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Author Topic: 1987 Lonesome Jubilee Feature  (Read 8971 times)
walktall2010
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« on: August 11, 2010, 01:41:58 pm »

REBEL WITH A CAUSE

By Timothy White

EVERYWHERE HE LOOKS, HE SEES THE high and haughty giving short shrift
to the humble American, and John Cougar Mellencamp is in a slow burn.

Within the space of two weeks, the rock singer has shuttled from the
stifling hearing rooms of the United States Senate to a simmering
back alley in the poorest black neighborhood in Savannah, Ga., and
the things he has seen have inflamed his notorious Hoosier ire. (It
is not without reason that the 35-year-old singer and songwriter has
awarded himself the sobriquet of ''Little Bastard.'') ''This street,
one of the last unpaved places in this thriving town, is a sad
comment on the local government,'' he states flatly, surveying the
dust-strewn shanty site for the video of ''Paper in Fire,'' the
ferocious first single from his new album, ''The Lonesome Jubilee,''
which has risen promptly to the top 10. ''Do you know a film crew
came through this area . . . and dressed a block of this lane to look
like a shambled Vietnamese village! Talk about lending insult to
injury.''

For his part, Mellencamp arrived the day before at this hoveled tract
between Price and Broad Streets, asking door-to-door permission of
the locals to depict in the video their neighborhood and its
inhabitants exactly as he found them. They could participate in any
manner they cared to, he explained, and would be paid generously for
their time and contributions.

Suspicious and frightened at first, but drawn to the rough-hewn
warmth of the singer, they discussed the offer among themselves for
several hours and ultimately - and enthusiastically - agreed.

So it is that on a cloudy and sultry day, filming is about to
commence. All told, there are perhaps 40 citizens, crew and band
personnel gathered around Mellencamp's small microphone
stand. ''O.K., everybody settle down and listen in!'' hollers the
puggish Mellencamp. ''There's no script,'' he assures with a
beguiling grin, ''so just be yourselves, enjoy each other's company
and have some damned fun.''

''I ain't left this ol' street for 40 years,'' remarks one elderly
gentleman, looking on in amusement as the music commences, ''and this
is the first pleasant surprise I seen on it in that whole time.''



MEET THE NEW JOHN COUGAR MELLENCAMP - the former enfant terrible of
heartland rock. This is the man who once stormed out of a
CBS ''Nightwatch'' interview because of what he considered baiting
questioning. This is the same man who, in 1982, threw an equipment-
clearing tantrum onstage in Ontario, Canada, when technical problems
became disruptive (he later gave a free concert by way of apology).

He did all this, however, when he was known as John Cougar - a name
foisted on him by his first manager. Today's Mellencamp (he restored
his Dutch-German surname in 1983) has retained his wildcat
moniker. ''I was well-known as a failure,'' he explains, ''so I
figured I'd fight to fix, rather than deny, my sorry reputation.'' It
is a fight that the singer appears to have won. Late last year,
Billboard magazine, the music-trade bible, announced the three top
pop artists of the year: glamorous Whitney Houston, sexy siren
Madonna - and craggy-faced John Cougar Mellencamp.

Last June 18, it was the new Mellencamp who appeared before the
Senate Subcommittee on Agricultural Production and Stabilization of
Prices. The singer is a member of Farm Aid, a movement based in
Cambridge, Mass., to help alleviate the economic crisis facing small
family farms throughout the nation. Once a year, since 1985, he and
the country singer Willie Nelson have headlined a Farm Aid benefit
concert. It was as representatives of Farm Aid that the two singers
were testifying in support of the Family Farm bill, sponsored by
Senator Tom Harkin, a Democrat of Iowa.

''I am an entertainer playing rock music,'' Mellencamp told the
committee in his intense, raspy drawl, ''and Willie asked me to be
involved in Farm Aid about two or three years ago. In Seymour, Ind.,
the town I grew up in, there used to be a John Deere dealership - it
is no longer there. . . . When I am out on tour and I am talking to
people, they are afraid. Their vision of the future is: What is going
to happen to my children in 20 years when, all of a sudden, three
farmers are farming the State of Indiana and they also own all the
food-processing plants!''

''It seems funny and peculiar,'' he continued, ''that, after my shows
and after Willie's shows, people come up to us for advice. It is
because they have got nobody to turn to.''

As Mellencamp spoke, there was a steady exodus of those against
Harkin's Family Farm bill. Shortly before the singer began speaking,
Senator Rudy Boschwitz, a Republican of Minnesota, leader of the farm
bill's opponents, had taken the floor to inform Mellencamp and
Nelson: ''I thought I was going to come here and listen to Willie
Nelson and his friend Mellencamp sing. Instead, I am listening to the
Senator from Iowa, whose song I have heard before.''

''You know,'' whispered Mellencamp into Willie Nelson's ear, ''this
kind of behavior really brings out the juvenile in me.'' But the
Little Bastard held his temper.

It is this new self-discipline and focused fire that have enabled
Mellencamp to reclaim rock - which has in recent years become largely
frivolous - as a vehicle for social commentary. Rock-and-roll is a
billion-dollar industry, so such a move by a singer of Mellencamp's
status is nothing if not provocative. Politically, the songwriter is
a left-of-center populist with no love for what he views as the
current ''monolithic forces'' of big business. ''They're willing to
exploit John Doe,'' he says, ''and let America become a third-world
country economically if it benefits them.''

The current rock scene has been largely dominated by the working-
class fervor of Bruce Springsteen, whose showmanship and
compositional splendor have been offset by an ambiguous thematic
voice and an equally enigmatic personality. A Springsteen hit such
as ''Born in the U.S.A.'' greets the ears like the sound of Caesar
entering Rome, yet its lyrics are actually the lament of a Vietnam
veteran who sees himself as a beaten dog. Springsteen is a
melodramatist whose personality is deliberately disguised by his
theatrics. He carefully restricts contact with the public and is
rarely seen offstage. Mellencamp, on the other hand, is an open book,
with no larger-than-life bravura -even though the deeply personal
side to his music has been little known. Springsteen's flamboyant
sound is all flesh, but Mellencamp's more accessible rock is all bone.

Mellencamp has gained stature as a scrappy musical spokesman who
doesn't broadcast mixed signals or an underlying message of defeat.
Like Springsteen, he declines to permit his defiant brand of rock to
be used for car commercials or ketchup ads. He was particularly
pungent when aides of President Reagan considered the use of ''Pink
Houses'' - Mellencamp's paean to the simple economic hopes of the
heartland - as a campaign song for the President's 1984 re-election
drive.

''I made it clear from day one that he just had to forget it,''
Mellencamp said at the time. ''I couldn't bear gettin' involved that
way with any politician, least of all Reagan, and corrupt what is
essentially a basic, humble dream of contentment he can't even
understand.''

Mellencamp himself understands that successful rock stars have
customarily retreated from controversy as their fortunes have risen.
Yet the songwriter is taking a bolder approach. In ''The Lonesome
Jubilee,'' he says, ''I want to create songs that include a lot of
ordinary people, that raise their self-esteem.'' This album, his
eighth, is his most ambitious attempt ''to report on my boomer
generation's bruised optimism,'' as he puts it. ''The title refers to
ordinary victories, the private ones that are usually very solitary.
In the past, I've tried to sing about overlooked Americans. On the
new album, I'm trying to speak for them.''



MELLENCAMP'S previous three albums of grass roots social commentary -
''American Fool,'' ''Uh-Huh,'' ''Scarecrow'' - each sold a solid
three million copies. The singer himself believes that their appeal
lies in his merging of two major influences -James Brown and the
Rolling Stones - plus a folkish enthusiasm all his own.

In ''Lonesome Jubilee,'' which has won immediate critical acclaim for
its artful instrumentation and searing imagery, Mellencamp takes
heartland rock one step further. He augments the larger intent of
this album with a new musical vocabulary. At his behest, his eight-
member band has expanded its flinty hard-rock approach by employing
such traditionally rustic instruments as fiddle, hammered dulcimer,
autoharp, accordion, banjo, mandolin and lap steel guitar.

''With John's music, you work on the emotional essentials,'' says
Larry Crane, Mellencamp's guitarist and right-hand musical confidant
for 20 uninterrupted years. ''He always insists on an authentic band
sound when he's recording, which has become unusual in this time of
endless studio gadgetry. He's also not willing to sacrifice that band
feel for the sake of an idea, or vice versa, so he makes it our
responsibility to keep up.''

Crane practiced tirelessly on a lap steel guitar. Kenny Aronoff, a
classically trained percussionist, was dispatched to consult with
Malcolm Daglish, the noted hammered dulcimer expert, to tackle that
vintage instrument. Mike Wanchic was urged to master the dobro.

''Some critics have said these instruments on 'Jubilee' have an
Appalachian flavor, but that's wrong,'' says Crane. ''Appalachian
music, as John and I both know, is a certain cross between folk and
bluegrass. What John said he wanted was a 'real spooky sort of gypsy
rock,' and he used trial and error with us to find it.''

Lyrically, the bulk of ''The Lonesome Jubilee'' seems an extension of
the underdog themes of Mellencamp's preceding album, ''Scarecrow.''
Titles such as ''Hard Times for an Honest Man,'' ''Down and Out in
Paradise,'' ''We Are the People'' and ''The Real Life'' reflect a
continuing interest in America's troubled countryside. However, the
heavily atmospheric musical settings have an eerie vividness that
makes them more than topical.

As with ''Scarecrow,'' whose association with Farm Aid encouraged
oversimplified interpretations, ''The Lonesome Jubilee'' also
threatens to be understood only on a superficial level. Mellencamp
readily concedes that ''Scarecrow'' was a ''double-barreled
shotgun.'' ''Farm Aid,'' he says, ''made it easy for people to deal
with the title track poetically, romantically, but they often didn't
hear the personal shots fired on the record's other 10 songs.''

''See,'' he adds bluntly, ''a lot of the time I write in the third
person, but I'm mostly describing my own ordeals. When those
unsettled struggles prey on your mind, you become haunted. To get
free, you must defeat your ghosts.''

In that light, ''Paper in Fire,'' the first hit single from ''The
Lonesome Jubilee,'' takes on an ominous immediacy:

There is a good life
Right across this green field
And each generation
Stares at it from afar
But we keep no check
On our appetites
So the green fields turn to brown
Like paper in fire.
(Copyright 1987 Riva Music Inc.)

Is Mellencamp perhaps singing about his own past?

''Let me put it this way,'' he murmurs, seated on the brick stoop
outside his beachside summer house, less than an hour's drive from
downtown Savannah. ''Remember that sweet old guy in the alley who
said he hadn't been out of there in 40 years? Well, he took me aside
to tell me he'd also been drunk for most of those 40 years. Because
if you come from that place, people mark you for life, won't hire
you, want no part of you. That's a lot of pain to surmount all by
yourself.

''In my corner of the world, I've experienced those attitudes, and
the rage they create. 'The Lonesome Jubilee,' like 'Scarecrow' and
the rest of my best stuff, is about me and my family tree grappling
against both the world and our own inner goddamned whirlwind.''



AT BIRTH, ON OCT. 7, 1951, John J. Mellencamp was found to have a
potentially crippling defect of the spinal vertebrae known as spina
bifida. A corrective operation was a success, but Mrs. Mellencamp
would later wonder if the trauma had a lingering effect on her
cantankerous offspring.

Not that the Mellencamps were known for their benign dispositions.
The former Marilyn Joyce Lowe, a runner-up in the 1946 Miss Indiana
pageant, first encountered her handsome brawler of a husband, Richard
Mellencamp, during a hectic Saturday afternoon in the late 1940's.

''Dad knocked Mom over as she was walking out of a store,'' says the
singer with a wide grin. ''He and his big brother Joe were running
from the cops after pummeling four guys in retaliation for a whupping
my father had gotten earlier. The police caught . . . Joe, but Dad
pitched Mom on her butt and kept on going. It was love at first
sideswipe.''

And it was of a piece with the temperamental exploits of John
Mellencamp's elders. ''I've often wondered where the family got its
anger from,'' he says. ''I can tell you that, for as far back as
anyone can care to remember, there has been a rigid petty small-town
class system in Seymour.'' Seymour, Ind., has long been a tough
agricultural town with some light industry. It was in the outlying
farmland that Mellencamp's great-great-grandfather, Johann Heinrich
Mollenkamp, a German-Dutch peasant farmer from Germany, settled in
1851.

In the town's social hierarchy, at the top ''were the people who made
their money during the Industrial Revolution,'' continues
Mellencamp. ''In the middle were the sometimes poorly educated wage
earners, and at the bottom were the folks in shacks. The elite didn't
like any meddling with this pecking order.

''My Grandpa only knew one solution to any belittlement or perceived
slight - a fight. A guy who comes on macho is probably the most
vulnerable person in the world, and he was. After the sudden death of
his father, the family farm had to be sold, and Grandpa was forced to
quit school in the third grade to make his way as a carpenter. He was
barely literate, couldn't speak English well, and felt deeply
ashamed. Grandpa went to register to vote as a young man and told the
clerk, 'I'm Harry Perry Mellencamp.' She laughed, poked fun at his
name, and he walked out. He never voted in his life, due to that
mortifying incident.''

''We were always hearing talk that 'You low-class Mellencamps will
never amount to anything,' so from the instant he was able to
swagger, Uncle Joe did,'' says Mellencamp. The 6-foot-2 Joe became a
star running back at Seymour High and Indiana University, and he
built up a successful concrete and construction business. Women and
brawling were Uncle Joe's undoing.

''Joe married, but he . . . was never faithful to his wife,'' the
singer continues. ''In 1967, he got so bored he was briefly involved
with the John Birch Society. That woke me up to the ugliness of his
overall outlook.''

Meanwhile, Joe's younger brother Richard - an electrician's
assistant - was crafting his own future, moving from contracting jobs
to Robbins Electric, a company with customers as diverse as Disney
World and the nuclear-power industry. His bullish ambition served him
well, but he could not buck Seymour's rigid hierarchy.

''My Dad went into the Cadillac dealership to buy his first nice car,
and the salesman refused to wait on him,'' says Mellencamp. ''Their
attitude was 'You Mellencamps can't afford these.' '' Undeterred, the
senior Mellencamp moved his wife and five children to nearby Rockford.

Richard Mellencamp, recalls his son, was ''a complete tyrant.'' ''Dad
and I would have fist fights, and then we stopped communicating
altogether.'' At 14, John Mellencamp was a beer-swilling truant. The
next forbidden plunge was into rock-and-roll, ''particularly the
popular music of blacks, which -since the region still had signs
reading 'Black man, don't let the sun set on you here' - was
something my friends and I calculated that the right people would
hate. I was raised with a near-oblivious disregard for racial
differences, but when I learned the town elite frowned on these
viewpoints I embraced them all the more.''

His first record purchase was Chubby Checker's 1960 hit ''The
Twist,'' but at 15 John Mellencamp found grittier fare. He and Fred
Booker, a 17-year-old from one of Seymour's 28 black households,
formed a boisterous eight-man band called Crepe Soul. As 1960's teen
culture evolved from the Beatles and rhythm-and-blues to acid rock
and the sexual revolution, John discovered dizzying new avenues for
parental aggravation. ''A narcotics agent came to school and busted
my friends and me for amphetamines - we'd been high for the whole
week when the principal got suspicious.''

Back home, Richard Mellencamp administered the ritual drubbing, then
stripped his delinquent charge of his long tresses and hippie mufti.
John retaliated by parading around the neighborhood with a hand-
lettered sign around his neck that read: ''I am the product of my
father!''

When he was 18, John's 21-year-old girlfriend, Priscilla Esterline,
became pregnant. Indiana law did not permit an 18-year-old to get
married without parental consent, so the couple eloped to Kentucky.
John enrolled at Indiana's Vincennes University, a two-year
institution willing to wink at his D average. After commencement, he
found employment installing equipment for Indiana Bell, but was
discharged after he accidentally disconnected all the phone service
in Freetown, Ind. The failed lineman returned to his first passion:
music. His early albums, Mellencamp recalls, were full of ''selfish,
reckless boy-wants-girl stuff, songs I meant then but surely wouldn't
write now.''

In 1976, the singer allowed his manager at the time to recast him as
John Cougar - a Midwestern clone of the glittering pop surrealist
David Bowie. The comparison was ludicrous. Four lean years later,
John was in Los Angeles cutting his last-ditch LP ''Nothin' Matters
and What if It Did,'' when reports trickled in from Australia
that ''I Need a Lover,'' an earlier single of his, had gone No. 1
Down Under. Shortly thereafter, the same single went top 30 in the
United States.

Meanwhile, John had fallen in love with Victoria Lynn Granucci,
daughter of a veteran Hollywood stuntman. He was hurriedly divorced
from his first wife, and two months after he and his new love were
married he became the father of a daughter, Teddi Jo Mellencamp.

By the close of 1983, Mellencamp was a family man living with his
wife and two daughters in Bloomington, Ind. He was also one of
America's most successful rock stars. But life remained unsettled. He
was changing management again, searching wearily for a business plan
to solidify his belated success. What was worse, his supposedly
indestructible grandfather - the man he always turned to when he had
a problem - was succumbing to lung cancer. ''Just before his death,''
the singer remembers, ''he called everybody into his bedroom, and
although he wasn't a religious person he said, 'You know, I'm having
a real bad beating of a time with the Devil.' He was saying that the
Devil wouldn't let him say a prayer to save himself. He'd built up
this 'I am a rock' pose and where had it gotten him? It stopped me
cold to see my Grandpa so scared. Six hours later, he was gone.''

A BLEAK EARLY-morning breeze penetrates the stand of trees
surrounding John Mellencamp's split-level home in Bloomington
backcountry. The summer is spent, and the family is back to its
normal routine. The kids fret over homework, and Vicky Mellencamp
prepares for a board meeting at the area's progressive primary
school. John Mellencamp sits in the tiny kitchen that is his lair.

''Let's face it, you are your parents, whether any of us like it or
not,'' he says. ''I believe the personal history I address
on 'Scarecrow' and 'The Lonesome Jubilee' is the same. I think it's
tragic when families don't grow up, when they don't get past
adolescence.''

Mellencamp wrote a lot of songs over the summers of 1983-85, good-
time material with titles such as ''Smart Guys'' and ''The Carolina
Shag,'' but none of it found its way onto the album that
became ''Scarecrow.'' Instead, he began to sift through his
grandfather's legacy, wondering what it would take to call a halt to
the Mellencamps' undeclared war within themselves.

''My Dad changed completely when we buried Grandpa, went from being a
screaming dictator to the nicest person you ever met, and he
apologized,'' says the singer, his voice unsteady, ''with his whole
heart for the way he'd behaved. Even Uncle Joe grew up at the age of
54, and became the kindest soul you could imagine.'' Richard
Mellencamp left his job as the executive vice president of Robbins
Electric to become his son's financial manager.

Thinking of his troubled family and his own untempered nature, John
Mellencamp wrote a song for ''Scarecrow'' titled ''The Face of the
Nation,'' with the stark refrain: ''You know babe I'm gonna keep on
tryin'/ To put things right/ If only for me and you/ Cause the devil
sleeps tonight.''

Just as ''Scarecrow'' was haunted by the specter of his grandfather,
so ''The Lonesome Jubilee'' is shadowed by the death last year of his
Uncle Joe. '' 'Paper in Fire' is about Joe and the family's ingrained
anger,'' says the songwriter. ''I figure rock-and-roll's a far better
way to blow off steam.''

''Paper in Fire'' is the sound of a soul in desperate flight, running
either from or toward its destiny. The choir of screaming fiddle,
banjo and squeezebox creates a chilling aura of suspense -but leaves
the conclusion to one's imagination.

''I'm more content and happy with myself than I've been in the last
two decades,'' says Mellencamp, his soft tone slowly rising, ''even
though I sometimes babble stuff that I regret, or wrestle with an
impulse to tell off the U.S. Senate.''

Mellencamp rises to prepare for a band rehearsal, then pauses.

''You know, my smallest girl was born two summers ago in Bloomington
Hospital. Vicky had gotten awful sick with chicken pox and the
doctors said the illness might result in deformity of the fetus. We
were so terrified - maybe the way my parents were with my spinal
problems at birth -that we never had time to think up a damned name
for the child. As the doctor began the delivery, we decided that if
there was any justice in the world the baby would be healthy.

''So now,'' he says, smiling faintly, ''as I think about family
truths and consequences with 'The Lonesome Jubilee,' I try to remind
myself that there really is a little justice in this world.''
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