Hey, John Cougar, What's Your Problem?

The artist talks instinct, authority figures, and the long road to 'American Fool'

John Cougar Mellencamp with motorbike Indiana. Circa 1972. Credit: Jurgen Vollmer/Redferns/Getty

New York City had never been very kind to John Cougar. Seven years in the music business, and Cougar had only one pleasant memory of the Empire State. Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe's bathroom.

"I was making a record that never came out, and I was staying at the Lexington Hotel. Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio had had a suite built for them there, and the night manager let me look at it once. Nobody stays there; it's like a memorial. The whole place was decorated real weird, almost deco-ish. And I don't know if the plastic flowers had always been there.... "

But the bathroom was humongous. You could have played football in there. And the shower was real weird. I'll bet it had 500 nozzles in it. I mean, there were nozzles coming straight up coming this way, coming that way. There's no way your body could walk in and not get entirely wet."

In fact, it was Cougar who seemed to get doused every time he came through New York. Disappointing live shows. Worse reviews. Bad news all around.

When he visited New York this past October, though, things were different. To Cougar's amazement, his opening show for Heart at the Brendan Byrne Arena in nearby East Rutherford, New Jersey, had the crowd on their feet, screaming for more. At a post-show party, the ebullient, puny singer celebrated his thirty-first birthday by plunging one of his publicists onto a huge cake. At last, the small-town boy was having fun in the big city.

But then came his appearance on CBS News Nightwatch, a new late-late-night network news program based in the Big Apple. Everything was going smoothly between Cougar, at ease in baggy sweat shirt and kneeless jeans, and interviewer Felicia Jeter, until Jeter took exception to a salacious video of one of Cougar's songs, which features women in leotards and chains cooing to Cougar's caresses. She began assailing Cougar with unctuously posed but valid questions: Aren't you the establishment now? Don't you have a responsibility? And Cougar, a thirty-one-year-old married man with two children, responded, "I don't go to PTA meetings. I don't go to the Nazarene Church. I don't vote. I don't do any of that stuff." He sounded proud, and a little rattled. Jeter was appalled and continued to press hard, until Cougar unclipped his microphone, muttered some obscenities and walked off the show in midsegment. The Empire strikes back.

***

"Can you believe that such a simple guy can get into so much trouble?" Cougar asked me, as we slouched in his Philadelphia hotel room a few nights later. He and his band, the Zone — guitarists Mike Wanchic and Larry Crane, bassist Toby Myers and drummer Kenny Aronoff — were close to wrapping up the first leg of a well-received tour. As the opening act for Heart, they had customarily blown the headliners right out of the arena. But despite this and other recent successes — a Number One album with American Fool; two Top Ten singles in "Hurts So Good" and "Jack and Diane," with a third, "Hand to Hold On To," on its way as well — Cougar's been going through some difficult times. There was the CBS interview, and there was an incident in London, Ontario, in which he had angrily flung equipment from the stage into the audience because he was dissatisfied with the sound system (two people were allegedly injured by the debris). "I thought, 'I'm gonna fucking die next week,"' Cougar moaned. "If it could possibly happen, it'll happen to me."

So why did he create his own trouble by walking off the TV show? He could easily have gotten out of the situation gracefully. "I ain't gonna hang on nobody's cross," Cougar said, by way of explanation. But it would seem that he has hung on more than his share of crosses already. As a child, his upwardly mobile parents pressured him to compete. Then, his failure to excel as an athlete or a student or even a tough guy — especially as a tough guy — made him fair game for his fellow kids. During high school, there was a rushed first marriage, a child and no visible means of support. Finally, when he was twenty-five, even rock & roll, the very thing that had supported him, broke his heart.

It happened during his first trip to New York, when John Mellencamp brought his demo tape to the offices of MainMan, the management company that had made David Bowie a legend. Tony DeFries, the head of MainMan, liked what he heard and liked even more what he saw. There was just one thing. The name had to be changed.

"I was as excited as hell," Cougar recalled. "I was gonna make a record. The guy gave us $8000, and we were gonna make a fucking record. The whole name thing was like, well, if you want this job, motherfucker, you gotta get your hair cut. So I did it. I didn't realize it when I started, but when I thought about it -- what a fucking stupid name. I didn't want to be anybody but John Mellencamp. I fought my whole life to have some kind of individuality, from grade school on up to where I am now. And that's still my greatest problem."

But 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 "real insignificant bullshit." He hates being taken seriously. And he goes far beyond that: Politics is bullshit. Life is boring, but hey, you can deal with it. But this nihilistic attitude doesn't do him any good, either. It occurs to me that this googly-eyed, gabby, good-hearted little guy is still hanging on a cross. Only this time, it's a cross he made himself.

***

John Cougar has spent all his life in Seymour, Indiana, a sleepy hamlet of 15,000 located a stone's throw from the college burg of Bloomington. Seymour is a middle-class workingman's town whose chief industry is electronics. The Bible Belt it might not be, but the Nazarene Church is strong, and the prevalent mood is conservative. And competitive. "When you grew up in the Fifties and Sixties in that type of town," Cougar said, as we flew from Philadelphia to Hays, Kansas, in his rented, six-seat turbojet, "it was real important that you had these manly qualities. Because that was your status: How fast you could run, or who you could beat up. Or what grades you got. I was never competitive in grades, and I wasn't real athletic. So that left me and the guys I ran with."

Cougar's father, Sonny Mellencamp, is an electrician who has worked his way up to become vice-president of Robbins Electric. Cougar calls his father, affectionately, "one of those self-made motherfuckers." Mellencamp tried to imbue his sons with the determination that had made him a success. "The old man would make us have footraces against each other, chin-up contests... you know, 'Goddamn it, John, your brother just did fourteen, you gotta do at least fourteen.'"

Young John was ill-equipped for competition of any kind. He was short and fat. He had a bad stutter. And he wasn't the brightest or the best-looking guy in town. So he started hanging out, in the car and on the street. "We'd drive three blocks, turn left, go half a block, cut through the parking lot, turn around and do the same thing. Then we'd stand on the corner to save money. Not for gas, but for other controlled substances. Plus, you could really check people out when you just stood and leaned on a parking meter."

When he did try to mix it up with his pals, he got the shit kicked out of him. "I had a loud mouth, and I used to think I was tough, but I would get my ass whipped. The last fight I got in, when I was eighteen, the guy beat me up so bad that he tired of beating me up and started beating up my car. "

I fought this other guy one time. He was bad. And I hid from him for months and months. It got to be real degrading, especially with the guys I hung around with. So finally, one day I said, 'I've had it. I'll have to go fight this motherfucking guy'. I knew he'd kill me, but it was a matter of pride. "

I was in eighth grade, and I walked up and said, 'Okay, let's get it'. He looked at me and said, 'Mellencamp, I'm gonna black your fucking eye'. So we squared off, and there were like hundreds of kids, it was right before school. I said, 'Here's the only rule: when somebody says, "I quit," that's it'. He said, 'Cool'. So we're squared off, and this mother-fucker went BAM real fucking hard, right in my eye. I said, 'I quit'. 'Goddamnit!' he said. 'You can't quit! I hit my mother harder than that!' If I see that guy to this day, I'm afraid of him."

Authority figures of all types rile Cougar, even when their domination over him isn't physical — his mother, for example, someone who was mentioned only rarely in our discussions. "My mom, I don't know, it's hard to say," he said. "Her and I have always had a pretty hard time understanding each other. I've never really had the respect for my mom that I should have had. I had to have respect for the old man, because he could whip my ass. I love her and all that, but she's just different."

The customarily garrulous, animated Cougar — whose hyperactivity is fueled by sodas and an endless supply of cigarettes — paused for a moment. He looked a little troubled. "I think when people come from low income and they get successful, they get a little weird. I think she has a hard time dealing with that. She wants everybody to know her importance." Another pause. Maybe he was hearing a familiar thought. "Because she is important, you know?"

At the age of eighteen, John Mellencamp left his high school one day, got into a car with his twenty-three-year-old sweetheart, Priscilla, and drove to Louisville, Kentucky. "You could get married there at eighteen without your parents' permission." They were stoned, they were in love, and Priscilla was pregnant.

For Cougar, the pregnancy and marriage were an escape from responsibility, not an unexpected burden. "After I came to grips with the fact that she was pregnant, I thought, "This is fucking great. Because now I ain't gonna be living with Mom and Dad anymore, and I don't have to listen to their shit. We'll be able to do what we want to do. I can go out and make a living'. "

Cougar, of course, couldn't. He la-de-da'd his way through a local college (thanks to a scholarship he earned because of his speech impediment, since cured), and before long, the three Mellencamps — John, Priscilla and their daughter, Michelle — were about where you might expect them to be. "It was 1971," recalled Cougar, laughing, "And I refused to get a fucking job. I would not work. Cill got a job at the telephone company; I was an electrician's helper for three months and quit because I couldn't handle it. So we had to move in with her parents, right? "Me and her brother would play Frisbee all day. Get stoned, play Frisbee. Cill would go to work, and her parents gave us money. It was like, this is the best fucking job in the world."

It took eighteen months of freeloading before Cougar's in-laws got his ass out of their house. "'Fuck 'em,' I said to Priscilla. I was fucking around with bands, and they said, 'You ain't never gonna do anything with rock & roll'. So I said, 'We're never coming back'. They were so right, you know? But it was like, I've only been living off them for a year and a half." He laughed heartily. "Hey, another ten, fifteen years!"

***

Give John Cougar this: he never gave up. He honed his chops in local bar bands and began writing his own material. He withstood the derision that greeted his MainMan album, Chestnut Street Incident, which was released by MCA. When that label dropped him, he crafted some flawed records for PolyGram and had a small hit with "I Need a Lover." He gave up drugs and alcohol. He divorced Priscilla after ten years, remarried and had another child. Then he broke the bank with American Fool.

But Cougar hasn't moved to a showbiz metropolis or purchased a snazzy mansion. He and his wife, Vicky, and their daughter, Butch — yes, Butch — live in a spacious but modest home near the causeway in Seymour. His one indulgence is a burgeoning stable of dirt bikes that he rides through the underbrush.

That's more fun now than it used to be. "When I was a kid, I wanted to ride on a motorcycle because I wanted to be good on it. It wasn't like, let's have fun; it was always a race. Now, it's hilarious." That sentiment may seem strange coming from an artist whose songs consistently celebrate the joys of adolescence, who sings, "I long for those young boy days."

"I never think about what I write," Cougar explained, as we chomped on hamburgers in the Hays, Kansas, Holiday Inn. "I thought, to be a songwriter, you have to work at it. You hear Neil Sedaka say, 'I spend eight hours a day writing songs'. Well, it sounds like it. So for me, writing songs is like getting a hard-on — I just don't wanna think about it. God knows people try to tear into my songs and make them mean something, but they don't."

That'll come as a surprise to the audiences around the country who've sung the chorus to "Jack and Diane" at the top of their lungs: "Oh yeah, life goes on Long after the thrill of living is gone."

"I had no idea 'Jack and Diane' would be like it was. A lot of people think that chorus is negative, but I don't. I think it makes people feel good to hear somebody else say. 'Hey, it's fucked, but you can deal with it'. Like, you take 'Hurts So Good'— it was amazing to me, man, that I'm thirty-one years old, and what my wife Vicky and I do for a good time is go to the fucking mall and walk around. That's why the song goes, 'I am't talking no big deals, maybe we can just walk around all night long'.

"The thing is, that's cool, because you realize that this is pretty boring shit here. This is what we all do. So once you realize that life is boring, then you can really deal with it, and you can make the best of it."

It's no surprise, then, that Cougar thinks politics is a waste of time. "The guys that we elect, I don't think they mean anything. I don't believe that this is a democracy, that Reagan is running this country. I'm convinced there's maybe one guy who runs the whole fucking world, and people like us don't matter. So we pacify ourselves with rock & roll."

Is that really it? Isn't there some kind of statement that "Jack and Diane" makes about the world? "It's kinda like, save yourself with a friend. It's the buddy system. I just think that you and me and people like us, we go to work and everything gets real bottled up, real serious. And then at the end of the day, you think, 'What did I do all that for?' Because it doesn't really matter. Hendrix had the best line: 'Fall, mountain. Just don't fall on me."'

So John Cougar Mellencamp — as he hopes one day to be called — may not be the populist poet of America's heartland, as some have tried to claim. His stuff may be thoughtless, he may fuck up on occasion, he may be going on instinct instead of smarts — but on the whole, he has good instincts. He's come through a lot with his body and his talent intact, and so what if it's meaningless stuff? Right now, he's a happy man. And maybe he's finally proved himself to the people of Seymour, to the critics and the record business.

Cougar drained another soda, lit a cigarette and remembered where he'd been when his ride on the music merry-go-round began. "The place I was living in when I got my first record deal was a concrete garage that a friend of mine and I had fixed up. It was awful. But I look back on it now and think it wasn't that bad. Those were the days I bought Lou Reed's Sally Can't Dance and listened to both sides 600 times. When you bought a record then, it was a big fucking deal."

His voice quickens with excitement at the retelling. "I was working as a carpenter's helper, and I made eighty-seven dollars a week. I could not believe I made that much money. Cill had a job making sixty-five dollars a week with the phone company, and I'd usually been on unemployment, drawing thirty-five to forty dollars. So I called up Cill and said, 'How much money for our bills this week?' And she said, 'Well, after I get my paycheck, and if you have thirty dollars, then we'll have enough'. I said, 'Goddamn, I got sixty dollars I can spend on records'.

"That was probably one of the happiest moments of my life. I can still see myself walking down the street with that money, knowing I've got sixty dollars extra. I spent every bit of it that fucking fast." He paused, and a big, unironic smile spread across his face. "That was when records meant something."