Album Assignments: Scarecrow

Lou Reed may have grabbed first dibs on the title Growing Up In Public, but John Mellencamp perfected the art of it. Once upon a time, John J Mellencamp of Seymour, Indiana had a rock and roll dream. In chasing it, he found himself rebranded as “Johnny Cougar.” After a few failed albums and a label change, he broke through with a song, “I Need A Lover”, and an eponymous album, where at least he managed to upgrade from “Johnny” to “John”.

There were a few more John Cougar albums, a few more hits, and a bigger breakthrough with “Hurts So Good”, “Jack and Diane”, and MTV. With some star power on his side, Mellencamp managed to reclaim his last name, appending it to his stage name to forge the awkward Frankenym “John Cougar Mellencamp”. 1983’s Uh-Huh was his first album under this name, and also the first album where he started to stake out the artistic identity that would provide the foundation for the rest of his career.

Album cover for Scarecrow

Now, I love those early John Cougar albums, especially the first two. (Never sought out the “Johnny” stuff, though.) And I dig American Fool and Uh-Huh, particularly the singles. But to me, Scarecrow is Mellencamp’s artistic peak. He did plenty of great work beforehand, and plenty of great work afterward, but Scarecrow captures a magic that stands above the rest, because it’s the album where he first fully owned all the aspects of himself that lend power to his art. It’s the album where the seeds planted on Uh-Huh fully ripen, and I like to think John would appreciate the agricultural metaphor. This album springs from fertile ground, both artistically and literally. Mellencamp’s childhood friend and frequent songwriting partner George M. Green described it this way:

The highway between John’s house and the studio where these songs were recorded cuts through a stretch of Indiana where the land is fertile and full of growth. It is from this land and its people that these songs are born, and though it is not necessary to know this to enjoy and appreciate them, it does lend a certain understanding for those who care to think about such things.

Which brings us to the first aspect of John Cougar Mellencamp that shines on this album: RURAL. Mellencamp had written plenty of songs set in rural America — witness the Tastee Freez in “Jack and Diane” — but “Pink Houses” from Uh-Huh was the first of his rural anthems. Scarecrow unleashes two more stunners in this genre, with “Rain On The Scarecrow” and “Smalltown”. In the former, he reminisces about his grandfather (to whom the album is dedicated), and rails at the way 1980s society has failed the family farm.

In the latter, he honors his rural identity, exulting in the small town where he can be himself, albeit in a way that’s clear-eyed about its shortcomings — such as how he was “taught to fear Jesus.” In between, he records his grandmother crooning the first two verses of an old folk tune, “In The Baggage Coach Ahead.” This is Mellencamp fully embracing his roots, the pieces of him underneath “John Cougar”, and while “Smalltown” is celebratory, “Rain” is angry, in a way we haven’t seen before from Johnny Cougar.

That blistering anger opens the album, announcing that this wouldn’t be just a typical roots-pop exercise. It also sheds light on another of Mellencamp’s traits: REBELLIOUS. Once again, Uh-Huh laid the groundwork with “Authority Song”, and to a lesser extent “Crumblin’ Down”. On Scarecrow he stopped singing about being a rebel and started singing in a more rebellious way, starting with “Rain On The Scarecrow.” The political tone from that song continued through “Justice And Independence ’85” and “The Face Of The Nation.”

Both of those tunes are allegorical and a bit clunky lyrically, but they are venturing a critique of contemporary America, which was new territory for Mellencamp. The guy who wasn’t even recording under his own name in the beginning of his career had found his way towards claiming a voice of protest. “You’ve Got To Stand For Somethin'” wasn’t really about this very much (ironically), but its title certainly sums up what Mellencamp seems to have concluded about his art.

Though he hadn’t fully matured this political voice, he more than made up for any deficiencies by being such a ROCKER. Where on Uh-Huh he sang about how he loved to “Play Guitar”, and made sure we knew that rock and roll was “Serious Business” for him, on Scarecrow he expanded out to the whole musical world with “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A. (A Salute To 60’s Rock)”. This song joyfully conjures the rock and soul dreams of a generation of musicians, in a deliberately inclusive way, name-checking black and white, male and female, solo and group, pop, rock, and soul. As fun as that salute is, Mellencamp still shows more than he tells when it comes to rocking, roaring through this album’s set with a crack group of musicians.

In particular, I have to bow to the prowess of drummer Kenny Aronoff, who is responsible for some of the most stirring moments on the album. The pounding, martial drumbeats of “Rain On The Scarecrow”, which get louder and louder until they crest with six powerful hits, provide a spine-tingling opener to the record, and Aronoff remains excellent throughout. He and rhythm guitarist Larry Crane rescue “Justice And Independence ’85” from what could be a bit of a wincer into an electrifying rock and roll song. And it’s Aronoff who propels the other big hit from Scarecrow, “Lonely Ol’ Night.”

That song finds Mellencamp in another space he’d touched on Uh-Huh, that of the ROMANTIC. Where “Golden Gates” on that album spoke of “promises made from the heart”, in “Lonely Ol’ Night” he paints the picture of a whole relationship, one of necessity and maybe a little love. But his romantic nature mostly isn’t about relationships, but rather the kind of artistic and literary Romanticism I talked about in the Making Movies post.

It’s a romantic figure who occupies “Rumbleseat”, somebody who moves from being a “pitiful sight” to being a dreamer “singin’ shotgun”, who’ll blow you a kiss as he goes by. The insistence that “You’ve Got To Stand For Somethin'” is pure Romanticism, as are the heroes described in “R.O.C.K.” — “pipe dreams in their heads and very little money in their hands.” In fact, I’d say he’s on surer ground here than when talking about relationships — the other relationship song is the closer and the one stinker on this album: “The Kind Of Fella I Am”, which seems to take pleasure in being toxic and controlling. It’s a bit reminiscent of how “Run For Your Life” leaves a foul taste at the end of Rubber Soul.

But as great as all these aspects are, by far my favorite side of John Cougar Mellencamp is when he turns RUMINATIVE, as he does in Scarecrow‘s two best tracks: “Minutes To Memories” and “Between A Laugh And A Tear.” The latter is a rueful meditation on life, with some great images — “smile in the mirror as you walk by” — and one of the best lines in Mellencamp’s entire oeuvre: “I know there’s a balance / I see it when I swing past.” Rickie Lee Jones provides wonderful harmony vocals, and the whole thing provides a lovely, uplifting message. Living between laughter and tears may be as good as it gets for us, but “there ain’t no reason to stop tryin’.”

“Minutes To Memories” pulls all the strands together. It’s the story of a Greyhound bus ride from Jamestown, Kentucky to Seymour, Indiana, sitting beside an old man telling the story of his life. It is rural as can be — “through the hills of Kentucky / Across the Ohio river”, with downhome aphorisms like “an honest man’s pillow is his peace of mind.” Mellencamp’s narrator is a rebellious, romantic figure, whose credo is, “I do things my way, and I pay a high price.” The old man himself is romantic too, in his way — a fierce individualist who says, “I earned every dollar that passed through my hands,” and who will carry his family and friends home “through the eye of a needle.”

The lyrics ruminate on nothing less than the meaning of life, but ultimately what makes this song work is the rock. It starts out midtempo, a contemplative riff with support from Aronoff and bassist Toby Myers, and then it builds to the vivid, inspiring chorus, infused with rock and roll power:

Days turn to minutes, and minutes to memories
Life sweeps away the dreams that we have planned
You are young, and you are the future
So suck it up, tough it out, and be the best you can

Yeah, on paper I guess it sounds like platitudes, but between Mellencamp’s fantastically committed vocal and the incredible power of the band, it becomes, I think, the high water mark of John Cougar Mellencamp’s career. I get chills every time I hear it, and I’m filled with gratitude that Mellencamp managed to find his way to such a mature expression, and managed to fill it with the crazy rock potency of his youth.

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