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”