommunication old friends and I can reestablish rapport without effort. It's in keeping with this trait that many of John Mellencamp's bandmates come from the same Bloomington, Indiana, bar scene where he got his start. Eschewing the heavyweight studio musicians that stadium rockers such as Sting favor, he's chosen to tour and record with a group of people with whom he shares a history and a common background.

The irony and beauty of living in a small town is that the so-called "simple" or "ordinary" things aren't so simple or ordinary at all. No matter how uneventful, life in these small places can be full. Mellencamp certainly seems to hold that belief. Born and raised in Seymour, Indiana, a town of 16,000 people 215 miles south and 95 miles east of Chicago, he now lives and records in Bloomington, 35 miles from his hometown. His decision to remain a part of his native community argues that he still shares the values that prevail in Bloomington and throughout the midwest's small towns and rough-hewn cities. In addition, it suggests a deep affinity for the residents of these communities, one that George "I Care" Bush will never know. In one way or another, small-town values and concerns and the struggle to live by their terms imbue most of the songs he's recorded during the past ten years, from Uh-Huh to his latest release, Whenever We Wanted.

Consider "Pink Houses," the penultimate song in Mellencamp's Horizon show. It's a curious song, one whose lyrics seem to belie the rousing, anthemic music that makes it such a surefire closing number. Those lyrics--glimpses of an aging black man living in an economically segregated neighborhood and a young white man, a greaser, listening to rock and roll on the radio--describe severely circumscribed lives marked by disappointment. Yet the chorus ("Ain't that America, home of the free . . . ") affirms not only that these lives embody life in the United States, but that they--and by extension the country--are, for all their ordinariness and shortcomings, special and noteworthy (" . . . we're something to see"). The music reinforces this idea: an evocative four-note guitar lick, punctuated by two resonant chords; the instrumental break before the last verse, reminiscent of the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter"; and the extended chorus after it, similar to the one in the Stones' "Tumbling Dice."

This earnest populism reflects Mellencamp's origins, and it's in keeping with the notion that what is most admirable about life in the midwest is what is best about the nation as a whole. Mellencamp's affinity for ordinary people, coupled with his bedrock sense of right and wrong, also fuels the bitter, flinty anger of "Love and Happiness" ("If you are a young couple today / Forget buying a house / And we wage our wars / In the neighborhoods"). On "Minutes to Memories," it leads him to admire the retired steelworker with whom the song's narrator shares a bus ride, to recognize the value in the old man's life of hard work. He depicts in poignant detail the limited routines of commonplace lives on "Check It Out" ("Goin' to work on Monday. . . . All utility bills have been paid / You can't tell your best buddy that you love him") and sides passionately in "The Real Life" with a divorced woman and a middle-class black man struggling with their lot at middle age. The midwestern sense of reserve and the concern with recognizing what's truly valuable in life inform his warning against profligacy in "Paper in Fire." It's notable that, though only the last of these songs was a hit for him, he performed all of them in his Horizon show.

Mellencamp has a keen understanding of life's simple pleasures that's somewhat surprising for a millionaire rock star. "Had myself a ball in a small town," he proclaims, and his songs allude to such various small-town joys as sports, picnicking, and the pursuit of the opposite sex (granted, it's a rock 'n' roll staple, but he makes it seem so quaint on occasion). Mellencamp's also one of the few modern rock performers who appreciate the wondrous relationship of cars and driving to music (Springsteen, of course, being far and away the contemporary leader in this time-honored territory). "Went ridin' around this little country town / We were goin' nuts, girl, out in the sticks," he sings in "Cherry Bomb," two lines that capture the ethos of growing up in the rural midwest as succinctly as anything I can think of. Whatever its other virtues, life in a small town did lack for excitement; aside from the officially sanctioned activities (school athletics and plays) and a few unsanctioned ones (making out in a parking lot or your parents' basement, drinking or smoking a little dope in the public parks), there wasn't a hell of a lot to do. A combination of restlessness and limited options drove kids out into the countryside, where they'd cruise around talking, listening to music on the radio, and watching the dust of the back roads glow yellow in the taillights. "Lonely Ol' Night," with its surging, crashing guitars, captures perfectly the sense of emptiness and yearning that were part of those drives, and Mellencamp's ferocious, hollering vocals on the chorus (he makes the question "Can I put my arms around you?" sound like a matter of life and death, and it is, sort of) hold the same promise that the music on the radio always did: that endurance and determination could see a person through that loneliness, to something that could ease it. The song isn't about night driving per se (although there is that line about "radio playing softly some singer's sad sad song"), but I find it impossible to believe Mellencamp could have written it without spending some hours behind the wheel barreling through the fields around Seymour.

The car music of my youth included, on the plus side, Bob Seger, Cheap Trick, and Fleetwood Mac, and in the minus column such dreadful bands as Boston, Kansas, and Heart. Mellencamp, 40 now, was a little more fortunate. The radio of his youth broadcast straight-up three-chord-bashing garage bands and great soul and R & B performers (who now are notably and disturbingly absent from the formats of most "classic rock" stations). He pays tribute to these acts in "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.," one of the rave-ups he and his band sprinted through during the concert's raucous closing stretch. (In the song, Mellencamp rattles off the names of about a half-dozen 60s music stars and one-hit wonders. Amusingly, and not surprisingly, he fails to mention Neil Diamond, from whose "Cherry, Cherry" Mellencamp took most of "R.O.C.K."'s melody and instrumentation.) "Voices from nowhere / And voices from the larger towns," he sings, "Filled our heads full of dreams / Turned our world upside down." This acknowledgment is in keeping with dozens of stories of big-time rock and rollers who grew up as small-town kids and for whom the radio seemed a portal to another, far more exotic world. (Those stories make it clear how harmful the narrowness of most contemporary radio programming can be, how it limits the sense of discovery and adventure that hearing new music creates. They're also reason to both admire and condemn MTV, which offers a broad range of alternatives at the same time that it compromises and demystifies the music.)

Of all the songs Mellencamp heard on the radio while growing up, none, of course, rivaled the impact on him of the glorious music the Rolling Stones made between Beggars Banquet in 1968 and Exile on Main Street in 1972, years when Mellencamp was in his late teens. He works within the conventions of twin-guitar rock that those records estbalished; muscular, riff-heavy music with the urgent vocals of an often-swaggering singer at the center, enhanced by the strong musical personality of a precise, nuance-sensitive drummer who drives the material--Charlie Watts in the Stones' case, Aronoff in Mellencamp's. The difference between the two men is that Watts's Zen-like restraint accomplishes more with less, whereas Aronoff, a Massachusetts native who studied at Boston's Berklee College of Music, is a much busier player, displaying the greater technical proficiency that he previously exercised in jazz fusion bands. (Which only goes to show the trouble that comes from letting midwest boys play with east-coast kids.) At times, Mellencamp's fealty to this formula can be embarrassing and/or unintentionally comic. Uh-Huh contains a track, "Serious Business," that's a carbon-copy knockoff of "All Down the Line," complete with an imitation of Mick Taylor's superb, fluid slide-guitar work, and "So Tough," off Whenever We Wanted, imitates "Honky Tonk Women" all the way down to the cowbell (neither song appeared in the Horizon concert). On the other hand, he's also been able to appropriate elements of the Stones' music to winning purposes. "Crumblin' Down," for example, has always been one of Mellencamp's sliest, most appealing rockers. With new guitarist David Grissom boosting the brisk acoustic guitar strumming found on Uh-Huh to a ripping electric guitar yawp, it became apparent that the riff at the song's heart was yet another variant on "Brown Sugar." While this sincerest flattery reveals the occasional limitations of Mellencamp's songwriting imagination, it does have a redeeming grace. One of the most interesting things about pop music is how it keeps incorporating new elements, albeit at a dizzying rate lately--hip-hop beats, industrial effects, synthesized textures, deft sampling--but that open-mindedness shouldn't obscure a fundamental principle. Rock and roll never sounds better than when two guitars, a bass, and drums are wrapped around a catchy, substantial riff (if you don't believe me, ask Nirvana or Social Distortion). In embracing the music of the Stones at their peak, Mellencamp is emulating the apotheosis of this form. The results are alternately forgettable ("Hurts So Good," which closed the regular portion of his concert) and gripping ("Get a Leg Up," which, with Grissom's help, roared and burned like a jet-engine lift-off late in the first half of his set), but they always sound good on the radio.

Mellencamp's only departure from this approach came on the two records that preceded Whenever We Wanted. On The Lonesome Jubilee and Big Daddy, he embraced the other musical staple of rural life--country music, with its fiddles, mandolins, and Dobro guitars. The sound he adopted suited the brooding concerns he addressed on those records, especially Big Daddy, and required that he nearly double his band's lineup. Though he returned to a no-frills guitar sound on Whenever We Wanted, he kept his expanded roster of musicians for his concert tour, to his credit. Pat Petersen and Jenny Douglas McRae's percussion added to Aronoff's rhythmic drive, and their backing vocals lent considerable muscle to Mellencamp's choruses throughout the show. Though there wasn't much room for violinist Lisa Germano and keyboard/accordion player John Cascella on guitar rave-ups like "Lonely Ol' Night" or "Authority Song," the material from the "country" records would have been impossible without all four added musicians; that would have meant leaving out "Paper in Fire," Mellencamp's most arresting work musically, with its pulsating rhythm and searing instrumental breaks. In addition, the extra musicians gave the remaining material added depth and coloring--even "Jack & Diane" sounded too good to resist entirely, and Germano's lovely, haunting, unaccompanied solo near the end of "Pink Houses" was the evening's sweetest single moment.

The larger group is also a considerable advantage to Mellencamp as a showman. Whereas too many stadium rockers (INXS, for example) resort to spectacle to entertain their expansive audience, Mellencamp keeps things simple, relying on small touches and a lot of heart. Without fireworks or spectacular lighting, the concert's visual focus was on Mellencamp and the band, especially Petersen and McRae, whose saucy aerobics frequently were more interesting to watch than Mellencamp himself. At times, Dave Grissom's swagger as he took center stage to let rip another solo was disconcerting, but his corrosive guitar gave the music added drive and seemed to energize the band. Throughout the show, Grissom, bassist Toby Myers, and fellow guitarist Mike Wanchic trotted back and forth across the bare, circus red stage, and Lisa Germano stooped and bent in a way I've only seen Keith Richards manage before. With all this activity to focus on, it mattered less that Mellencamp is neither a riveting nor an inventive performer. Aside from a few tricks--like an impressive James Brown-style spin and drop into the splits, and a sudden leap onto Wanchic's shoulders (Wanchic's feat was more remarkable: he didn't budge and kept on playing)--his stage moves are limited to a hip-wiggling two-step shuffle (as my sister Eileen put it, "He can't dance for shit"). His great strength is the effort he goes to to make himself available to the crowd, working every inch of the stage's edge to make eye contact.

He also has the advantage of a veteran's care for details. He paced his show perfectly, mixing crowd pleasers ("Jack & Diane," "Get a Leg Up") with more complex, obscure material ("The Real Life" and "Martha Say," his take on female autonomy) in the first half, and coming back from an intermission with a string of hits. By the time he finished "Cherry Bomb," his second encore, the entire audience was illuminated by strings of lights that stretched across the stadium from the stage to the far corners of the upper decks.

Seen dancing together in those lights' soft glow, the crowd seemed like the members of some small community gathered under an enormous tent to attend a carnival or celebrate the high school team's victory in the homecoming football game. It was a lovely image, a reminder that music itself always has been one of small-town life's pleasures, a bond that once brought communities together for hoedowns and hootenannies. Achieving that same effect, Mellencamp did more than reflect his own roots--he honored them.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul Natkin--Photo Reserve.

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