Corrections or additions?
This article by Richard Skelly was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on
October 20, 1999. All rights reserved.
Mellencamp to Cougar & Back: Trust the Art
Bruce Springsteen, New Jersey’s poet-laureate, once
said, "trust the art, not the artist." Such is the case with
John Mellencamp, who is often compared to the populist singer-songwriter.
Both men write of their experiences growing up in lower-middle class
environments in their respective home states, Indiana and New Jersey.
Both write a lot of songs filled with working class imagery and the
struggles that are part of the middle class existence; both are known
for putting 110 percent into their live shows, and both are known
for varying the repertoire greatly from one show to the next.
John Mellencamp’s "Rural Electrification Tour" show Friday,
October 22, at the Sovereign Bank Arena in Trenton marks the debut
of this new venue as a concert facility. It’s likely the eyes and
ears of all the artist booking agents in the country will be on the
arena Friday night, as it may prove over time to be a viable venue
for other arena-sized touring acts.
Mellencamp’s latest albums, "John Mellencamp" (Columbia Records)
and "Rough Harvest," (Mercury/Universal Music) are a sort
of a "Basement Tapes" for the 1990s. [The "Basement Tapes,"
as Bob Dylan fans will know, is a double album featuring Dylan and
The Band recorded at Big Pink, the cozy basement studio in the West
Saugerties, New York, house The Band shared for a time in the late
"Rough Harvest," his contractual obligation album for what’s
left of Mercury/PolyGram Records, and "John Mellencamp," his
debut for Columbia Records, were recorded in 1997 when Mellencamp
and his group, most based in and around Bloomington, Indiana, were
between tours and had time to reflect, or "woodshed," and
in general, make music to please themselves.
Mellencamp, ever the prolific songwriter, had a backlog of tunes he
had not recorded since a heart attack in the middle of his tour in
the summer of 1994 put his performing career on hold. Both "Rough
Harvest" and "John Mellencamp" were recorded at the singer-songwriter
and guitarist’s home studio, Belmont Mall, so there were no financial
pressures to produce quality tracks for a new album in a finite amount
Mellencamp explained the modus operandi behind his current
"Rural Electrification Tour," which kicked off its second
leg on October 1 and which will continue into 2000. Mellencamp calls
it "rural electrification" as a way of defining the anticipation
and excitement he and his band feel for performing, and going on tour
"In the ’30s, `rural electrification’ brought electricity to farmers
and other rural dwellers for the first time in their lives," he
explains, "and along with that electricity came radios and record
players: Music! We’re lucky enough that for the last 20 years, we’ve
had the opportunity to play our own small part in bringing music to
people; to entertain them and have a lot of fun in the process."
At Friday’s concert, Mellencamp will be accompanied by many of the
same people who accompany him on his Columbia debut: Dane Clark, drums
and percussion; Toby Myers, bass, vocals; Miriam Sturm, violin, keyboards,
vocals; Mike Wanchic, guitars, vocals; Andy York, guitars, Indian
instruments, keyboards, vocals; and Moe Z. MD, keyboards, and vocals.
John J. Mellencamp was born October 7, 1951, in Seymour, Indiana.
He joined his first band in fifth grade and by the mid-1960s, he was
performing classic R&B music with one of his first bands, Crepe Soul.
After graduating from Seymour High School in 1970, Mellencamp formed
a 1960s cover band, Trash, and studied at Vincennes University. He
graduated in 1975 and was laid off that same year from his job with
the phone company. At 24, he set out for New York City with a demo
tape, dreams of being a recording artist, and the hope of making the
rounds at record companies. He met representatives from David Bowie’s
management company, MainMan, and recorded his first album, "Chestnut
He got even more than he wished for — in the form of a new identity,
courtesy of the management company eager to exploit his full potential.
In 1976, Tony DeFries of MainMan Management secured a deal for Mellencamp
at MCA Records, and when his first album, "Chestnut Street Incident"
was finally released, he saw his last name had been changed to Cougar,
courtesy of DeFries. As the singer began to have radio success in
the early 1980s, he added his proper surname Mellencamp back to his
name. By 1991, he dropped the "Cougar" moniker altogether.
In this case, Mellencamp trusted his audience to follow his art, not
his name changes.
In 1977, Mellencamp moved back home to Bloomington, Indiana, where
he recorded a second album, "The Kid Inside," not released
until 1982 when it was released on the heels of the success of "American
Fool," his breakthrough record. Mellencamp’s third release, "A
Biography," was released in 1978 and contained the hit single,
"I Need A Lover," a track that became a hit for Pat Benatar
as well. Performing with his then-band, The Zone, he performed these
songs on Dick Clark’s "American Bandstand" television program
in 1979. His third U.S. release, "John Cougar," which included
"I Need A Lover," and "Small Paradise," — the
former featuring one of the longest instrumental introductions for
any song in rock history, i.e., two-and-a-half minutes before lyrics
are sung — rose to No. 64 on U.S. album rock charts.
Mellencamp, influenced as much by classic rhythm and blues and soul
as he is by folk singers like Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, asked
Booker T and the MG’s guitarist Steve Cropper to produce his next
album, "Nothing Matters and What If It Did." That album rose
to No. 37 on the U.S. album rock charts, and his next record, "American
Fool," his breakthrough, became the best-selling album of 1982.
In four weeks in October, 1982, Mellencamp had a No. 1 album and two
Top 10 singles at the same time, and he was the first recording artist
since John Lennon to do so. His single "Jack and Diane," was
the number one single in the U.S. and "Hurts So Good" spent
28 weeks on the Hot 100. "American Fool" also received three
Grammy nominations, and Mellencamp eventually took home to Bloomington
a Grammy Award for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance for "Hurts
With cable television channel MTV beginning to find a substantial
viewing audience in the early 1980s, Mellencamp became a video music
pioneer, directing a video for Bob Dylan and adding much of his own
input to his own video productions. His track, "Hand To Hold Onto"
from his album "Uh Huh" reached No. 9 on the singles charts.
Other hit singles followed in 1983 and 1984, including "Crumblin’
Down," "Pink Houses," and "Authority Song."
As full a schedule as all this radio success brought
him, he still found time to help coordinate the first Farm Aid concert
with Willie Nelson and Neil Young. That first concert, held in 1985
in Champaign, Illinois, was marked by Mellencamp’s speech, midway
through his set, asking the audience to write their Congressmen to
demand action to help American family farmers. Since then, 12 more
Farm Aid concerts have been held — most recently last month in
Virginia — with all of the artists appearing and performing at
their own expense. NARAS, the organization of music industry professionals
that votes on the annual Grammy Awards, presented Mellencamp with
the President’s Merit Award for his efforts on behalf of Farm Aid.
Since the release of "American Fool" in 1982, Mellencamp has
continued to push himself in new directions as a songwriter, musician
and producer, experimenting with folk-rock balladry, blues-rock guitar
pyrotechnics and songs from the heart that address the concerns of
the nation’s working poor and struggling middle class. Mellencamp
has been nominated for 11 Grammy Awards. Since 1979, he has racked
up 10 Top 10 singles, 29 Top 40 Singles, seven Top 10 albums and 11
Top 40 albums.
Most recently, HarperCollins released a book showcasing 75 of Mellencamp’s
oil and watercolor paintings. Mellencamp has pursued painting as an
avocation since the late 1970s. Called "Paintings and Reflections,"
it was released last November.
With a new book of paintings, a new concert venue in Trenton and a
new album from Mellencamp, we’ll just have to trust the art, not the
— Richard J. Skelly
Broad Street, Trenton, 609-520-8383. America’s troubadour-poet from
Bloomington, Indiana. Susan Tedeschi opens. Ticketmaster, $28.50
to $42.50. Friday, October 22, 8 p.m.
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