By Eleni P. Austin
Apparently, the phrase “kick against the pricks” has its origins in Greek and Latin literature, and it even pops up in the Bible. But it’s also the best way to describe the unlikely career of John Mellencamp.
John Mellencamp burst on the scene, seemingly out of in 1982 as John Cougar. He came armed perfect summer anthems like “Hurts So Good” and “Hand To Hold On To that quickly climbed up the Top 40 charts. Most people hearing him on the radio had no idea that he had been earning his keep as a musician for more than a decade.
The Seymour, Indiana native arrived in late 1951. Born with Spina Bifida, her endured corrective surgery as an infant. As a kid, his Grandmother, Laura, never stopped telling him what a lucky boy he was. He believed her too. Scrappy and rebellious, he was fronting his first (interracial) band Crepe soul at age 14. A few years later, he was married with an infant daughter. He discovered rather quickly that a 9-to-5 existence wasn’t for him, music was his true calling. He made his bones singing in bar bands. Soon enough, he assembled his own killer band.
After several pilgrimages to New York, he signed with one shady manager who hooked him up with a record label The deal was contingent on him adopting the stage name Johnny Cougar. He made a couple records that went nowhere. He upgraded to a different shady manager and his song “I Need A Lover” vaulted up the charts in Australia. Pat Benatar recorded her version for her 1979 debut, In The Heat Of The Night. He had a minor hit here in America with “Ain’t Even Done With The Night,” from his fourth long-player, Nothin’ Matters And What If It Did. But it was his fifth effort, 1982’s American Fool that catapulted him to stardom.
A little more than a year later, he returned as John Cougar Mellencamp and released Uh-Huh, a Stonesy groover that that paired playful, loose-limbed music with meaningful and nuanced lyrics. Scoring at least three Top 20 hits, it proved that this guy was more than a one or two-hit wonder and cynical critics and budding Bitch Goddesses began to take him seriously.
Released between 1985 and 1989, his next three albums, Scarecrow, Lonesome Jubilee and Big Daddy formed a triptych of sorts and truly cemented John’s superstar status. Scarecrow tackled the plight of the American farmer. His commitment ran so deep for these underserved family businesses that, along with Willie Nelson and Neil Young, he the annual concert series, Farm-Aid. …Jubilee placed the spotlight squarely on John’s crackerjack band, which rivaled Bruce Springsteen’s E. Street Band as a versatile, self-contained unit. Two years later he returned the down-home activism of Big Daddy. All three efforts landed in the Top 10.
Over the last 30 odd years, John Mellencamp has continued to write, record and tour at a furious clip. His music remains critically acclaimed and commercially viable. No mean feat. With only a couple of exceptions, his albums have consistently charted in the Top 40. He never left his small town, creating a refuge for himself just outside Seymour. By the early ‘90s, he began emulating his artistic mother and took up painting. His work has been successfully shown in galleries across the country and in New York City. He music took on a more literary bent when he collaborated with venerated authors like the late Larry McMurtry and Stephen King.
A life-long agitator and activist, he has been letting his Freak Flag fly since adolescence, much to the consternation of his conservative dad. 20 years ago, he vocally opposed the Iraq War, when he was first campaigning for President, John told Obama, he wasn’t liberal enough for him. He has advocated for same-sex marriage, LGBTQ rights and racial equality. In 2020, he retro-fit Bob Dylan’s “Only A Pawn In Their Game” to reflect the murder of George Floyd. He’s been inducted into The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame, and the Songwriter’s Hall Of Fame and received an honorary Doctorate Of Musical Arts from Indiana University. Despite the accolades, he hasn’t mellowed one bit. He remains as pugnacious and opinionated as ever. Three marriages, five kids, countless grandkids (he can’t remember how many he has), a couple of highly publicized romances and one heart attack later, he stubbornly refuses to give up his beloved cigarettes. The tobacco and tar have added a grizzled patina to his expressive tenor that could sandwich nicely between Louis Armstrong and Tom Waits. Hot off the heels (well, 17 months) of his Strictly A One-Eyed Jack album, he’s back with his 25th long-player, Orpheus Descending.
The album kicks into gear with the one-two punch of “Hey God” and “The Eyes Of Portland.” Although he may be loathe to admit it, John has always worn his heart and his politics on his sleeve. From it’s opening, surly notes, “Hey God,” commands the listener’s full attention. Shards of gutbucket guitar ride roughshod over strummy acoustic fills, tensile bass and a crackling beat. Taking a page from XTC’s book, he attempts to question the deity about life’s inequities. Rather than address the almighty as “Dear,” the self-proclaimed Little Bastard opts for the less deferential “Hey.” From the opening verse; “Weapons and guns, are they really my right, laws written a long time ago, no one could imagine the sight of so many dead on the floor/Hey God, if you’re still there, would you please come down, Hey God, if you’re still there, would you please come down,” it’s clear that he’s not about to let the supreme being off the hook. The tension ratchets as his raspy vocals wrap around the stinging arrangement and the scabrous instrumentation. A strangulated cry is unleashed on the break, supplanted by searing violin runs. After quietly noting, “This is not the Garden Of Eden no more,” he admits “we can’t take it no more.” Marianelly Agosto closes out the song with fiery, Spanish spoken-word denunciation
Splattery guitars, flinty bass, woozy keys and a tick-tock beat anchor “…Eyes.” John’s ornery growl is in full-effect. Inspired by an encounter he had with a homeless woman in Oregon, compassionate lyrics never deal in recriminations, they never condemn or criticize. Instead, they present the facts, sans judgement; “Some are mentally ill, some are higher than kites, selling their bodies as day turns to night, where are their loved ones, does anyone care, to be lost and alone in the middle of nowhere.” Spiky guitar notes intertwine with ecclesiastic organ on the break. The final verse readily acknowledges there aren’t any easy solutions, but that doesn’t mean we should give up on humanity; “What will it take, for this country to see, for the grace of God, go them and not you and me. the fallen and forgotten who are down on their knees, living here in the gutters, in this land of the free…in this land of plenty, where nothing gets done, to help those who are empty and unable to run, your tears and your prayers won’t help the homeless.”
Much like Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger and Tom Petty, John Mellencamp earned his well-deserved populist reputation by matching complex (and not-so complex) narratives that championed lived-in experiences, to anthemic melodies with shout-it-out, sing-a-long choruses. But often times, his quieter moments packed as powerful a punch. Take “Understated Reverence,” a tender piano ballad accented by feathery arpeggios and ascendent violin. Although lyrics hone in on celebrating the simpler pleasures; “Listening to Bukka White, playin’ his 12-string guitar, in the understated reverence, is where we find out who we really are.” His husky croon indicates that he’s yearning for something beyond the confines of this terrestrial existence. Shivery violin and cascading piano notes enact a diffident pas de deux on the break, mirroring the contemplative mood.
On “Amen,” knotty, harpsichord-ian piano notes lattice vroom-y bass, rippling guitar and a kinetic, pulsating backbeat. The Jazzy twitch of the arrangement is juxtaposed by a caustic indictment that stops just short of dystopian; “There’s a sadness across this country, withy people who just don’t give a damn, we continue on with the sickness, like we have so many times before, amen and amen and shut the door…rough times are here to stay.” A sinister guitar solo unspools on the break, abetted by swoopy keys and a ticklish, tumble-down rhythm.
After three marriages and a couple of high profile relationships, John recently noted in an interview, “I’m a terrible boyfriend.” Therefore, it feels wholly apropos that a couple of cuts, “The Kindness Of Lovers” and “The So-Called Free,” offer blunt post-mortems that reevaluate his failed romances. On the former, searching guitar chords partner with angular bass and a heartbreak beat. The opening verse speaks to his twin vices; “There’s only two kinds of cigarettes that matter, the first one and the last one you smoke, the kind of smoke that gets in your eyes, the kind of smoke that makes you choke/There’s only two kinds of lovers, the kind you love, and the ones you love even more, the rest are just something you do, and they’re always the ones that walk out the door.” On the break, sun-dappled guitars line up next to sylvan violin notes and the arrangement slowly builds to a stunning crescendo. The epiphanies arrive; “ I wish I had a little more time,” and are quickly swept away; “Aw, I’d just waste it anyway.”
The latter is powered by prickly dobro, mercurial keys, sinewy bass and an insistent shuffle rhythm. Perspicacious lyrics observe at this stage of the game, pretense is a luxury; “Now you got some change, jingling around in your purse, you used to call me a mean old daddy, but what made matters worse, you were just as crazy, just as crazy as me, two monsters laid out naked, doesn’t make a family….and you recognized the danger, that you saw inside of me, so we both took a different road home, and said hello…and goodbye to the land of the so-called free.” See-sawing violin, whipsaw guitars and churchy organ colors coalesce on the break.
Lyrically, the title track mashes up the Greek myth of Orpheus and the Southern Gothic style of the Tennessee Williams play, as well as a plea to end gun violence. That literary combo-platter is almost subsumed by the kind of grits and gumbo groove that echoes Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen era. Chugging guitars, authoritative piano runs, flirty organ and a propulsive conga rhythm are wed to a pounding beat. Swirly Gypsy violin dominates the break, making way for a lean and unfussy guitar solo, before the arrangement pares down to lowing keys and a conga-fied beat. Although the forecast is grim, John perseveres; “Darkness has found us, with the blood up to our knees, I don’t care what they say, if there’s a will, there’s got to be a way, if there’s a will, there’s always a fucking way.”
The album’s magnum opus, Lightning And Luck, arrives toward the end of the record. Shimmering guitars connect with hushed keys, trip-wire bass and a chunky beat, Gospel-flavored piano chords are salted in the mix. Dylanesque in length and breadth, the thorny wordplay takes aim at rampant greed, the proliferation of guns, and the current culture of narcissism; “Well, I took a walk just to take a look around, to see what I’ve seen my whole life, our vanities and confusion, and people believe they have rights, and they spit at me when I told that the rights we thought we had are all gone, but no one seemed to notice or care, we lost ‘em all in a deal somewhere/So use whatever you got, to get whatever you want, you don’t need to look too hard to notice that we need a little lightning and luck.” A lithe violin solo uncoils on the break, equal parts poignant and buoyant, shot through with grace and gravitas.
Other interesting songs include a winning version of a Bruce Springsteen deep cut, “Perfect World.” Then there’s “One More Trick Up My Sleeve,” which shares some chord changes with “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round The Mountain” (but in a good way), as lyrics detail a condemned man’s attempt to escape the hangman’s noose. The album draws to a close with “Backbone.”
To paraphrase Dylan Thomas, no one expects John Mellencamp to “go gently into that good night,” but he comes close on “Backbone.” This minor-key Waltz is fueled by willowy guitars, plangent keys, sepia-toned bass and slip-stitch rhythm. Naturally, this irresistible melody pairs with lyrics that rail against corruption, hatred and greed. Still, he notes that we’ve all been complicit at one point or another; “Well, the truth has always been right here in front of my nose, plain truth is something that’s hard to know, I have myself to blame, for covering my ears and my eyes and ignoring the truth every time I lied.” An ambivalent end to another great record.
Forty years ago, John Mellencamp shared his defiant philosophy for getting ahead; “I fight authority, authority always wins, I fight authority, authority always wins, I been doing it since I was a kid and I come out grinning, I fight authority and authority always wins.” Except somewhere along the way the paradigm shifted and he became one of Rock & Roll’s most articulate elder statesmen. To paraphrase Ol’ Blue Eyes, he did it his way. Orpheus Descending confirms his brand of egalitarian Rock still has the capacity to surprise and delight. As a committed curmudgeon, that probably pisses him off, ever so slightly.