Sunday, September 13, 2009

Underappreciated: John Mellencamp

I don't feel like I've written enough about Mellencamp in terms of why I respect him. And with him, it can be summarized in a single album, 1985's Scarecrow. I probably wouldn't have purchased the cassette (yes, cassette) had I not liked the lead single "Lonely Old Night" so much.

Here's an acoustic version (original video here) from a performance he did at Walter Reed Hospital.


I'm sure my anti-rural snobbery of that time meant I thought there was no way someone could celebrate small towns and family farmers in a substantial way. Sell the farm, move to the city. That's what smart people do.

My how times change. I heard an interesting interview this morning on how $7/gallon gas will radically change America. Suburbs will be reclaimed by farmland. So when you see me in my unironic John Deere cap selling free range berries at the farmer's market, stop by to say hi.

Back to Scarecrow: it peaked at #2 on the Billboard Albums chart, and landed 3 singles in the Top 10 ("Lonely Old Night"; "Small Town"; "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A."). Rolling Stone ranks it among the Best 100 Albums of the 1980s. Allmusic (here) has this to say:
A loose concept album about lost innocence and the crumbling of small-town America, Scarecrow says as much with its tough rock and gentle folk-rock as it does with its lyrics, which remain a weak point for Mellencamp. Nevertheless, his writing has never been more powerful: "Rain on the Scarecrow" and "Small Town" capture the hopes and fears of Middle America, while "Lonely Ol' Night" and "Rumbleseat" effortlessly convey the desperate loneliness of being stuck in a dead-end life. Those four songs form the core of the album, and while the rest of the album isn't quite as strong, that's only a relative term, since it's filled with lean hooks and powerful, economical playing that make Scarecrow one of the definitive blue-collar rock albums of the mid-'80s.

The album opens with the powerful "Rain on the Scarecrow," and the song speaks for itself in setting the scene of the mid-80s farm economy (which, if you weren't there, also spawned movies with The River and Country, and kinda Places of the Heart).


There are two other songs I want to call out, the first is the sweet and somber "Between a Laugh and a Tear," a lamentation on aging. There are no clips readily available, but through the joy of youtube, here's a performance by youtube user BenjaminHWhite... thanks dude!


And finally, the philosophical "Minutes to Memories," a song whose chorus I wish I'd passed along to my nephews. Maybe there's still time.
Days turn to minutes
And minutes to memories
Life sweeps away the dreams
That we have planned
You are young and you are the future
So suck it up and tough it out
And be the best you can

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