Lyrical: John Mellencamp

Seems like once upon a time ago
I was where I was supposed to be
My vision was true and my heart was too
There was no end to what I could dream
I walked like a hero into the setting sun
Everyone called out my name
Death to me was just a mystery
I was too busy raising up Cain
But nothing lasts forever
Your best efforts don’t always pay
Sometimes you get sick and don’t get better
That’s when life is short
Even in its longest days
— Longest Days

Growing up, I always thought of John Cougar Mellencamp, or John Cougar as I first got to know him, and John Mellencamp as he is now, as a kind of midwestern Springsteen. I’m sure I wasn’t the first to think that. They both made their way singing about small towns and small-town life and the greater promise, and heartache, that lies beyond.  They’re both about the same age, they both play guitar and they both have raspy, been-there rock-and-roll voices.

You can find comparisons on a few boards out there, with people chiming in on why one is superior to the other: Springsteen’s a better storyteller, better live, just a better songwriter. Mellencamp is underrated, a fine storyteller himself, a little poppier (Jack and Diane, anyone?), perhaps, but still legit.

The debate is pretty stupid. Springsteen’s place in American music, even if you dislike rock and roll and his less-than-true voice, is secure. So, too, is Mellencamp’s. It’s really not terrible to be considered a midwestern Springsteen.

I consider Springsteen, as I’ve posted here before, to be a genuine poet, probably the songwriting poet of my generation. Mellencamp’s songs are not to be denied, either … even his commercial, clap-along songs like J&D. Admit it; if you know that song at all and it comes on the radio, you’re not clicking away. You may even sing along.

J&D is to Mellencamp, probably like Born in the USA is to Springsteen and many career-identifying songs are to many artists, both blessing and pain in the ass. It’s not his best work, but it’s good. Crowds will sing out the money line during in his shows.

But do they really get it? Did he really get it when he wrote it?

“I don’t really know how a 25-year-old guy would know that life would go on long after the thrill of living is gone,” Mellencamp told CBS last year, “but I wrote those words.”

He has revisited that idea — I see it as persevering through life’s inevitable punches to the head — many times over the decades. Longest Days is from his 20th album, 2008’s “Life, Death, Love and Freedom.”

The last bit of that opening lyric to Longest Days (above) is something Mellencamp suspected in 1982, when he wrote about “two American kids growing up in the heart land.” It’s still on his mind:

Nothing lasts forever
Your best efforts don’t always pay
Sometimes you get sick and don’t get better
That’s when life is short, even in its longest days

Simply poetic.

Both Springsteen and Mellencamp have moved more into introspective, folk-fueled music as they’ve grown older. But their early songs show that they’ve always been thoughtful storytellers. Compare them, rate them, scream for your favorite. Doesn’t matter. They both have had careers worth having. They both continue to write music worth listening to.

Maybe the major point here: They both continue.

“I can see the finish line from here. I only have so many summers left,” Mellencamp told CBS last year, “and I intend not to waste them being old.”

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