The Comeback Kid

John Cougar Mellencamp talks about Farm Aid and 'Scarecrow,' 'Pink Houses' and his American Dream

January 30, 1986
 John Cougar Mellencamp on the cover of Rolling Stone.
John Cougar Mellencamp on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Herb Ritts

John Cougar Mellencamp had every right to be angry. Nearly 20,000 fans had paid $17.50 a ticket to see the small-town boy play the biggest room in New York, Madison Square Garden. And on this, one of the most important nights of his career, his expensive, highly sophisticated sound system went kaput not once but twice, thanks to a faulty fifty-dollar circuit breaker.

But Mellencamp didn't blow any fuses. He didn't throw drummer Kenny Aronoff's kit into the crowd the way he did during a legendary tantrum at a London, Ontario, concert in 1982. He didn't storm offstage muttering obscenities, like he did that same year during an on-camera fracas with a CBS News interviewer. The thirty-four-year-old Indiana singer just sat in his dressing room until the sound problem was solved and then returned to the stage, where he told the crowd, "I feel so bad about this that if you got your ticket stub, you got your money back." He sweetened the deal by playing for another two hours, venting his anger through ferocious renditions of his biggest hits and a long medley of Sixties nuggets. (Financially, he stood to lose nearly $350,000 from his refund offer, but only half the fans returned their tickets.)

100 Best Albums of the Eighties: 'Scarecrow'

"If this had happened to me five years ago, I would probably have passed out," Mellencamp said, laughing, a few days after the December 6th concert. "There would have been so much blood rushing to my head, I would have just blacked out." But this is a different John Cougar Mellencamp from the bantamweight hothead who topped the charts in 1982 with "Jack and Diane" and had the biggest-selling album of that year with the cynically titled American Fool. Cursed with a corny stage name given to him by his first manager, former Bowie svengali Tony DeFries, he was a man who loved to hate – his record company, the critics who dismissed him as a minor-league Springsteen, even his own songs.

"If you'd come in here then, I wouldn't have wanted to like you. It was safe for me. 'This guy might not like me, so I'm going to not-like him first.' It's a real juvenile way of thinking, but that's the way I functioned in my life for years."

"I don't think he enjoys that emotion anymore," says guitarist Larry Crane, who has played with Mellencamp for almost fifteen years. "He liked the rush of getting angry, but not anymore. If something's not right at a sound check, John will look at me and say, 'Aw, do I really have to get mad at somebody today?"' Indeed, considering his reputation, Mellencamp was unexpectedly relaxed and thoughtful during the two sessions for this interview, backstage in Binghamton, New York, and in his Manhattan hotel suite.

Sobered by success (Scarecrow is his third straight platinum LP), Mellencamp has replaced the chip on his shoulder with the weight of private and public responsibility. Instead of relocating to a superstar community like New York or Los Angeles, he stays in Indiana, where he keeps tight with relatives, old school buddies and biker pals. He turned down an offer to play at Live Aid – "Concerts that just raise money aren't a good idea" – but he has devoted much of his nonmusical energy to publicizing the plight of American farmers. He helped organize the September 22nd Farm Aid concert with Willie Nelson and Neil Young, and in his own shows he asks fans to write to their congressmen demanding legislative action.

"Yeah, John Mellencamp has a history of being the biggest joke in rock & roll, right?" he snaps. "But you can't take away the fact that as far as what's going on right now, I care about it."

Born in Seymour, Indiana (population 15,050), on October 7th, 1951, the second of five children, John Mellencamp wanted to be a rock & roller in the worst way, and that's exactly why he made it. He scuffled through a series of hard-luck bar bands, including a glitter-rock outfit with Larry Crane called Trash, which played only four gigs over a whole year. In 1976, Tony DeFries hyped him as a Bowie-Springsteen hybrid called Johnny Cougar, a transparent hustle (made worse by a limp debut LP, Chestnut Street Incident) that poisoned Mellencamp's image for years. Even after he signed with Rod Stewart's then-manager Billy Gaff, the going was rough. Larry Crane remembers one gig the Cougar band played on a 1978 U.K. tour in a broken-down soccer stadium – under the bleachers. "We were in a room that was like a refreshment stand. You wonder why John was miserable then?"

The no-frills American Fool, which contained the first hints of his garage-rock instincts along with plenty of Springsteen-Petty-Seger references, pulled Mellencamp sharply out of his commercial nose dive. For his 1983 LP, Uh-huh, Mellencamp wrote his bittersweet state-of-the-nation address, "Pink Houses," and machine-gunned the tunes to tape in little more than two weeks. But on Scarecrow, his equation of the farm crisis with the general deterioration of the American Dream, Mellencamp comes much close to his dream fusion of lyric commitment and Sixties energy. He actually had his four-piece band prep for the sessions by learning a hundred old Sixties hits note for note, from Lou Christie and Four Seasons records to Beach Boys classics and even "Talk Talk," by the Music Machine. "I thought he was giving us busywork," confesses bassist Toby Myers, "but he wanted us to understand what made those songs tick so we could put some of that grit into his songs."

When he isn't on the road or lobbying for Farm Aid, Mellencamp lives on twenty-three acres in Bloomington, Indiana, with his second wife, Vicky, and his three daughters – Michelle, 15 (by his first wife, Priscilla); Teddy Jo, 3; and Justice, who arrived less than six months ago. Their home is a spacious old Cape Cod-style house renovated by John and Vicky two years ago – a modest luxury paid for in full with a decade's sweat and pain, no matter what you might think of his art. During a recent video shoot, a technician stood on Mellencamp's porch and muttered sarcastically, "Okay, little pink houses for you and me." Mellencamp turned to him and said, "Listen, pal, don't you pass judgment on me until you've walked a mile in these shoes."

Your latest stage show is a lot like a Bruce Springsteen concert. There's no opening act, you perform for nearly three hours, and you include several Sixties covers in the set. After so much Brucemania, weren't you worried about the comparisons?
I didn't even think about the Springsteen comparison. What Springsteen does is a marathon. What we do is a sprint. But I'm becoming convinced that the comparison is good. I feel like I'm giving something back to the people, and if Springsteen is doing that too, well, great. If rock & roll took a bigger cue from what he's doing and what I'm doing, I think rock & roll, at least in the arenas, would be better for it.

Yet for years you were crucified by critics as a pale echo of Springsteen, an AOR hack ripping off Bob Seger and Tom Petty as well.
I had never even seen Springsteen perform live until last December in Indianapolis. I remember saying to one magazine, "I can't wait until I meet Bruce Springsteen so I can tell him what a problem he's been for me." So when I met him at that show, I told him. He acted like he was my big brother, which was nice. He said he really liked "Pink Houses." And I said, "Well, I stole it all from you." We laughed and shook hands.

Somebody once said to me, "When Jon Landau said he saw the future of rock & roll in Bruce, he was right." Look at all these guys who do the exact same fucking thing. Me, Petty, Seger, a whole bunch of us who are American singer/songwriters. We're all the same age, we all listened to the same music. What do people expect?

When you were getting off the tour bus the other day, you shouted, "Look out, Binghamton, here we come, the second-best rock band in the world!" How much of that is really self-doubt, not just kidding around?
I know I can do better than I'm doing.

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