Mellencamp, John “Cougar”
John “Cougar” Mellencamp
Singer, songwriter, guitarist
John “Cougar” Mellencamp is rock music’s poet of the American heartland, a strident artist whose original songs mirror the rebellion and hopelessness of a generation of blue-collar youths. Himself a lifelong inhabitant of a small town—Seymour, Indiana, population 15, 000—Mellencamp writes and sings about both the joys and frustrations of small-town life; stylistically, his music harks back to the rough-and-tumble acoustic rock of the 1960s. As Jim Miller notes in Newsweek, by “hymning the virtues of the rural Midwest,” Mellencamp “has brought to life a moral universe previously unsung in the rock tradition. And in an era when almost every other rock act seems like a state-of-the-art commercial ploy or a cartoon for a new video, Mellencamp has pulled off an almost impossible feat: he has taken some of the most elementary facets of old-fashioned rock—its romance, its implicit promise that any kid can make his mark, its youthful air of adventure—and made them seem brand new.”
Between 1982 and 1987 Mellencamp cut four albums, each of which generated two top-ten singles. Combined, the albums have sold an estimated fourteen million copies worldwide, ranking the Indiana rocker among the industry’s most successful performers. This popularity has come to Mellencamp despite a fumbling debut that saw him cast as “Johnny Cougar” and a subsequent period of mutual animosity between the singer and his reviewers. “Cursed with a corny stage name,” writes David Fricke in Rolling Stone, “he was a man who loved to hate—his record company, the critics who dismissed him as a minor-league [Bruce] Springsteen, even his own songs.” Mellencamp’s ascendancy in the 1980s has brought respect from critics and musical peers as well as a more mellow attitude on the performer’s part. “I looked at other artists who had been in the music industry and I thought, I don’t want to be like them,” Mellencamp told Newsweek. “They were just hateful to everybody—cynical, unhappy, eventually drunk. So what else was left for me to do, except really care about the people who were buying my records? You know, there’s some poor guy making $2.50 an hour nailing wood for some boss who abuses him, and he buys my records, he comes to my concerts. I owe him something.”
Mellencamp was born in Seymour, Indiana, in 1951, the newest member of a fiercely proud family that had long been scorned by Seymour’s elite. At birth the youngster had a crippling deformity of the spine, meningocele, that required dangerous surgery and a lengthy hospital stay. Mellencamp survived, but his mother tended to overcompensate for his rocky start by spoiling him and worrying about his personality. His father, on the other hand, pushed John to excel in school and athletics, only managing to instill in the child a rebelliousness and
Born October 7, 1951, in Seymour, Ind.; son of Richard (vice-president of an electronics firm) and Marilyn (Lowe) Mellencamp; married Priscilla Esterline, 1969 (divorced, 1981); married Vicky Granucci, May 23, 1981; children: (first marriage) Michelle; (second marriage) Teddi Jo, Justice Renee. Education: Vincennes University, A.A., 1973. Politics: Left-wing populist.
Rock singer-songwriter, 1975—. Cut first album, Chestnut Street Revisited, for MCA, 1976; moved to Riva Records, 1977, and Mercury Records, 1979. Had first two number-one hits, “Hurts So Good” and “Jack and Diane,” 1982. With Willie Nelson, organized “Farm Aid” concerts, 1985 and 1986; testified before a congressional subcommittee on the family farm crisis, 1987. Has made numerous concert appearances in the United States and abroad.
hostility that became chronic by his high-school years. Growing up in Seymour in the late 1960s, Mellencamp was one of the first teens to grow his hair long, drink and take drugs, and protest the Vietnam War. At seventeen he eloped with Priscilla Esterline, his pregnant sweetheart.
Marriage and fatherhood did little to increase Mellencamp’s sense of responsibility, although he did stop abusing alcohol and drugs in the early 1970s. He attended Vincennes University, a community college near Seymour, majoring in communications, and after two years there he drifted through a series of odd jobs, including telephone installation and construction work. Mellencamp had played in rock bands since his early teens, and as he entered his twenties he began to compose music and accompany himself on an acoustic guitar. In 1974 he began to travel to New York City in search of a recording contract, and after a few false starts he met Tony DeFries, a flamboyant manager whose clients included David Bowie.
Promising to make him a “big star in a year’s time,” DeFries signed Mellencamp to a five-year contract and got MCA to produce Mellencamp’s first album. Unfortunately, DeFries’s idea of stardom and Mellencamp’s were quite different. The performer was stunned to see his debut album, Chestnut Street Revisited, released under the name” Johnny Cougar,” and DeFries’s other marketing techniques—including an embarrassing parade in Seymour—were equally disconcerting. According to Andrew Slater, the effect of DeFries’s management was to make Mellencamp seem like a” cartoon character from the Midwest [come] to life.” Slater adds that Chestnut Street Revisited “suffered not only its unabashed ’Springsteen influence, ’ but the ton of hype that served to promote such a trivial debut.” The album failed to sell, “Johnny Cougar” failed to hit, and MCA refused to release any more Mellencamp work. Mellencamp and DeFries dissolved their partnership.
The aspiring rocker quickly discovered that, as much as he disliked it, he would have to retain the Johnny Cougar stage name if he hoped to engage another manager. In 1977 he signed with Billy Gaff, a Los Angeles agent, and went to record in London for Riva Records, Gaff’s personal label. A Biography, his 1978 album, sold moderately well in England and very well in Australia, where his single “I Need a Lover” went to number one. Still Mellencamp faced disdain among critics and fans for his slickly marketed image and derivative music, so he returned to the United States determined to reshape his career to suit himself. Meanwhile, “I Need a Lover” peaked on the American charts at number twenty, literally earning him a second chance.
In 1980 Mellencamp released Nothirí Matters and What If It Did, a modestly successful album that was particularly popular on FM rock radio. On this album and the subsequent million-selling American Fool, Mellencamp became “streetwise and tough,” with “a viselike grip on his blue-collar background,” to quote Slater. The critic also observed that Mellencamp was “an assaultive performer with a rough-and-tumble voice [who] writes of women, cars and his own restless youth … fashioning a longing for teenage freedom and first-love euphoria into chart-topping rock hits.” With American Fool and its cynical hits “Jack and Diane” and “Hurts So Good,” Mellencamp finally began to earn the grudging respect of rock critics. However, he was not ready to make peace with them or with the music moguls who had burdened him with a phony image.
Christopher Connelly described Mellencamp’s attitude in a 1982 Rolling Stone profile: “Cougar’s battle for individuality isn’t a battle to impose his thinking on anyone, it’s a fight to get out from under all the philosophies that everyone—from his family to the record industry to music critics—have imposed on him. He’s rejected all interpretations of his music, just as he’s tried to reject all forms of authority. Rather than offering himself up as a storyteller from the neglected Midwest, Cougar is adamant that his music is meaningless. His songs are … ’insignificant’… He hates being taken seriously. And he goes far beyond that:… Life is boring, but hey, you can deal with it.” Only when Meilencamp reclaimed his full name, with the 1983 album Uh-Huh, did he adopt a more conciliatory attitude toward press and public.
Uh-Huh, with its chart-topping singles “Authority Song,” “Pink Houses,” and “Crumblin’ Down,” revealed a more introspective, if no less rebellious, Mellencamp. Subsequent albums such as Scarecrow and The Lonesome Jubilee have seen an expanded use of the artist’s personal experiences in songs such as “Paper in Fire” and “Small Town,” as well as an ever-intensifying political commitment to family farmers and factory workers—a contingent Mellencamp feels has been ignored by the so-called “Reagan Revolution.” In 1985 Mellencamp joined forces with Willie Nelson and other populist singers to create “Farm Aid,” a live concert benefitting farmers who faced foreclosure. New York Times Magazine correspondent Timothy White writes: “It is this new self-discipline and focused fire that have enabled Mellencamp to reclaim rock—which has in recent years become largely frivolous—as a vehicle for social commentary. Rock-and-roll is a billion-dollar industry, so such a move by a singer of Mellencamp’s status is nothing if not provocative.”
Throughout his career Mellencamp has been compared to Bruce Springsteen—so often, in fact, that the two performers have made good-natured jokes about it. White finds Mellencamp and Springsteen distinctly different, however. Springsteen, notes the critic, “is a melodramatist whose personality is deliberately disguised by his theatrics. He carefully restricts contact with the public and is rarely seen offstage. Mellencamp, on the other hand, is an open book, with no larger-than-life bravura—even though the deeply personal side to his music has been little known. Springsteen’s flamboyant sound is all flesh, but Mellencamp’s more accessible rock is all bone.” In two respects the performers are almost identical: neither will allow his songs to be used as product endorsements—Mellencamp will not even let beer or cigarette companies sponsor his tours—and both give long, exhausting live concerts, laced with political commentary and raucous, old-style rock and roll.
Mellencamp’s 1989 album Big Daddy “proves that there is still room for irony in popular music,” according to Philadelphia Inquirer reviewer Tom Moon. Moon notes that on Big Daddy, Mellencamp “has fashioned a style of music that prizes honesty above all. The emotional manipulation employed by any number of songwriters has no place in his current ruminations, which are based on blues-riff statements, folk songform and the regional quirks he has combined into an instantly iden tifiable sound.” Those “regional quirks” will continue to be a significant force in Mellencamp’s work, since he has made rural Indiana his permanent home. The artist spoke about his influences in the New York Times Magazine, saying: “See, a lot of the time I write in the third person, but I’m mostly describing my own ordeals. When those unsettled struggles prey on your mind, you become haunted. To get free, you must defeat your ghosts.” Most of Mellencamp’s ghosts are hidden in his restless past, waiting to find their way into his earthy rock and roll. “My best stuff,” Mellencamp said, “is about me and my family tree grappling against both the world and our own inner goddamned whirlwind.”
Chestnut Street Revisited, MCA, 1976.
A Biography, Riva, 1978.
John Cougar, Mercury, 1979.
Nothin’ Matters and What If It Did, PolyGram, 1980.
American Fool, PolyGram, 1982.
Uh-Huh, PolyGram, 1983.
Scarecrow, PolyGram, 1985.
The Kid Inside, Rhino, 1986.
The Lonesome Jubilee, PolyGram, 1987.
Big Daddy, PolyGram, 1989.
Torgoff, Martin, American Fool: The Roots and Improbable Rise of John Cougar Mellencamp, 1986.
Chicago Tribune, August 15, 1982.
Life, October, 1987.
Newsweek, January 6, 1986.
New York Times, August 30, 1987.
New York Times Magazine, September 27, 1987.
People, October 11, 1982.
Philadelphia Inquirer, May 14, 1989.
Rolling Stone, September 16, 1982; December 9, 1982; January 30, 1986; October 8, 1987.
Washington Post, October 3, 1985; December 9, 1985.
—Anne Janette Johnson
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