Archive for the ‘John Mellencamp’ Category

dodgecolt002Twenty-five years ago today as I write, on Wednesday Sept. 25, 1991, Diane and I were brand-new to married life, having gotten hitched the previous Friday in Philly’s Chestnut Hill neighborhood. It was, suffice it to say, a great day – up until we walked out of the French restaurant where we held the wedding: my brother and a friend had decked out my car, a Dodge Colt, in festive wedding gear, and tied empty cans to the back. That centuries-old tradition sounds charming, I suppose, but try driving with said cans clanging on Chestnut Hill’s cobblestone streets… as Bill the Cat might say, “Ack!” At the first opportunity, I cut ’em loose. Anyway, we waited until the following spring for our actual honeymoon, a wondrous California odyssey, and spent the weekend down the shore. We already lived together, so the adjustment was minimal – changing our W-4s was it, I think.

Here’s our living room from January 1991:

apartment-1991002

Yes, that’s a lot of CDs; and the number only increased, as they spawned often. By decade’s end, they took over that end of the living room.

smokey_ogc001Although I don’t remember the specifics of this particular Wednesday, I can still lay out a large chunk of what happened based on routine: I woke around 6:30, left at 7:35am, arrived at work 10-15 minutes later, and then sat at a desk for a spell. Those were the days of hour-long paid lunches (what a concept!), and I made use of the time by heading home most middays. Without morning traffic, it took 10 minutes each way. I brought in the mail, likely indulged the original old grey cat, Smokey, with a few treats, and worked on the Great American Novel, which I spent much of the ‘90s writing, re-writing and never completing.

That’s to say, in addition to a cat, we had a computer – a second-hand x286 IBM clone. It came with an eight-gig hard drive, 256MBs of memory and a modem, which meant we could, and did, connect to the sandboxed universe of Prodigy. My dad, God bless him, dumbed down the DOS operating system for us and installed a simple menu, so accessing a program was never more than one or two keystrokes away – as in, A, B, C, D or E. For me, at lunchtime, that meant firing up the word processor and tap-tap-tapping away.

The top movie of 1991 was The Silence of the Lambs, which Diane and I saw while down the shore for a week in the spring. (We read the book and Red Dragon, the novel that preceded it, in the same week. Yes, we were eyeing everyone with suspicion.) Other popular films included Beauty and the Beast, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Point Break and Hook, none of which interested me then or now; and Thelma & Louise.

On the economic front, America was teetering: unemployment averaged 6.8 percent for the year and inflation, at 4.2 percent, was a source of concern as January dawned, though it (thankfully) fell over the next 12 months. Still, there was reason to rejoice: the USSR officially disbanded on December 26th and, with it, the Cold War came to an end – at least, it came to an end for a time. We’ve recently seen the rich man’s Hugo Chavez, Vladimir Putin, upping Russia’s nationalistic ante as a way to distract everyday Russians from their own economic woes; and those dupes who’d play cards with him, such as Donald Trump, apparently have no clue that he’s dealing from a stacked deck.

Back on point: In the music-history books, 1991 is heralded for the breakthrough of the paradigm-shifting Nirvana, whose influential Nevermind was released 25 years ago yesterday. I’d love to say that I was among the first to buy it and take the music to heart. I wasn’t. I was in a different mind-space, as my list below shows. That’s not to say I didn’t and don’t appreciate the immediate impact and lingering influence of Nevermind; if I was creating an objective list for the year, I’d rank it No. 1. I’m not, however, so I won’t.

Before I get to the list: My main music-related memory from 1991 isn’t of an album, but of two sterling shows that we saw in the span of a few weeks, both at the TLA in Philly: Rosanne Cash on her Interiors tour; and the Irish singer Mary Black on her Babes in the Woods tour. Rosie’s was, as Dan DeLuca phrases it in his review, “an ‘I can’t remember the last time I saw anything this good’ show’; and Mary Black’s was as magical. (I reference it in this Of Concerts Past post about her 1994 show at the Chestnut Cabaret.) Other shows we saw in 1991: Elvis Costello with the Replacements; Emmylou Harris with Chet Atkins; Kathy Mattea with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band; Roger McGuinn; Bonnie Raitt with Chris Isaak; and K.T. Oslin with ex-Byrd Chris Hillman’s group, the Desert Rose Band. There were plenty of others.

For today’s Top 5: 1991.

1) Mary Black – Babes in the Wood. Selected track: “Still Believing.” I mentioned that memorable show of hers above because, looking back, I’m sure that live experience played a major part in my picking this as my favorite of the year. To this day, whenever I play the CD – or, now, stream it – I’m transported to the TLA, seated about halfway back, with Diane by my side.

2) Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Weld. Selected track: “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black).” Now, this is my idea of grunge. Neil Young returned from the wilderness in 1989 with the stellar Freedom; followed it the next year with the raucous, Crazy Horse-infused Ragged Glory; and put a cap on his comeback with the electric tour captured on Weld, which could well be summed up in two words: brutal grace.

3) Matthew Sweet – Girlfriend. Selected track: “Divine Intervention.” One of my most-played albums of ’91, which is saying something as it was released in October of that year. This track, like the album as a whole, is delightfully trippy – and very Beatlesque.

4) John Mellencamp – Whenever We Wanted. Selected track: “Whenever We Wanted.” This, Mellencamp’s first release of the ‘90s, bypasses much of his late ‘80s Americana stylings in favor of the crunchy rock of Uh-Huh; and often substitutes sloganeering for the incisive short stories that accent Scarecrow, Lonesome Jubilee and Big Daddy. That said, a handful of songs – including this cut – stand with his greatest work.

5) Soundtrack – Falling From Grace. Selected track: Nanci Griffith’s “Cradle of the Interstate.” So John Mellencamp made a movie. I have no idea if it was good, bad or mediocre, as I’ve never seen it., but I can say without equivocation that the soundtrack – which preceded the film by a few months – was uniformly excellent, featuring tunes from Mellencamp, Dwight Yoakam, Larry Crane, Lisa Germano and Nanci Griffith.

And a few bonuses:

6) Nanci Griffith – Late Night Grande Hotel. Selected track: “It’s Just Another Morning Here.” A solid, if slightly overproduced, outing from the folkabilly singer-songwriter, who was one of our favorites. The songs played better live, as recall. I do wonder what’s become of her…

7) Lisa Germano – On the Way Down From Moon Palace. Selected track: “Riding My Bike.” Germano, of course, came to the fore as the fiddler in Mellencamp’s band – and is a phenomenal fiddler. This jazzy solo effort is likely not to everyone’s taste, but I enjoy it.

8) Blake Babies – Rosy Jack World. Selected track: “Temptation Eyes,” Juliana. John. Freda. What else need be be said?

The year 1985 is likely best remembered for the simultaneous Live Aid concerts that occurred in London and Philadelphia on Saturday, July 13th. There were many performances that day and night – some good, some not, and many somewhere in-between – but the one that probably had the biggest impact, at least in the U.S., was U2’s. Their 18-minute set epitomized, and still epitomizes, everything good about this crazy little thing called rock ’n’ roll:

In every other respect, the year – like 1986 – was a transitional time. I wrote about it in my Top 5 for April 1985, so hopefully won’t repeat too much of myself here. In short: America was still rebounding from back-to-back recessions that occurred earlier in the decade. Unemployment stood at 7.3 percent at year’s start and fell to 6.7 by year’s end. Inflation was, thankfully, almost a non-entity, averaging 3.6 percent; and since the average wage increased by 4.26 percent from 1984, that meant most employed folks came out .66 percent ahead.

me_chevette_85As I’ve mentioned before, in ’85 I worked part-time as a department-store sales associate and, during the summer, worked full-time hours. I had no complaints. I had a car – a 1979 Chevette, dubbed the “Hankmobile” by my folks because I plastered an “I’m a Fan of Hank Jr.” bumper sticker on the back. (Yes, I was – and remain, to an extent – a fan of Hank’s, though that’s grist for another post somewhere down the road.) The Hankmobile got the job done – perhaps not in style, but so what? I bought a tape player, installed it and was good to go. (That’s me, sometime that summer, beside the car.)

Among the year’s top films: Back to the Future, The Goonies, The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, St. Elmo’s Fire, The Color Purple, Witness, Rocky IV and Rambo: First Blood Part II. Back to the Future and The Breakfast Club rank among my most-watched films of all time – just as my wife can watch Remember the Titans ad infinitum, I can watch those over and over and over again.

The year’s top songs included “Careless Whisper” and “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” by Wham!; “Like a Virgin and “Crazy for You” by Madonna; “I Want to Know What Love Is” by Foreigner; “I Feel for You” by Chaka Khan; “Out of Touch” by Hall & Oates; “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Tears for Fears; “Money for Nothing” by Dire Straits; “We Are the World” by USA for Africa; and, yep, “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” by Simple Minds.

The year’s top news stories included President Reagan’s controversial visit to a Bitburg, Germany, military cemetery; and the hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship by Palestinian terrorists. Closer to home: the Philadelphia Flyers’ phenomenal goalie, Pelle Lindbergh, died in a car accident; and Philadelphia mayor Wilson Goode dropped a bomb on the city – literally – that caused 65 homes to go up in flames.

For me, the year is noteworthy for other reasons, too: After two years of commuter-college life at Penn State’s Ogontz campus (now known as Penn State Abington), I headed to the mothership, University Park, in State College, Pa., in late August. It was, indeed, a “Happy Valley.” I had a good roommate that first year, made good friends (one of whom became my roommate my second year), and – like most everyone else I knew – partied way too much. I joined the Folk Show staff on WPSU, contributed to a quarterly student magazine, and discovered the joy of selling plasma twice a week.

That same fall, an independent record store opened in town: City Lights Records, where I often whiled away time and money. Here’s a student film from 2008 that tells its story:

img_2094Anyway, enough of the introduction; it’s time for today’s Top 5: 1985. As in, my Top 5 albums from that storied year… (all of which, small surprise, I’ve previously featured in these pages.)

1) Lone Justice – Lone Justice. Two words – and one name – as to why this tops my list: Maria McKee. The Little Diva, as she was nicknamed at some point in her career, is absolutely riveting throughout. Truth be told, to my ears, when she sings – whether with Lone Justice or on any of her stellar solo albums (and they’re all stellar), there’s no one better. Ever. That’s how I feel in the moment, at least. True, the delirium passes when the music ends, but man! I never want it to end.

2) The Long Ryders – State of Our Union. I wrote in my Top 5: Summer 1985 list that the Ryders “basically laid down the blueprint of the alt.country/Americana movement a decade before it became popular”; and this LP, to my ears, is their tour de force. As with Lone Justice’s debut, it’s an album – originally vinyl, then CD and now that CD digitalized as FLAC files – that I’ve returned to time and again through the decades. It never gets old. “State of My Union,” a Chuck Berry-infused, tongue-in-cheek tour of the South, is one of my favorite tracks, but they’re all great.

3) John Cougar Mellencamp – Scarecrow. A damn good album. “Minutes to Memories,” which I featured in my Top 5 for October 1985, is one highlight; “Small Town” is another. On this album, and the one (Lonesome Jubilee) that followed, Mellencamp tackled subjects and themes – the rural reality of the Reagan Age and small-town life, primarily – too often avoided by his rock ’n’ roll peers, no doubt because they hadn’t lived it. He had, and it shows.

4) Emmylou Harris – Ballad of Sally Rose. I’m sure I rank this higher than most would, but it’s the album that made this boy a fan. As I wrote in my remembrance of her 1985 concert at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia, I bought it on vinyl on February 17th; picked up a double-album cassette of Pieces of the Sky and Elite Hotel on March 2nd; and saw her play Sally Rose from start to finish on March 29th. Perhaps it was that condensed introduction – some might say, instant obsession – with her music, but…wow. This set still packs an emotional punch. (For those not aware, it’s a fictionalized account of her relationship with Gram Parsons.)

5) Rosanne Cash – Rhythm & Romance. And, finally… Rosie! As I explained in that Summer 1985 piece, I discovered Rosie and this album via VH1.

And a few runners-up…

The Three O’Clock – Arrive Without Traveling

10,000 Maniacs – The Wishing Chair

Jane Wiedlin – Jane Wieldin

Pete Townshend – White City: A Novel

IMG_5332I 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.”

IMG_5333He 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.

scarecrowThe 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:

IMG_53521) 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.

IMG_53502) 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 –

IMG_53554) 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’m 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 –