You know I ain’t that handsome: the best of John Mellencamp

[Regarding the above image: John Mellencamp had to be the most unlikely three-time SPIN cover star, but thank god he was buddies with publisher Bob Guccione, Jr., who did some great interviews with him. (Especially as he only got a single cover from Rolling Stone, and generally only sneering coverage from them, at best.)]

I have a different relationship with John (Cougar) Mellencamp than you do, because I’m by birth and raising, an Indiana boy who experienced many an Indiana night. His music was in the air like fluoride in most cities’ water, completely and utterly inescapable, just as likely to be heard on AC radio (well, eventually) as on AOR (constantly throughout the ’80s and much of the ’90s, too). Hell, some Hoosier state country FMs even gave him spins in his commercial heyday: he was just too huge a musical and cultural figure for them not to. And because he was our favorite song, even album tracks got played like #1 singles, especially on the state’s heritage AOR/classic rocker, Indianapolis’ Q95, which plays a role in explaining my love for the likes of “Minutes to Memories,” “Play Guitar,” and “Serious Business” (let alone all of those tracks from Whenever We Wanted).

Of his commercial breakthrough, 1982’s American Fool, JCM told Creem in 1984: “The record company thought it would bomb, but I think the reason it took off was – not that the songs were better than my others – but people liked the sound of it, the ‘bam-bam-bam’ drums. It was a different sound.” While I’d argue that some of the songs were better, particular those two indelible top 2 singles, he’s onto something here. Were there many rock drummers in the ’80s and ’90s who could, really, top Kenny Aronoff? His whip-crack snares are (nearly) always way up in the mix, giving those JCM records a very distinctive sound.

And goddamn, that songwriting. Mellencamp is such a superlative songwriter, especially his lyrics of course, but not limited to them. I’d love to hear a record of re-interpretations of his catalog, to hear what other artists could do with ’em, particularly his last two decades of songs. Sadly, decades of smoking, even through multiple heart attacks, has shot his voice, as evidenced by his new Sad Clowns and Hillbillies. It’s got some good songs on it, as every album of his since American Fool does, but his voice, always a blunt instrument at best, has become almost unlistenable in the present day, which bums me the fuck out.

As Alfred (the inspiration for this post) points out, Mellencamp was having hits far past what was perceived as his commercial prime: his Van Morrison cover, a duet with Me’shell Ndegéocello (!) on “Wild Night,” was a #3 pop/#1 AC hit in 1994, while 1996’s “Key West Intermezzo,” his final top 40 pop hit, somehow scaled all the way to #14. And he was still notching AC top 30s (his first was “Small Town”) through 2008!

For neophytes to his rich, deep catalog, I’d recommend 2004’s 37-song double Words & Music: John Mellencamp’s Greatest Hits, as a single-disc representation isn’t nearly enough to give you a good gloss on his career. My favorite album of his is 1991’s self-produced Whenever We Wanted, his finest collection of songs, produced with a mighty strong hand. Close behind is ’85’s Scarecrow which deserves pretty much all the plaudits thrown at it, and I’m surprised by the representation of ’83’s Uh-Huh on my list. Overrated: ’87’s The Lonesome Jubilee, which I guess rockcrits went for because it had dobro and fiddles, blinding some to its relatively weak song selection? But really, there’s treasures to be found on damned near every single album in Mellencamp’s catalog, even the ones from the past 20 years that you haven’t heard. (I have, but that’s because I’m a completist.)

1. “Get A Leg Up” (Whenever We Wanted, 1991)
2. “Lonely Ol’ Night” (Scarecrow, 1985)
3. “Love and Happiness” (Whenever We Wanted, 1991)
4. “Rain on the Scarecrow” (Scarecrow, 1985)
5. “Jack and Diane” (American Fool, 1982)
6. “Hurts So Good” (American Fool, 1982)
7. “Rumbleseat” (Scarecrow, 1985)
8. “Serious Business” (Uh-Huh, 1983)
9. “Melting Pot” (Whenever We Wanted, 1991)
10. “Minutes to Memories” (Scarecrow, 1985)
11. “Last Chance” (Whenever We Wanted, 1991)
12. “Authority Song” (Uh-Huh, 1983)
13. “Dance Naked” (Dance Naked, 1994)
14. “What If I Came Knocking” (Human Wheels, 1993)
15. “Crumblin’ Down” (Uh-Huh, 1983)
16. “They’re So Tough” (Whenever We Wanted, 1991)
17. “Wild Night” (with Me’Shell Ndegéocello) (Dance Naked, 1994)
18. “Human Wheels” (Human Wheels, 1993)
19. “Play Guitar” (Uh-Huh, 1983)
20. “Paper In Fire” (The Lonesome Jubilee, 1987)
21. “Pop Singer” (Big Daddy, 1989)
22. “Check It Out” (The Lonesome Jubilee, 1987)
23. “Hand To Hold On To” (American Fool, 1982)
24. “I Need A Lover” (John Cougar, 1979)
25. “Small Town” (Scarecrow, 1985)
26. “Again Tonight” (Whenever We Wanted, 1991)
27. “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A. (A Salute to ‘60s Rock)” (Scarecrow, 1985)
28. “Just Another Day” (Mr. Happy Go Lucky, 1996)
29. “Jackie Brown” (Big Daddy, 1989)
30. “Key West Intermezzo (I Saw You First)” (Mr. Happy Go Lucky, 1996)

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About thomasinskeep

I write about music.
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