One day I came across this article a few months back on the legacy of John Mellencamp. I’m a huge Mellencamp fan from way back. Since the beginning of his career, in fact, when my mom and dad attended the Johnny Cougar days show at the Seymour National Guard Armory and brought home his debut album. I grew up between his birthplace of Seymour, Indiana, and his current home of Bloomington, so his music–and the Mellencamp sightings–were everywhere. The prospect of a new books on Mellencamp piqued my interest, so I reached out to the writer of the article, David Masciotra, who has such a book on Mellencamp coming out in 2015, to give us a little more info on the project.
Photo credit: Chester Alamo & Costello
Music Tomes: Tell us a little about Mellencamp: American Troubadour.
David Masciotra: Mellencamp: American Troubadour, published by the University Press of Kentucky, is what I call an “artistic biography.” It is a biographical look at John Mellencamp’s life through the vantage point he provides with his work; always generous in spirit, large in thought, and perhaps most importantly – because it is rock ‘n’ roll – fun.
An artistic biography keeps alive the idea that art is more important than gossip. American culture celebrates celebrity over artistry, and it treats even important artists – in music, film, literature – as if their divorce proceedings are more important than their work. American culture has also now reached a weird and miserable state of idolizing people who have done nothing to earn their status as idols. Kim Kardashian, Paris Hilton, and the real housewives of name-your-city, are now household names when, unlike someone like John Mellencamp, they have done absolutely nothing to make American culture less boring, more interesting, richer, or deeper.
As fans of Mellencamp know, and readers of my book will learn, Mellencamp’s music is a hybrid of rock ‘n’ roll, rhythm and blues, funk, and folk. In the spirit and tradition of John Mellencamp, I have written Mellencamp: American Troubadour as a hybrid of biography, musical criticism, and cultural criticism.
It is about John Mellencamp, but because Mellencamp’s music is about America, it too is about America: The America when “holding hands meant something,” the America of “thundering hearts”, the America brimming with the electricity of integration and miscegenation, and the America forever suspended “between a laugh and a tear.”
MT: What inspired the project?
DM: I suppose I started writing the book – intellectually and emotionally – when I was thirteen years old. Because I am younger than the typical Mellencamp fan (29), I had never heard of John Mellencamp as a young boy. One summer afternoon, a neighborhood friend and I in the south suburbs of Chicago, were playing basketball in his driveway. His older brother came outside to work in the garage, and he put on the album American Fool. I immediately fell in love with the muscular drive of the music, the libidinous sleaze of the lyrics, and the strength and warmth in Mellencamp’s voice. It was at that moment that I also began my lifelong romance with rock ‘n’ roll.
In high school, I discovered the music of Bruce Springsteen, and became obsessive about tracking down all of his songs, collecting bootleg concert recordings, and attending his live shows. I wrote my first book – Working On a Dream: The Progressive Political Vision of Bruce Springsteen (Continuum Books, 2010) – after graduating college. Something unexpected happened as I grew older.
I found myself feeling more deeply and thinking more introspectively while listening to Mellencamp than when listening to Springsteen. I soon realized that the overblown romanticism of Springsteen’s songs appealed to me as a high school and college student, because the experiences that Springsteen imagined were the experiences I wanted. Once I accumulated actual experiences, his music seemed like the naïve and melodramatic property of fantasy. John Mellencamp’s music, from the other speaker, grew and gained, as I grew and gained in experience. The experience that informs Mellencamp’s music is not imagined or guarded, it is direct. It comes through him, not merely from him.
Tim White, the late editor of Billboard and a critical champion of Mellencamp, once said, “When you listen to John Mellencamp, you don’t think about John Mellencamp. You think about you.” White’s words capture my experience as a John Mellencamp fan. As a critic, I developed an enhanced appreciation of Mellencamp’s innovation, within rock ‘n’ roll, his consistency as an excellent songwriter, and mastery of a variety of genres.
I felt I needed to write about John Mellencamp’s music in such a way that would illuminate its greatness and relevance, while making social and cultural connections to the very ideas that have inspired some of Mellencamp’s best songs – the melancholia of life, the joy of surprise, the demand for physical release and sexual pleasure, America’s brutal and beautiful history of racial integration, small town life, and the ongoing disappointment of corruption and cowardice in American politics.
The Mellencamp story is an important one to American music, and it has far reaching implications for American culture. After all, he is man who began as a brand – Johnny Cougar. Year after year, through his own will, dedication, and authenticity – he discovered his own humanity, and through the creation of his music, shared that discovery with his audience. It is an inspirational story for anyone trying to author their own story in a culture of script doctors.
So, there is the personal motivation in writing this book – my own love for the music and my desire to right the wrong of my own writing history – and there are the larger musical, cultural, and philosophical ideas I felt were worthy of long form exploration.
MT: Do you feel Mellencamp hasn’t gotten his due over the years as a songwriter and representative of a Midwestern ideology?
DM: That’s an interesting question, because on paper, Mellencamp is incredibly acclaimed. He is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a Grammy winner, and a recipient of the John Steinbeck Award.
Within the culture, however, there is a prevailing belief that Mellencamp is the “poor man’s Springsteen,” and he never quite receives the recognition he deserves. He acknowledges this himself. He once attributed it to his Midwestern roots and home, claiming that he and, one of his heroes and friends, Michigan native Bob Seger ,are always cast as “second string”, because they aren’t part of the coastal elite in arts and entertainment.
Regardless of the reason for it – and I do think there is a bias against Midwestern artists in music and literature – there is a failure among rock critics and fans to acknowledge some of the amazing achievements of Mellencamp’s music career. His albums Scarecrow and The Lonesome Jubilee are probably responsible for the “No Depression” movement of alternative country and Americana. Before Uncle Tupelo and Whiskeytown, before O Brother Where Art Thou, and before Robert Plant and Allison Krauss, Mellencamp – alone in American popular music – was scoring hits with moving and poignant songs about everyday life in the American heartland, featuring traditional instrumentation – violin, banjo, dobro, accordion. Mellencamp called it “gypsy rock”, because it combines the blues of the delta, the gospel of the southern black church, and the folk of rural America, with the electric aggression of rock ‘n’ roll. It was a stunning innovation, and something that critics and fans routinely ignore.
In the mid-1990s, he wrote folk songs and dressed them up with the instrumentation and beats of R&B. In my book, I call it “funky folk”, and one of his former band members who helped him shape the sound – Moe ZMD – a keyboardist who had previously worked with Michael Jackson and Tupac Shakur – called it “rock ‘n’ roll with a street edge.”
If you look at Mellencamp’s output from 1982, with American Fool, to 2010, with No Better Than This, you’ll find it nearly impossible to find any major American recording artist who has written and performed such an eclectic variety of high quality music with the same consistency.
One of the reasons I wrote Mellencamp: American Troubadour is that I wanted to make an argument that, while not hagiographic, is unapologetic in its insistence that Mellencamp is a true prizefighter of rock ‘n’ roll.
As for Mellencamp’s place in Midwestern art and culture, it is undeniably enormous. I wouldn’t use the word “ideology” to describe it, but in my book I argue that there is a Midwestern sensibility in art. In music, Bob Seger, John Prine, and Mellencamp have it. In literature, a reader can trace it in Jim Harrison, Sinclair Lewis, and Theodore Dreiser, and in the visual arts, there is Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, and John Steuart Curry. There are many staples of Midwestern art – pastoral scenes, small town settings, colorful characters – but the heart and soul of it is the swirling of melancholia and joy. Mellencamp’s record title, The Lonesome Jubilee, captures it in a phrase as fine as any. While Mellencamp was far from the first to create art according to this sensibility, because of his popularity and visibility, at least within the past thirty years, he’s been the most successful exemplar of it.
The book has that same quality. There are passages that are full of joy – passages about Mellencamp songs like “Hurts So Good”, “The Authority Song”, and “Small Town” – then there are passages that are pretty dark, like the songs “Jackie Brown”, “Rain On the Scarecrow”, and “Human Wheels.”
Mellencamp is a songwriter and singer who is constantly trying to figure himself out, and his place in a troubled, confusing world. I’m trying to do that too, as are most writers, from people who write books like this to novelists.
There is something exciting and sad about it, because in the end, we all fail, but with the right focus and commitment, we all have some fun trying.
Keep up with David Masciotra at his Website.