John Mellencamp: My Life in 15 Songs

He's had one of the greatest careers in pop and rock, and hated almost every minute of it

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"I Need a Lover"

John Cougar, 1979

I went to New York in 1976. It was my first time in an airplane. I would have signed anything – I would have signed the bottom of a shoe. I ended up signing with Tony DeFries [who famously managed David Bowie]. He gave me a choice: "Record under the name Johnny Cougar or move back to Indiana." He also paid off my college loans. I was like, "Are you shitting me?" I didn't realize he was going to charge me back.

I knew that if I wanted to continue in the music business, I had to get on the radio. It wasn't like I had the support of critics – my first Rolling Stone review said something like, "This guy is a phony, picked out of central casting." But I knew if I delivered a song that could get on the radio, I had a shot.

By the time of "I Need a Lover," I had three albums out. They sold nothing. We were recording in Miami at the same time that the Eagles were finishing up Hotel California. I would walk by and hear "Life in the Fast Lane," go back into my session and hear, "I need a lover that won't . . ." I'd be like, "Oh, fuck. I don't know what I'm doing here."

I was washed up and over by my midtwenties. Then two record producers named Chinn and Chapman heard "I Need a Lover," and they had Pat Benatar sing it. It was her first big hit, and then mine went to Number One in Australia. It became a semihit in America, and it let me make another album.

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