Certain Songs: Now More Than Ever

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John Mellencamp, despite finally being elected into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year, has always been an easy target.
Even in the late eighties, when he was at his creative and commercial peak, years before “Our Country” began bleating out of television speakers 30 or 40 times a day in Chevy commercials, he was derided as a minor figure, especially in comparison to his contemporaries Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty. Mellencamp’s brand of rock ’n’ roll—plaintive, populist lyrics backed by big acoustic guitars over meaty drums, often accented by traditional female gospel background vocals—was always perceived as just a little too safe and a little too hummable to be respected by the leading edge of the rock press. But if that appraisal has bothered Mellencamp, it’s never forced him to compromise his sound in an attempt to appeal to whatever particular sensibility has taken hold of the New York or L.A. music scene at any given moment. He has always just written and performed songs about the America he grew up in—the America in between New York and L.A.—leaving it up to us to change enough to finally acknowledge how good he really is.

Mellencamp performed last Friday night at Housing Works Bookstore on Crosby Street in Soho. He was playing in celebration of the fifth anniversary of the charitable bookstore’s concert series. Slightly more than 200 patrons paid benefit prices to watch John and his band tear through some of his more well-known songs and a couple of previously unreleased numbers. This is kind of thing John Mellencamp does now and has actually been doing for years. Without a lot of hype, he shows up for a cause he deems worthy, and he plays his songs for free.

He came onstage in jeans and a tucked-in button-down shirt, and he had plenty of grease in his hair—affecting the look of a cranky old-time punk. He didn’t look like one of those eyeliner, androgynous faux punks inspired by Malcolm McLaren’s Kings Row–curated look from the ’70s. He was the real article, like those who hung out by gas stations and garages in the ’30s, just waiting for an excuse to kick someone’s butt. He counted off, and the band cracked into “Pink Houses.” If the song has felt dated at times, it doesn’t anymore. It’s urgent, appropriate and, particularly now, during the sub-prime mortgage crises, timely as can be. Mellencamp sang it with passion, ringing meaning out of each couplet, and his band almost had trouble keeping up with the power of his performance.

He followed “Pink Houses” with a couple of other songs from the ’80s, and for a while, the whole affair got a little comfortable, leaving me wishing his old drummer Kenny Aronoff was still in the band, pushing the other musicians to play hard, take risks and find new moments in the familiar arrangements. Perhaps Mellencamp sensed this too, because after very by-the-numbers versions of “Small Town” and “Ghost Towns Along the Highway,” he took the set up in intensity with “Rain On The Scarecrow,” and a new song “If I Die Sudden,” which, in the best way, sounds like it was written mid-century. With a slightly different instrumentation, it would have fit very well next to the traditional folk numbers that comprised the majority of Bob Dylan’s first album, as its consideration of redemption and simplicity in death is stated in simple, stark, refreshingly un-ironic terms.

After that, Mellencamp introduced another new number, “Jena,” inspired by the racial unrest in Jena, Louisiana. The singer said that he hadn’t expected the song to garner much attention when he put it on his website, but he seemed glad that it had—and glad that he could still rile people when he had cause to.

When that song ended, he took a moment to remind the audience of the good that Housing Works does, and he asked us to always remember to “show compassion,” while allowing that it’s often easier “to be an asshole.”

“I’ve definitely been an asshole myself,” he said, to much laughter throughout the room and on the bandstand.

“Country” came next and, much as I’d like to tell you that Chevrolet hadn’t ruined the song for me, it has. It’s difficult to know whether the verses, which I now read as platitudes, would have been resonant if they weren’t always accompanied by mental images of shiny, rugged trucks. Unfortunately, I can’t get those trucks out of my head.

Before playing his closing number, “Authority Song,” Mellencamp reaffirmed the song’s special place in his repertoire, stating that although it was written over 20 years ago, its meaning and intention are still very alive for him.

“I fight authority/authority always wins…” Mellencamp sang, and the room sang along, carried away on nostalgia, yes, but also fired up by this tough, uncompromising songwriter who has never quite gotten the respect his music deserves.

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