Today we’re listening to “Between a Laugh and a Tear” by John Mellencamp
As a kid growing up in the Pacific Northwest, the Midwest might as well have been on another planet.
The heartland was somewhere abstract. A great corn sea that people only saw on their way to/from somewhere else. A place where you could drive for hours without being bothered with things like steering inputs and where the slow changing of license plates only vaguely marked distance.
It all seemed like one big blur, but there are lines everywhere; state lines, county lines, fence lines.
John Mellencamp (still John Cougar Mellencamp at this point) drew his own line with 1985’s Scarecrow. Mellencamp had committed to standing for Middle America, specifically small-town Midwest America, and the farming communities being torn asunder by Reaganomics.
He’d gone from Johnny Cougar- singer of fun ditties about Tastee-Freez, to John Cougar Mellencamp, ambassador of the everyman and flyover country. This transition really started with 1983’s Uh-Huh but took hold on Scarecrow, a record that is both a love letter to the heartland and the people who call it home. And it was an alarm for the rest of us that their way of life was dying. This is Mellencamp championing the American farmer and castigating the American government.
This is the line between “Nothin’ Matters & What if it Did “ and “You’ve Got To Stand for Somethin’.”
Like most Midwesterners, Mellencamp is economical with his words. The pictures he paints are vivid but don’t use any more words than they need to. He pulls no punches. He was born in a small town; he’ll die in a small town.
Same with the sound. Few drummers produced as clean of a backbeat as Kenny Aronoff. The sound is simple and defiant all at once. On “Between a Laugh and a Tear,” fellow Midwest native Rickie Lee Jones lends her underrated voice to the track, adding just enough to give the track texture. No more, no less. No glitz, no glam.
“Scarecrow” explains the lifecycle (and demise) of farming in roughly four minutes. “Small Town” does more for middle America than any chamber of commerce could hope to. “Between a Laugh and a Tear” feels like a vignette of Jack and Diane, a few years into their future.
When paradise is no longer fit for you to live in
And your adolescent dreams are gone
Through the days you feel a little used up
And you don't know where your energy's gone wrong
It's just your soul feelin' a little downhearted
They’re grown up now. Things aren’t as simple as they were supposed to be.
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“Between a Laugh and a Tear,” on the other hand, is a tremendous tune that features Rickie Lee Jones on harmonies; Mellencamp has said in the past that he was too nervous to actually meet Jones, so he had her record her vocals in an L.A. studio instead of flying to Indiana to record with him.
Click here to read the rest of the lookback.
“Between a Laugh and a Tear” by John Mellencamp | Scarecrow, 1985
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As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this track! Hot takes…rants…raves… all are welcome!
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I used to love him, but he hasn't worn so well. I still think "jack and Diane" is one of the best pop/Rock songs of the 70's.
I'm a child of the 80s and came up with Mellencamp's most popular/played albums and tunes. I always liked and respected him for writing songs during this time that might have dovetailed a little with a Springsteen-working-man perspective, but from a heartland perspective and context, as you've written. I found him scrappy and genuine with a lot of heart, which was not a cool posture at the time, but I think it's served him well.