John Cougar Mellencamp - Chestnut Street Incident
Given his rather inauspicious start, it is amazing that John Mellecamp has survived at all. Fobbed off as the “poor man’s Springsteen”, it was the comparisons to that other working class hero that would dog him for years to come, even when mainstream success found him after the release of his fifth album, 1982’s American Fool. Yet it took four rather mediocre albums to get even that far, and the re-release of Mellencamp’s first two album’s, Chestnut Street Incident from 1976 and 1977's The Kid Inside, demonstrates just how long and rocky that road was.
Travelling to The Big Apple from Indiana in search of fame and fortune, Mellencamp struck it lucky (or so he thought at the time) when svengali Tony DeFries, who had managed the careers of such biggies as David Bowie, Mot The Hoople and Iggy Pop, took him under his wing, no doubt with a big fat cigar in his mouth saying “Kid, I’m gonna make you a star!”
It’s pretty obvious from listening to these albums that neither DeFries or MCA knew what to do with this small town hick. 1976 was a big big year for the “Working Class Hero.” Bob Segar became a household name when he released his opus Night Moves, Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers released their first self-titled album which spawned the hits ‘Breakdown’, and ‘American Girl’, and The Boss was still riding high on the success of his rock masterpiece Born To Run released the year before. So what do you do with a guy who’s got the looks, he’s got the chops, but he ain’t got the tunes? Well, if you’re Tony DeFries and MCA you do f*ck all.
Mellencamp went into the studio with only a handful of very raw, songs. The logical, and intelligent thing would have been to get someone in to not only fine tune those songs, but co-write a few more with the singer thus getting an album’s worth of interesting original material and producing a first-rate debut album from an up and coming young performer. Instead DeFries had him performing a incongruous hodgepodge of covers that at best are OK, at worst a total cringe-fest. The result sounds like a better than average wedding singer.
Though Mellencamp always repudiated the comparisons with Bruce Springsteen, he didn’t always make it easy on himself, and there are times when his performances sound like very bad impersonations. Even the album title Chestnut Street Incident makes you think of ‘Incident on 57th Street’, from The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle (1973).
The album starts off well enough with the self-penned track ‘American Dream’; “I had a face so cute I made the young girl cry.” This song is a taste of what Mellencamp would eventually become; a first rate chronicler of homespun Americana that mixes the best of old fashion rock and roll with folk and country. Songs that would one day find their way onto such classic albums as Uh-Huh (1983), Scarecrow (1985) and The Lonesome Jubilee (1987). The song’s prophetic lyrics tell the tale only too well; “Well I grew up believing I could do what I wanted to do / but when I got a little older I found out just what was true. / Well there’s gotta be a place for me / where I can be what I want to be. / But ain’t that the American dream.” The other original songs; ‘Dream Killing Town’(replete with E Street starts and stops, sax and piano), ‘Chestnut Street’, and ‘Chestnut Street Revisited’ wouldn’t be bad if they didn’t remind you of someone else who does this sort of thing so much better, while ‘Sad Lady’ and ‘When I Was Young’ hold such promise you wonder why more wasn’t made of them.
Unfortunately any remnants of Mellencamp’s personality were squeezed out to make room for the random collection of totally inappropriate cover songs. Listening to them only reminds you of how far superior the originals are; ‘Jailhouse Rock’, ‘Do You Believe In Magic’ and ‘Hit The Road Jack’ are painful to the ears. And Mellencamp’s rendition of the Paul Revere and the Raiders classic ‘Kicks’ and Bowie’s ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ (included here as bonus tracks) sounds like karaoke.
To add insult to injury, when the album was finally released DeFries decided to re-christen John Mellencamp to Johnny Cougar , and it would years, and several albums, before Mellencamp would be able to take back his true name.
The album was a commercial failure, selling around 12,000 copies, and there is the feeling of the rat abandoning the sinking ship in the second album The Kid Inside, recorded in 1977.