Basement Songs: John Cougar Mellencamp, “Golden Gates”

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I’m not sure when my brother, Budd, brought home his copy of John (then) Cougar Mellencamp’s Uh Huh. The cassette showed up in the basement one summer, a year or so after its release. Like most of America, I was a big fan of “Pink Houses,” and I was thrilled that I now had a copy of it and his other big hits from that album, “Crumblin’ Down” and “The Authority Song.” At this point in his career, Mellencamp was establishing 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 might get confused….huh?) In addition, there was the radio staple (at least in Cleveland), “Play Guitar,” on Side Two, 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 ’60s garage band rock that Mellencamp still champions, as well as one of Budd’s favorite tunes, the John Prine co-penned “Jackie-O.” As a drummer, listening to the masterful Kenny Aronoff wail on this album was one of the greatest pleasures of my adolescence. You don’t even have to be a drummer to appreciate someone who plays 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 start of the second to last song on the LP, “Lovin’ Mother for Ya.” That song, with its obscenity, driving beat and timbales (you have love the timbales) gave me good reason to jam each and every time it came on. And having wailed on my own drums to “Lovin’ Mother for Ya,” I’d cool down 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 comin’ singing
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

On the record, the song almost seems to be an afterthought following all of the bluster that precedes 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.

Before I discovered Springsteen, I was a Mellencamp man. As his albums seemed to progress both musically and lyrically (the growth from Uh Huh to his follow-up, Scarecrow, is breathtaking), so, too, did my appreciation of introspective lyrics. From the heady days of high school through my humbling years at college, “Golden Gates” found its way on to various mixtapes serving as the perfect coda to any collection, or was the best way to end the night before shutting off the lights and going to sleep. During the summers I spent working on the North Olmsted maintenance crew, I somehow inherited Uh Huh from Budd. That tape was always included with the assortment of cassettes I brought to work. Atop the blazing hot rooftops or dangling from a rickety scaffold, on any given day Uh Huh might have been playing in my black boom box. In secret, I would withdraw from any conversation whenever “Golden Gates” would come on. Working alongside my best friend made my interpretation of Mellencamp’s words all the more meaningful to me.

When I met Julie after college graduation, I finally experienced true love. Being in a strong relationship brought new meaning to “Golden Gates.” The lyrics that once defined a defiant young man suddenly became about Julie and me. The two of us, together, would take on the world. And those promises from the heart were now between a wife and husband. No matter how hard times got, we had each other and that’s all we needed. With each move we made and each milestone we passed, those success and letdowns were experienced in unison. Again, I kept coming back to that line… “The only promises I know to be true are the promises made from the heart.” Perhaps my interpretation was wildly off, but I continued to find hope beneath the dark exterior of Mellencamp’s song. As if he was saying, “through all of the crap, as long as you remain true to the one’s you love, then there will be a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Listening to the song these days, some twenty years after I first became aware of it, Mellencamp’s brief pop number has taken on a clearer meaning, one closer to the context of the lyrics. I’m a father and well into this thing I call a career. The song no longer seems defiant to me; instead it feels like a song of acceptance. Our lives have not gone down the path we thought it would. But that’s okay, as long as we have one another and our family and friends. We don’t have a lot of money. And if I could, I would buy a suite overlooking the park. But we can’t afford no damn suite. And believing in the authorities (our government) is difficult, especially after the past eight years. They certainly aren’t taking care of us. Hopefully that will change soon.

Incredible, isn’t it — how I’ve found three different 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 for whom you would lay down your life. I don’t make false promises. I only make promises I can keep to my family and loved ones.

Like all of the best songs, “Golden Gates” has stood my test of time, taking on new life as it has aged and I have aged. 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. The great songs make you come back to listen over and over, and make you think each time you give them a spin.




  • steve

    I still have my cassette copy of Uh Huh that I got in the “12 cassettes for a penny (If you buy 5 more)” plan from Columbia Music many moons ago, and it plays fine. Great album, great memories. Thanks for the post

  • Jaybug

    I, too, am a drummer, kinda–and your point about songs having lyrics and stuff was like, duh…thank you, thank you, thank you…
    My eyes have been opened.

  • georg

    this was always my favourite cut from the record…..and coming back to it oday it just as poignant.thanks for the reminder

  • georg

    this was always my favourite cut from the record…..and coming back to it oday it just as poignant.thanks for the reminder

  • Lou Grimaldi

    Freak'in good post dude. I started out with Steve Miller, and yeah, Neil Diamond and Bob Seeger before I discovered John Mellencamp and soon after Bruce Springsteen and John Cafferty/Beaver Brown. Can't tell you how much growing up working class relates to all this material. All during late high school and throughout university. I'm not there any longer but I cannot forget my roots. Heartland rocks. Big speakers and for me LPs.

  • Susan

    I believe that Golden gates is for Women. It means that they have to be Strong. Because no one is going to help them, but themselves.

  • Susan

    I believe that Golden gates is for Women. It means that they have to be Strong. Because no one is going to help them, but themselves.

  • Carlaharnack

    Thanks for posting! This is also my favorite song off an awesome disc.