Review: John Mellencamp, ‘Scarecrow – Super Deluxe Edition/2022 Mix’ – Revisiting His 1985 Classic With Bonus Tracks

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I saw yesterday that John “Cougar” Mellencamp had released a “Super Deluxe” edition of his superb 1985 album Scarecrow. Man, does this one take me back. If you look up “heartland,” Midwest rock n roll in the dictionary you’ll like see a picture of the Scarecrow album cover.

I must admit, when I first became aware of John Cougar, as he was known then, I was probably in junior high or early high school. My friends and I didn’t think much of ol’ Johnny Cougar. We all thought his third album John Cougar was his debut. It had the iconic rock song “I Need A Lover” with that great guitar driven lead-in. However if you’d quizzed us in 9th grade, like thinking “Pinball Wizard” was an Elton John song, we’d have told you that “I Need A Lover” was a Pat Benatar song. Her version got more airplay for some reason. Then he put out his next album, the aggressively titled Nothing Matters and What If It Did. It had that great tune “Hot Time In A Cold Town” but was marred by that cheesy ballad “This Time,” (“This time I really think I’m in love, I’m in love”). Try getting that earworm out of your head. You couldn’t get away from that song. 

When Cougar toured behind Nothing Matters… somehow my buddy Brewster ended up going to the show with a couple of guys we knew from the neighborhood – I’ll call the first guy Carter to protect the guilty (his name was the same as an ex President, so why not) and the second guy was the weirdest guy in our neighborhood and I’ll call him Weird Nick. This was another instance where Brewster went to a rock n roll show and didn’t ring me. By-gones. Anyway, Carter was a young con man in the making and somehow he talked his way into the hotel where the band was staying and they all ended up drinking with Cougar’s manager. I assume it was the same guy who named John Mellencamp after his favorite car, the sleek Mercury Cougar. That night they actually met John Cougar and he signed a copy of the album for Brewster but unfortunately he signed it, “Don’t Forget Me, John Cougar.” It just seemed needy and confirmed what we’d already thought about him – he was soft. I watched Brewster destroy the album in a fit of youthful rebellion the next day. I was taken aback but that’s probably just because I was pissed I hadn’t been invited. That story didn’t really help us get in to Mellencamp (nee Cougar). Even Weird Nick was cold on Cougar. Nobody wanted to jump on the bandwagon of an artist who wasn’t considered “rock.”

A couple years later, still in high school, I had started dating a young lady from the neighborhood much to the delight of my parents. They felt me having a girlfriend would be a good influence on me. They weren’t fond of my miscreant friends. Well this girl’s parents both worked – my mom was a  homemaker and was home every second of every day. After school we’d go over to this girl’s house and drink  her folk’s booze and… Netflix and Chill before it was a thing. This girl had like three records but one of them was John Cougar’s then current LP American Fool. That album really broke Cougar big. “Hurts So Good” was a damn good song. I still hate “Jack And Diane” but it was huge too. This girl would put his album on and I have to admit, I didn’t hate it. There’s a deep cut on there “Thundering Hearts” that’s an overlooked gem. So my disdain for Cougar started to wane. The local radio station even started playing his version of “I Need A Lover” more than Benatar’s… so that’s something.

I was in college when the now John Cougar Mellencamp put out his raucous, sloppy album Uh Huh. I heard that first song – probably on MTV – “Crumbling Down” and thought, hey this rocks. I remember during those early 80s, Rolling Stone magazine was comparing anything that was sprawling rock to Exile On Main Street. They compared Petty’s Let Me Up, I’ve Had Enough and Mellencamp’s Uh Huh both to Exile. I don’t hear that but reading those words spurred me to buy the album, my first Mellencamp LP purchase. That was a great album. His backing band was great. While they didn’t have a cool moniker like E-Street or Silver Bullet, it was the same guys who played on all of his early stuff: the amazing Kenny Aronoff on drums (who went on to play with John Fogerty and Smashing Pumpkins), Larry Crane and Mike Wanchic on guitars, and Toby Myers on bass. “Play Guitar” was a fist pumping album. “Little Pink Houses” grew to be one of Mellencamp’s biggest songs. I was drawn to “Authority Song” because well… I was always fighting the man. “Serious Business” is an overlooked rocker, one of Mellencamp’s best. At this point I was on the bandwagon. I didn’t rush out and buy his back catalog like I usually do but I played the crap out of that particular album.

In ’85 protest and charity were the order of the day. Live Aid had been a global event and inspired by an off-hand comment from Dylan that night in Philly, September of that year saw the inaugural Farm Aid. The only thing I remember about Farm Aid is Eddie Van Halen and Sammy Hagar appearing together for the first time and covering Zeppelin to boot… The 80s were a tough time. Corporate greed was choking off the opportunity of the little guy. Nobody was more hard pressed in those days than the local, small farmer. Mellencamp, who was from Indiana and probably surrounded by farmers, didn’t play at that first Farm Aid, but had absorbed the struggling and anguish into his songwriting. In early August of ’85 he dropped Scarecrow and I bought it the day it came out. They’d been playing the video for “Lonely Ol’ Night” a wonderful track about the need of human connection in tough times. I’d tell you Scarecrow was Mellencamp’s masterpiece but he saved that for his next album, The Lonesome Jubilee. That was quite a run – Uh Huh, Scarecrow followed by The Lonesome Jubilee – but I digress. It’s hard to explain how widely Scarecrow resonated with folks in the Midwest but I’ll tell you this – my parents, who don’t generally don’t like music, looooved the song “Small Town.” But then they’re from… well… a small town from southern Kansas.

“Rain On The Scarecrow” is one of the best protest songs ever written. I dated a woman from St Joseph, Mo and when we saw Mellencamp play this song, 12 years after it had been released, she went nuts during this song. She was pumping her fist in the air and screaming something about her family being farmers. I thought her dad was school teacher. I was too afraid to ask her. I can only imagine how real farmers felt when they heard that one. Plus it’s a great rock song. “Small Town,” “Lonely Ol’ Night” and “R.O.C.K. in the USA” (which I wasn’t crazy about but it still ended up on my 4th of July Playlist) got all the attention but there were some great deep tracks. “Minutes to Memories” is a great track in the vein of the Faces’ “Oo La La” where a grandfather recounts to his grandson advice of his grandfather… if that makes sense. “Between A Laugh And A Tear” was like a sad sequel to “Jack And Diane” and features Rickie Lee Jones as a duet partner… although I’ve always felt she was under utilized on the song. These tracks showed what tremendous growth in songwriting Mellencamp had gone through.

Not all the songwriting was perfect. While I always loved the tune “Justice And Independence ’85” the lyrics were a little clunky. I’ve never been a fan of allegory. “You’ve Got To Stand For Something” has a great message but is very “of it’s time” lyrically. He sings about Sly Stallone and Vanessa Williams. “Face of the Nation” is good but a very serious tune.

I love Scarecrow but as we always ask, is this 2 CD “Super Deluxe” edition worth looking into. For me it’s always about what the bonus material looks like. I have to say – if you don’t have this album, definitely splurge on this version. However, for those of us who already have the record I don’t see much in the way of bonus material that would entice me. So many anniversary and deluxe editions have come out lately. Both Rush (Moving Pictures) and Keith Richards (Main Offender) have given us great deluxe packages with a concert recording from the era the album was released. Mellencamp has merely rounded up a bunch of previously released B-sides and demos. I look at these tracks to me more like a curio than a collectible.

He includes the bonus track “The Kinda Fella I Am” and “Small Town (Acoustic)” that have been out there for a while now, I think since they released this on CD. A cover of “Under The Boardwalk” which has been out there for a while as a B side, kicks off the disc of bonus tracks and it doesn’t do much for me. I like his version of James Brown’s “Cold Sweat” better but again, I’ve already got this track. There are several “Writer’s Demo” versions of tracks from the album and they’re nothing I’ll ever seek out to hear again. There are several “Rough Mix” versions of tracks from the album and they do nothing for me either. He does throw in a cover of “Shama Lama Ding Dong” that was performed in the movie Animal House and that was enjoyable. There are two new tracks I’d never heard before – “Carolina Shag” which I’ve added to my Playlist, Songs About Dancing which I like and “Smart Guys” where Mellencamp chooses to speak the verses vs sing that I don’t like.

There are simply no revelations amongst this bonus material. Why Mellencamp chose to not include a concert recording from that era like those other Deluxe Editions I mentioned is a mystery. But then, I don’t think he’s ever done a proper Live Album. This package is hard pass for me, but again if you don’t have Scarecrow it’s an essential addition to any rock n roll catalog and this is a nice version to have. And remember…

“Days turn to minutes And minutes to memories
Life sweeps away the dreams That we have planned”

Cheers!

 

 

Review: John Mellencamp, ‘Strictly A One-Eyed Jack’ – Curmudgeon Rock?

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I’m going to admit right off the bat, that much like 2017’s Sad Clowns & Hillbillies, this new Mellencamp album Strictly One-Eyed Jack is going to be an acquired taste. It’s going to need time to grow on you, in much the same way wine needs to breath a bit when first opened. It’s like olives… who liked olives the first time you ate one?

It wasn’t always that way. I think when you mention Mellencamp’s name to most folks it conjures his late 80s, early 90s heyday. Most people think of “Jack And Diane” or “Little Pink Houses” or some other big anthem. Squint your eyes and in your memory you can see John in a video in a wheat field strumming a guitar while we all sang along. He was one of the biggest artists on the planet. I can even admit to remembering when his name was John (or to some people, Johnny) Cougar. His manager at the time gave him a stage name based on the type of car the manager drove. I’m not sure I’d trust anybody who drove a Mercury Cougar to guide my career but then I was in middle school back then so what would I have known? And Cougars were sporty… While we were all vaguely aware of John Cougar he wasn’t a household name by any means. If you’d asked me in 1979 who sang “I Need A Lover” I’d have told you it was a Pat Benetar song. She covered the song, albeit without the great, extended guitar intro and that was the version that became a “hit.” They didn’t play the Cougar er, Mellencamp version until later… at least in Kansas City anyway.

It wasn’t until 1982’s American Fool that John Cougar broke it big. “Hurts So Good” was a good song but it was “Jack And Diane” (a track I don’t like) that was the big hit. I would urge everyone to seek out the song “Thundering Hearts” from that record. I wasn’t on the bandwagon until the 1983 release, Uh-Huh. Yeah, the video for “Crumblin’ Down” was cheesey – John dancing around parking meters like he was a young Cool Hand Luke – but damn if it wasn’t a great song. “Play Guitar” and “Little Pink Houses” drove me to the record store. It was the first album to bear the “Mellencamp” name. It was credited to John Cougar Mellencamp in what we didn’t realize at the time was a rebranding campaign. The great meat and potatoes rock that he was serving up continued on the more politically charged Scarecrow, which is probably my favorite LP of his. And, naturally, my sainted mother even liked “Small Town” on that record because well, she’s from a small town.

Mellencamp then took a stylistic left turn and got more “rootsy” on his true masterpiece, The Lonesome Jubilee. It was instrumentally speaking a much more varied sounding record. There was violin and more acoustic guitar which was like stumbling across plutonium in the 80s. There were still great rock songs like “Paper And Fire” but it felt like a real left turn for the heartland rocker. I think we all thought it was a diversion, a one off but it turned out that more rootsy style came to define almost everything Mellencamp has done since then. “Cherry Bomb” is more his signature style than say, “Small Paradise.” The last really hard rocking album Mellencamp did was Whenever We Wanted. I still love that album. Tracks like “Get A Leg Up” and “Love And Happiness” are all slashing guitar and crashing drums. After that album my interest in Mellencamp waned slightly. I loved his ’98 album John Mellencamp, as did the Rock Chick as I found out later we both owned it.

From there Mellencamp settled into this T Bone Burnett, murky almost old-timey style. Well at least after Freedom’s Road he seemed to. That and his blues cover album Trouble No More were my final Mellencamp LP purchases. As he became deeper attached to that more roots oriented sound his vision became considerably darker. The titles gave away where he was coming from: Life, Death, Love And Freedom (which sounds like a Johnny Cash title) or Plain Spoken. To go with his darker vision, the cigarettes he smokes finally ravaged his voice to the point where he’s in that Howlin Wolf, Tom Waits area. I’m a huge fan of emotive vocals versus polished vocals so the disintegration of his voice has never bothered me. All of that said, Mellencamp remains an amazing songwriter. The vision is dark but the words stick with you… more so for me than a song like “Jack And Diane.”

On Strictly A One-Eyed Jack we find John has kept his signature band together. Long time guitarist Mike Wanchic is still in the band. As is, Andy York/guitar, Dane Clark/drums, John Gunell/bass, Troy Kinnet/accordion & keyboards and perhaps most importantly Miriam Sturm on violin. Sturm’s violin is perhaps the most prominent instrument here. Thematically we find John talking a lot about lies – two songs have the word in the title, slander (“Did You Say Such A Thing”) and rain. The tracks about rain might just end up on our Playlist: Rainy Day Songs. One thing that does come across clearly from Mellencamp’s lyrics… he, as the kids say, gives zero fucks about what anybody thinks. He’s said publicly he’s not into writing hit records, he just wants to make great albums. I would say that Strictly A One-Eyed Jack is a very good, nearing great album indeed.

One thing different this time out is the sporadic appearance of that other 80s icon, Bruce Springsteen. Yes, Springsteen is credited with vocals on a few songs but more importantly he brought his guitar. The song “Wasted Days” is my favorite of the Bruce songs, and perhaps on the album. I still don’t know why I’m not hearing more about that track – if it was 1986 it’d be the biggest hit of the year. Bruce does a harmony vocal and guitar solo on “Did You Say Such A Thing” where Mellencamp accuses someone of “talking shit” on him. Springsteen’s guitar is more important than his harmony vocal on that track and it’s a livelier moment. Springsteen only adds guitar to the ballad and album end-er “A Life Full of Rain.” All three of these tracks deserve a listen.

The album opener “I Always Lie To Strangers” is a dark, gravelly affair. It can be a little off-putting on first listen like that cover art painting. Did someone poke John in the eye? What are we to take from that opening song? Is John telling us lies over the next 12 tracks? Things do pick up on the second track, “Driving In The Rain,” the first of two rain tracks. It’s a lilting waltz of a song with a great melody and comes complete with Andrews Sisters type female backing vocalists singing, “Ooo.” We get more into Mellencamp’s state of mind on “I Am A Man Who Worries,” which just might be my theme song. The song is all snarling vocal and violin with my favorite line, “I come across as dangerous and unforgiving.” Sounds like Mellencamp and I have a few things in common these days.

As usual it’s the quieter moments that I like the most. “Streets of Galilee” is a beautiful piano and acoustic guitar ballad. It’s one of my favorites. “Gone So Soon” is the saddest ballad Mellencamp has ever done and from a sonic perspective it could be something Sinatra did. “A Life Full of Rain” is another Tom Waits-ian ballad. It’s all piano and craggy vocals but a beautiful rumination on life’s mistakes while Bruce plays guitar. When Mellencamp gets quiet and sad, count me in.

The title track comes across like an old Dylan track where a bunch of fictional characters play a game of cards. I love the way the drums drive the song along… “The Gypsy King is dealing from the bottom of the deck…”Sweet Honey Brown” has a bass-line that reminds me of “Under the Boardwalk.” When the violin kicks in we know this is not anything that happy. “The show is over… the monkey’s dead.” It seems to be Mellencamp’s farewell to show business. “Lie To Me” continues the theme of lying. It’s another stand out track with the great line, “Lie to me, Lord knows I’m used to it.” The only track that really left me cold – other than the opener – was “Chasing Rainbows.” It’s like a bizarre (almost drunken) sing-along that wouldn’t be out of place at the end of a Monty Python movie. It’s sung with more of a grimace than a smile.

Mellencamp, in my mind, remains an important if overlooked artist these days. I love that he’s brave enough to share his dark vision of life with us on Strictly A One-Eyed Jack. You aren’t going to hear these tracks on the radio – and it’s criminal “Wasted Days” isn’t being played more – but they are important, well written songs nonetheless. I recommend everybody pours something strong, throw another log on the fire and turn this one up.

Cheers!

Review: John Mellencamp, “Wasted Days” Featuring Bruce Springsteen – How Am I Not Hearing More About This Great New Song?

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How is this song not blasting out of every radio, everywhere? Mellencamp? Springsteen? Together? Singing on the same song?! This is like the Clash of the Titans. Well… maybe not a Clash… maybe it’s more like the Harmonizing Of The Titans.

There was a time, sadly long passed, when I think this song would be getting a Hell of a lot more attention. If it were say, 1986, this track would be the Number 1 song in the universe. While both these artists have had long and remarkable careers, even I will admit in the 80s they were part of the dominant rock scene that just doesn’t exist anymore. Springsteen was in that whole Born In The U.S.A. hoopla that bled into Live 1975 to 1985. Mellencamp went on a incredible run of LPs starting with Uh-Huh (at least for me) to Scarecrow to The Lonesome Jubilee. It’s a bit of odd pairing… I always thought of Springsteen as a more natural fit for a duet with Bob Seger… those guys were pals back then. Mellencamp was all Farm Aid and Springsteen was out with Amnesty International… But listening to these cagey old veterans, they’re a great fit. To quote one of my favorite comedies, “Cats living with dogs, MASS HYSTERIA!”

I got into Springsteen when The River came out. My entry point to any artist back then was what was playing on the radio after I’d become rock n roll conscious and for Springsteen that was The River. I’d heard some of the tracks from Darkness On The Edge Of Town on the radio, but I was still too newly converted to the church rock n roll and I’m not sure I realized all of the Darkness songs were Springsteen. The River ended up being my first Springsteen LP purchase. And believe me, when you’re in high school on an allowance a double-album was a big investment. I still have a great fondness for that album even though my friend Brewster didn’t take me with him to the concert in KC on that tour… bygones. That album led me to a lifetime of listening to Springsteen with and without the E Street Band. I’m embarrassed to admit, the first time I heard Born To Run in it’s entirety was at a Senior Skip Day party when I was a mere junior in high school… but that was all the way in 1981. I was sitting in this guy’s backyard, not far from the kegs talking to these two girls who while only one year older were still just out of reach. I left that party with nothing more than a nice beer buzz and the determination to purchase Born To Run immediately… once the beer wore off, which I did.

My journey to Mellencamp was a tad more circuitous. Right after we’d got to high school my buddy Brewster – of the infamous River tour snub – went to see John Cougar (as Mellencamp was known back then) with a guy I’ll call Carter (name changed to protect the very, very guilty). Once again, I was not invited… I’m beginning to see a trend. Brewster and Carter were at this Cougar (Mellencamp) show,  which was in support of his second major label LP Nothing Matters And What If It Did – and somehow Carter and Brewster ended up partying with Cougar’s manager. I don’t know if its the same guy who renamed him “Cougar” after his automobile or not. They’re drinking with this guy at his hotel and Carter talks the manager into giving him Britt Ekland’s phone number in L.A. Apparently the manager guy had formerly had Rod Stewart as a client and had his ex girlfriend’s number. Carter called her but he only talked to her maid who answered the phone. Carter was an outlaw… but I digress. While they’re drinking with this manager, Cougar walks into the room. He actually autographed a copy of Nothing Matters… and signs it with the tag line, “Don’t Forget Me.” Sadly, I was with Brewster when he trashed the album and its autographed cover a few days later. He didn’t like the music. The ignorance of youth.

A few years later – and it seemed like light years – I would rediscover Cougar when I heard American Fool. A girl I had started dating, who I guess you’d call my “first girlfriend” had that album. Her parents both worked which was rare in the ‘burbs where I lived. Her parents didn’t get home until 5 pm every day… we all got out of school at 3… you do the math. This gal and her friends and I would go over and hangout at the house during the late afternoon. That’s where I heard American Fool. While I still despise “Jack And Diane” I really liked a lot of that album and thought it was a huge leap forward from Nothing Matters. I really liked the deep track “Thundering Hearts.” Sadly though, I didn’t truly get on the Mellencamp (no longer Cougar) bandwagon until Uh-Huh when I was in college. Maybe it was the name change? That album rocked. “Crumbin’ Down” and “Play Guitar” remain favorites to this day. I really have followed Mellencamp ever since. Although I will admit in the 2000s my Mellencamp album purchases have been sporadic. I was all in on Freedom’s Road, a late career gem. And I dug the raw and rootsy No Better Than This although its more of a late night LP, not a party record. But I’ll admit, I sort of lost touch with Mellencamp. His voice, ravaged by cigarette smoke was slightly off-putting. But then, in 2017 I heard Sad Clowns & Hillbillies, which I loved, despite the title. While Mellencamp’s voice was at its most gravelly – one might compare it to a gravel truck that’s thrown a rod – he offset it with female harmony vocalists and it just worked. I was reminded once again that super strong songwriting and an emotional vocal delivery will produce something special every time. And Mellencamp delivered!

I’d been immersed in early 80s Bob Dylan for the last few weeks as I absorbed his new entry in the Bootleg Series, Springtime In New York. I only stopped listening to that box set long enough to take in Chrissie Hynde’s super new solo LP, which happens to be a set of Dylan covers. I finally emerged from this Dylan fugue state to discover this new track by Mellencamp that featured Springsteen. I’d heard some press buzz about it a few months ago. It was slated to be on an upcoming Mellencamp LP, which I now hear is going to be released in 2022 instead of this year. Frankly it was one of those post-lockdown LPs I was really looking forward to for this year but hey, now I’ll just look forward to it next year. When I found out this song was out – and I was surprised – I was further shocked that it wasn’t generating more buzz. I liked it immediately upon hearing. It’s been in high rotation here in the B&V labs this week. I love the pairing of these two earnest rock stars.

I mentioned earlier that if this had been released in 1986 it’d be a monster hit. Well, in 1986 when these two guys were still “the young lions” they couldn’t have sung this song. This is a song written by a more seasoned artist, facing down the end. The first line lets you know what “Wasted Days” we’re talking about here – “How many summers still remain?” Oddly a guy said to me recently, “I’ve only got like 20 summers left, I’m going to enjoy them all…” There’s nothing like getting to the end and thinking, man how much time did I waste and how much do I have left? When you reach a certain age, you can’t avoid those questions and this song hits it straight on with a sense of resolve tinged with regret. While it’s a heavy topic, the tune isn’t a downer. It’s a mid-tempo thing that drilled into my brain through my ear. It’s definitely more of the Mellencamp universe/soundscape with Springsteen as the guest. I did chuckle when I saw the cover art for the single. It looks like these two elder statesmen of rock n roll just tied up their horses outside at the hitch of this farmhouse and came in to sit down to play some acoustic guitar. I feel like there might be a pie cooling on the window sill.

The track starts with the strumming of acoustic guitars with a spidery electric dancing in and out. Mellencamp must have been hitting the hot tea with honey because his voice sounds significantly less gravelly than on Sad Clowns and Hillbillies (which was sadly the last time I’d heard him). Don’t get me wrong, there’s still some gravel in Mellencamp’s voice… Mellencamp takes that first verse and when they hit the chorus you hear Springsteen come in. I love that harmonizing on the chorus. “We watch our lives just fade away to more wasted days…” Springsteen sings the second verse. He’s impassioned and a great counterpoint to Mellencamp. The track has that signature Mellencamp, rootsy accordion to carry it along. I don’t know if that’s Springsteen on the guitar solo but it sure sounds like him… I did search to find out who plays lead on this but couldn’t find the details, I’ll have to wait until the LP comes out. To hear these guys, at this stage of their career, nay their lives, come together and knock it out of the park like this is just a joy to behold. They didn’t waste a day or a minute or a second recording this track.

Here it is:

If you’re like me and you’ve been in a Dylan haze – and who possibly has really? – or if you’re not like me (and you’re normal) and your local radio has let you down and isn’t playing this song. I urge you to put this into high rotation. It’s got me pumped for what might be a great John Mellencamp LP in 2022, something I wasn’t sure I’d ever say again. Put this one on late at night with a little more volume than usual and perhaps a little more whiskey than usual… Life is a precious commodity… don’t waste it.

Cheers!