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.