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.

  • Jackie Brown

    Don't forget the career and alt-celebrity status of Lisa Germano via The Lonesome Jubilee…

    For those paying attention, yeah, he was more of a “new wave” act from the get-go until this Springsteen Jr. heartland thing took old. Still, even at his peak, he was still more SPIN than Rolling Stone.

  • EightE1

    Mr. Happy Go Lucky is a very good record. He had a shit-hot live band at the time. Couldn't tell you who was in it, but I distinctly recall seeing them on TV (maybe it was a Farm Aid thing) and thinking how good they were, and how good he sounded. He's one of the best.


  • bobby

    he blows

  • matt

    anyone else having trouble with the mp3's?

  • http://johnnybacardi.blogspot.com Johnny Bacardi

    “Key West Intermezzo” is one of the best fucking songs I've ever heard in my life, and you're right, that album isn't half bad. Much of The Lonesome Jubilee is just amazing, especially “Check it Out”.

  • mojo

    just checked, fine from here…

  • JonCummings

    For me, and for very personal reasons, the key moment in Mellencamp's career was the period following the release of The Lonesome Jubilee. On the album he veered toward bluegrass and “old-timey” music; on the tour that followed it, and then a couple of side projects, he dove in head-first. With a big assist from Lisa Germano, his shows during that tour featured full-on bluegrass breakdowns; then, his recordings for the Folkways: A Vision Shared anthology (Woody Guthrie's “Do Re Mi”) and for A Very Special Christmas (“I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”) were pure bluegrass, and fantastic.

    During this period (late 1987-late 1988) I briefly moved back to my hometown in southwestern Virginia from college in Chicago, not looking forward to returning to the backwards South I had fled four years before. But during the few months I lived back home, then after I moved up to Northern Virginia, I heard and loved Mellencamp's bluegrass-oriented tracks. My curiosity thus piqued, I opened myself up to all the Southern mountain culture I had ignored through my childhood–acoustic blues, early Bristol Sessions-era country, Sacred Harp gospel, etc.

    Those styles have become a big part of my musical universe, and led me to in-depth study of the music and other folklore of my part of the South. So I have a lot to thank Mr. Mellencamp for–even if, a year later, I was profoundly disappointed that the fiddles, banjos and dobro had disappeared on his hugely depressing Big Daddy album…

  • matt

    Your server must not be dial-up friendly. Thanks anyways.

  • http://www.1075koolfm.com LM

    Gosh, I love this man.
    Was likely the youngest person at his concert in Toronto who wasn't 'brought' to it by someone.

    Love him

  • Grulg

    I will always be a fan of the Human Wheels album too from '93. That thing is about as good as anything he ever did-esp. 'What if I came knocking' and 'French Shoes' and 'Junior'. Check it out-if you haven't .

  • Grulg

    I will always be a fan of the Human Wheels album too from '93. That thing is about as good as anything he ever did-esp. 'What if I came knocking' and 'French Shoes' and 'Junior'. Check it out-if you haven't .

  • Grulg

    I will always be a fan of the Human Wheels album too from '93. That thing is about as good as anything he ever did-esp. 'What if I came knocking' and 'French Shoes' and 'Junior'. Check it out-if you haven't .