Hey, John Cougar, What’s Your Problem?
“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.”