Heartland Maverick: Mellencamp ahead of his time, lyrics misunderstood

IN CONCERT

What: John Mellencamp
Where: Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre, 1925 Blanshard St.
When: Monday, 8 p.m. (doors at 7)
Tickets: $79.50, $99.50, and $149.50 at selectyourtickets.com, by phone at 250-220-7777, or in person at the Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre box office

 In the first half of the 1980s, roots rocker John Mellencamp wrote three paeans about middle-class America, songs that advocated for ordinary citizens in a sympathetic manner that was rare for the era.

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Jack and Diane, Pink Houses and Small Town made Mellencamp a star, but were dismissed by some: The country was in fine shape, critics said, accusing Mellencamp of being a second-rate songwriter trying awkwardly to ape Bruce Springsteen.

What those pundits didn’t foresee was that Mellencamp would come to be included in the Songwriters Hall of Fame decades later for penning these and other heartland hits.

“This one has been misconstrued over the years because of the chorus — it sounds very rah-rah,” Mellencamp said of Pink Houses, in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine. “But it’s really an anti-American song. The American Dream had pretty much proven itself as not working anymore.”

The man who proudly calls himself Little Bastard wound up being well ahead of the cultural curve during the reign of then-president Ronald Reagan (Mellencamp turned down an offer that would have let Ronald Reagan use Pink Houses as the theme song for his 1984 re-election campaign).

Back then, America wasn’t such a peachy place for the working class, small town or otherwise, so Mellencamp organized Farm Aid with Willie Nelson and Neil Young, an all-star fundraiser for family farming that raised $9 million in 1985 — the same year Small Town hit No. 2 on the adult contemporary radio charts.

America needed a voice and it got a chain-smoking, profanity-spewing control freak who, it could be argued, is one of the most misunderstood characters in rock history. “Quite honestly, that’s one of my biggest disappointments,” Mellencamp said of his reputation as a flag-waving Republican, in an interview this summer with CBS News.

“You would think with all the goddamn people in the world, that somebody would have taken the time to sit down and listen to my lyrics to my songs one time.”

Mellencamp continued to wrap songs with a political bent inside catchy rock numbers on his 2017 studio album Sad Clowns & Hillbillies. He has another record, Other People’s Stuff, which is composed mostly of traditionals and covers, scheduled for release on Dec. 7.

“Most, if not all, of the songs on Other People’s Stuff come from The Great American Songbook,” Mellencamp said in a statement. “These are songs that have been recorded over the last 40 years of my career, but had never been put together as one piece of work. Now, they have.”

Married in high school and a father at 19, he has five children and nine grandkids. A smoker since he was 10, Mellencamp had a heart attack at 42, but even that couldn’t keep him down.

Now 67, he retains a red-hot maverick streak. In February, while performing Easy Target from Sad Clowns & Hillbillies on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Mellencamp dropped to one knee and raised his fist, echoing the gesture made famous by former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

The video for his new song Eyes on the Prize, released Tuesday to coincide with the U.S. midterm elections, features a storyline about two escaped convicts.

Mellencamp has been an outspoken critic of Donald Trump, calling the president a “madman” in an anger-filled press conference before to Farm Aid in September. “We’re gonna eat corporate bulls--t, we’re gonna be governed by corporate bulls--t … we have to stand up and f--k-in’ vote!”

John Mellencamp: Plain Spoken from the Chicago Theatre arrived on Netflix in May and gave the songwriter (who dislikes being interviewed) a chance to speak on his own terms. In the concert film, several revelations emerge — the biggest being that he had crippling spina bifida as a child.

Mellencamp has always been a curiosity, in terms of the contrast between his public reputation and private personality. It’s in his nature to speak first and ask questions later, and his comments often get him into places only brash behaviour will let him exit.

The ballad of John Mellencamp has taken the native of Seymour, Indiana, well beyond his working-class roots. He is now based in Bloomington, on an 86-acre estate bordering Lake Monroe, an hour south of Indianapolis, and he recently purchased for $2.3 million a loft in the New York neighbourhood of SoHo, presumably to be closer to his New York-based girlfriend, actress Meg Ryan.

Mellencamp returns to the Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre on Monday for his first performance in Victoria in a decade and one of seven dates in British Columbia on his 23-date tour of Canada.

His previous show in 2008 drew roughly 7,000 fans, proving Mellencamp’s tenacity should never be underestimated, especially four decades into a career that has earned him a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

His concerts have remained high in quality. Mellencamp recently spoke of his disdain for the oldies circuit. “I feel like we’re just carrying the dead carcass of rock ‘n’ roll around and picking up the money that’s left over from the past. It’s just all nostalgic now.”

mdevlin@timescolonist.com

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