Chestnut Street Incident isn’t new, and it sure as hell isn’t any good, but for the most dedicated Cougarphiles it can be considered an invaluable slab of rock & roll archeology, a Rosetta stone for the “Small Town” set. Recorded back in 1976 with Bowie Svengali Tony Defries behind the boards, Cougar’s debut is proof that before everything started going right for the heartland rocker, everything had gone wrong. The opening track, “American Dream,” is a foreshadowing of the territory that Mellencamp would someday make his own, but it also proves that at this early date he just didn’t have any grand statements in him; what he did have was an eminently likable voice and a king-size supply of cockiness. “I had a face so cute it made the young girls cry,” he boasts as the song begins, “and I could blow ’em away with just a wink of my eye.”
Almost half of Chestnut Street Incident is taken up by Cougar’s relatively worthless covers of Fifties and Sixties standards. His version of “Oh, Pretty Woman,” for example, can’t touch Roy Orbison’s — or even Van Halen’s, for that matter. And though his klutzy take on the Doors’ “Twentieth Century Fox” may well have wowed them at a Seymour, Indiana, sock hop, it should never have been committed to vinyl. Cougar’s own material — like “Dream Killin’ Town” and “Chestnut Street Revisited” — shows that back then his ambition definitely exceeded his grasp; there’s little here to indicate the off-the-cuff intelligence that he’d show later on. As a songwriter, the kiddie Cougar was less than the sum of his very admirable influences (Creedence, Dylan, the Stones). And none of the material is helped by the dated sound of Defries’s production.
The lesson of Mellencamp’s career is that not every worthwhile rocker starts off as a diamond in the rough. Listening to Chestnut Street Incident, one can’t help but hear how desperately John Mellencamp wanted to be important. The unearthing of this mediocrity, recorded nearly a decade before Uh-Huh and Scarecrow, suggests how very far he had to come.