An Act of Defiance: John Mellencamp Live
John Mellencamp is a bluesman troubadour warrior fighting against the decline of his culture, armed only with his creativity and story. His nearly 50-year recording career has offered an exhibition in his own self-discovery, offering the artistic and aesthetic enhancement of a man who has transformed from, in his words, a “macho twit” to an iconic and authentic exemplar of the American musical tradition. In his art, he explores the vast terrain of the American landscape, stopping to survey the famous “small town” of his still popular hit single from 1985, where beloved community creates fully formed citizens, but also inspecting the 400 years of cross burnings, lynchings, and wars against “easy targets,” in his new song of the same name. Mellencamp once expressed bafflement with anyone who complains of “writer’s block.” “There’s so much to write about,” he said, “Just take a look out your window.” After dozens of records and hundreds of songs, Mellencamp appears to have no acquaintance with any artistic obstruction.
In Highland Park, Illinois, at the Ravinia Festival, a sold-out crowd of over 21,000 people awaited the entrance of John Mellencamp. Gospel music emanated out of the speakers soon giving away to the spooky sounds of sensual triumph and social trouble: The blues. In a clear reference to Muddy Waters, Mellencamp’s band, one of the best on the road, launched into the unmistakable riff of “Mannish Boy.” With guitarist Andy York screaming encouragement, similar to Johnny Winter on Muddy’s classic recording, Mellencamp began to howl and growl into the microphone, his voice full of gravel and dirt and smoke and soul.
Well, you can’t trust your neighbor
Husband or wife
Can’t trust the police
With their guns or their nights…
My, my, my we live in lawless times…
“Lawless Times” appears on Mellencamp’s outstanding 2014 record, Plain Spoken. The fresh aggression of the live rendition complements its ever growing relevance, with the president of the United States operating as, perhaps, the world’s most successful conman.
The unapologetic darkness of Mellencamp’s blues had him spitting venom during the second song of the evening, the obscure, “John Cockers” from the 2008 record, Life, Death, Love and Freedom. With York on lead, and Mike Wanchic and Mellencamp playing rhythm, the band’s three-guitar assault dug into the Mississippi mud, pulling out the roots of the Delta. With violin, organ, and harmonica providing the ornamentation, Mellencamp and company threatened to turn their stage into what Greil Marcus, in a book on Bob Dylan, called “the old, weird America.” Sounding like your worst enemy, Mellencamp shouted off the stage:
I got a wife and three kids
I don’t know where they’re at
I know many, many people
But I ain’t got no friends
Neil Young reportedly once told Mellencamp, his friend and fellow founder of Farm Aid, “your problem is you have too many hits.” Seventeen top 20 hit singles is a “problem” most songwriters would dream of having, but what Young meant is that the demands of Mellencamp’s large audience to hear most of those hits for the price of their ticket impose limits on Mellencamp’s range of live performance. In his introduction to “Jack and Diane,” Mellencamp admitted as much, saying, “The only reason I continue to play this song is because I know you want to hear it.”
Most of the highlights of Mellencamp’s performance at Ravinia gave verification to Neil Young’s appraisal of Mellencamp’s career. The two opening songs were so electric that they snapped like power lines down in the rain, while the material from Mellencamp’s new record with Carlene Carter, Sad Clowns and Hillbillies, soared as high as the heaven the two singers anticipate in the old religious revival gospel number, “My Soul’s Got Wings.”
Mellencamp’s instantly recognizable and forever unforgettable hits, such as “Small Town” and “Check It Out,” are impossible to resist, but the beauty, power, and depth of the new material, and the deep cuts from Mellencamp’s back catalogue, makes one salivate over the potential of further exploration and musical mining from Mellencamp when he compiles the setlist.
The voices of Carlene Carter and John Mellencamp coalesce like strands of gold wrapped around heavy iron. Her soft, but at times operatic beauty dances in the air with Mellencamp’s unmerciful toughness.
“Grandview,” Mellencamp’s current single, was the first of their duets. A rare rock-and-roll song in Mellencamp’s recent work, it tells the tragicomic story of a man who dreams of trailer park luxury only to find his wife demands a brick home. Carter and Mellencamp’s chemistry was magical, and as they traded and shared lines their infectious energy injected the performance with an additional layer of brilliance. The ribald rock riff of “Grandview,” and the darkly humorous lyrics, complete with perfect provincial references to “Oshkosh boots” and “the dairy bar,” had Mellencamp and Carter playing out a lusty courtship for the benefit of the audience.
The lights lowered, and the atmosphere soon turned tragic, when Mellencamp performed “Easy Targets,” with the sole accompaniment of violin and organ.
When I interviewed John Mellencamp in May, we discussed, at great length, the “tragic dimension” of life, and how most Americans would prefer not to know about it, or if denial is impossible, they would at least like to refrain from thinking about it. Almost all of Mellencamp’s music wrestles with the tragic, and exemplifies his belief that the joyful and melancholic “walk hand in hand.” I have heard Mellencamp perform “The Authority Song” countless times. The version at Ravinia was the most energetic and defiant I have yet to see. During the performance, as well the rendition of “Crumblin Down” that preceded it, Mellencamp transformed into a character from an Ernest Hemingway novel – still full of fight and always ready to illustrate the terrible beauty of the words from The Old Man and The Sea: “A man can be destroyed, but he cannot be defeated.”
Mellencamp demonstrates fine control over his voice, allowing it to drop down into Howlin’ Wolf territory when it can emphasize the power of a song, but also capable of hitting the high notes, or communicating in what a rock singer friend of mine once called, “the Mellencamp scream,” that made him famous. “The Authority Song” allowed Mellencamp to showcase both voices, especially during its mid-song break into the Wilson Pickett classic “Land of a Thousand Dances.”
As the band raged on, and Mellencamp performed as if he was fighting for his ticket out of hell, I remembered him telling me that most people never listen closely to his songs. He quoted John Prine who once said to him, “You’d think one fucking person would take the time to listen to what I actually said.”
There is a strange quality to watching thousands of people, for example, gleefully sing along with the chorus of “Jack and Diane” – “Oh yeah, life goes on / Long after the thrill of living is gone.”
“Paper in Fire,” “Rain On the Scarecrow,” and “Pink Houses,” with no nonsense, roots rock raucousness, examine and explore the darkness of human nature, political injustice, and social discord, but they were also radio hits. Mellencamp and his band surged through these songs in an exhibition of rock-and-roll excellence, providing physical stimulation to the thousands in attendance, but the emotional reaction signaled the disconnect Mellencamp described during our conversation.
Mellencamp continues to tell his story with nerve and verve, providing illustration and insight into the America of Bob Dylan, Robert Johnson, Hemingway, and Steinbeck, while proving he belongs in their company, even if many in the audience keep their antennas pointing in a slightly different direction, and even when America becomes increasingly obsessed with reality television stars, comic book stories, and the frivolity of celebrity.
One of the highlights of the night was a vicious, blues-inflected version of a single from “Big Daddy” (my personal favorite Mellencamp record), “Pop Singer.” Mellencamp’s snarled through his performance, showing his fangs to anyone who would seek to reduce his music to a bullet on a billboard chart.
I never wanted to be no pop singer
I never wanted to write no pop songs
For those fans dancing in the aisles, for those paying close attention to every syllable, and even for those struggling to sing along through their inebriation, Mellencamp demonstrated the difference between pop entertainment and real art.
David Masciotra is the author of Mellencamp: American Troubadour (University Press of Kentucky), Metallica (a 33 1/3 book from Bloomsbury Publishers), and , Barack Obama: Invisible Man (Eyewear Press).