1986 Tim White Feature


John Cougar Mellencamp
R.O.C.K.I.N.G. In The U.S.A.
by Timothy White

Illinois Entertainer, March 1986

It was the strife-torn winter of 1966, and black
teenagers protesting racist segregation were
mounting a second wave of rioting in the Watts
section of Los Angeles that would leave two dead
and dozens seriously injured, but half a nation
away, on the tiny stage at the Rok-Sey Roller
Rink in Seymour, Indiana, rock 'n' roll remained
the great equalizer.

John Mellencamp, 14, dressed in a Nehru
jacket, tight pants and riding boots, was howling
out his untempered interpretation of "Harlem
Shuffle," the 1965 Mercury hit by Wayne
Cochran, Miami's "White James Brown."
Beside the puggish white youth stood tall, slim
Fred Booker, the 17-year-old product of one of
Seymour's 28 black families, who shared co-lead
singer credit with Mellencamp in Crepe Soul,
their eight-man dance band. As John wound up
his frenzied star-turn, Booker leapt into James
Brown and the Famous Flames' "It's A Man's
Man's Man's World," throwing off a cape ala
Soul Brother No. 1 as he mimicked the master's
patented sideways shimmy.

"The rest of the country might have been go-
ing to hell racially," says the now 34-year-old
John Cougar Mellencamp, reminiscing in the
cozy kitchen of his secluded ranch house outside
of Bloomington, Indiana, "but Booker and I, we
were doing just fine together—and the Crepe
Soul was pulling in a hundred dollars a week!
One night at a bar we played, there was even a
black-white knife fight between two guys in the
crowd, but as far as we were concerned, there
was musical harmony and no hassles whatever, it
was my first band, and soul music had been my
first love since my daddy gave me a radio in high
school as a present."

As a result, he adds, "We didn't do the Beatles
or any of that stuff, but I must have sung 'Soul
Man' a million times. We broke up after two
years of playing my Uncle Joe's roller rink and
college frat houses. In fact, I wasn't really in
another steady, dependable band until I formed
the one I'm playing with right now."

The catalyst for these fond memories is the
new single, "R.O.C.K. In The U.S.A.," from
Mellencamp's million-selling Scarecrow album.
Or, rather, the video of the song that John has
just directed with producer Faye Cummins, the
team responsible (in association with feature
director Jonathan Kaplan) for the "Lonely 0l'
Night" and "Small Town" videos from his latest

"See, before we went into the studio to record
the material for Scarecrow," explains the mus-
cled, intense Mellencamp, "I had the band
rehearse more than a hundred of the classic old
garage-rock and R&B dance singles of the 1960s,
from James Brown's "Cold Sweat" to
"Mickey's Monkey" by the Young Rascals. And
in each case, we discovered that they caught fire
because they broke rules and allowed individual
strengths and quirks to stick out. In other words,
rock 'n' roll works best when it doesn't judge or
exclude, only when it's open to letting everybody

As Mellencamp discussed these notions and
recollections with Cummins, he slowly fleshed
out visions of a simpler, freshly experimental
era. Logically, his thoughts strayed to the video
landscape of 1965-1966, when network TV was
largely lily-white. Indeed, but for "The Sammy
Davis, Jr. Show" broadcasting Friday evenings
on NBC, the most reliable places to encounter
black talent were the innovative crop of
post—"American Bandstand" pop music variety
shows, particularly the daytime "Where The Ac-
tion Is" and Thursday night "Shindig" on ABC,
and NBC's "Hullabaloo" every Monday even-

"These days, everybody takes the musical
variety of MTV and the other video stations for
granted," says the smirking Mellencamp with a
raspy sigh, "but back then, seeing Martha
Reeves and the Temptations and Shangri-La's On
TV shows meant especially for young people was
a major-league breakthrough. And the presence
of black acts and white acts performing together
seemed real natural."

And so, the idea of recreating that juncture in
video history took hold. With "R.O.C.K." as its
soundtrack the video segues from John's spoken
memories into contrasting, kinescope shots of a
fledgling black vocal group of the period (played
by John's backup singers. Pat Peterson and
Crystal Taliefero, and their friends) and a strug-
gling white instrumental group (John's actual
band in vintage costume). At the close, the two
parallel pop fantasies join together.

"One of the keys to the success of getting that
old TV look was finding an actual kinescope,"
says John. "Before the invention of videotape,
they'd put this sewing machine-sized contraption
in front of a studio monitor to make a permanent
transfer of the live show they were broadcasting,
and because they had to film it directly off a TV
set the quality was always grainy and fuzzy. We
located a kinescope in South America, and this is
the first time it's ever been used for a music

"As usual with my career," he notes, bursting
into laughter, "I had to find the right tool to do
the bad job, so I could eventually do the good

Mellencamp is referring, of course, to his
lavish mistakes of the past. They were engineered
by one Tony DeFries, head of the manipulative
MainMan Organization that introduced Davey
Jones AKA David Bowie to the public in 1972 as
painted android Ziggy Stardust. DeFries' second
attempt at pop legerdemain was "Johnny
Cougar," a Bowie-Springsteen clone the declin-
ing svengali fashioned in 1976 from the raw
materials a scared and swindle-weary Mellen-
camp submitted.

"I've done every dumb thing a person can
possibly do in pursuit of becoming some sort of
damned rock 'n' roll star," says Mellencamp.
"The Chestnut Street Incident album that
DeFries got MCA Records to put out was a total
flop, every bit as bad as the jungle-animal last
name he snuck onto the album jackets and stuck
me with. Plus, he left me with The Kid Inside, a
record never to be released, and left MCA
holding the bag with a million-dollar contract."

John, who was then married and virtually
broke, found a reputable attorney, signed with
Rod Stewart manager Billy Gaff's Riva Records
and retreated to London to record A Biography,
which yielded a #1 smash in Australia with the
song "I Need A Lover." When that track reached
America on his third LP, John Cougar, Pat
Benatar recorded it and made it the most-played
single in the nation, ensuring both her stardom
and John's second chance at professional respect-
ability. "Finally," he allows with an amused
shrug, "I had no other option left but to just be

And that new direction of Mellencamp's has
made all the difference in the world. Huddling in
the studio with Steve Cropper, the renowned
Stax/Volt guitarist-songwriter-producer, Mellen-
camp crafted 1980's Nothing Matters And What
If It Did, his self-avowed last shot at recognition.
It spawned two modest hits with "This Time" and
"Ain't Even Done With The Night." The
followup album, American Fool, completed the
comeback in 1982 when it became the bestselling
record of the year on the strength of "Hurts So
Good" and "Jack And Diane."

Most significant of all, John had awoken to the
fact that all the grist he needed for his own rock
'n' roll mill was right in his own southern Indiana
backyard. He wrote songs about his personal
follies and bedevilments, about the tiny burg in
which he was raised, and the humble hopes of the
citizens who populate it. In short, he literally won
the hearts of millions on 1983's UH-HUH LP
with "Crumblin' Down," "Pink Houses" and
"Authority Song." And Mellencamp's Scarecrow
album and accompanying tour are continuing to
celebrate those basic strivings and values.

"A way of life that all of the people around me
grew up with—the heritage of small family
farms—is swiftly being eroded," says Mellen-
camp, now happily remarried and the father of
three. "The title song of the record, 'Rain On The
Scarecrow,' is about hearts being broken by bank
foreclosures on farms, and the disconnection from
a sense of pride and purpose that is crucial for any
wage-earner. But the album deals with the per-
sonal heritage of my own dreams, too.

"In a way, 'R.O.C.K.' was written to distill all
those great songs of my teenage years and com-
bine them into one grateful tribute to the people
and things that preserved my far-fetched hopes for
myself. Also, the group has been through it all
with me, and I've recently realized that every night
on the Scarecrow tour, we've accidentally manag-
ed to fuse elements from all the different kinds of
music—soul, R&B, some jazz, and no-frills hard
rock—that've literally kept them going."

Anyone who hasn't been exposed to the Mellen-
camp band, from the incisive rhythm section of
bassist Toby Myers and drummer Kenny Aronoff,
to the keen guitar interplay of Mike Wanchic and
lead Larry Crane, is in for a stunning treat.
Backup singers Pat Peterson and Crystal Taliefero
lend their own deft R&B coloration to Mellen-
camp's raucous vocals, and John has added
keyboardist John Cascella and the violin of Lisa
Germano to accent and deepen the overall sound.

For his encore, Mellencamp contributes an ex-
hilarating amalgam of Sixties car radio gems. And
John says he's taken steps to guard against the
frustrating, in-concert sound system snafus that
prompted him to offer a full refund to 20,000
ticketholders at his December 6, 1985, Madison
Square Garden date (only half the crowd cashed
their's in) before launching into two more hours
of solid, blow-off-some-steam rocking.

"That was an emotional decision—both the re-
fund and the resumption of the show. But, hey,
I'm an emotional guy, right?"

Clearly he is. And however grateful John
Cougar Mellencamp may be for the rock he was
reared on, doesn't he feel just a little bit foolish
that he nearly opted not to put "R.O.C.K. In The
U.S.A." on the new album?

"Okay, okay," he admits, his broad face red-
dening slightly, "it was one of those absolute last-
split-second decisions. I was only including it on
the cassette and CD copies of Scarecrow as a
bonus party track, but my manager loved the
energy of it and I thought, 'Yeah! What the hell!'
Then, when I decided to release it as a single, I got
so charged up I insisted on doing our own
country-soulful version of "Under The Board-
walk," another of my old favorites, for the B-side.
- "I guess," he concludes, grinning slyly, "that
every decision I make is an emotional one."


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