October 1, 2010
By David Huff
From Cougar to Mellencamp, 35 Years Later the Little Bastard Persist
A Candid Conversation with John Mellencamp
Let’s face it. A prolonged and sustained career in the music business seemed a remote possibility for one John Mellencamp some 35 years ago when he was introduced to the public as Johnny Cougar. Cursed with a funky stage name given to him by his first manager, David Bowie’s kingmaker Tony DeFries, the then 25-year old performer was playing the role of underdog. Dismissed by critics as a bush league Bruce Springsteen, the Indiana native always seemed to have a chip on his shoulder as he sparred with the media, his record company and even himself. The singer’s issues of self-loathing would dissipate in time. His brilliant run of albums throughout the ‘80s transformed the hard charging Cougar into a more insightful Mellencamp. Four decades in the public eye and 40 million units sold have mellowed the self-proclaimed “Little Bastard” somewhat, but the fire is still in his eyes. After all, it was John Cougar’s pointed observations on life that truly turned this singer / songwriter into a working class hero. In a rare peak inside his reclusive world, Indiana’s favorite son talked with this fellow Hoosier to remember the album that really started it all for him – American Fool.
JAM: Is it true you saved up a year’s unemployment benefits from a job in Indiana, used that money to cut demo, then went up to New York to see if you could shop it?
John Mellencamp – Well, it wasn‘t quite that simple. When I got out of college, I had a degree in communications, but I didn’t want to work in that field. So, I went to work for Indiana Bell installing telephones in people’s house.
JAM: Wait, you got a degree in communications and blew it off to pursue another field of communication installing phones.
Yeah, I know it sounds pretty weird, but it gets better. I got fired from that job for using vulgar language. I would go into somebody’s house where the phone wasn’t working and go, “You fucking phone!” Then I’d start throwing shit around. Eventually those tantrums caught up with my ass because people complained and I was gone. Fortunately, I had worked at Bell long enough to draw unemployment for a year. So, I made some demo tapes, went to New York, got rejected, came back to Indiana, stayed with some friends. I made enough money doing odd jobs, made some more demos, went back to New York for a few weeks, got rejected by everybody, and went back to Indiana again. I did the going back and forth trip for about two years. I was 21 at the time, married with a baby girl.
JAM: That seems a rather bold move for a 21-year old from Seymour, Indiana to run off to the jungles of New York, especially with a young family counting on you?
Hey man, I can thump anyone’s ass – you know what I mean? That was my attitude. I figured that . . . well I did it out of spite if you want to know the truth. I just said, “Fuck you. I can do anything that I want to!” When you’re young like I was, you don’t play by any rules, especially if somebody says you can’t do it. I was that guy in the class that when the teacher said, “Okay, the line is over here!” I would line up over there. It had nothing to do with the other stuff. I still play by my own rules all these many years later. I don’t make records when the record company wants me to. I make then when I want to.
JAM: Tony DeFreis, David Bowie’s manager in the ‘70s, signed you to your first deal with MCA Records. You cut an album of cover tunes called Chestnut Street Incident which bombed terribly. He also changed your last name from Mellencamp to the now familiar Cougar. Eventually you left Tony and ended up with Rod Stewart’s then manager, Billy Gaff. You were bouncing from one high profile manager to another during this time period. Why?
The same lawyer that signed me to MCA Records was fired from his job because he had signed me. I called him and asked if he would get me out of my deal with Tony’s company, MainMan. While I was in Los Angeles getting out of MainMan, I told this lawyer I needed to find a manager. He told me he knew this guy and this guy, and we went around talking to all of them. That is where I met Gaff and it happened. This process took about four or five months. He gave me $1000 a month to live on – and that included my wife, child and guys in the band. We all lived that way for two years.
JAM: The inevitable comparisons to Bruce Springsteen popped up after you released the brilliantly titled, Nothin’ Matters and What If it Did.
I heard those comparisons for years after my career took off. People who know my music and listened to it, they understood there was absolutely no comparison between us. People who sit in their little rooms somewhere and listen to the record, and believe that stupid crap, will always draw the comparison. To me, there is none, but everybody has to have a point of reference. My attitude towards it just depends on the mood I am in. This guy from Creem magazine really hit it on the head for me one time. He goes, “Let’s face it, this guy is a better singer than Bob Seger and the songs are ten times more interesting.” That’s what I preferred to believe in back then.
JAM: From the very beginning almost, you’ve made your home in Southern Indiana. I take it your fame has had little affect on the people you grew up with in the area.
You know, we all live in Bloomington, Indiana and there’s a simple reason. Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz said, “There’s no place like home!” I know the times are tough in Indiana right now, but I will tell you one thing that’s the most important thing of all. Indiana is a state where the people are known for their honesty. Sure it is hard to be a regular guy, but that’s because there are so many irregular things that have happened. Honestly, I thought the John Cougar, John Cougar Mellencamp thing would sell 250-400,000 albums for the rest of my life. When American Fool went platinum, we all sat around and chuckled because it was kind of a joke to us.
JAM: Well, I can see your viewpoint considering the spectacular failure of your first album, Chestnut Street Incident.
Listen, you never know in this business. I was extremely fortunate in the ‘80s and it has allowed me to still be a viable artist today. I enjoy what I’m doing now, and if it goes away, hey, I can go back to being poor. Hell, I was so used to not having any money starting out in this business I could be poor lying down.
JAM: You may be Indiana’s favorite son right now, but there was a time in your past where people close to you, knew you growing up, or just knew you casually, thought of you as something of a joke. How did you deal with the cynicism?
Some of it I deserved. I remember there was a parade for me in my hometown of Seymour when my first record came. It was very awkward to say the least. By the time American Fool took off, well, the world was different. I had people who criticized me in the past come up and say, “Hey John, we knew that you could do it!” I tell them thanks for your support. Now I know they are full of shit, and they do to. But you know what, it is what it is. If somebody had really come down on me hard, I’d have told them to go to hell. Most people, in general, were happy that I was successful. It didn’t hurt for me to acknowledge their support when at the same time we both know they what they really thought of me. I’ll tell you something. Those are the same people that if I died broke like Sonny Liston, or got out of the music business and became a hobo, they’d say, “I knew he couldn’t handle it.”
JAM: Your popularity, especially in the ‘80s, really started with American Fool, which featured two of your biggest hits ever, “Hurts So Good” and the classic “Jack & Diane”. What do you remember about that period of time in your life?
The thing I remember clearly is I wasn’t full of shit as a songwriter. I wrote songs about real, intricate parts of life. You see, back then, I didn’t care about being popular. I didn’t care what the record company thought about the music I was making. My material came from life itself. I was taking a shower one day humming to myself when all the sudden I sang “Every one needs a hand to hold onto”. I jumped out, wrote the verse on the bathroom mirror that was steamed up – then yelled at my wife to get me a piece of paper. I was afraid to leave the bathroom because I thought the lyrics would disappear from the mirror. I bet it took me less than five minutes to write the lyrics for that song it happened that quickly.
JAM: You became the first person since John Lennon to have a No. 1 album as well as two Top Ten singles chart at the same time. That’s some songwriting.
Back then, I remember reading where artists would pick up Newsweek or Time and start writing songs from that, you know, like the fucking Clash. Now we all know that a lot of the stuff we hear or read from the media is bullshit.
JAM: The Clash bugged you?
For some reason, that band really pissed me off. I remember at the time they were writing songs like they had some sort of pulse on the people of England. That was total bullshit. Those guys had maybe one successful album and they were all the rage. Their message was basically this. Know your rights, no one is allowed to take your life. Well thanks for the newsflash boys that no one can kill me. I don’t know what streets they walked on, but if you got stopped by a cop in Indianapolis, and you’re being hassled, you have no rights.
JAM: No one could have ever accused you of taking material from Time or Newsweek.
For me to have written songs like The Clash – there’s just no way. For instance, “Hurts So Good.” It was a simple song that people everywhere related to. That song was exciting for me because I realized at 30 years old, for a good time, I could still walk around a shopping center and enjoy it. I know that sounds silly, but that’s how boring my life was, and if my life was that uninteresting, then I assumed everybody else’s was too. But the thing is, walking around the mall isn’t boring, it’s just one of the things we did for fun.
JAM: What was your approach to songwriting back then?
It was simple really. If any idea took me more than five minutes to write, I didn’t use it on the album. My inspirations came from people in general, you know, their mannerisms, the little things that make them different. I also knew I had to write commercial songs. Without radio airplay, you weren’t going to make records any more. A musician had to decide whether they wanted to be in the record business for the long haul, or create art. Let me tell you, art had no place in the music business because it was money that was doing all the talking. A guy like me lucked out because I was doing what I had always done and for some reason, people like it.
JAM: American Fool had this sort of ‘my way or hit the highway’ type of attitude about it. Was that your mindset when you wrote the material for the album?
I was always into those guys that looked like they stunk if you met them, you know, Eric Burden or Keith Richards. I was never into the Beatles if that tells you anything. If I was going with a girl, and all she wanted me to do was to hold her hand, fuck it, not going to happen. I was looking for the girl who said her favorite band was the Rolling Stones and her favorite song was “Satisfaction”. That’s the type of person I could relate to. People that hassle me, and individual challenges or struggles people go through, those were the themes that dominated American Fool. I wasn’t into excuses of any kind, and it resonated with people on that record.
JAM: You made the comment that American Fool was important because it gave you staying power in the music business. That was sort of an odd, yet very honest, confession on your part.
But it was the truth. The success of American Fool did give me longevity and most importantly freedom, to make more records for as long as I wanted, any way I wanted. That didn’t, however, mean I could just shit on a piece of vinyl and say, “Here it is! I am going to make polka records now.”
JAM: Are you sure it didn’t just give you a sense of overconfidence?
No and I’ll tell you why. I remember thinking that even though my record was No. 1 in the country, the Beach Boys and Rick Nelson hadn’t had hit records in years, yet they were touring strong. It was all the result of having a big record that had hit songs on it. At the time, I had released three albums under John Cougar with big songs like “Jack & Diane”, “Hurts So Good”, “I Need a Lover” and “Ain’t Even Done with the Night”. I also had some minor hits with tunes like “Tonight”, “Hand to Hold Onto” and “Thundering Hearts”. Despite the American Fools success, I owed my record company so much fucking money I didn’t make anything off it. Seriously, I owed Riva Records more money than most people would ever dream of coming across in five lifetimes. Yeah, the only thing I earned from that album was longevity in the business.
JAM: It had to be a confidence builder?
I’ll tell you what helped my confidence. A writer from Rolling Stone was talking to me one day and he said, “You know John, you and the band are the only American rock and roll band, except Bob Seger, Springsteen and Tom Petty, that has stayed true to yourselves without copping to heavy metal.” Honestly, our role model for a band was Lynyrd Skynyrd. That’s the attitude and direction we wanted to have without the Southern type of influence in the sound. Skynyrd generated a true American band feeling through their music and stage performances that was a great model for us to follow.
JAM: So you and the band are broke and the next thing you know you’re recording for Mercury Records instead of Riva.
Like I said, I owed Riva so much money, I was glad to get away from them and get a fresh start. Seriously, the band was broke despite the fact we had a hit record. What was good about the boy’s and my career back then is we evolved from one step to another. Every record we did was better than the last. I remembering delivering American Fool to the label and they didn’t like it. They said, “John, there’s no ‘I Need a Lover’ on here.” I told them great, but I guarantee you “Hurts So Good” is going to be a hit single. It’s a good clean rock and roll song. They absolutely didn’t believe it.
JAM: How much of your career was luck and how much did you attribute to fate?
The whole thing about my songwriting career was to maintain a commercial sense to the music while still retaining my self dignity. You make your own luck in this business, period. My attitude was always the same. I didn’t give a fuck if my next record went quadruple platinum. I was still going to say hi to you on the street. I am a firm believer that you get what you deserve in life. You throw out negatives, you get negatives. Here is the bottom line about John Mellencamp. To me, without failure, without ALL of my failures, the positives I experienced wouldn’t have felt right. I became popular in spite of all the fashion trends. I was anti-haircut, anti-fashionable clothes. I was anti-what was suppose to be cool in the music business. I became popular with the odds stacked against me.
JAM: With an attitude like that, did it temper your expectations to the point it actually allowed you to gradually transform yourself from John Cougar to John Mellencamp?
When I first got into the record business, I didn’t know what to think. I remember when American Fool first started getting huge, it confused me. I was home in Indiana, the band hadn’t hit the road yet to support the record, and it was already in the Billboard Top Ten. I walked outside my home and thought to myself, “This is it? This is all there is to it?” It was a very depressing feeling.
JAM: No wonder you named your next record Uh-Huh.
Let’s face it – if honesty is dangerous, then I wouldn’t have been successful. I wasn’t in this business to be rich and famous. In the grand scheme of things, I’m insignificant – a voice that wrote down a few ideas and made songs out of them. Seriously, I was successful if some kid that was a teenager when “Jack & Diane” was hit, relived that moment in time 25, 30 years later when they heard it on the radio.
JAM: That song certainly left an impact on people when it debuted.
People really believed in that song. When I hear people in concert singing “Oh yeah, life goes on, long after the thrill of living has gone”, it makes me feel good. The funny thing is if you read the line word for word, it’s a negative statement. Then again, it’s a positive thing when you come to realize that life is nothing, we are just insignificant nothings. When you look at the song that way, then it becomes a positive because life isn’t that serious, it just isn’t that serious. If any of my music influenced people, I certainly hope it was in a positive manner. People used to say to me, “Hey John, what’s it like to write an anthem like ‘Jack & Diane?’” I would go, huh, what are you talking about? I always thought “I Need a Lover” was the definitive anthem for this band, sort of like Elton John’s “Funeral for a Friend.”
JAM: When you start singing “Jack & Diane” in concert, and the entire audience is singing it word for word with you, how can you say the music isn’t serious. It stirs up a lot of good memories for people otherwise they wouldn’t even remember a single line of the song.
All I can say it was a fun song I wrote that was not supposed to be taken seriously. For instance, do you think drinking beer is serious? No you don’t. That’s my view on how I handle the responsibility you’re alluding to for writing songs like “Jack & Diane” and other tunes that people like. When I went to concerts growing up, the best parts were going to the shows with my friends and then leaving afterwards. Being at the auditorium was kind of a drag because the cops were looking for anything to pop you on. You would have people throwing up on you during the show, you really couldn’t see the performers on stage and it was like, “Fuck, what the fuck!” But then you leave the concert saying you had a great time because driving to and from the show with all your friends was fun.
JAM: I know John, but still . . .
But still what? Here is how important a song like “Jack & Diane” is in the grand scheme of things. I could be singing that song and there’s a guy in the arena sitting there getting in to the music. A pretty girl walks up to him and says, “Hey, I got a joint. I’ll give you a blowjob if you come back to the car and smoke it with me.” That guy is going to look at the stage and say, “See you John, I’ll catch you next time.” You have to get your priorities in order. I am no better than a damn blowjob. Kids go to concert just to do something. On occasion, that something they do is me.
JAM: You never put that much stock in yourself did you?
If I ever thought that I had written my best song, or best album, then my career was over. Certainly I came very close to it in the ‘80s. But here’s the thing. The moment you feel you have written the definitive song or album that defines your career, then it’s over for you. I mean what’s left for you to accomplish? I have always approached the music business like the character Johnny Rocco in the movie, Key Largo. Humphrey Bogart played Rocco and he’s having this conversation with Edward G. Robinson down in Key Largo. Robinson goes, “Well, what do you think?” Bogart goes, “I want it all.” Robinson says, “When will you get it?” Bogie goes, “I will never get it!” You never achieve the ultimate in this business. The moment you think you do, then your career is dead.