Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Bloomington: Everything but the Boardwalk

I participated yesterday in the 2008 Vinyl Record Day Blogswarm. That post is directly below this regularly scheduled post.

Find all Vinyl Record Day blogswarm posts starting at jb’s blog, The Hits Just Keep On Comin'. The complete list of Vinyl Record Day posts is here.

Today's Post:

It is nearly a law of caithiseach music listening that the original hit version of a song will be my favorite, and I will find next-generation covers annoying. I don’t think many would argue when I say that Percy Sledge’s version of “When a Man Loves a Woman” renders the recording of Michael Bolton’s version indefensible. Someone should have told Bolton that some songs are not eligible for use as a career elevator.

By the same token, I can’t see anyone making history with a remade “He’s a Rebel,” “Can’t Help Falling in Love” or “Paradise by the Dashboard Light.” It seems laughable as well to try to outdo the Drifters’ classic “Under the Boardwalk,” a performance I admire greatly.

Ah, there I find a recording that competes with the Drifters’ version. That’s why this Rule of Annoying Covers is not a law.

I found a different version of “Under the Boardwalk” on a 45, but I would not have known it existed had it not been for yet another jukebox, this time one in a Bloomington, Indiana restaurant. I can’t remember which restaurant, but if I ever pull up the full memory, I’ll let you know.

The song was playing on that jukebox, and it was the B-side of a hit single. I recognized the voice, but I had to look to see what it’s A-side was: “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A. (A Salute to 60’s Rock)” by John Cougar Mellencamp (Riva 884455). That song reached #2 in the summer of 1986, and “Under the Boardwalk” reached #19 on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart.

I noted two things about the recording immediately: First, Mellencamp’s band had nailed the song, making it a softer preview version of the “real spooky sort of gypsy rock” sound evoked on the albums The Lonesome Jubilee and Big Daddy. Second, that sound displayed the richness and depth of talent that Mellencamp was starting to show. By the time the needle came off that 45, Mellencamp had jumped up about 100 spots on my personal favorites list.

As a test drive for the new Mellencamp sound coming on The Lonesome Jubilee, “Under the Boardwalk” displays the soulfulness the song demands, but it takes the song out of its urban milieu without changing the lyrics. The band manages to make you believe there could be a boardwalk in Indiana, Iowa or Tennessee, which is no mean feat.

The song became a large part of my soundtrack for the summer of 1986. While I had not yet bought a CD player, I was not buying much vinyl, either. I had a kid on the way, and my job teaching college Spanish at Indiana University did not provide health insurance. I was saving for his hospital bills and not buying music. But I bought this 45.

There are plenty of Mellencamp bios out there, but I have bumped into him and his people often enough to tell a story of my own.

John Mellencamp was born in 1951 in Seymour, Indiana. He was born with spina bifida, which was corrected by surgery. He became musical early on and played out a lot in high school. Eventually he met Tony DeFries, who also managed David Bowie, and that rock genius decided Mellencamp needed a glitzy name. That’s how the stage name John Cougar came to be. Mellencamp was all for making it big, so he went along after the initial shock wore off, but he clearly wasn’t keen on the idea.

In early 1981, a guy who lived in my dorm, a former radio man named Larry, brought some music to our room. Larry had taught me to appreciate the J. Geils Band, but this new singer, whom I dismissed a bit because Larry said he was a local artist, didn’t register right away. The two albums Larry brought depicted him as an unwashed, gritty guy who seemed to hang out in trailer parks. Nice.

The songs had little effect on me. To be honest, I’m not the only one who thinks that John Cougar would have managed just to trudge along with more B-list albums if he had kept on in the same vein. He wasn’t bad, but he wasn’t distinctive. I heard “I Need a Lover” and “This Time” on Indianapolis AOR stations, and I didn’t change the station. I didn’t buy the vinyl, either.

The locals were all impressed that Johnny Cougar chose to keep living in Bloomington, but sticking to his local guns didn’t seem to be helping his career. And then, just as I was graduating from college, something clicked for him.

The lead single for his 1982 album, American Fool, was supposed to be “Hand to Hold Onto.” I believe that single would have fared tolerably well, and his album would have let him continue his contract, but then something really cool happened. He and his longtime friend, George Green, came up with “Hurts So Good.” Instead of sounding like a Hoosier take on Springsteen, this tune screamed: “I am the Hoosier answer to ‘Honky Tonk Women.’” The single shot to #2, its follow-up “Jack & Diane” topped the charts for four weeks, and “Hand to Hold Onto” crept up to #19, probably about ten notches higher than it would have reached as the lead single.

It was a close call for Mellencamp, as “Hurts So Good” seems to have been written when the album was almost done. He became an MTV darling, as evidenced by the MTV contest to win a little pink house in Bloomington, which coincided with the heavy rotation received by the video for “Pink Houses.”

We were always impressed that John continued to work with local musicians, including guitarists Larry Crane, who now works with John Prine, and Mike Wanchic, who is still a major part of the Mellencamp sound. It intrigued me to learn that a young local girl who often played her guitar and sang at our Saturday Farmer's Market, Sarah Flint, got a vocal credit on “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.” And then there’s the addition to the band of Lisa Germano.

Lisa fiddled and waited table (but not at the same time) at the coffee house in Bloomington, the Runcible Spoon. She worked there about the same time as another female musician who made it in music, Janne Henshaw, so I’m wondering if more musicians shouldn’t try to pay their dues there.

Lisa came into the band during the Scarecrow tour, and it’s her fiddle you hear on “Under the Boardwalk.” This was also the time when John made everyone learn a huge catalog of 1960s rock songs so Scarecrow would be a deeper album. For The Lonesome Jubilee, he made everyone learn instruments they needed to make the songs sound right. Lisa was the essential backbone of The Lonesome Jubilee and Big Daddy; she attracted the attention of Capitol Records and released a couple of decent albums in the early 1990s.

I met Lisa Germano in 1993 during my first week working at Tracks, a superb little Bloomington record store. That fall and into 1994, a number of people stopped in. Toby Myers, who had played bass in a legendary Indianapolis band named Roadmaster, popped in and chatted about his additional dealings as a potential sideman for a tour by Mike Scott of the Waterboys. And just three days after the birth of their first child together, John walked into Tracks with his wife, Elaine.

Having John in Bloomington makes the town seem like New York, in the sense that everyone in town knows someone in the Industry, thanks to him. I stood next to Kenny Aronoff, John’s drummer, at a street festival while he was playing; a friend taught the child of Larry Crane, who also did solo shows at a juice bar I frequented; another friend grew up in the “eight-room farmhouse” in Seymour that John described in “Cherry Bomb”; if you eat at a decent restaurant in Bloomington on a weekend night, the whole gang might walk in and sit next to you.

And in the late 1980s, when I figured I would not be in Bloomington forever but I might as well earn some equity on a house, my potential realtor consulted with Vicki Mellencamp, who by then was John’s ex-wife. One of the houses available to me, for around $50,000, was a little pink house that was being sold by the winner of a contest held several years before on MTV. I wound up deciding I would be out of Bloomington “any year now,” but it took another ten for me to go away, and I was stupid for not buying a house, any house, at that point. And it would have made a great story if I’d bought that little pink house.

John won a Grammy for “Hurts So Good,” and he is now a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And when I think of his music, I think generally of how amazing it is that a guy who started out with “I Need a Lover” could switch to songs like “Cherry Bomb,” then slam out “Wild Night,” work with the type of World Music people who appear at Bloomington’s Lotus World Music Festival, and eventually record a chart-topping blues album, Trouble No More.

But most of all, I remember walking past a jukebox, hearing fiddle and mandolin attached to a familiar melody, and leaning over to stare at the record as I used to do when I had to tiptoe to watch the 45s spin.

I wanted to take a break from my memories of hits from the summer of 1970 to bring you this song you might not own, but for Saturday I’ll bring you a pair of the late-night WLS favorites, including one on which I got an unexpected sonic perspective. Very mysterious, eh? See you Saturday!

John Cougar Mellencamp, Under the Boardwalk


Jeff Mease said...

nice piece. I owned that "juice bar" where Larry Crane used to play. It was called the Wild Beet.

Thanks for bringing up the memory. We had some fun there ;-)

caithiseach said...


I loved the Wild Beet. The Ryder sent me there dozens of times to listen to acts I had previewed from Geri's press releases. And you and I go back to Domino's Pizza days. Thanks for reading!

Sean Dwyer