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Mellencamp: American Troubadour

Copyright Date: 2015
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Throughout his prolific career, John Mellencamp has performed more than twenty Top 40 hits, has been nominated for thirteen Grammy Awards, and has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Hits like "Jack and Diane," "Small Town," and "Cherry Bomb" are iconic American songs that have played an important role in defining midwestern music and developing the rock genre. Despite his critical and commercial success, however, the rough guy from a small town writing songs about everything he "learned about living" is often omitted from the ranks of America's songwriting elite.

    InMellencamp, David Masciotra explores the life and career of one of America's most important and underrated songwriters, persuasively arguing that he deserves to be celebrated alongside artists like Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, and Bob Dylan. Beginning with his modest beginnings in Seymour, Indiana, Masciotra details Mellencamp's road to fame, examining his struggles with the music industry and his persistent dedication to his midwestern roots. Shaking off the shortsighted "regionalist" stereotype and dismissing his assumed pop-star persona, Mellencamp found success by remaining true to where he came from.

    This thoughtful analysis highlights four decades of the artist's music, which has consistently elevated the dignity of everyday people and honored the quiet heroism of raising families and working hard. This first serious biography of the legendary musician will charm fans and music enthusiasts who are interested in the development of roots rock and Americana music.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4735-2
    Subjects: History, Music

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[viii])
  3. Introduction: No Pop Singer
    (pp. 1-10)

    From the American heartland came a voice as strong and restless as a tornadic wind blowing up dust devils on a wide open prairie. in the beginning that voice was given the unfortunate moniker of Johnny cougar, and its possessor would spend nearly a decade, from the late 1970s to the late 1980s, fighting to define himself as a man and as an artist, crawling out of the shadow of his record company’s limited vision for his talent. His manager and record company—Tony DeFries of MainMan Management, which had a close relationship with MCA Records—found a brash, handsome,...

  4. 1 Thundering Hearts
    (pp. 11-38)

    “In 1969, I’m sixteen years old. I’m riding around with four guys in the small town of seymour, indiana,” is how John Mellencamp begins the story of a dramatic turning point in his life. “This drumbeat comes blaring out of the three-inch speaker,” he goes on to say, “and this voice sings, ‘I wanna tell my tale, come on.’” Mellencamp’s heart must have leapt out of his chest, because he says that he immediately asked, “Who the fuck is this guy?” and told the driver to pull over to the shoulder where there would be no static. He listened to...

  5. 2 Holding Hands Meant Something
    (pp. 39-64)

    Scarecrow,released in 1985, is a record of newfound maturity in which Mellencamp explores questions of community, poverty, despair, justice, and the “face of the nation” he doesn’t “recognize no more.” on the album, there is one standout song about boredom, romance, and sexuality in the small town. “Lonely Ol’ night”—its title alone speaks volumes. When the drumbeat begins, in perfect sync with a twangy rock guitar that soon goes to lightly riffing so that space opens for one of the funkiest bass lines outside of R & B, it is immediately clear that the song is about primal,...

  6. 3 Get a Leg up
    (pp. 65-72)

    John Mellencamp writes great songs about sex. He has never acquired fame for effectively expressing the libidinal funk of life in song, but his lascivious songs capture a sexual attitude that negotiates territory between the joyful hedonism of the rolling stones, Prince, and AC/DC, and the spiritual sexual redemption of Marvin Gaye, sam cooke, and smokey robinson. The sexual geography of Mellencamp’s music maps a world of satisfied arousal and fulfilled desire, but also one of bravado, playfulness, and masculine adventure.

    The music video for “Hurts so Good” takes place in a tiny bar in a tiny town called Medora,...

  7. 4 Eden Is Burning
    (pp. 73-96)

    John Mellencamp has admitted to responding contemptuously and impatiently to fans who ask him, “What happened to Jack and Diane?” “In my charming way,” he recalled self-deprecatingly, “I’d say, ‘They’re not real people. nothing happened to them, because I made them up.’”

    The inspiration behind the late David Foster Wallace’s first novel,The Broom of the System,was a remark an ex-girlfriend made to the great author. she said that she would rather be a character in a piece of fiction than a real person. Wallace questioned if there was any significant difference between the two, and in doing so...

  8. 5 Blues From the Front Porch
    (pp. 97-110)

    Before the no depression movement gained recognition, before the soundtrack toO Brother, Where Art Thou?temporarily resurrected folk music in pop culture, and before robert Plant won acclaim for his collaboration with Alison Krauss, Mellencamp scored commercial hits on rock and pop radio with songs that not only contained but prominently featured the violin, accordion, banjo, dobro, and other traditional instruments. Those who classify Mellencamp simply as Americana are mistaken. His album released in 1987 had a hybrid sound that Mellencamp christened “gypsy rock.” The sweat of immigrants, the dirt from farm fields, and the electricity of rock ’n’...

  9. 6 Big Daddy of Them All
    (pp. 111-134)

    The media personality of John Mellencamp in the late 1980s and early 1990s was bitter, hostile, and aggressive. He spoke candidly about his divorces, took an angry tone with reporters, and even though he would harshly condemn the policies of the reagan administration, he saved his toughest criticism for himself. He called critics “ignorant” and spoke about “detesting” the relegation process that they used to categorize his music as “folk,” in the case ofThe Lonesome JubileeandBig Daddy,and “sophomoric,” in the case ofWhenever We Wanted.He said that he needed to “learn how to be a...

  10. 7 Don’t Need This Body
    (pp. 135-166)

    Rock ’n’ roll is typically youth oriented and hormonally driven; John Mellencamp is one of the few rock songwriters and performers to artistically tackle adulthood with sophistication, wisdom, and respect for its mastery of generosity and thievery. The bible instructs that God giveth and taketh away, and never is that material and emotional scoreboard so active—fluctuating between wins and losses—as during the early and middle years of adulthood. children are born, parents die, money is made, fortunes are lost, love is consummated, and the body debilitates. Mellencamp’s music wrestles with the themes of adult life, and in doing...

  11. 8 The Lonesome Jubilee
    (pp. 167-194)

    InCivilization and Its Discontents,sigmund Freud writes of the epic, historical, and personal war between death and love. The two greatest forces in humanity—one creative and the other destructive—compete for our affection and attention. The doctor diagnoses everyone with the inescapable condition of fluctuation between the two governing authorities of human psychology and activity: “The meaning of the evolution of civilization is no longer obscure to us. it must present the struggle between eros and death, between the instinct of life and the instinct of destruction, as it works itself out in the human species. This struggle...

  12. 9 Here in the Melting Pot
    (pp. 195-210)

    At the age of fourteen, John Mellencamp began playing guitar and singing his favorite songs from the radio for his parents and extended family around the dining room table. The precocious teenager, deciding to test the critical taste of his family members, who called him a prodigy, formed his first band with Fred booker—an older teenager from one of seymour’s twenty-eight black families. booker was not only older, he was a better singer and dancer. They shared vocals in their soul cover band, crepe soul. booker and Mellencamp gave indiana audiences at bars, school functions, and Mellencamp’s uncle Joe’s...

  13. 10 Winners and Losers
    (pp. 211-232)

    Throughout the nation’s short history, the divisions most destructive to American improvement have been race and class. over the past three decades, one of the gaps of social disparity has narrowed while the other has widened. America will never become a sociological eden of racial harmony, but only a fool would deny the overwhelming evidence of progress on the racial question. The evidence of progress on the class question is stunningly opposite. While it is true that the standard of living is higher for poor Americans than it was decades ago, it is also true that the highest percentage of...

  14. 11 Freedom of speech
    (pp. 233-240)

    John Mellencamp is a walking contradiction. He is a self-identified redneck, but he is politically liberal. He is a world-famous musician who has married or dated models and actresses, but he has never had a permanent residence anywhere outside southern indiana. He is crude but cultured. He is a multitalented artist, claiming achievements in painting and film in addition to selling millions of records, but he is a tough guy from the heartland. He is one of America’s best and most authentic songwriters, but he began his career with the fake name of Johnny cougar, singing songs he now admits...

  15. 12 Fighting Authority
    (pp. 241-254)

    This book began with John Mellencamp dismissing his legacy as a footnote. When rock ’n’ roll makes its cultural exit as saloon singers or jazz music did, history will remember the legends as it does Frank sinatra, dean Martin, and sammy davis or Louis Armstrong, billie Holiday, and John coltrane. elvis Presley, bob dylan, the beatles, and the rolling stones will represent rock for decades, but the footnotes, as Mellencamp calls them, will fade into a dustbin of extinguished superstars and crumpled memories. it is impossible to argue that Mellencamp—regardless of his importance and greatness as a songwriter—will...

  16. Conclusion: Rock ’n’ Roll
    (pp. 255-262)

    In a lengthy interview that took place before John Mellencamp performed at Walter reed Army Medical center in 2005, dan rather asked the outspoken and opinionated songwriter to complete the statement “This I believe.” Mellencamp, after only a couple seconds’ hesitation, answered, “This I believe, that we could all do better and people give up too early. Those are two things that I’m pretty certain about. Most people quit way too early in the race, and most people are not interested in, for whatever reason, doing the best they possibly can. I learned from my grandfather that if you say...

  17. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 263-264)
  18. Bibliography
    (pp. 265-270)
  19. Index
    (pp. 271-282)