In a new biography loaded with family photos, interviews with dozens of bandmates, critics and associates, and spanning nearly 70 years, the best assessment of John Mellencamp’s career comes in a quote from the artist himself.
“[W]e weren’t playing the best songs in the world. A lot of my songs weren’t that great, but they were good enough,” Mellencamp remarks while discussing his all-conquering 1987-era touring outfit. “And as far as putting on a performance and entertaining goes, we were undeniably great. I wish I would’ve been able to enjoy it, but I was too busy slogging.”
Born in 1951 in Seymour, Indiana to an electrician and a homemaker, John Mellancamp grew up rebellious in the tradition of his grandfather Speck and others in a rowdy and downcast extended family around Southern Indiana. He barely escaped childbirth, Rees writes, requiring risky neurosurgery to remove a growth on the back of his head. Having survived the operation for spina bifida made him something of a favorite of his grandmother, who never let him forget he was lucky. “You get told that enough and you start to believe it,” he says.
Young John was a schoolyard bully, and a rebel who loved competing-- in sports, and in music, which he absorbed via late-night soul radio signals from Detroit, forced attendance at Church of the Nazarene and its Appalachian folk and gospel, his parents’ “bongo parties” and as a frontman for a succession of teenage bands, most notably, an interracial combo called Crepe Soul. Married and a father before he finished high school, Mellencamp became determined to try his luck as a recording artist, making several fruitless sojourns to New York with a homemade demo cassette before hearing from Tony Defries, the British Svengali who’d overseen David Bowie and Lou Reed’s careers and recognized in Mellencamp the raw materials for a project: “Puppy-eyed like a young Elvis, rough around the edges as James Dean,” Rees writes.
In a scene out a hundred music bios, Mellencamp signs on the spot, cobbles together some recordings with friends, and discovers to his horror that Defries would release it, as is, under a stage name—Johnny Cougar. The 1976 MCA debut CHESTNUT STREET INCIDENT is savaged by Rolling Stone, which writes “Johnny Cougar is a comically inept signer who unfortunately takes himself seriously.”
Mellencamp’s next three records establish a pattern of similarly dumb, radio-friendly hits and accompanying filler of various quality. The pop-flavored NOTHIN MATTERS AND WHAT IF DID (1980) includes “Aint Even Done With the Night” and “This Time.” AMERICAN FOOL (1982) was another step ahead with hits “Hurts So Good” “Jack and Diane” and “Hand to Hold Onto.” The harder-rocking UH-HUH (1983) produced “Crumblin’ Down,” “Pink Houses,” “Authority Song,” and “Play Guitar.”
During early sessions for “Fool,” a herky-jerky song John had been at work on called “Jenny at 16” gets a lift when the Bee Gees, recording in adjoining Miami studio, loan them a Linn drum machine establishing a beat. Listening in, Bowie’s former guitarist Mick Ronson suggests adding an opening fanfare and the “let it rock, let it roll” bridge. It all comes together when drummer Kenny Aronoff connects them with an explosive fill. “Jack and Diane” is Mellencamp’s biggest hit. Mainman took leftover tracks and shoved out THE KID INSIDE (1983) to coast on the moment but it died on the shelf: Cougar had already changed his name.
By this time, Mellencamp had settled on an agreeable producer (Don Gehman), established a recording studio in Indiana, and assembled a crack band of local players (the thunderous Aronoff, who was made to observe session players for the NOTHIN MATTERS LP), guitarists Mike Wanchic and Larry Crane, Doc Rosser on keys, Toby Myers on bass) and a lyricist (George Green) who would absorb their leader’s admonitions, foul moods and abuse for years but provide him the words and music.
Aronoff describes making AMERICAN FOOL “like going to Vietnam.” Mellencamp demanded his band come up with their own parts to accompany his songs, often gave them homework in the form of songs he wanted them to listen to and absorb, and demanded they learn new instruments as a means of changing the soundscape over time, but encountered frequent frustration expressing precisely the sound he wanted, and did so with little tact or sensitivity. He also taxed the band physically, quarterbacking a band football team which played hotly contested games in Bloomington against local radio stations.
Mellencamp had given up drinking and drugs following a beating he absorbed in high school, but found stress all around as he worked to take control of his career. He suffered regular panic attacks, exacerbated by his heavy smoking and coffee intake, and would burn through three marriages. He found touring stressful. He saw record executives, and often his bandmates, as his enemies.
Guided by Green’s Biblical lyricism and released just as artists with a social message were hot again, SCARECROW (1985) was a triumphant record spawning big hits (“Lonely Ol’ Night” “Small Town” and the excellent “Minutes to Memories”) that cemented Mellencamp’s identity as Midwestern Springsteen. Comparing SCARECROW’s highs to his previous work, Rees writes, required “a yardstick put up so far down the road as to be invisible, all but unimaginable from where he started.”Like Springsteen, Mellencamp’s songs now strongly imparted a sense of place and an underlying cause, though his own opinion of being tagged “the voice of the Heartland” was nuanced and reflected his considered perspective as an outsider. “Indiana is red state,” he explains, “and you’re looking at the most liberal motherfucker you know. … If I was the voice of the Heartland, my songs would be vastly different.”
SCARECROW, Rees relates, was something less than a true concept album, including as it did side B fillers “Rumbleseat” and “R.O.C.K. in the USA.” The latter was intended to have been a throwaway based on the 60s soul playlist Mellencamp had issued his band before recording but was included on the album at the insistence of Mellencamp’s then-manager, Tommy Mottola, who’d also argued that it be the record’s first single (it was the 4th). The book, and my accompanying streaming of the catalog as I went, didn’t quite disabuse the notion I’d had going in that most Mellencamp releases were weighed down by a few stinkers—as Robert Christgau described him, “a well-meaning cornball with Kenny Aronoff in his band”—that said, the overall quality of them holds up and will surprise.
During the stadium-filling tour, the band grew through new members Lisa Germano (fiddle), vocalists Crystal Talifero and Pat Peterson; and keyboard-accordian player John Cascella.
The sound of the fiddle and accordian awakened Mellencamp to new possibilities, and he moved toward a soulful Americana sound on THE LONESOME JUBILEE (1987). “Paper in Fire” lyrically and musically conveyed Mellencamp’s famous temper (“This is the best song I ever wrote. Don’t fuck it up,” Mellencamp warned his bandmates as the sessions began). Though an ordeal to record, JUBILEE also produced the hits “Cherry Bomb” and “Check It Out” with a sound that stood far apart from late-80s contemporaries, and was the best-reviewed LP of his career, but the above-mentioned tour burned him out and ended his second marriage.
The ruminative and melancholy BIG DADDY (1989), followed as a kind of TUNNEL OF LOVE to Springsteen’s BORN TO RUN. Mellencamp however refused to tour, preferring instead to paint in a home studio. Mellencamp had inherited painting from his mother, who advised him it was an outlet he could engage in throughout his life. One of his daughters tells Rees she thought he was a painter growing up.
Painting came with less associated stress than creating music, which “intensified and riled him, made him more antagonistic, combative and selfish,” Rees writes. More convinced than ever he was an artist, Mellencamp also wrote, directed and starred in a movie, Falling From Grace, which was a failure (Rees’ book also goes into deep detail on Ghost Brothers, a musical play conceived with writer Stephen King that became something of a long work-in-progress also meeting little success).
Two years in relative seclusion ends when he reassembles the band in 1991, giving each of Wanchic, Crane, Myers and Aronoff a $1 million loyalty check. This gesture causes mutinous tension when Crane expresses on behalf of his mates that taxes would make each payment closer to $600,000; Mellencamp responds by firing them all on the spot.All but Crane—who is cast out forever—eventually are welcomed back to record WHENEVER WE WANTED (1991), whose rocking tunes, enhanced by replacement axeman David Grissom, recalls UH-HUH in too many ways—it’s “John’s least satisfying work in years,” according to Rees. Elaine Irwin, pictured on the album’s cover and in the “Get A Leg Up” video, becomes John’s third wife.
The arrival of grunge and hip-hop complicates Mellencamp’s musical direction for the next decade. HUMAN WHEELS (1993) took months to record. It produces hits “What If I Came Knocking?” and the resplendent grieving title track, but its recording is clouded by the sudden death of Cascella, to whom the album is dedicated.
“As HUMAN WHEELS slipped off the charts, with it he felt himself being shunted to margins, forced out to pasture,” Rees writes. A frustrated Mellencamp throws a punch at a record executive in a meeting in New York and departs the confrontation determined to make his next album in three weeks or less.
That becomes the slight, wispy DANCE NAKED. Time was saved in part through eschewing a bass guitar to Myers’ dismay, although Meshell Ngedcello is brought in as a bass player in the duet of Van Morrison’s “Wild Night”—proving to be Mellencamp’s last visit to the Billboard Top 10.
The tour for DANCE NAKED is interrupted when Mellencamp has a heart attack and takes another two years off, returning in 1996 with the ironically titled MR. HAPPY GO LUCKY (1996), which like HUMAN WHEELS, is enhanced with hip-hop guitar and drum loops and features new band members Andy York on guitar, Moe Z on Hammond organ and violinist Miriam Sturm, who arranges an album-opening Overture. The single is “Key West Intermezzo (I Saw You First).” The critical reception is muted.
Mellencamp blames Phonogram for disappointing sales and bolts for a new deal with Columbia but the self-titled JOHN MELLANCAMP (1998) is disappointing and chaotic even by Mellencamp’s standards. It’s the first to go off without Aronoff, who refused to bail on a gig backing Bob Seger. This album also led to a break-up with Green over a disagreement on the lyrics of the doomed single “Your Life Is Now,” whose recording included an incident where Mellencamp threw a punch at York (“I’d say John had serious confrontational issues,” York tells Rees). The band, now with the Heartbreakers’ Stan Lynch on drums, was briefly fired during its recording. Myers quit on the ensuing tour.
Bandmembers interviewed by Rees, many in oral-history style, will concede that Mellencamp meant well and approached performing and preparation as he ought to have given the material. “Come on—sell this fucking thing!” he'd admonish on stage, Aronoff relates. “He was unstoppable.”
Columbia, according to Rees, was looking at Mellencamp with an eye toward Santana’s SUPERNATURAL comeback. But When CUTTIN HEADS (2001) failed to improve, Mellancamp released a blues cover album called TROUBLE NO MORE (2003) and departed Columbia.
FREEDOM’S ROAD (2007) is most notable for spawning a Chevrolet commercial accompanying “Our Country”—the kind of sellout Mellencamp had long resisted (he’d told a hot-sauce company to hit the highway when they sought “Hurts So Good” for a campaign) but reasoned was OK given the difficulty of connecting with listeners in a market yawning at late-career releases from heritage artists like Springsteen and Tom Petty.
For 2008’s LIFE, DEATH, LOVE AND FREEDOM (c’mon already with these titles), Mellencamp engages producer T Bone Burnett, whose signature spare arrangements featured the singer’s roughening voice and was seen as something of a comeback in Americana/Folk and Adult Alternative radio formats. The same tact has since been applied to subsequent platters including the revisitation of Southern folk and gospel, recorded live at iconic studios, NO BETTER THAN THIS (2010), PLAIN SPOKEN (2014) and a half-done album of collaborations with country singer Carlene Carter, SAD CLOWNS AND HILLBILLIES (2017).
Mellencamp by now was divorced a third time, running with actress Meg Ryan, and exhibiting his artwork in galleries (Rees includes testimony from an art dealer disabusing the notion he’d used his celebrity to become a painter: “The reality is, a door may open if you’re a celebrity, but if you’re poor at what you do then it doesn’t stay open very long.”)
Rees' book comes to life when describing his personal interviews with Mellencamp, and while highlighting material that at once is overexposed and yet underexplored (the 2 or 3 cuts on each album you don't yet know by heart). The inevitable duet with Springsteen—a despairing, weepy folk-ballad called “Wasted Days”—was released in time for Mellencamp’s 70th birthday (and Springsteen’s 71st). Happy birthdays, guys. Don't celebrate too hard.