“Forget all that macho shit, and learn how to play guitar.”
–John (Cougar) Mellencamp
John Mellencamp was born on this day in Seymour, Indiana, USA in 1951. He is 61 years old.
He had spinalbifida as baby. With a growth the size of a man’s fist on the back of his neck that was removed during a day-long operation when he was three weeks old. His house was filled with music growing up, and Mellencamp learned to play guitar. He was troublemaker at school who drank, smoked, cursed and trolled for girls.
Mellencamp is first and foremost an American storyteller. His classic song Jack and Diane starts out “Little ditty about Jack and Diane /Two American kids growin up in the heartland…” He might as well have begun Once upon a time in a small town in the midwest.
“His songs document the joys and struggles of ordinary people seeking to make their way, and he has consistently brought the fresh air of common experience to the typically glamour-addled world of popular music.” [–Anthony DeCurtis]
He played in bands with names like “Crepe Soul,” “Trash,” “Snakepit Banana Barn” and “the Mason Brothers.” He spent more time partying and playing music than studying so he didn’t do well in school. At 18 he eloped with his older pregnant girlfriend while still a Senior in high school.
He worked odd jobs and took classes at community college, Vincennes, University where he binged on drugs and alcohol while listening to Roxy Music. But by 1974 he’d graduated from Vincesse, sobered up, and got serious about his career.
He cut a four song demo tape and moved to New York City. It took 18 months to get a manager, Tony DeFries, and land a record deal, with MCA Records. DeFries is the one who came up with the idea of changing his Mellencamp’s last name to Cougar. It was all part of the pre-packaged “rebel” rock star that DeFries was putting together. And it was something Mellencamp didn’t know about until he saw the proofs for the album art emblazoned with “Johnny Cougar.” No one, DeFries, thought, would buy records from some guy named Mellencamp. Thus Chestnut Street Incident, Johnny Cougar‘s first album was pressed in 1976 by MCA. The album was a mix of cover tunes and originals. It was hardly a chart topping effort and MCA declined to release a second album (The Kid Inside — it was released after Mellencamp made it big.) and “Cougar” and DeFries parted ways.
Mellencamp signed with Billy Gaff and release the album “A Biogrpahy” by Riva Records overseas. The single I Need a Lover became a hit in Australia, and Pat Benatar had a top 40 hit with her cover of the tune. It became the single from his next U.S. album John Cougar.
He embraced his bad boy, rebel reputation with his next album and was rewarded with first top 40 album with Nothing Matters and What if It Did.
In American Fool he stripped away the pre-packaged pop of the Johnny Cougar /Chestnut Street Incident sound and went with two guitars, a bass and a drum to back up his raw, honest vocals. He found his voice as a singer songwriter and Jack and Diane were born. Other cuts from American Fool include: Hurt So Good and Hand to Hold On To.
Here is Hurts Good:
Pink Houses and Crumblin’ Down, two singles of Mellencamp’s 1983 album Uh-Huh hit #8 and #9 on the Billboard Top Ten.
With Scarecrow he began to mix social issues with the music. The album was dedicated to his grandfather and sold 5 million copies. Singles Lonely Ol’ Night, R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A, and Small Town cracked the top 10 charts while Rain on the Scarecrow became an American anthem.
Here’s Lonely Ol’ Night:
Mellencamp became active in helping farmers keep their farms when he worked with Willie Nelson and Neil Young to create FARM AID. Using the LIVE AID (see the 10.5.12 Thought of the Day on Bob Geldof ) Mellencamp et al held concerts to help American farmers who faced foreclosure. The first concert was in Champaign, Illinois on September 25, 1985 and raised over $9 million. Mellencamp and Nelson worked to bring farmers to US Congress to testify about plight of farmers, resulting in the Agricultural Credit Act. The effort continues, with the organizers coming together for annual concerts, and the organization (of which Mellencamp is a board member) establishing an emergency hot line for farm disaster relief when an area is hit with natural disaster.
Here’s Mellencamp performing Rain On The Scarecrow at Farm Aid 2008
For Lonesome Jubilee he added fiddle and backing vocals to his four piece band sound. The album garnered the hit singles Paper in Fire, Check It Out and Cherry Bomb. It reached #1 on the Canadian Charts and #6 on US Billboard 200.
After Big Daddy he stepped away from the music industry for three years and took up a different artistic pursuit, painting. He used some of that art on the cover of his next album, Whenever We Want It.
While touring to promote his 1994 Dance Naked album he had a heart attack. Mellencamp smoked 5 packs prior to the attack. He started to eat a heart healthy diet and started to exercise and reduced the number of cigarettes he smokes (but can’t seem to give them up all together.)
He has put out 22 albums thus far and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008
“He’s painted little movies, little stories … a slice of America” Kenny Aronoff, Mellencamp’s Drummer [A&E Biography]
Oh, you didn’t really think I’d leave you with out a little Jack and Diane, did you?