John Mellencamp’s independent spirit carries him to the Rock Hall

By  Tony Sclafani

“I really think John is great at giving 100 percent. What I learned about rock and roll had all to do with attitude and intention and believing in whatever you’re doing. And never giving up.”

So says Lisa Germano, the indie singer-songwriter whose first high-profile gig was playing fiddle with John Mellencamp during his influential period as an Americana music pioneer in the late 1980s. Germano’s comments on her former boss emphasize why his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is such an achievement.

MELLENCAMP live 2p7.jpgIn the beginning, Mellencamp’s career was hamstrung by a bad management deal, unfocused music and a made-up surname, “Cougar,” which he hated. But, by utilizing the cliched-but-classic American traits of determination, will and hard work, the Seymour, Ind., small-town boy transformed a flagging, artistically-barren start into one of rock’s most triumphant success stories.

Mellencamp is like the ninth-grade troublemaker who ends up graduating with high honors while still keeping his street smarts. Most people coming from his background would never have attained even moderate success. But Mellencamp isn’t most people.

According to a 1985 New York Times feature by the late Billboard editor Timothy White, Mellencamp was born with spina bifida (corrected with an operation), raised in a rough-and-tumble lower middle-class household, and married his pregnant older girlfriend by age 18. After spells at Vincennes University and the local telephone company, he signed a long-awaited record deal and released his debut, Chestnut Street Incident, in 1976. He’d signed on with former David Bowie manager Tony DeFries and found his name was changed to Johnny Cougar when the record came out.

The contrived-sounding LP didn’t sell, though, and wasn’t received well by critics. Mellencamp found himself out of a record deal with MCA. A follow-up LP, The Kid Inside, went unissued at the time (DeFries eventually released it to capitalize on Mellencamp’s 1982 success).
Mellencamp then signed with the smaller Riva Records, cutting a non- U.S. release (A Biography) before recording a “new” first album, John Cougar.

“I Need a Lover,” a cut from that LP, became a surprise U.S. Top 30 hit in late 1979 and also was covered by Pat Benatar. Mellencamp’s artistic growth was noted by Trouser Press magazine’s Jon Young, who presciently noted that while Mellencamp once seemed like the “next Springsteen,” he now appeared “ready to be himself” and had claimed his own “ode to the roots — the Midwest.”

Mellencamp’s next LP, Nothin’ Matters and What if it Did, gave him his biggest hit to date in “Ain’t Even Done with the Night,” which cracked the Top 20 in early 1981. Chart success is not necessarily a gauge of great art, but populist musicians like Mellencamp need to connect with an audience for their messages to resonate. So success, in Mellencamp’s case, was validation of his message. Plus, he had several kids to feed.

Things exploded for Mellencamp when he released the album American Fool in June 1982. The album spawned two monster hits, “Hurts So Good” and “Jack & Diane,” and catapulted Mellencamp to stardom largely on the strength of videos played on the then-new MTV. The latter was a love story with a message about teenage nostalgia that seemed almost too somber. Nonetheless, it hit #1 and earned Mellencamp his only Grammy Award. At 31, Mellencamp was finally a star.

“Fortunately for us, in 1982, the record that we wanted to make happened to break,” says longtime Mellencamp guitarist Mike Wanchic. “Quite honestly, the record company didn’t even want to release it. So, from that point on, we gained our independence from label influence.”

That independent spirit fueled Mellencamp’s next move. To his record company’s dismay, the newly minted pop star insisted on changing his surname back to Mellencamp. A compromise was reached and the “Cougar” stayed as a middle name for a while.

Wanchic says the record company’s response to Mellencamp’s decision was “one of total dismay. If you think back to those times, there were racks of records, and how did you locate a record? You went to ‘C’ to find Cougar. I recall them getting flipped out over this and saying, ‘Where are they gonna look for the records?’

“But John wanted his name back,” Wanchic continues. “He felt he may just as well have been named ‘G.I. Joe with a Kung Fu Grip’ or something. It wasn’t really part of him or his heritage.”

The name “Mellencamp” made its first appearance on the Uh-Huh album, released in November 1983. There were other changes afoot as well. Mellencamp refused to capitalize on his success as a love song writer and instead released three issue-oriented songs as singles. The first two, “Crumbling Down” and “Pink Houses,” went Top 10; “Authority Song” made it to #15.

Although Bruce Springsteen gets credit for bringing blue-collar rock to the masses, it was Mellencamp who first brought it to the singles chart. While Springsteen was a top concert draw and sold lots of albums, his pre-Born in the U.S.A. success as a singles act was limited (four Top 40 hits in 10 years and only one Top Five). Mellencamp’s working-class themes captured the ears of the casual listeners Springsteen hadn’t yet reached, arguably paving the way for Springsteen’s massive success with Born in the U.S.A. in spring 1984. Mellencamp’s accomplishments are all the more impressive when you consider he dominated Top 40 during the MTV-fueled second British Invasion.

Springsteen’s resultant 1984 success probably emboldened Mellencamp to push his serious ideas even further. His summer of 1985 release, Scarecrow, took an unflinching look at his Midwest background with “Small Town” (a Top 10 hit) and “Rain on the Scarecrow.” The album’s other Top 10s, “Lonely Ol’ Night” and “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.,” referenced his musical background.

Just after the release of Scarecrow, Mellencamp helped stage the first Farm Aid benefit concert, held Sept. 22. Mellencamp had organized the concert with Willie Nelson and Neil Young as a way to save ailing American farms from foreclosure. It’s now grown into something of an American institution.

“This guy who was thought of as a Top 40 act revealed this sense of social conscience and relationship to a place in rural America,” says Mellencamp’s publicist Bob Merlis, who first became enamored with Mellencamp after seeing a wild 1979 concert. “They thought they were gonna do a one-shot and that was it. The surprise was doing it year after year.”

Mellencamp’s peak period as a Top 40 act came with the Scarecrow LP, which hit #2 and spawned five Top 40 hits. But, he became a trendsetter with his next release, The Lonesome Jubilee, from 1987. Mellencamp again refused to rest on past successes and pushed his band to explore the then-untapped genre of Americana. Mellencamp might not have invented this sound, but he married it with rock music, helping invent the modern Americana genre.

“He was one of the first people to do that (in) the way he used the violin and accordion together,” Germano notes. “I mean, I hear stuff all the time even now that sounds like stuff we did on Lonesome Jubilee.”
Wanchic stresses that all Mellencamp’s ideas came from the artist himself, not big city rock critic types acting as “advisors.”

The band’s use of traditional instruments, he says, reflected its upbringing in the countrified “Kentuckiana” region, where Wanchic’s mother worked as a program director for a bluegrass radio station. So, Wanchic was assigned to brush up on dobro and mandolin for Lonesome Jubilee. Besides Germano, Mellencamp brought in Jon Cascella on accordion, and a female singer, Crystal Taliefero, on backing vocals. No one could accuse Mellencamp of standing still musically.

The album’s first single, “Paper in Fire,” was driving but it was an oddly downbeat “careful what you wish for” message song that nonetheless cracked the Top 10. Its follow-up, “Cherry Bomb,” was a tuneful look back at Mellencamp’s 1960s teen years that became one of his best-loved hits. Some fans, though, didn’t take as kindly to the song’s accompanying video, which showed an African-American teenage boy dancing with a white girl.

“‘Cherry Bomb’ got more hate letters and threats to John’s life than anything in our career,” he says. “Anytime you involve race, you’re gonna get a backlash. (But) boy were we shocked at what happened.”

Twenty years down the road, Mellencamp and Wanchic would receive similar hate missives from people upset with the song “Jena,” composed in support of the “Jena Six,” a group of six African-American teenagers embroiled in a controversial legal fight in 2007.

“The mayor of Jena lost his mind,” Wanchic says. “He got on TV and said ‘This is just too much,’ this (song). It was like, ‘Well, you know, we weren’t exactly the ones who had a prosecutor trying to put a kid away for murder for a fight in a schoolyard.’ If you’ve got a voice, it’s important to be able to exercise your First Amendment rights.”

After Lonesome Jubilee, Mellencamp downscaled his own career by refusing to tour behind the next release, Big Daddy, which contained the Top 20 hit “Pop Singer,” a rueful look at Mellencamp’s early incarnation as such a singer. Mellencamp never really regained the musical stature or influence he had during his prime years, but he continued to create worthwhile music.

For his first LP of the 1990s, Whenever We Wanted, he finally dropped the middle name “Cougar.” His 1994 cover of Van Morrison’s “Wild Night” (with bassist Me’Shell NdegeOcello) found him back on the charts and broadening his musical horizons. But his career was derailed for the next year after he suffered a heart attack.

In 1996, though, Mellencamp made a comeback with the album Mr. Happy-Go-Lucky. Here, he amped up a modern R&B influence, utilizing a drum machine and rap-inspired vocal phrasing. The result was his biggest hit in years, the wistful “Key West Intermezzo (I Saw You First).”

During the current decade, Mellencamp has continued his Farm Aid involvement, released a critically acclaimed album of mostly blues covers (“Trouble No More”) and gotten a lot of publicity for the 2007 song “Our Country” (from “Freedom’s Road”) which was used as an advertisement for Chevy trucks. This year will see the release of the T-Bone Burnett-produced CD Life, Death, Love and Freedom, which should include the “Jena” single.

Heather Johnson, author of the 2007 Omnibus Press book “Born in a Small Town: The John Mellencamp Story,” cites Mellencamp’s tenacity as his best asset: “He’s had such an extensive and solid career for such a long time. And he’s been really successful at it for a really long time. His music is definitely what rock and roll has been all about.”

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