Text by Cary Baker / FFanzeen, 1982
Introduction © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2019
Images from the Internet
This interview was published in FFanzeen, issue #9, dated 1982, by then-Chicago-based writer, Cary Baker.
When this was first printed, he was just John Cougar, and Jack and Diane were still in his future. While I’ve never been a Mellenhead, and always considered him a depressive Springsteen wanna-be (to me, both are overrated, but see below), I respect the work he’s done, considering he rose from the ranks of the MainMan label splitting record sides with the likes of Cindy Bullens, to the small Hoosier label Gulcher, and then onto an international stage. – Robert Barry Francos, 2019
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We catch up with John Cougar in the environment we’re told he feels most at home – among hundreds of Harley-Davidson motorcycles. We browse through a Harley dealer, located on the fringes of a massive car dealership row that could be one of thousands of such stretches between Van Nuys and Norfolk. But John has selected his dream toy: a black beauty listing for $7,000 to add to his present menagerie of bikes.
“I’m gonna get me one of these and put new jammer parts on it, and paint over that emblem. You know it’s a Harley – you don’t have to advertise it.”
From the street we hear a deafening VAROOM!
“Hear that?” he asks. “That’s a Harley. I don’t even have to look. It ain’t like a Suzuki, which goes RRINGG. That’s not thrilling. It’s like, if you had the chance to see Gene Vincent or Bobby Rydell, who would you go see?”
John Cougar takes his ride as seriously as his rock. And with his unequivocal small-town veneer – a rube’s voice that presumes him sooner a native of Raleigh then Seymour, Indiana – we don’t doubt the rough and tumble nature of his songs come from real-life experience. In that sense, he’s a true rock populist, a neo-Buddy Holly whose side of the Mason-Dixon Line is at first uncertain. But Cougar, who speaks with an emphatic drawl and in often too-emphatic language, will be the first to point out he’s no different than any other self-respecting Harley rider. His self-image appears to be one of a sated Hoosier, the one-in-a-million who clicked.
“I’m no songwriter,” he says. “When you say writer, you’re assuming you’ve got something to say. What did “I Need a Lover Who Won’t Drive Me Crazy” say? It didn’t say shit. Now Tennessee Williams was a writer. Let’s give credit where credit is due.
“I string some words together. Kids and people my age might like it, but what I’m really doing is communicating. There’s nothing wrong with communicating, but it’s a whole different thing from writing.
“I write about very insignificant parts of life. I ain’t got nothing to say that you don’t already know. I may refresh your memory; but some of these cats are heavy fuckin’ writers and I don’t want that responsibility on my shoulders.”
We mention Dylan, Lennon and McCartney, and Cougar is reticent to acknowledge their place in rock’s annals, save for some early Dylan perhaps. He stops to consider our suggestion that after five years of Fabianism, Meet the Beatles was easily on par with A Streetcar Named Desire.
“Yeah, you’re probably right,” he acknowledges, “but I mean, ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’? If somebody wrote that song now, we’d probably never hear it!”
John Cougar, nee John Mellencamp, is a youthful 30. His styled, not-exactly-punkish black hair reveals sprigs of silver. The eyes are oceanic blue and intense. The perennial 5:00 shadow is in full-bloom at 2:30 on a Saturday afternoon. Within two minutes of sitting down with him at McDonald’s across the street from the bike dealer, there’s no mistaking him for an urbanite. Even a few years of ripening in Europe and the dubious tutelage of David Bowie’s ex-manager haven’t changed his headstrong outlook.
John Cougar, you might recall, started out as a hype. He’d straggled into Tony DeFries’ MainMan Productions around 1975, “where everyone looked like Bowie.” DeFries was about to lose his paramount client and it wouldn’t have hurt to prove he could do it again. Enter the then-23-year-old Mellencamp of Seymour, and soon there was an album on MCA that displayed little more integrity than More of the Monkees.
“I had a year’s unemployment coming, right?” he shrugs. So why not use it to become a star? MainMan even staged a “Johnny Cougar Day” one nippy October afternoon in Seymour, Indiana [2 hours west of Cincinnati, OH – RBF, 2019], and wondered why half of Soho didn’t turn out.
But Johnny Cougar, MainMan and the MCA deal weren't terribly long-lived. Not exactly crushed, Mellencamp headed for London where he spent two years. Eventually, he teamed with producer John Punter, a Roxy Music alumnus, and cut “I Need a Lover Who Won’t Drive Me Crazy.” The song caught fire, so he returned to these shores, inked with the Riva division of PolyGram and cut an album around his hit. He also shed his pristine “next-Bowie” image, adding that, “what you’re seeing now is the way I’ve been from the start.” What then? “I got lazy.” But by that time, the real starmaker machinery was in motion and “I Need” was safe in bed with AOR.
The next Riva album may not have panned out to be the smash its predecessor was, but well-espoused the philosophy of John Cougar. It’s title: Nothing Maters and What If It Did?
“I’ve learned it’s not really important that everyone likes John Cougar. People’s opinions aren’t that important, not even mine. The good news, though, is that the music’s still gotta be good for people to buy it.”
We cite Christopher Cross as an example to the contrary.
“I don’t like him either and if I hear that ‘Arthur’ record again, I’m gonna puke. But there are 35-year-old women out there and I’m not gonna be the one to tell ‘em they’re crazy for liking Christopher Cross ‘cause they ain’t.”
Cougar’s populist image becomes intensified or deflated, depending on how one views populism, when Cougar insists his songs are written for him alone.
“I don’t write songs for the people. They’re for me. I don’t really think about them being hits. I could be a hit by selling cocaine. You and me could be rich and famous much quicker and with more leisure than this job!”
What, we query, would happen if Riva Records one day decided, “Sorry, John-boy, you’re too personal and esoteric for today’s marketplace?”
“I couldn’t leave the record company now,” he says. “I already tried and they said, ‘That will cost you $5-1/2 million’.”
But what happens – God forbid – when obsolesces does rear its ugly head and John’s washed up? [Note: He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008, the Americana Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010, the ASCAP Founders Award in 2016, and the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2018, among many others – RBF, 2019.]
“Oh, I’ve got job security,” he chimes. “When I get tired of makin’ records, I have another job I can do. I know this business inside and out.”
He points to the PolyGram promotion rep.
“I know what he should be doing. I know what his boss should be doing, and when they’re screwed up. I met this Atlanta guy who’s the man if you wanna get on the radio – and let’s face it, you’re nowhere if you’re not on the radio. If I’d met this guy five years ago, I’d’ve quit the business.”
He does a mocking imitation of a radio programming mogul.
“’You mess with him and your records won’t be on the radio.’ But I’m at a point where I mess with him and get away with it.”
John Cougar, his “old lady” and the “the kids” presently reside in Bloomington, Indiana, “The Gulch” – quieter then New York or London, but “not as embarrassing as living in Seymour.” A college city with a music scene that now and again dents the national consciousness, Cougar claims the locals know him and accept him as a burgher.
“”They see me so much there that they say, ‘Oh, there’s that guy who makes records.’ They all know I live there so it’s not any big deal,” he says.
A typical off-the-road day for John Cougar might begin with “a few business phone calls to check in. then I might smoke some cigarettes, sit around for a bit, talk to the old lady, play with the kids and ride my Harley to the lake and back.”
Cougar probably loves his Harley as much as he does music or the aforesaid old lady [second wife Victoria Granucci at the time, but he’s been married more times since, and linked to a few others, including Meg Ryan – RBF, 2019].
“I ain’t one of these guys carryin’ guns, rapin’ women and shit like that. There are some who ride to heaven – or to hell, whichever they choose – and back. For me, it’s just a hobby outside music.”
We ask what kind of music he does listen to at home, only to elicit a rather surprising response.
“I’m into Paul Rodgers [lead singer for Bad Company and Free – CB, 1982]. I went into a record store to buy a Free tape last week; I’ve had the record for 15 years. I told the guy at the counter, “It tested out; telephone response has been great over the last ten years, so I’m buying it.” Another jab at radio.
Cougar is hardly considered villainous to New Wavers, but he personally deplores trendiness – a category, which by his standards, includes Bruce Springsteen, a singer with whom he’s been exhaustively compared. “He does have a little integrity left,” he shrugs. “I wonder how long that’ll last [try getting a Springsteen on Broadway ticket in 2018, ‘nuff said – RBF, 2019].
“But I make a point out of not being hip. I’m not into Bow Wow Wow. But don’t get me wrong – that’s only my opinion. If the kids are into it, great for the kids. If the song is good, I could care if they have mohawks. I had one once when I was a freshman in high school as an initiation. And I cut it all off the next day. Mohawks ain’t new to me – I had one for one day in 1967!”
His comment is silenced by the thunderclap of a bike pulling into the dealer’s parking lot.
“You know,” he says, “All the guys who ride Harleys even look alike. It’s a little like punk rock…”
Cougar obviously hasn’t seen the customer – squat, brawny, balding, faded denim jacket, chains, like a Hell’s Angel 12 years after Altamont.
Savoring the $7,000 bike he’s decided he’ll eventually own, Cougar gives a sheepish grin.
“Well, maybe we don’t all look alike.”