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Popdose Flashback: John Cougar Mellencamp, “Big Daddy”
08.03.2009 - By Mojo Flucke

Sometimes it’s hard to reach into the dark, dank, spiderweb-glazed swamp of memory and grab something from 20 years ago, but this much I remember: In the 1970s through the early 1990s a few select artists like Springsteen, Michael Jackson, Def Leppard, Madonna, Metallica, and yes, Journey, could inspire such rabid devotion in rock fans that they’d flock to stores holding special midnight openings to sell a new record the first minute it was allowed.

Today, the music-biz is so fragmented, rock radio is so weakened, and leaked MP3s/digital streams make the concept of a “formal record release” a notion antiquated as the corset — or at least Valley Girl talk. People buy CDs not for the tactile experience but as a backup hardcopy. Hard to imagine staying up for a midnight record-release party for that.

While Popdose commenters might have their own recollections of when this particular Event-with-a-capital-E stuff died, my official day is March 31, 1992, the day Bruce Springsteen’s Human Touch and Lucky Town CDs hit stores. As a reporter for an indie record-store trade tab, ’twas my job to call a dozen stores and get the vibe for the turnout. While traffic was fairly steady during the first full day of release, store owners said, the midnight openings were lightly attended, and didn’t pay off for store owners.

Right below that top tier of 1980s “Event” artists was a fistful of all-stars who might not be worth camping out for, but we’d make time to get to a record store the day a new CD came out — or the next day, at the latest — so that we could rip it open, play it, and dig it.

John “Johnny Cougar” Mellencamp was one of those. 1989’s Big Daddy was the last in a string of five albums in which he dominated the charts. His success had come after he shed the pretty-boy rock star image shaped by his early manager Tony DeFries, followed his muse, and morphed into a midwestern poor-man’s Dylan. Once comfortable in his own skin, Mellencamp wrote lyrical themes and stories that hit home, served on a bed of tasty power chords with a side order of Kenny Aronoff’s never-too-intrusive precision drumming.

While some rock-ologists give much (deserved) credit to Uncle Tupelo and the Cowboy Junkies for advancing the alt-country movement in and around 1990, it could be argued that Mellencamp’s 1980s output at least provided some inspiration for it, with its folky leanings, featured fiddles and dobro, and its social conscience that stuck out — in the Reagan era, at least — like a milk bucket under a bull. The guy started Farm Aid with Willie Nelson and Neil Young in 1985, an annual event that’s bagged $33 million for family farmers to date.Big Daddy signaled a change in Mellencamp’s relationship with the charts, and with the record industry: It was less rockin’, more acoustic. The first single, “Pop Singer,” bit the hand that fed him. In it, he makes it official that he never wanted to be no pop singer. It wasn’t just the song; Mellencamp bucked the biz by electing to stay back home in Indiana to concentrate on painting and his liberal politics for a couple years.

While earlier albums might have had some serious protest songs, they also celebrated rock and youth and life — think “Jack and Diane,” “Play Guitar,” and “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A. (A Salute to ’60s Rock)” — Big Daddy didn’t have none of that, save a rockin’ cover of the Hombres’ 1967 garage-rock classic “Let It All Hang Out” (download), unlisted on the original release. It was almost as if Mellencamp didn’t want to crack a smile, like some sort of corn-fed Indiana version of a stone-faced Buckingham Palace Royal Guard. Still, the album featured some high points:

“Jackie Brown” does a great job of forcing us to walk in someone’s poverty-stricken shoes. If you’re not a total navel-gazing, greedy neocon boor, you can’t help but to look at the people around you differently after hearing this cut and start thinking about what you can do to be a better citizen and help out. We all know Jackie Brown types, and this is a game-changer if you have any conscience whatsoever. The video probably didn’t help sell many records, because it juxtaposed mostly Mellencamp and his fam with some parallel Jackie Brown family — we understand the concept — but comes off as a lot warmer and nicer than the song itself, in effect a non sequitir at odds with the message of the composition.

“Martha Say,” another one of Mellencamp’s classic character sketches, finds a tough-talking woman who would “pour water on a drowning man in the moonlight.” Yet — and we all know this gal, too — the tune changes when she meets a certain guy. It’s become a concert fave:

Other songs, like “Country Gentleman” and “J.M.’s Question” are subtle-as-a-churning-combine political diatribes that, whether you’re a chowdahead from the heart of Boston or a midwestern hayseed — like Larry Bird, the Hick from French Lick (Indiana) — you’ll nod your head in agreement. Unless of course, you align yourself with those who call our mostly centrist president things like “Muslim socialist.” In that case, you’ve probably participated in Mellencamp CD burnings outside your town library, so as to protect the children, and don’t particularly appreciate a jeans-and-T-shirt-clad rocker telling you how to live your life.

The seriousness of Big Daddy was a letdown for a lot of fans. Mellencamp did what his heart led him to, and during the Big Daddy era he went through an acrimonious divorce, which probably influenced his artistic output. Following his muse probably gained him more respect among his peers and in the rock pantheon, overall, but it was at this point the masses broke with Mellencamp.

Sure, there have been some hits and high points since — 1994’s “Wild Night” and 2007’s “Our Country” come to mind for radio songs we heard a lot of, and you just can’t leave out the title song of Cuttin’ Heads, with its awesome Chuck D rap — but for the most part Mellencamp’s flown under the radar since, at least commercially, compared to his ’80s heyday. On the road he’s done some cool things to keep it interesting, like playing with John Fogerty and Donovan on 2005’s Words and Music tour, in which Donovan played a set within Mellencamp’s, using his band. But Big Daddy was where Mellencamp started coming down the other side of the rock-star mountain, no doubt.

Big Daddy was listed as a John Cougar Mellencamp album, the last to carry the “Cougar” name. While anyone who’s followed the artist can understand how and why he evolved his stage name from Johnny Cougar to John Mellencamp — Tony DeFries was a mixed bag as a manager, as Stardust, the raunchy bio of original DeFries client David Bowie attests — it seems that a lot of the fun and joie de vivre that made him so appealing left the building along with the Cougar name. Big Daddy is a gorgeous, crisp, well-produced album that to this day sounds fantastic, but it’s one you’ve got to get up for playing — because it’s something of a downer. An abrasive one, at times.

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