I first picked up Musician magazine in the early 1980s. As the name indicates, it was geared to musicians – of which, I wasn’t one. I didn’t buy it for the pictures of instruments and tech gear, though they all looked nice, but the profiles of musicians and record reviews.
This issue, as evidenced by the picture, featured John Cougar Mellencamp on the cover; and has an insightful five-and-a-half page article about him. The Indiana rocker, at the start of his career, hit a few obstacles, essentially flooring the gas pedal without first opening the garage door. He signed with Tony DeFries, David Bowie’s manager, who insisted on the “Cougar” moniker, released a few slipshod albums – his first, Chestnut Street Incident in 1976, sold a grand total of 12,000 copies – and earned a reputation of being a Grade A jerk. “I really didn’t have any handle on my career,” Mellencamp explains. “I was just insecure enough to listen to anybody who’d been in the business a long time—I figured they knew more.”
He gradually learned that there was more to rock music than looking the part, however. “I Need a Lover” (1978), “Ain’t Even Done With the Night” (1980) and “Hurts So Good” (1982) were solid stepping stones, serviceable tunes that wouldn’t cause anyone to change the radio station. And then ”Jack and Diane” happened. The reaction to that imperfect, but heartfelt song caused him to rethink his approach to music. Like “Hurts So Good,” it hailed from American Fool (1982); a four-star song on a two-star album, in other words. Uh-Huh (1983), his next effort, was better – “Pink Houses” is a classic slice of heartland rock, and “Crumblin’ Down” and “Authority Song” are damn good, too. But those songs didn’t foretell just how good he’d become; his next two albums, Scarecrow (1985) and Lonesome Jubilee (1987), stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the best albums of the 1980s.
The Wikipedia entry gives conflicting release info for Scarecrow – September is cited in the first paragraph, but November is listed in the quick-hit section on the right. AllMusic lists November, too, but I recall playing the cassette, which came with an extra track (“The Kind of Fella I Am”), long before Thanksgiving – and this Billboard record chart from September 1985 that I just found proves me right.
Anyway, at the time, I was a junior at the Penn State mothership in State College, aka Happy Valley. I’ve covered the same timeframe here and here; there’s not much to add. I’d like to list the albums and singles I purchased this specific October, but my desk calendar, where I kept track of such things, remained at home with most of my things. I suspect, though, that it was none. Money was tight, and most of my cash went to non-dining hall food and other essentials, like pencils, typing paper and beer.
In fact, there were a few weekends when I hit the road in order to spend Saturday at the department store where I worked – when I didn’t have a Folk Show gig, of course. October 4th was one such example. I made money other ways, too: I rented out my season football pass; and sold my plasma twice a week. On the former: demand wasn’t great (or I was a bad scalper); I made 15 or 20 bucks a pop. On the latter: I possessed strong antibodies, I was told, so earned more than the going rate. My memory says it was $10 the first go-round and $15 the next.
About the Folk Show: I’d been on-air a total of two, maybe three times, by October’s end. The first teetered on disaster: a cart tape malfunctioned. Flustered, I muttered “What the fuh…” into the microphone, catching myself just in time to block the the final “ck” from slipping out. I’m sure the listeners were laughing their heads off.
As for Today’s Top 5, culled from this Musician:
1) John Cougar Mellencamp – “Minutes to Memories.” The early and mid-1980s were a hard time for rural America: family farms were failing, and the reverberations expanded beyond the farms to the many businesses supporting them. On the Scarecrow album, Mellencamp took what he’d learned from “Jack & Diane” and “Pink Houses” and applied it to the reality that surrounded him in small-town Indiana – as Timothy White says in the review on page 109, “It’s a rock ’n’ roll Grapes of Wrath.”
There are many excellent songs on the album, but – to my ears – the best is ”Minutes to Memories,” written with childhood friend George Green. It spins the tale of an old man offering a young ‘un advice gleaned from his life’s experiences:
On a Greyhound 30 miles beyond Jamestown,
he saw the sun set on the Tennessee line.
He looked at the young man who was riding beside him.
He said, ‘I’m old, kind of worn out inside.
I worked my whole life in the steel mills of Gary
and, my father before me, I helped build this land.
Now I’m 77 and, with God as my witness,
I earned every dollar that passed through my hands.
My family and friends are the best thing I’ve known.
Through the eye of the needle, I’ll carry them home.’
‘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.’
Near the end, there’s a dramatic reveal: the young man, now older himself, is the narrator, and sharing the same hard-earned wisdom with a younger man – his son, perhaps:
The old man had a vision, but it was hard for me to follow.
I do things my way and I pay a high price.
When I think back on the old man and the bus ride,
now that I’m older, I can see he was right.
Another hot one out on Highway 11.
This is my life, it’s what I’ve chosen to do.
There are no free rides, no one said it’d be easy.
The old man told me this, my son, I’m telling it to you.
It’s a remarkable song from an undeniably great album.
2) Neil Young – “My Boy.” Jimmy Guterman disliked Old Ways: “Neil Young’s desire to make real country music may be sincere, but succumbing to formula isn’t how to do it. ‘Old ways can be a ball and chain,’ Young sings. So can new beginnings.”
Despite having the trappings of country music, including fiddles and guest turns by outlaws Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, the album isn’t that far from the Comes a Time and Harvest blueprint. It doesn’t match either in terms of quality, mind you, but compared to the albums that it followed (Everybody’s Rockin’) and preceded (Landing on Water), it was an aural oasis. This touching song became a semi-staple during my days on the Folk Show.
3) Dwight Yoakam – “Guitars, Cadillacs.” After a failed stint in Nashville during the Urban Cowboy era, Dwight headed west to L.A., where his brand of honky-tonk music fit in with the burgeoning “cowpunk” scene. He released an EP, Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc., on an independent label; and earned enough rave reviews to get picked up by Reprise, which re-configured the EP into a full-length album the following year (which is when I bought it).
Writes J.D. Considine: “It’s one thing to cut a ‘Ring of Fire’ that makes the man in black sound like a city slicker, quite another to write ‘Miner’s Prayer,” a genuinely affecting Kentucky lament.” The title tune is a classic –
4) Bryan Ferry – “Slave to Love.” The ever-suave Ferry sits for an interview with future Billboard editor Timothy White, talking about Roxy Music and his solo Boys and Girls LP, which had been released over the summer. “I didn’t want the album to be Avalon, Part Two, but it does have a continuity in that at least 10 of the musicians on both records are the same. And I’m the same composing-wise that I was on the previous album. But it has some differences as well. I’ve always seen my Roxy catalog as my main body of work, as opposed to my solo career, and I do see Boys and Girls as coming from my Roxy work.”
As far as checking out the competition: “Currently, I don’t listen to what anybody else is doing in music because there are so many things that seem to remind me a bit of what I do or have done. It gets incestuous. [laughter] At the end of the day, you just have to know that no one can be you, and at best there can only be superficial similarities. I’m just getting further and further into myself.”
I owned the album; and, to my ears, it was Avalon, Part Two sans the hypnotic pull of the original – actually, Avalon, Part Three, given that Roxy Music’s live High Life EP (later released as the full-length Heart Still Beating CD) was, kinda sorta, Part Two.
5) David Bowie – “Heroes.” Hooked on Digital? asks the headline of Scott Isler’s in-depth article about compact discs, which were far from mainstream in 1985. Only 3300-4500 titles were in print (vs. 85,000 LPs) – a lack of printing plants was one reason. Another: the need to renegotiate royalty agreements. The article also dwells on the analog v. digital differences in both recording and listening; and predicts the increasing scarcity of vinyl. Doug Sax, the president of Sheffield Lab and the Mastering Lab, and Emiel Petrone, a senior vice-president at Polygram Records and chairman of the Compact Disc Group, “agree the LP will linger on only as a high-end curio for audiophiles willing drop a couple thou on a cartridge alone.”
Now, Bowie isn’t mentioned in this article. What’s the connection? Those first months at Penn State, I fell in with a guy who not only owned a CD player, but had an eclectic CD collection that included titles by Kitaro, Michael Oldfield, Jean-Michel Jarre, Vangelis…and David Bowie (the original RCA issues, for anyone who’s curious). This song was always one of my favorites to listen to with headphones –