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Pop Review : This Time, Mellencamp Is The Genuine Article

April 07, 1986|ROBERT HILBURN | Times Pop Music Critic

SAN DIEGO — I never thought the day would come when I'd like John Cougar Mellencamp in concert.

I couldn't picture it back in the late '70s when Mellencamp was an arrogant and shamelessly derivative performer.

I couldn't imagine it three years ago when his music--reflected in hits like "Jack and Diane"--still seemed mostly shallow and contrived.

More to the point, I couldn't even picture myself liking Mellencamp as late as the halfway mark of his concert at the Sports Arena here on Friday night.

The Indiana native has been widely criticized in recent years as a second-rate Springsteen. So, how could you have respect for him when he was employing so many Springsteen-ian touches in his show?

Or don't these samples from the concert remind you of the guy who played all those nights at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum last summer: a performer who leaps into the crowd to slap hands with eager fans . . . takes a break from the music to urge the audience to show compassion for financially troubled neighbors . . . and caps off the nearly three-hour concert with 30 minutes of oldies?

At one point, I wondered when Mellencamp was going to bring out barbells and a "Born in the U.S.A." headband.

Still, I ended up liking the show.

Like is a difficult word, critically speaking. It doesn't suggest the confident, thoughtful judgment implied by terms such as artistic vision or socio-cultural impact . But it's the word that fits best here.

Mellencamp has improved in recent years as a writer, but he still isn't up to the consistency of the top level of American rock writers. What he does do on this tour, however, is convey the joyful spirit with such heartwarming affection that the concerts are uplifting and--even--inspiring.

If the ease of the Springsteen comparisons made his breakthrough seem tenuous during the opening half of the show, Mellencamp--who is due to close out a two-night stand tonight at the Forum in Inglewood--convinced you by the end of the evening that his manner was genuine.

From the days when he called himself simply Johnny Cougar and held to the image of the quintessential misunderstood teen, Mellencamp has raced after rock stardom with an unusual thirst. He may have never evolved into this socially conscious, good-guy approach if Springsteen (and others) hadn't made the stance commercially viable. But that attitude and theme have tapped a nerve in him. Reaching inside yourself is the most difficult thing in art and Mellencamp has begun doing that.

"Well, I was born in a small town," were the first words he sang Friday--and they forecast what was to follow. In warm, personal tones, he sang about farmers who have problems making ends meet and about universal struggles involving loneliness and love and the loss of dreams.

His music is a rich blend of the varied '60s rock and R&B styles that he heard as a kid back in Indiana, and his six-piece band (plus two female backup singers) raced through the tunes as sharply as Mellencamp himself moved across the low, open stage.

Mellencamp may have borrowed heavily from others, but so do all artists. The important thing is to eventually find your own voice and songs like "Pink Houses" and "Rain on the Scarecrow" suggest he is doing just that. After all the false starts, he has finally found his path. Ain't that America?

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