Thursday, February 22, 2007

Basement Songs: "Golden Gates" by John Cougar Mellencamp

I’m not sure when my brother, Budd, bought his copy of John (then) Cougar Mellencamp’s “Uh Huh”. The cassette just showed up in the basement on summer, years after its release. Like most of America, I was a big fan of “Pink Houses”, and I was thrilled that now had copies of his other big hits from that album, “Crumblin’ Down” and “The Authority Song.” At this point in his career, Mellencamp was ready to establish himself as a legitimate artist, hence the use of his real name (the record label wouldn’t allow him to ditch the “Cougar” until years later for fear record buyers may get confused….huh?) In addition, there was the radio staple (at least in Cleveland), “Play Guitar”, on side 2, which borrowed heavily from Them’s “Gloria” (Mellencamp often slipped the “G-L-O-R-I-A”’s into his concerts during that number). The rest of “Uh Huh” is filled with more of the same 60’s garage band type of rock that Mellencamp champions, as well as one of Budd’s favorite tunes, the John Prine co-penned, “Jackie-O”. As a drummer, listening to the great Kenny Aronoff wail on this album was one of the greatest pleasures of my adolescence. I guess you have to be a drummer to understand how exhilarating it is to hear someone play so damn well. Aronoff is truly one of rock’s best drummers and helped define Mellencamp’s sound. Another thrill was hearing one of the band members mutter, “Hey, what the fuck” at the very beginning of the second to last song on the LP, “Lovin’ Mother For Ya.” That song, with its obscenity, driving beat and, yes, timbales (you gotta love the timbales) gave me good reason to listen and jam to the song each and every time it came on. And having wailed on my own drums to that song, I would often be spent and unwind to what would become one of my favorite basement songs, the last track on “Uh Huh”, “Golden Gates”.

Here are the lyrics:

Ain't no golden gates gonna swing open
Ain't no streets paved in natural pearl
Ain't no angel with a harp come singin'
Leastways not that I know of in this world
In these days of uncertain futures
Who knows what the masters might do
They got their big deals goin' on, goin' on
Got nothing to do with me and you
If I could I'd get us a big suite
Overlooking the Park
Only promise I know to be true
Are the promises made from the heart
I don't need to see the whole thing go down
I don't need to see another lonely man
I don't need to see a woman crying for the savior
Holding on to some moneyman's hand
Who can I call to make my reservations
Forever thrown in the dark
The only promises I know to be true
Are the promises made from the heart
I don't believe in the authorities
They ain't gonna take care of me and you
I don't have all the strength that I need
To love the way that I want to
The only promises I know to be true
Are the promises made from the heart

The song comes off as an afterthought after all of the bluster that preceded it. It’s almost shocking to hear the gentle guitars that lead you into it, but what this song does is really set you up for everything Mellencamp would be writing about in the years to come. When I was a young man, I latched on to the chorus. “The only promises I know are the promises made from the heart.” Friendship. Loyalty. Idealistic love. That's me. And those promises made from the heart weren’t necessarily to the girl you loved. They were promises you made to your family and your best friends. I truly believed in all of that stuff. So much so that to this day, I can’t turn my back on Steve or my family. No mater how irritated I may get with them, I love them dearly. I would never betray them. Back then, those were the promises made from the heart.

Look, I was a drummer, man. I didn’t listen to the damn lyrics. What the hell did I know? Then I discovered Springsteen and took Denman’s class and I suddenly realized there was something more to those songs. Duh?

When I met Julie in my early 20’s. I realized what true love is all about. I finally understood how to be in a relationship and “Golden Gates” took on a very different meaning. The lyrics seemed hopeful to me. I saw the song as if it was sung by a driven young man who wants to have it all with his wife. I saw it as defiant. The two of us, together, can take on the world. And those promises from the heart were between a wife and husband, that no matter how hard times got, we had each other and that’s all we needed.

I listened to he song several times this past week and once again, the song has new meaning. I think I finally understand it. And the picture isn’t so rosy. There is no defiance. This song is about acceptance. Our lives didn’t turn out the way we wanted. We don’t have a lot of money. And if I could, I would buy a swing. But we can’t afford no damn swing. And I don’t believe in the authorities (the government?) because they aren’t taking care of us. We’re on our own.

Incredible how I’ve found three different meanings… profound meanings to a song that feels like a throwaway. Yet, one theme remains: Loyalty. Whether it’s friendship, true love, or family, the only promises are the ones made from the heart. You only open your heart to those you would lay down your life for. I don’t make false promises, and I only make promises I can keep to my family and loved ones.

The best songs are capable of not only standing the test of time, but taking on new life as they age and the listener ages. Simple pop pleasures have an important place in the music spectrum. Look no further than the very album I’m writing about to find some examples of pointless rock and roll. But the great songs, the best basement songs, are able to transcend.

And hey, if you don’t like it, check in next week and maybe I’ll write about The Knack.


1 comment:

omysoul said...

Wow! What a fantastic post! Presumably, we're around the same age (born in 1972). I also latched onto this (and Jackie-O) when it was released. Strangely, I never had such a absolute reaction one way or the other to the lyrics. To me, I interpreted the "only promises..." part representing loyalty, love, devotion, etc, but the verses always felt extremely sad to me - almost representing a man facing his realities, his failures, his limitations. As such, I always loved the juxtaposition of the sensibilities. The music (non-lyrics) also always represented both hope and despair to me. Anyway, just reactin'...