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Hall of Fame Week: John “Johnny Cougar” Mellencamp

For anyone who grew up in the Midwest, John Cougar speaks our language. We’ve stuck with him through the early years on to the Farm Aid thing through to his modern-day output.

For those keeping score, he went from Johnny Cougar to John Cougar to John Cougar Mellencamp and then, simply, “John Mellencamp.” (Trivia: Lou Reed referred to him as “my painter friend Donald” on New York.) He’s put us through more name changes than The Artist formerly known as “the artist formerly known as Prince.” It all stemmed from his first manager giving him a rock-star identity in the 1970s, with which he landed a couple formulaic hits. Later, Cougar-Mellencamp took control of his own career and morphed into a real musician worthy of the Rock Hall.

Because of the name changes, it was sometimes hard to find his records (under the Ms? The Cs?) but once we did there was always a bushel of corn-fed, no-bull rock-n-roll to be found between them thar grooves. While Cougar-Mellencamp might have made his name a moving target, there was never any doubt where the needle of his rock compass pointed—straight toward Detroit, where rock and soul fused to make crashy rhythms for which you had no choice but to lace up your dancin’ shoes.

Shucks, in “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.,” the litany of artists he names in tribute includes a peck of Dee-troit singers: Jackie Wilson, Mitch Ryder, spotlight on Martha Reeves and don’t forget James Brown! (OK, The Godfather of Soul wasn’t Detroit but don’t forget a Cincinnati label first put him on the map, and that town lies only about 40 miles east of Mellencamp’s hometown of Seymour, Ind.).

In fact, one could make the argument that he is the modern-day fulfillment of what Mitch Ryder could have become if he hadn’t disbanded the Detroit Wheels and gone Vegas—in the most putrid, pejorative sense of the word—right at the peak of his career. They certainly both were charismatic white singers from the Midwest with a deep respect for black performers. Cougar-Mellencamp did have a country bent to his music that Ryder didn’t circa his Detroit Wheels period, and a conscience that still gets him mocked by certain high-fallutin’ East- and West-coasters who think they’re the bee’s knees and just can’t get his quaint-liberal schtick because they never baled no hay, worked a day in a factory, or used a “buy here-pay here” used-car lot.

Cougar-Mellencamp’s conscience is what makes his work stand the test of time. The Farm Aid festivals. The charity work. The folk-rockers like “You’ve Got to Stand for Somethin’ (Or You’re Gonna Fall for Anything).” They all that remind us we’re making political statements in whatever we do, and it’s a poor one if we’re too busy to vote because we’re chasing Diane-of-“Jack and Diane”-types. The small-town liberalism and personal responsibility he preached opened the eyes of legions of kids caught in the spell of Mike Huckabee types; he gave them an intelligent alternative to compassionate conservatism, a more realistic real-world blueprint where faith in God and left-leaning ideals can coexist peacefully in the same skull.

His hits have been played to death. Even if they’re not on the radio, they’re in damned truck commercials on television. I stand before you today not to rehash Cougar-Mellencamp’s shopworn Top 40 licks, but to demonstrate his “back to the future eclecticism” for which no one ever gives him credit. After all, it’s easier to stuff him in a flannel shirt and muddy boots with a wheat stalk stuck in his teeth.

So here we go: In “Wild Night” from Dance Naked he pays tribute to Van Morrison by making the original wicked goove even meaner. Along the way he invites the least likely singer in the world, Me’Shell Ndegéocello, to join him in a duet. Then there’s “Key West Intermezzo,” from the highly underrated Mr. Happy Go Lucky album produced by club deejay Jr. Vasquez (another “huh?” pairing for lazy critics who like to toss off horse-manure references when writing about Cougar-Mellencamp). His cover of “Let It All Hang Out” from Big Daddy harnesses the gestalt of 1960s proto-punk for in the postpunk era, a musical feat few artists are capable of comprehending, let alone executing.

For this lifetime Cougar freak’s money, the meta-cut that summarizes the dichotomy of his career is Uh-Huh’s “Play Guitar,” which at once glorifies and castigates this notion of the phony rock star. The lyrics drip with ironic intrigue (Does he really mean it? Is it self-deprecating?), but the music positively rocks. The song’s obviously more than a one-trick pony joke, because he performs it onstage. Here’s a 1991 rendition caught on amateur-cam and uploaded to YouTube.

Yeah that’s right. Forget all ’bout that macho sheeit and larn-howta-play guitar. Son. That’s hall of fame stuff, as the scouts say. God bless ya, John.