By Eleni P. Austin
I’d forgotten how much I love John Mellencamp. I was recently reminded when I read Paul Rees’ excellent 2021 biography, succinctly entitled John Mellencamp. Luckily, he’s just released a new album, Strictly A One-Eyed Jack, allowing me to wax rhapsodic about this cantankerous Rocker.
Of course, I hated John Mellencamp before I loved him. When he (seemingly) burst on the scene 40 years ago as John Cougar, with crowd-pleaser hits like “Hurts So Good” and “Hand To Hold On To,” I was having none of it. At the time, this 19-year-old, self-proclaimed Bitch Goddess was in the throes of what would become a life-long love affair with Punk and New Wave. I dismissed John Cougar as a poor-man’s Bob Seger. I was wrong, as I discovered a few years later.
Born in 1951, John J. Mellencamp grew up in Seymour, Indiana. He was born with Spina Bifida and endured corrective surgery as an infant. His Grandmother, Laura, never tired of telling him what a lucky boy he was, and he believed her. Scrappy and rebellious, John kicked against the pricks at every opportunity and let his Freak Flag fly, much to his conservative dad’s dismay.
He formed his first (interracial) band, Crepe Soul, at age 14. A few years later he was married with an infant daughter, he tried the 9 to 5 life, but music was his true calling. He continued to ply his trade in bar bands, pretty soon, he assembled his own killer band. After knocking on a few doors in New York, he signed with a shady manager who secured him a record deal and insisted he use the stage name Johnny Cougar. He made a couple of records and they went nowhere. He upgraded to a different shady manager and his song “I Need A Lover” became a Top 5 hit in Australia. Pat Benatar included the song on her 1979 debut, In The Heat Of The Night. His fourth album, Nothin’ Matters And What If It Did, yielded a minor hit with “Ain’t Even Done With The Night.” But it wasn’t until he released his fifth long player, 1982’s American Fool, that he hit the big time.
A little more than a year later he returned as John Cougar Mellencamp and released the Stonesy groove of Uh-Huh. Not only was his music loose-limbed and playful, but his lyrics were also more nuanced and substantive. It marked a new era for an artist that people (me) had written off as a one/two-hit wonder. The next three albums truly cemented John’s superstar status. Scarecrow arrived in 1985, a watershed record that tackled the plight of the family farmer. The album crackled with authority offering sharp vignettes like “Lonely Ol’ Night and “Rain On The Scarecrow” as well as anthemic rockers like “Fate Of The Nation” and “R.O.C.K. In The U.S.A.” That year he also doubled down on his commitment to American farmers by co-creating Farm Aid with Willie Nelson and Neil Young.
1987’s Lonesome Jubilee truly showcased John’s powerhouse band, which rivaled Bruce Springsteen’s E. Street Band as a versatile, self-contained unit. Two years later he returned with the homespun activism of Big Daddy. In the ensuing years, John has continued to release records at a furious clip, with nary a misstep. He has managed the neat trick of making critically acclaimed and commercially viable music. Nearly all of his albums have consistently charted in the Top 40. Unlike most musicians, John never relocated to big cities like New York or Los Angeles, he remained in the Seymour area creating a refuge for himself. By the early ‘90s he was following in the footsteps of his artistic mother and started painting. His work has been successfully shown in galleries in NYC and around the country. He has also collaborated with celebrated writers like the late Larry McMurtry and Stephen King on theatrical projects.
A lifelong agitator and activist, John vocally opposed the Iraq war, advocated for racial equality and same-sex marriage. In 2020 he re-fashioned Bob Dylan’s Only A Pawn In Their Game to reflect the murder of George Floyd. He’s been inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall Of Fame, the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame and received an honorary Doctorate of Musical Arts from Indiana University. None of these accolades have succeeded in mellowing him, he remains as ornery as ever. Three marriages, five kids, a couple of well-publicized romances and a heart attack later, he steadfastly refuses to give up his beloved cigarettes. The tar and tobacco have added a patina to his expressive tenor voice that now lands somewhere between Tom Waits and Louis Armstrong.
Just ahead of the pandemic, he began recording new songs at his Belmont recording studio, the result is his 24th studio album, Strictly A One-Eyed Jack. There’s a surprisingly somber and tentative quality found on the first two tracks, “I Always Lie To Strangers” and “Driving In The Rain.” On the former, dour guitars merge with mournful violin, contrite keys, molasses-thick bass and a thumpy beat. John’s nicotine rasp is startling at first, but it adds verisimilitude to the character he easily inhabits. Obdurate and unrepentant, he casually informs us “I’ve never taken the high road home, the old low road seems to get me there fast, high or low, it’s all the same/Living by your word is a sucker’s game, and I’m used to taking all the blame, can’t bother taking that high road home, and I always lie to strangers.” Burnished guitar notes are matched with scabrous violin on the break, underscoring the song’s saturnine grace.
The latter is slightly more sanguine, a loping, low-country Waltz powered by courtly guitars, thrumming bass, see-saw violin, drowsy accordion and a chunka-chunka rhythm. The title is derived from a phrase used by his Grandpa, Speck, to indicate when someone was veering into dangerous territory. The mood has lightened, and John wraps his positively Satchmo-riffic vocals around soul-searching lyrics like “When I was young, responsibilities were none, and I did wrong and it was fun, and there was no work to be done/But now all that has changed, remembering the pain, driving in the rain.” On the break, the guitar solo splits the difference between Tropical and twangy.
Both John and Bruce Springsteen achieved superstar status in the mid ‘80s. Their paths crossed consistently in the ensuing decades, and a genuine friendship sprang up between them. They cemented their bond a couple of years ago when they teamed for a couple of duets at Sting’s annual Rain Forest Benefit concert. Their ragged chemistry is on display on a couple of cuts here.
First up is “Did You Say Such A Thing,” a mid-tempo groover that sneaks out of the speakers just as the preceding song, “Sweet Honey Brown” recedes. Flick-of-the-wrist guitar licks slither through a mix of knotty bass and a snapback beat. John’s mien is pugnacious as he confronts a gossip; “Word in the papers, you’ve been talkin’ smack about me, did you say such a thing?” The Boss’ distinctively gruff vocals shadow John on the refrain as the song slowly builds up steam. A final interrogation; “You say you can keep a secret, it’s just the people that you tell, well, here’s a little secret, you can go straight to hell, did you say such a thing/Word on the corner, you’ve been talking shit about me, did you say such a thing,” is bookended by a scorching guitar solo and some prickly violin on the break. The menace is implicit, time to ‘fess up.
“Wasted” is a shimmery carpe diem told from the perspective of an elderly man who knows his days are numbered. Jangly acoustic guitars are wed to ringing electric riffs, spidery bass lines, dulcet accordion, syrupy strings and a kick-drum beat. The breezy melody belies reflective lyrics that regret lost opportunities; “How much sorrow is there left to climb, how many promises are worth a dime, and who on earth is worth a dime, is there a heart here I can call mine.” The pair trade verses before Bruce’s sweetly symbiotic harmonies dovetail with John’s on the rueful chorus; “Wasted days, wasted days, we watch our lives just fade away to more wasted days.” Honeyed accordion notes coil and rumbling baritone guitar stutters and shakes on the break, as lyrics concede “the end is coming-it’s almost here.”
John steps out of his comfort zone on a couple of songs. “Gone So Soon” is a tender ballad that wears its heart on its sleeve. Plaintive piano chords are accented by lowing bass, shivery guitar and a pitter-patter beat. Lyrics pine for a broken romance; “All the plans we made are now being remade with someone new, there’s nothing left for me to say, just accept you’re gone so soon.” A willowy trumpet solo on the break underscores the song’s melancholy ache. His delicate phrasing indicates that had John been born in an earlier era, her could have had a career singing torch songs.
“Sweet Honey Brown” is a slow-cooked Samba anchored by swoopy violin, warm organ notes, bedrock bass and a clackity beat. Lyrics offer an unvarnished portrait of an aging musician who can’t wait to exit the stage and get his fix. Guitars swagger and strut on the ambivalent chorus; “Sweet honey brown, show me your smile, haven’t seen your tracks for a long, long while, I’m thinking ‘bout quitting on you, sweet honey brown.” Slashing guitars collide with Bluesy harmonica on the break, exhibiting an urgency that mirrors the lyrical equivocation.
As satisfying as it feels to hear him stretch is wings creatively, the best parts of this record find John mining the majestic crack-boom-bang sound he practically patented in the latter half of the ‘80s. He strikes a menacing pose on “I Am A Man That Worries.” A tub-thumpin’ big beat envelopes cross-cut violin, swirly keys, roiling bass, a tangle of rustic banjo and gutbucket guitars. Nuanced lyrics make no apologies for a shameless misanthrope; “I come across alone and silent, I come across dirty and mean, I come across dangerous and unforgiving, that’s my angel’s dream/Cause I don’t know what happened that made me this way, but I ain’t thinking about you, don’t worry about me, just go away.” As drums wallop and pound, banjos cavort, guitars helix and backing vocals exhale a satisfying “Hunh,” he never backs down, “you keep lookin’ at me, you’ll be struck dumb.”
Meanwhile, “Simply A One-Eyed Jack” blends sugar-rush guitars, keening violin, angular bass, wheezy keys and a propulsive rhythm. A poker game populated with a Gypsy King, Salome and John The Baptist is equal parts shaggy dog story and a tart metaphor for the world’s casual culture of corruption; “Money and power is the name of the game, it started out as Spit In The Ocean, but things have rapidly changed/It will never go back to the way it used to be, nature deals with no one, what’s the cause, so many eyes will not see, it’s the one-eyed Jack.”
Finally, “Lie To Me is ballsy and blasé in all the right ways. Pliant violin is matched by stinging guitars, prowling bass, slightly Psychedelic organ, Honky-Tonk piano and a rock-solid beat. Acerbic lyrics take a practiced prevaricator to task; “Lie to me, Lord knows I’m used to it, so lie to me, you know I don’t really care, I never took much trouble with the truth myself, so lie to me, Lord knows I’m used to it.” Noting that churches, preachers, history books and teachers bend the truth, it doesn’t make much difference. Treacly, player-piano washes over growling baritone guitar and scorching violin on the break, nearly undercutting the song’s inherent cynicism.
Other interesting tracks include the strummy and spectral “Streets Of Galilee,” and the deceptively sunny “Chasing Rainbows.” The album closes with “A Life Full Of Rain.” Somber saloon piano partners with swoony accordion, pensive bass lines and flinty guitars. As the arrangement slowly builds, lyrics paint a vivid portrait of a man who had the world by the tail, but is now rendered obsolete; “There’s a blue-eyed world that said it once loved you, but that was in your youth, such a long, long time ago, as the days went by, with your pride walking beside you, pride you could not swallow and refused to let go.” It’s a striking end to a brilliant record. From self-described Little Bastard, to a lettered elder statesman of Rock, John Mellencamp has done it his way. He can’t be bothered to kiss any music business ass, he’s stuck to his guns and never wavered in his beliefs. Thankfully, his cracker-jack band has put up with his perfectionist temperament and curmudgeonly ways. Strictly A One-Eyed Jack demonstrates that the music remains vibrant and intriguing. I’ve never been so happy to be proven wrong.