John Mellencamp: Hero to Midwest '80s kids
By Matt Zimmer
It’s never been cool to be a fan of John Mellencamp. The man himself has often said so.
And in the year 2016 that’s probably true. Though the artist formerly known as Johnny Cougar has seen his platinum-selling 80s records age well, he’s still the same guy who annoyed much of America with that ‘This is Our Country’ song that ruled the airwaves during NFL games nearly a decade ago. He’s continued making albums every three or four years or so, but nowadays they’re largely ignored by all but his diehard fans.
If you go back about 30 years, though, nobody was cooler to a humble white kid from the Midwest than John Cougar Mellencamp.
I remember watching the video to ‘Paper in Fire’, one of the hits from his 1987 album The Lonesome Jubilee, where a shaggy-haired, tank-top-wearing Mellencamp jammed with his band outside a front porch with a group of dancing country black folks and thinking he was the coolest guy I’d ever seen. You know that scene in the ‘Pink Houses’ video where Mellencamp does jump kicks in a corn field? Yeah, I’ve done that.
Mellencamp was one of the biggest stars of MTV’s golden era, and most every one of his videos felt like a scene from my life. Small Town, Pink Houses, Rain on the Scarecrow, Check it Out – these songs were almost dangerously familiar to someone who grew up or spent time in the rural Midwest. The photos in his album’s liner notes of Mellencamp bellied up to the bar in a diner making small-talk with old-timers looked like what I saw every time I visited my grandparents in Lake Benton, Minn.
As a lyricist, Mellencamp’s reach has always slightly exceeded his grasp– even his best songs can be a tad trite and cliché at times. But they’re definitely authentic.
Much of today’s top 40 country music is a watered down version of what Mellencamp was doing with much more heart and far less contempt in the mid-80s. Songs about farms, drive-in movies, high school sweethearts and “getting too drunk on Saturday and playing football with the kids on Sundays”.
Luke Bryan sings inferior versions of songs like that because he knows it will make him rich. Mellencamp wrote those songs because he lived them. He cared about the people in his songs, because he was one of them. I always found it comforting that someone who I admired so much validated even the most mundane of my life’s experiences in his songs the way Mellencamp did.
He’s also just a great singer, and his original band of Mike Wanchic, Larry Crane, Kenny Aronoff, Toby Myers and Lisa Germano was one of the best rock bands of the 80s.
One night when I was in college (shortly after I had turned 21) I was at McRudy’s bar in St. Cloud on what turned out to be a karaoke night. I had never sung a note in public and certainly had no intention to, but after a few Budweisers I found myself on stage, where I belted out ‘Hurts So Good’ and ‘Jack and Diane’ back-to-back. Most of my friends were there, and they assured me I was outstanding, that I should be in a band.
I knew then as well as I know now that this was not true, but damn near every week the rest of that year we went to McRudy’s on karaoke night and I got up and sang a few Mellencamp songs.
One morning I was nursing a hangover in my kinesiology class when a kid next to me nudged me and whispered, ‘Aren’t you the guy who sings Mellencamp at McRudy’s?’
I recommitted myself to my studies that day.
There have been a few instances since then in which I’ve been pressured up on a stage to relive my karaoke days, but I try to avoid them at all costs. In part because I’m too old and too sober to make a fool of myself as easily as I would 15 years ago, but also because deep down, I really love those songs, and I don’t want to ruin them.
I saw Mellencamp when he last came to Sioux Falls, in 1999. That was at the Arena. It was a fine show as far as arena concerts go. He played all the hits, the band sounded good, etc. But the show he’ll play Wednesday at the Pavilion figures to be a more intimate one, and that seems appropriate. I don’t want to see a 65-year-old Mellencamp get up on an Arena stage and try to relive the old days. Though he’s not the same cultural figure he was 20 or 30 years ago, Mellencamp is still someone who resonates with millions of Americans, and he and his music have aged gracefully. His appearance on the Late Show during David Letterman’s final week was genuinely funny and moving, and it reminded me of how impactful Mellencamp’s best songs really are.
It still isn’t cool to be a fan of John Mellencamp, and maybe it never will be. But I’ll always love those songs. They’re the soundtrack of my life.http://www.argusleader.com/story/blogs/mattzimmer/2016/11/01/john-mellencamp-hero-midwest-80s-kids/93139584/