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Author Topic: 1986 Creem Magazine Feature  (Read 6655 times)
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« on: August 13, 2010, 11:12:47 pm »

John Cougar Mellencamp: Working Class Hero In The Rumbleseat

Bill Holdship, Creem, February 1986

BELMONT MALL, John Cougar Mellencamp's beautiful new recording studio,
is located in a pastoral farm area not far from John's home in
Bloomington, Indiana. It's just down the road from the country church
John recently used in his 'Rain On The Scarecrow' video, and only
minutes from the porch where he sat and played guitar for his 'Lonely
Ol' Night' video. If you drive towards town, you'll see the old rural
stores, steakhouses and other images of pure Midwest Americana that
some believe went out with the 1950s.

Inside, the "Mall" looks more like a modern rustic home than it does a
studio or business office. Nice furniture, a kitchen, framed photos of
James Dean (some of the same that adorn John's home), a studio with
skylights, and a genuine picture window in the sound room that
provides natural light and a gorgeous wooded area view. In the office,
John's father, ex-wife and assorted family friends conduct the day's
business, although there is a peacefulness in these surroundings that
doesn't resemble the normal hectic pace of most business affairs. In
the studio itself, John's band is meticulously rehearsing for the
first leg of the Scarecrow tour, working with their newest member on a
country fiddle solo for the middle of 'Small Town'. During a brief
recess, John leaves the room, and the conversation turns away from the
tour (which begins in one week) to a discussion of that morning's
rerun of The Andy Griffith Show, a program some of these guys and gals
apparently never miss if they can help it.

It's a little ironic because people in this part of the country have
accents not unlike those of Andy, Opie and Aunt Bea while the area
makes one remember that people like those characters actually do still
exist. We're not talking the country bumpkinism of Green Acres, Li'l
Abner or Elvis's unfortunate Kissin' Cousins here but the type of
characters you see in movies like Places In The Heart, Tender Mercies
or The Last Picture Show; the same type of characters you can picture
in your mind when listening to John's very cinematic 'Rain On The
Scarecrow'. They're also the same people I see every time I return to
my rural Michigan hometown (pop. 3,000): farmers, factory workers and
bored high school kids (some in F.F.A. jackets) who hang out in front
of the Dairy Queen, smoking cigarettes and still trying to recreate
the romantic James Dean Rebel Without A Cause persona in 1985, just as
John himself was doing not long ago. Above all, despite the hardships
many of these people now face, they are extremely proud of their
decision to remain in these small towns. You won't see any "I LOVE"
such and such a place bumper stickers, but you can certainly feel the
pride. And it's to these people that John Cougar Mellencamp mostly speaks.

"I am not a 'cool' artist," John says with his characteristic
mischievous grin, "but I kinda like that. I've never judged a guy on
the kind of car he drives, and that's sort of the comparison. I've
just gotta do what I do and hopefully connect with my audience which
is the working class. It really is the guys with the greasy hair.
That's who comes to my shows. And to me, they are the most important
people in the world as far as wanting to communicate with them goes,
which is what it's all about."

Ironically, Scarecrow, John's stunning new LP, seems to presently be
communicating to more than just his old audience a fact that's in no
small part due to the exciting sound of the record's music. John
admits that he wanted to incorporate the sound of classic '60s rock
into the album, and he gave his band close to a hundred old singles to
learn "almost mathematically verbatim" prior to recording Scarcrow.
And, of course, the influences can be heard all over the place be it
obviously and comically like the Troggs/'Wild Thing' ocarina solo on
'R.O.C.K. (In The U.S.A.)', which John reveals is a lift of Neil
Diamond's 'Cherry, Cherry', or subliminally like the hidden 'Back In
My Arms Again' riff on the bridge of 'Small Town' and the Animals'
organ-solo-transferred-to-guitar on 'Face The Nation'.

"Learning those songs did a lot of positive things," he explains. "We
realized more than ever what a big melting pot of all different types
of music the '60s were. Take an old Rascals song for example there's
everything from marching band beats to soul music to country sounds in
one song. Learning those opened the band's vision to try new things on
my songs. It wasn't let's go back and try to make this part fit into
my song, but I wanted to capture the same feeling the way those
songs used to make you feel. After a while, we didn't even have to
talk about it anymore. If you listen to the lead Larry plays on 'Face
The Nation', he never would have played that 'cause he didn't really
know who the Animals were. He's young, and he grew up on Grand Funk
Railroad. You hear it, and it's like 'where did that come from?' It
had to be from hearing those old records."

But then Cougar's band has always been terrific, while John's songs
(and image) haven't really changed that much over the years. He was
doing cool cover tunes as far back as his debut Chestnut Street
Incident debacle (which still doesn't sound that bad for a demo tape
of a bunch of country town kids), while the guy listening to Sam Cooke
on the radio in 'Ain't Even Done With The Night' is the same guy, a
little older and wiser, listening to the Four Tops on 'Lonely Ol'
Night'. What has changed on Scarecrow is John's newfound acceptance of
his social responsibility. His older fans always seemed to sense the
big heart behind the pissed-off, smartassed, preoccupied-with-getting
laid exterior, but what has finally changed is the difference between
someone who feels the world basically sucks and one who believes we
could make the world work. And it's the crucial difference that can
transform someone from a really good rock 'n' roller into one of the
very best. "I've always been just what I've been." says John. "And
that's constantly changing."

In the two years since I last interviewed him, a lot has changed in
John's life, and he has rapidly advanced from what he termed "a high
point in the career" to what now approximates superstardom. He's
worked with people like the terrific Blasters and Barbra Streisand,
who talked him into co-writing a song with her ("It was exciting for a
day," he grins). But the biggest press he received during this time
occurred when Reagan's people contacted him about using 'Pink Houses'
in a Presidential campaign spot. He downplays the incident's
importance now, but does say: "It makes no sense whatsoever. What
Reagan wants to do has nothing to do with Born In The U.S.A., 'Pink
Houses' or working class people. But Reagan doesn't appeal to logic.
He appeals to the emotional. Let's not forget the guy was an actor,
and he's not stupid. You even see this stuff in beer commericals right
now 'Made the American way.' But it's a two-sided sword. Yeah, it's
kind of scary, but there's also the type of patriotism that says maybe
we can change things and make them better. That's my type."

John received a birthday present last year from a Florida girl who
claims that one of his songs literally saved her life. She had turned
up the radio so her parents wouldn't hear the sucide gun shot, and one
of his songs came on. Incidents like this, as well as the Presidential
request, are probably what helped influence John's decision to finally
accept himself as a role model. "I suddenly realized that whether I
liked it or not, I was a role model to some people and that brings
responsibility, which I didn't want two years ago because it's safer.
But I was wrong. Just like it's Motley Crue's responsibility to maybe
clean it up a little bit. I've got a song that says 'the face of the
nation changes' and it changes because of the men we admire. Rock
'n' roll would've never been what it is without guys like Elvis and
Jerry Lee Lewis setting the pace for all us latecomers. Our foresight
is so short that we forget 10 years down the road, there might be
people learning from us, so we gotta make it positive. It's the same
with government officials. It influences how we'll behave and sets the
tone. Just look at the ultraconservative wave sweeping the country
right now."

John seems to be more at peace with himself than ever, and he's only
using a fraction of the four-letter words that once seemed to pop up
every other sentence. He even speaks of Reagan's and Motley Crue's
"good" points. "I now believe in trying to find the best points and
trying to change the worst," he says. "I don't hate as much as I used
to, and I'm real proud of that 'cause I was the most hateful, cynical
person about everything. But then I just gradually found myself
becoming a happier person by not hating so much. Don't get me wrong. I
still feel hate, but I've made leaps and bounds."

It's as old as the "part of the solution or the problem" cliche but
John currently seems to be experiencing the self-discovery process in
which hate turns to anger which later turns to action and commitment.
And the most important thing is that he's addressing it in a plain,
simple English that anyone can understand. John says his new lyrical
philosophy involves "showing a little bit of hope with a little bit of
humor" amid the sad realities and this merger can definitely be
heard in the delightfully upbeat message of 'Rumbleseat', the
beautiful image of 'Between A Laugh & A Tear' (his personal fave) and
the old man's advice on 'Minute To Memories'.

"I wrote a song called 'Stand For Something'," he explains, "but I
never did say what you should stand for except your own truth. That
song was supposed to be funny, too, and I hope people got that. But I
think that's the key to the whole LP suggesting that each person
come to grips with their own individual truth and try to like
themselves a little bit more. Find out what you as a person are and
don't let the world drag you down. People should have respect for and
believe in themselves."

John has recently been closely associated with championing the plight
of the American farmer not only on Scarecrow's title track, but,
along with Willie Nelson and Neil Young, as one of the organizers of
last fall's "all-star" Farm Aid benefit concert. Arguably less
pretentious and more common spirited than the apparent "We Are The
Stars" attitude of Live Aid, John is very pleased to have been part of
it, though the rock fan comes out and he seems equally thrilled to
have had the chance to meet a couple of his own heroes like John
Fogerty ("he's a bigger hillbilly than me!"), Lou Reed ("I told him
that I was basically here because of him because if he could do
it...He said 'That's what I always tried to get across"') and Joni

"I didn't want to make Farm Aid a show for rich people. It was good
having people like X and Lou. It changed the spirit of the thing, and
there wasn't any of this 'Am I going to get a prime time spot? Who am
I following?' which wasn't why we were doing this. I really think
there was such community there. It was, in many ways, what the '60s
pretended to be for that one day."

Although he remains proud of the event, he was bothered by some of the
negative press Farm Aid received. "At first, they really tried to find
something to attack, but it was hard because it was so honest. ABC
even went to this little obscure town that received $300 for their
food bank. They said 'Does $300 really make a difference?' And the
woman said 'Well, this cupboard was bare two days ago, now look at it.'

"Listen, progress is a wonderful thing. I'm all for it when it's
positive and a good move forward. But when you look around and see
what we're going to is the same thing we have with AT&T or the oil
companies, that's not a positive move in farming. If you build a
better car, great. But if you build a 'better car' that's junky and
will kill you in the end, I won't get in the sonovabitch. Corporate
farming will drive more than just the farmers out of business, because
these corporations don't go down to the corner store for supplies. And
a corporate cattle farm, for instance, they're only interested in
maximum yield. What they do to get it isn't right. Like using
steroids. My kids' kids might grow to be 15 feet tall! Who knows how
it'll affect us all physically. And they will rape the soil until it's
of no use anymore.

"I'm not against automation and machines replacing people as long as
those people have somewhere to go. But it's the responsibility of
those companies to retrain these people. It's not right for U.S. Steel
to just let go of all those people and not only do they not retrain
them, but they diminish their retirement pensions until nothing's
left. The difference in farming is the corporations want the farmers
to continue. They just don't want them owning their land. I'm not
trying to save heritage here, either. I don't really care about that.
It's like trying to save a Model T. There's comfort there. There's
comfort in seeing an old black & white Andy Of Mayberry on TV because
it reminds us of the comfort we knew as kids but I'm not into saving
something just for the sake of saving it."

As of late, John has also been one of the most vocal opponents of the
move by a group of bored Washington wives to put a rating system on
rock LPs, and his name is frequently associated with the Musical
Majority, though he claims the "organization" is really just a list of
people who oppose censorship. He mentions that his 'Crumblin' Down'
video was actually cited as being "too violent" by a parents group
several years ago, and he's already demanded a contract from his
record company declaring that his records won't be rated. He compares
the ratings effort to how McCarthy blacklisting began in the '50s.
"It's a wolf in sheep's clothing. I don't really like 'Fuck Like A
Beast' but if you look forward and backwards, you can see what's
coming. Before long, K-Mart'll say we got too many X and R records,
and then you'll be lucky to get Olivia Newton-John because her clothes
are too tight. We'll be lucky if we end up with the Archies."

With all this activism, John has recently been getting the expected
Bruce Springsteen comparisons. Of course, this is nothing new. The
first time I saw Cougar perform in 1979, a drunk guy insisted on
screaming "Springsteen!" throughout the entire show ("I'm not too
proud to say I'm a fan" was John's response that night). But he is
unhappy about the competetiveness the press builds between him and the
Boss, expecially since the release of Scarecrow. "I think you're
either trying to do something or you're not. And for people to blame
me for trying to do something just because Bruce is doing something is
unfair. But it doesn't really bother me on the other side of the coin.
I am connecting with people. And I've met Bruce now, and he's like the
nicest guy in the whole world, as downhome as John Fogerty not
pretentious and he's a real individual. So listen, if that's my worst
crime, then I think I'm probably all right. I also think it's
sometimes easy for people to hate someone who cares because that makes
them have to care and a lot of them don't."

Other than the Scarecrow tour which will run in different legs
through spring '86, which has already rejected numerous corporate
sponsorships, and which at two-and-a-half hours promises to be perhaps
the best tour of the year John's future could include a major motion
picture, that is if he finally gets someone to make it. He recently
wrote a screenplay which he claims "wasn't very good," but his friend
Larry McMurty (The Last Picture Show, Terms Of Endearment) liked the
characters and took them to incorporate into his own screenplay.
McMurty came to Bloomington to research the Mellencamp family, merged
it with his own family's story, and created what John calls "a
beautiful story about downward mobility, family relationships,
infidelity. The only problem is it's a downbeat movie. Hollywood
doesn't want to make downbeat movies. They want blockbusters like
Ghostbusters or Purple Rain. It's a great movie, and I don't know that
we'll ever get it made. Also, even though I play a country singer in
the script, I don't want to sing in the movie. That makes it hard when
the president of some film company is saying 'So we got John Cougar in
a movie, eh? Which one of his songs is he gonna do?' But I can see
their side, although I don't like it, and I'm not rejoicing over it."

After all is said and done, though, perhaps the finest attribute of
Scarecrow is that it finally vindicates the longtime fans of John
Cougar Mellencamp, a performer who has described himself as "the
biggest joke in the industry," and a performer who as late as last
year's Uh Huh tour was still paying for the Tony DeFries demo tape
folly of nearly a decade ago. I think a lot of fans are taking a
certain "we-told-you-so" pride in Scarecrow's critical and commercial
success, not to mention Mellencamp's triumph over in credible odds.
It's proof of what a lot of people have been saying for a long time:
John Cougar is a great rock 'n' roller.

But although he believes that Scarecrow is his best LP and one to be
proud of, John remains as self-effacing as ever when discussing
himself. He says he's "kinda disappointed" in 'R.O.C.K. (In The
U.S.A.)' and 'Justice And Independence '85' ("I don't think people are
getting the idea of what the song's about, so I must've not done a
very good job"). And even though he feels it's good that his fans
might feel vindicated, he personally doesn't see it that way at all.
"To me, I'm still struggling. I can't think that this record lived up
to any type of promise. I guess you can't be objective about yourself,
but to me, I still wanna do better and do more for other people."

So he may still be an American fool in the rumbleseat but we should
be happy to claim him as one of our own.
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