I sang my songs for millions of people / Sang good and bad news…
- John Mellencamp, “Void in My Heart.”
The role of the troubadour, a Middle Ages musician, was to travel from village to village and kingdom to kingdom, to share with the common people important developments of war, famine, power, and palace intrigue. Because literacy rates were low, the troubadour told the news in rhyme and with melody so that it would become memorable to the audience. John Mellencamp once said that had he not achieved any success in the rock and roll genre, he would have lived as a modern troubadour – throwing his old acoustic guitar in the back of a rusty, used car, and driving the highways, county roads, and backstreets of America, singing his songs and telling his stories to whatever barroom or coffeehouse crowd would listen.
After selling millions of records, scoring 23 top ten hits, and winning nearly every musical award of prestige available to a performer in his generation, his professional prosperity is inarguable. Remove the accessories and amenities of “rock star” status, however, and it becomes equally clear that Mellencamp’s artistic mission and message is no different from the unpackaged and primitive troubadour of antiquity. Rather than an old car with a loud muffler and dented fender, Mellencamp arrives in town in a tour bus, and instead of a single guitar in a scratched case, a truckload of instruments accompanies he and his band.
On February 15, 2019, John Mellencamp and his bandmates brought their storytelling show of rock, folk, and blues to Peoria, Illinois. The largest city on the Illinois River, with a population of approximately 120,000, Peoria dwarfs the “small town” of Mellencamp’s origin – Seymour, Indiana – but it shares with Seymour the qualification of “where they are not,” as in the advice Mellencamp recalls Pete Seeger giving him for creative longevity, “Go where they are not.”
As his international popularity proves, Mellencamp writes and sings songs that resonate with people who live “out in the sticks,” to use a phrase from his own “Cherry Bomb,” and those who, as Jack suggests in “Jack and Diane,” “run off to the city.” The origin of his art, even so, has the particularity of roots in where “they are not.” The characters who populate his songs soar and suffer far from the glamour of Hollywood, the gild of New York, and the governance of Washington DC.
The songs that Mellencamp sang – the stories he told – in Peoria presented vignettes and vistas of an alternative America. Although Mellencamp made only one overtly political statement from the stage, it was impossible to separate the American dream of Mellencamp’s music from the monstrosity currently troubling the country.
A twenty minute documentary film on Mellencamp’s life in music, and the impact of his songs on his fans, opened the evening. The smoky voice of the singer narrated footage from throughout his career, describing the highs and lows of his experiences, cataloguing everything from his begrudging acceptance of the “Cougar” moniker at his management and record company’s insistence to his heart attack in the early 1990s. The consistency through it all was his commitment to make real music, regardless of whether or not, at least in the beginning, he had a fake name. The testimonies of a diverse range of people, including a painter in Brooklyn and a pastor in Phoenix, who claim Mellencamp as inspiration acted as evidence of his accomplishment.
It is tempting to see the broadcast of the documentary to a captive audience as self-congratulation, but it is just as easy to view it as the narration of another story – Mellencamp’s own – a story that stands in stark contrast to the contemporary musical culture of frivolity and flimsiness. It is hard to imagine many of the current crop of hitmakers rolling into Peoria, 35 years from now to sing songs that make people raise their fists, swing their hips, and wipe their tear-filled eyes.
If art and authenticity are casualties of America’s current decline into corruption and silliness so too are many other principles and ideals, as the opening song dramatized. While his band held their instruments, and his two guitarists – Andrew York and Mike Wanchic – exchanged bluesy licks and loud shouts, Mellencamp took the stage backlit; his Elvis Presley hair showing streaks of gray. He counted four, and the band jumpstarted “Lawless Times,” the closer from 2014, “Plain Spoken.”
Mellencamp’s fiery and angry voice describes the criminality of Wall Street, Catholic priests, and even internet piracy to depict a nation out of control, drunk on its own avarice and ego. The music, unlike the rage of its subject, is full of whimsy. Reminiscent of Bob Dylan’s recent records, it is a traditional shuffle full of light instrumentation. Like Dylan, Mellencamp takes turns that are comedic, closing the gap between comedy and tragedy. If everyone is jockeying for their own power, profit, and pleasure, while they watch the foundation of their nation slip away, maybe in addition to a crisis, it is also a bad joke.
“Lawless Times” transitioned seamlessly into “Troubled Land,” a dark blues song from another recent Mellencamp release, chronicling the despair too prevalent in a country at war with itself. Dane Clark, pulling off the first of many musical tricks, kept a basic beat but did so with aggression and dynamism. The guitars had the crunch and grind of a bulldozer, while Miriam Strum played her violin with symphonic beauty. One of the best kept secrets of rock and roll music is that Mellencamp has one of the most capable and powerful bands in the business. No matter what story he tells, their execution of his composition enables his music to resound with full force.
Mellencamp’s vocal was its roughest in the earliest portions of the show, but with each song, he was able to hit higher notes and shout with greater clarity. It was almost as if the urgency of his lyrics, the excellence of his band, and the promise of his purpose strengthened his voice with each second.
To round out the opening quartet, Mellencamp returned to his classic record, Scarecrow. An album elemental to the emergence of the Alternative Country genre, it animates the lives of family farmers, lonely lovers, and elderly mill workers. “Minutes to Memories,” one of the best songs Mellencamp has written, had the Peoria audience singing along loudly to lyrics like, “An honest man’s pillow is his piece of mind.” It was an endorsement of an America alternative to the country visible on television news channels. It was an endorsement of an America where money does not dictate behavior, but virtues of fidelity, integrity and compassion are triumphant. “Small Town” brought a roaring audience to its feet.
Mellencamp has always expressed derision of the term, “Heartland Rock,” but if such a classification is legitimate, these are among it most definitive songs. They are rock and roll with twang – simple but emotive guitar meets an earnest vocal; plainspoken yet poetic verses of substance leading into booming, anthemic choruses, a solid and propulsive drum beat more Motown than British invasion.
The only break in the music was Mellencamp’s preemptive admonition of “loud motherfuckers” who like to scream during the “quiet section” of the show. “Do it in the hallway,” the singer said before adding, “And I heard someone yelling when I came out here, ‘Start the show!’ If you don’t like it, fucking leave. I don’t want you here.”
An alternative America, unlike the culture accessible through social media, is one where not every thought and feeling is worthy of amplification, and not every outburst and vulgarity is welcome.
The “quiet section” followed a few additional full band performances – a muscular take on Robert Johnson’s “Stones in My Passway,” the populist protest song, “We Are the People,” an especially rollicking “Lonely Ol’ Night,” and the melancholic folk meets rock depiction of middle class life, “Check It Out.”
Acoustic versions of “Longest Days,” “Jack and Diane,” bolstered by a deafening crowd sing-a-long, “The Full Catastrophe,” with Mellencamp channeling Frank Sinatra and Tom Waits while the keyboard player provided the sole accompaniment of bluesy and jazzy piano, and “Easy Target,” a ballad paying tribute to Black Lives Matter, complemented each other well. Before playing a note on his acoustic, Mellencamp told the story of the inspiration of “Longest Days.” His grandmother, while dying at the age of 100, told him, “Life is short even in its longest days.” The poignant, heartbreaking and soul caressing performance put Mellencamp’s number 1 hit, “Jack and Diane,” in an entirely new frame, making it clear that even in his early years of rock stardom, Mellencamp was exploring the tragic side of human life, and wrestling with the most universal of all truths: mortality.
While the plaintive piano notes of “Easy Target” travelled throughout the theater, Mellencamp declared his belief in “a living wage” and in “equal access to great education” to mitigate and prevent extreme income inequality. As the song ended, the singer took a knee.
In the alternative America, art is not reducible to background noise, the farce of “reality” television, or Twitter feeds. It is the medium through which people can explore the most critical of experiences – the life and death matters of urgency in the public square of politics, but also in the private spirit of individual introspection.
Within American music, Mellencamp is a prizefighter, and despite his advancing years, which he referenced a few times throughout the Peoria performance, he still is punching hard in championship bouts. Mellencamp’s excellent band returned to the stage, and he led them through fiery and defiant renditions of “Rain On the Scarecrow,” “Paper in Fire,” “Crumblin’ Down,” “Authority Song,” and the ultimate Midwest anthem of populist and progressive politics, “Pink Houses.”
With his band wearing formal attire, and given his well-earned status of elder statesman of American rock, Mellencamp might no longer seem like the rebel of Johnny Cougar era, but he is every bit as rebellious as he was when he made his debut. His enraged and impassioned delivery of “Rain On the Scarecrow” and “Paper in Fire,” especially following “Easy Target,” demonstrated an authentic fighting spirit of protest, desperately needed in a musical culture that has become far too complacent.
Bassist Jon E. Gee fought with his instrument as if he were taming a wild animal during “Crumblin’ Down,” playing a muscular line that would have made Lemmy Kilmister proud. The band plowed through with the pull of a truck, and Mellencamp hit his notes with deftness and emotion. On the next song, when he sang, “I fight authority…” it was easy to take his declaration at face value.
Mellencamp more playfully interacted with the audience than on previous tours, often stopping to tell stories about his youth, his children, and his bandmembers. Closing the show with a “song about old times,” “Cherry Bomb,” he led the band through the beautiful and breezy Carolina soul number, painting pictures of an era when “holding hands meant something.”
I was not yet born during the days of alternative America that “Cherry Bomb” describes, but hearing a romantic tribute to moments of forgiveness, friendship, optimism, and honesty, I knew that, even if it is nostalgic or overly idealistic, that is exactly where I want to live.