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Mellencamp by Paul Rees. Pub. ATRIA Books, 2021.

December 31, 2021 Comments off

I love rock music and this compelling biography is one of the best I have read about a rock’n roll star. It tells you the background to the man, how he wrote his songs, the albums he recorded, the personnel that he worked with, the concerts and how everybody reacted to him.

John Mellencamp is one of the most complex characters I have ever read about and he is quoted as saying “I’ve been right to the top and there ain’t nothing up there worth having”.

Born in Seymour Indiana, a farming community that is now referred to as “heartland America”, John was a troublemaker as a child and youth. The men in his family were all angry and John was angry too. What he managed to do was channel this anger into what he wanted to do and he produced some of the great songs of American rock’n roll. His first song that rated on the charts was I Need a lover ( who won’t drive me crazy) and it had that driving beat. He charted with many other songs including Small Town, Pink Houses, Jack and Diane, Cherry Bomb and my favourite Hurt So Good. Musically he was a perfectionist. If the song in his head was not replicated in the studio or by the band he could be fierce in his criticisms and sack everybody or do it again.

One of the great things about reading this book is that I could go on YouTube and play all the songs and know how they were written and who played them.

John was not an easy guy to deal with. He was intense, difficult, competitive and at times violent. He said “happy is not a normal way to be, if you see some guy who is happy all the time, there’s something fucking wrong with him”.

In spite of being from redneck Indiana he did not hold redneck views. Reaganomics unsettled farmers and cost many farmers their farms as Reagan introduced free market economics to America in the 80’s. John is quoted as saying “I am for the total overthrow of the capitalist system”. His songs are not patriotic songs they portray the poor and down trodden and black people. He was not racist and often portrayed poor blacks in his videos. Jack and Diane one of his break through songs was about the relationship between a black boy and white girl but he was forced to tone this down. Later in Cherry Bomb he was able to portray this situation.

The book is written in four parts from his birth until 2020. It is fascinating. Like all rockers he burnt out. Around 1989 he quit music and took up painting- “I like painting better than girls, better than motorcycles, better than music” but he came back. You can read the rest for yourself.

One of the best biographies of a man who ranks with Dylan, Springsteen and John Prine who he was very good buddies with, in writing songs about ordinary people living ordinary lives and growing up.