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A Serenade for Alternative America: John Mellencamp in Peoria, IL

A Serenade for Alternative America: John Mellencamp in Peoria, IL

18 February 2019

 

Mellencamp

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.  

 

 David Masciotra

 

 

David Masciotra (www.davidmasciotra.com) is the author of four books, including Mellencamp: American Troubadour (University Press of Kentucky, 2015) and Barack Obama: Invisible Man (Eyewear Publishing, 2017).

 

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Set The Captives Free: A Christmas Visit to Cook County Jail w/ Jesse Jackson

 

Set The Captives Free: A Christmas Visit to Cook County Jail with Jesse Jackson

Jesse Jackson Cook County Jail - DavidM

 

“I...do not…belong here…” Jesse Jackson spoke slowly and deliberately, demanding that thousands of nonviolent inmates at Cook County Jail, the largest in Chicago, repeat after him. Most of the men and women demonstrated infectious avidity, shouting the declaration as if it would reverberate throughout the entirety of the criminal justice system.

 

Jackson began visiting jails and speaking with inmates on Christmas morning fifty years ago as a young aide for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In five decades, he has not missed one year. “We are here to inspire and entertain,” Jackson told me referring to the staff, band, and choir of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, the civil rights organization he founded and continues to lead, “but also to transform Christmas day into liberation day.”

 

For the devout Christian and non-Christian alike, Jackson would December 25th to become a day for study and celebration of freedom and justice. “Christmas is a political season of religious passion,” Jackson said as if to remind his audience that his first and ongoing occupation is that of minister. “Jesus was born under a death warrant, a refugee under occupation,” Jackson continued in a reframing of the nativity, “He became a political prisoner – a victim of an unjust trial and capital punishment.”

 

Given that Jesus continually emphasized a mission to “set the captives free,” Jackson thunderously argued that instead of employing the holiday as a slick and clever means of marketing for commercial products, and rather than making its emblematic icon Santa Claus, Christmas should serve as an appointment for a rally on the calendar – a day when ministers, rabbis, and political activists around the country struggle, fight, and litigate to emancipate those who suffer through the squalor of jail for nonviolent offenses, often without conviction. A large amount of inmates are “pretrial,” meaning they remain hostage to a system functioning as a modern day debt prison. Unable to pay bail, they are locked away and shut out of society for weeks, months, even years: Sad symbols of not only an overcrowded criminal justice system, but one that is frequently cruel, and intent on rationing out the cruelty according to America’s oldest mechanisms of injustice – racism and hostility toward the poor.

 

“I do not belong here,” the call and response climactic mantra of Jackson’s sociopolitical sermon at Cook County Jail was doubly resonant in the old auditorium of the holding facility. It was Jackson’s attempt to inculcate higher ambition within the inmates. “We’re helping to get you out,” Jackson said, “But you need to do your part and stay out.” When the Civil Rights Leader arrived, he walked through each row, stopping to shake the hand and give holiday greetings to every inmate. A young black man in a beige jumpsuit reminded Jackson that they met in the same place two years earlier. “You’re still here?” Jackson asked with bafflement. “No, I’m back, though,” he said. “Well, I don’t want to meet you here again,” Jackson offered.

 

At several turns in his remarks, Jackson offered exhortation of “personal responsibility,” to use an increasingly dubious conservative buzz phrase. “I do not belong here,” however, has a political application. With just a little philosophical and rhetorical elasticity, it covers an American issuance of justice that only rewards responsibility depending on the person. Meanwhile, millions of inhabitants of the world’s richest and most powerful nation know only poverty. Out of the womb they enter into a closed-door society, receiving steadfast incentive for irresponsibility. “When a sociologist from London visited America to study the penal system,” Jackson informed the audience, “He asked, ‘where is the jail for white people?’”

 

The perversity persists after release for convicted felons. Virtually unemployable, and ineligible for federal student aid, including loans, ex-cons often feel, with good reason, that the most familiar means of earning an income, even if illegal, are the most reliable. Nearly every state insists on the reduction or elimination of rehabilitation and job training programs in prison, under the thoughtless and dishonest “tough on crime” banner, and few offer any medical care or psychiatric counseling for prisoners. Therapeutic treatment is especially important to consider given that jails and prisons collectively operate as the county’s largest housing facility for the mentally ill, and that countless prisoners, subject to abuse and sexual assault during their incarceration, leave with severe trauma.

 

Jackson provided three immediate policy initiatives state systems should adopt to make their criminal facilities more humane, reduce recidivism, and fully exercise the power and promise of democracy: Medical testing and treatment – most prisons, for example, test for sexually transmitted diseases when prisoners enter the facility, but not when they leave, Education and job training programs that offer instruction in marketable skills rather than the quasi-slave labor that currently passes for work in prison, and the return of the franchise to prisoners who have served their sentence. Rainbow/PUSH registered voters in the Cook County Jail on Christmas morning after Jackson reminded the crowd, “Until you are convicted, you can still register and you can still vote. You can vote for officials who will work to get you out of here.”

 

Jackson’s speech was reminiscent of a high powered rock and roll song with mid tempo verses and rapid fire, anthemic choruses. In an exhibition of his oratorical range, he would consistently transition from the dry, but essential political substance of public policy analysis to the gospel populism of his classic refrain, “I am somebody.”

 

“I may be poor, but I am somebody! I may be locked up, but I am somebody!” With each recitation, the inmates would rise to their feet, raise their fists, and shout with the passion of their desire to go home on Christmas morning.

 

Jackson, backed by the PUSH choir and with an ensemble of state officials and Congressman Danny Davis (D-IL), stood on a highly elevated stage. I was floor level with the prisoners and corrections officers, and as my eyes ping ponged back and forth between the speaker at the podium and his enraptured audience, I could not help but return to the words of 1960s radical, Abbie Hoffman. “All prisoners are political prisoners,” he announced at a rally right around the same time that Jackson first started making his annual Christmas visit, “Because if you go to a jail, you see that ninety percent of the people there are black, and you see that ninety percent of the people are poor. You see that ninety percent of the people haven't even had a fucking trial yet!”

 

You also notice that most are young.

Jesse Jackson Cook County Jail2 - DavidM

Taking survey of the crowd – the men in beige, and the women in blue, many of them with unkempt hair, and a hungry look in their eyes – I thought of how each person has a story. There is a rich and deep human experience behind every inmate number and filing, and it is only through exploring all of the cracks and crevices of those experiences that comprehension of crime, and awareness of justice and injustice, become possible. I have written four books, teach at a university, and am happily married, but I’m far from above speculation that with just a few different shakes and circumstances in my life – many of which would have been outside my control – I could have been sitting among the inmates, waiting to hear Jesse Jackson speak before returning to my cell, rather than documenting the event in the role of journalist.

 

The immediate impact of Jackson’s visit was to achieve the precise humanization that emanates from empathy. Jackson himself is no stranger to the criminal justice system. He was arrested in the 1960s for attempting to check a book out of the “white” public library in his hometown of Greenville, South Carolina, and has spent time in jail repeatedly for similar acts of civil disobedience. While many of the choices of the Cook County inmates might not boast the same nobility or efficacy, one has to wonder how many people in a room full of nonviolent offenders can and should claim, for reasons personal or political, “I do not belong here.”

 

The Rainbow/PUSH Coalition identified three particular inmates who could amplify that declaration, and paid their respective bonds before escorting them home to spend Christmas with their families.

 

One was a woman in her thirties, a mother of four, including her oldest daughter who is a journalism major at DePaul University, locked away on charges of retail theft. Another was a young man, among many, on charges of simple drug possession, underscoring the human damage and debris of the impractical and iniquitous “war on drugs,” and the third was a middle aged, impoverished man who, because he could not make bail and was still awaiting trial, had spent 574 days in Cook County Jail on, of all things, a forgery charge.

 

Before leaving, PUSH staffers recorded the names of all inmates enduring similar predicaments on the promise that they would research their cases, and coordinate with the Sheriff’s department to negotiate bond reduction, or secure release.

 

“The movement needs to go national,” Jackson told the assembled members of the press, “In every major city, in every state, we need to use Christmas as an opportunity to set the captives free.”

 

A simple act of seasonal compassion might reverberate with revolutionary resonance. The three inmates could express nothing but joy and gratitude for their homecoming. In addition to the multiplication of individual and familial happiness, as more people hug their children, parents, spouses, and siblings on a cold morning, setting the captives free can also spotlight the devastation of mass incarceration, racial and class biases in criminal justice, and the immorality of modern day debt prisons. The Christmas work of Jesse Jackson and Rainbow/PUSH is a replacement of American cruelty and indifference with the universal values of mercy, forgiveness, and the undying faith in the potential miracle of the second chance.

 

When Jackson and his staff returned to the PUSH offices in the South Side of Chicago, Jackson collapsed his 6’4” frame into a reclining chair at the head of a conference table. With CNN flashing images of the day’s news above his head, and local and national newspapers scattered before him, he made an admission as introspective as it was philosophical.

 

“I’ve freed hostages and prisoners in Iraq, Cuba, Syria, Kosovo, and Gambia,” he said in a soft voice far removed from the shout he employed at the pulpit just moments earlier, “and it never hit me as deep as releasing people at home.”

 

 David Masciotra

David Masciotra (www.davidmasciotra.com) is the author of four books, including Barack Obama: Invisible Man (Eyewear Publishing, 2017) and Mellencamp: American Troubadour (University Press of Kentucky, 2015).

 

 

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The Profound Political Lesson of March for Our Lives

The Profound Political Lesson of March for Our Lives

David Masciotra

 

Politics is boring. It has become easy to confuse public policy and administration with entertainment as the President of the United States finds himself embroiled in a soap opera starring adult film actresses, fitness models, and Russian agents. But the legislative process, along with the tasks of daily governance, as anyone who has passed a civics course can attest, is an exercise in tedium. 

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Read more: The Profound Political Lesson of March for Our Lives

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