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Author Topic: 1984 Creem Magazine Feature  (Read 27892 times)
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« on: March 29, 2011, 04:13:19 pm »

John Cougar: Pink Houses In The Midwest

Bill Holdship, Creem, January 1984

MY STOMACH WAS in my throat again, and I was seriously contemplating
murder. The victim would be editor-in-chief of the rag you presently
hold in your hands.

"How about a free trip to interview John Cougar?" he'd asked. "Great!"
was my initial reply. In the past, CREEM writers had been sent to
Paris, London, Memphis and even Jamaica to interview rock stars, so
imagine my excitement when I discovered that Polygram Records had
bought me a round-trip ticket to that swinging megalopolis known as
Bloomington, Indiana (Whoopee! We're going to paint the town red
tonight!). DiMartino had once flown to Puerto Rico to interview
Loverboy, and they were sending me to the middle of a fucking cornfield!

To add insult to injury, I soon discovered that only one off-brand
airline (if you wanna call it that), comprised entirely of propeller
planes, flies into the Bloomington airport (if you wanna call it
that). More thrilling than any ride at Cedar Point or Coney Island, it
was definitely a rock 'n' roll experience what you might call the
"Buddy Holly Special." My stomach was still queasy from the 102 fever
that had kept me in bed the entire previous weekend (the world isn't
against me just nature), and as the elderly woman behind me gasped
and grabbed my seat every time we hit an air-pocket, I began thinking
Catholic, vowing I'd return to the church if I just got on the ground
in one piece. After that, I'd kill my editor.

But seriously, if you're going to interview John Cougar Mellencamp
(he's officially added his real surname to the unwanted stage name
ex-manager Tony DeFries gave him a decade ago), where better to do it
than Bloomington, his natural habitat? You've surely heard the story
by now of the rock 'n' roll star who stays true to his Midwest roots,
refusing to go Hollywood or New York, choosing instead to remain the
small hometown boy made good all of which sounds like a brilliant
public image concocted by some slick New York press agent.

I first met Cougar in 1979, when he was still a fledgling rock
performer with a new LP, John Cougar a cut from which Pat Benatar
had just recorded and got on the radio and I was still a fledgling
rock critic for a university newspaper. Cougar proved to be an
exceptional live performer, playing in a small room for several
hundred people, and I humbly predicted in print he was going to be a
BIG star. What struck me most at the time of that interview was how
humble and modest he appeared. He was genuinely embarrassed when I
complimented him, saying he wasn't really interested in being a rock
star and was "just learning to crawl as a songwriter."

But that was four years ago. Since then, Cougar has become a star,
scoring the biggest-selling LP of 1982 with American Fool, not to
mention three of the year's biggest singles, countless hours on MTV,
and numerous record industry awards. Surely, this success would change
any sane person, and last year it appeared that the pressures of
stardom were finally getting to him when he received bad press for
throwing a temper tantrum onstage during a Canadian gig, reportedly
hurtling a drumset into the audience and injuring several people. A
few weeks later, his name was in the papers again after he mumbled
obscenities at a reporter for CBS Newswatch and stormed off the set.
"That arrogant jerk" is what more than one person said when I
mentioned I was going to interview him, so perhaps I originally went
to Bloomington not to praise Cougar but to bury him.

These initial suspicions seemed confirmed when Cougar picked me up at
my motel in a stunning 1963 Corvette Stingray. "Ah ha!" I thought.
"The trappings of rock stardom!" But damn if he still didn't seem to
be a pretty nice guy. We drove to "The Shack" Cougar's
rehearsal/recording studio, an unfinished farmhouse in the center of
Indiana cornfields, where he recorded both his new LP, Uh-Huh, and
Mitch Ryder's recent Never Kick A Sleeping Dog. I met the band, saw
his new videos for `Crumblin' Down' and `Pink Houses' (which are far
above the average dreck seen on MTV; Cougar makes excellent videos,
and he's recently had numerous offers to direct videos for other
artists), and watched them rehearse for an appearance on Saturday
Night Live that coming weekend.

As the day wore on, the realization struck that I was wrong success
hasn't changed John Cougar at all. As odd as it may sound, both Cougar
and his band appear to have no ego whatsoever. They get along and
relate like old friends which is what they are and Cougar still
acts like the regular guy you may have hung out with in high school or
the guy who worked at the gas station in your hometown. Perhaps some
of the "arrogance" claims derive from the fact that Cougar isn't
afraid to say what's on his mind, prefacing many statements with
"Maybe I shouldn't be telling you this," and then telling it anyway.
Maybe it's because he's reached a point in his career where he can do
things his way "or I don't do it. I don't feel obligated to certain
people the way I used to." But in this era of uppity "New Music"
nausea, John Cougar In many ways appears to be what rock 'n' roll was
originally supposed to be, regardless of whether you like his music or
not a populist form with no pretentions at all. And let's face it
the original rock star was a truck driver who, at least in the
beginning, tried to remain true to his smalltime "hick" origins.

"I can't take success seriously," says Cougar. "This is just my job.
This whole rock star trip and the image people create around it is
bullshit. When you put it in the right perspective, there's thousands
of guys who've sold as many records as me, so it ain't no fucking big

To illustrate his point of how meaningless ego is, Cougar speaks of a
record company executive who argued with him, insisting that he
(undeservingly) be credited as executive producer on a recent TV
special Cougar and the band did for cable TV. "It was just a fucking
rock video! If it were Apocalypse Now, it would have been different.
But the bottom line was that it was a matter of ego, and no one
probably noticed the credit in the end!

"It's like the old cliche 'All that glitters isn't gold.' It sounds
horrible for me to say this, like I don't appreciate what I've got,
but, ultimately, that's not what's most important. By doing what I've
done, I now realize that yeah, all right, I can own a '63 Corvette,
and it's fun to drive on a sunny day, but before I owned it, I still
had fun on those sunny days. It's not like this is it, people have to
live to make money. I wouldn't trade my family and best friends for
all the hit records, all the money, all the '63 Corvettes in the
world. If I really had to choose, I'd say fuck it. You can have all
this stuff.

"I don't take my career nearly as seriously as I used to. Back then, I
was serious about everything too serious, probably. I still want
things to be right, don't get me wrong, but I don't worry about them.
Three or four years ago, if we were doing a Saturday Night Live, we
would have rehearsed for hours. We're going to be on TV, we gotta
sound good! But now it's like, well, that's good enough. And by doing
that, we keep it loose. We don't sound too polished or overdone. And
that's the theory we live by in this band. Too much doesn't make it
sound good."

Later in the day, Cougar took me to his home to meet his family and
listen to the new LP, showing me the site of his infamous motorcycle
accident in which he tore off his kneecap after skidding 45 feet on
his stomach. ("It's slowed me down a bit. I'm afraid to drive my bike
at night anymore.") It's a relatively modest house, considering it
belongs to the first person since John Lennon to have a number one LP
and two singles in the Top 10 simultaneously, and with the exception
of numerous gold records and pictures of James Dean (which fans have
sent him) everywhere you look, it could belong to anyone in the upper
middle class bracket.

Cougar lives here with his wife, Vicki, his 13-year-old daughter from
a previous marriage, Michelle, and an adorable two-year-old girl named
Teddi Jo, who thinks her name is"Teddi Jo John Coogee shirt," and when
corrected with the proper name of Mellencamp, joyfully exclaims "Teddi
Jo Pancake!" Cougar is close to his family, and his whole outfit seems
a family-run operation. In fact, I later discovered that Cil, the
woman who drove me from and to the airport, was John's ex-wife, who
still works for him in Bloomington. ("Just because you get divorced
doesn't mean you have to be enemies," he states matter-of-factly.) He
claims that success hasn't really had a drastic effect on his family.

"We don't really use the word 'success' around here. It's more like a
temporary way of life or a high point in the career. But to be really
honest, I don't think my kids would know if I was successful or not.
As long as Michelle's been alive I had her when I was 17, and I
started making records right out of college so I've always been
making records as long as she can remember. Teddi Jo's only two, so
she doesn't know what's going on. She's aware, but I think she thinks
everyone's dad's on the radio. I think Michelle can probably remember
when her mom and I lived in a house as big as this room before we got
divorced. So I think she remembers that and arguments about money. But
I think the biggest thing that affects her is...she's really afraid
that her friends like her because I'm John Cougar. It's kind of sad.
But she goes to public school here because I think that's best. No big
deals. I try to play it down as much as possible."

Uh-Huh sounds like a pretty good album, better than American Fool
which I hardly rate as his best record, and Cougar seems to concur.
"To be real honest, there's three good songs on that record, and the
rest is just sort of filler. It was too labored over, too thought
about, and it wasn't organic enough. The record company thought it
would bomb, but I think the reason it took off was not that the
songs were better than my others but people liked the sound of it,
the 'bam-bam-bam' drums. It was a different sound." The new LP
includes at least three hit singles `Crumblin' Down', `Pink Houses'
and the melodic `Authority Song', which he describes thematically as
"our new version of 'I Fought The Law'." The record also includes
`Jackie O', a novelty tune he composed with John Prine, who he feels
is "in the same league as Dylan as a songwriter."

Cougar and the band recorded 25 songs in 16 days for the record, 10 of
which made it onto vinyl. They were looking for spontaneity "the way
we used to do demos" and they wanted the mix to sound jumbled,
similar to the Stones' Exile On Main Street, which he rates as one of
his five all-time favorite LPs. In fact, the LP lists a special thanks
to the Stones "for never taking the living room off the records when
we were kids." Cougar attributes a lot of the sound to drummer Kenny
Aronoff, who's "a jazz school drummer like Charlie Watts, and they
both do this light touch thing with the hi-hat that most rock drummers
don't do." To support the record, Cougar plans to embark on a short 20
city tour, playing mostly college towns and small halls that seat
4,000-5,000 people. "We're not ready to play big halls like we did
last year. I mean, you pull out an acoustic guitar in one of those
places, and half the audience is going 'What the fuck?'"

Cougar has taken a lot of flak from both critics and rock fans
throughout his career for being everything from "fake" to "unhip."
"John Cougar is an act that people talk about, but they don't really
listen to," he says. "That's the way I feel about it. They either love
me or hate me, which is pretty much the way it is. But I've read more
about myself that I've never done or said that I've just kind of
evolved into that sort of person." He often seems to be the rock star
"hip" rock fans and critics love to hate, but consider this: When I
saw Cougar perform in '79, his show featured cover versions of the
Skyhooks' `You Only Like Me Because I'm Good In Bed', bits and pieces
of `Honky Tonk Women', Van Morrison's `Domino' and `Land Of A Thousand
Dances', a rockin' `Plastic Jesus' from the film Cool Hand Luke, and a
powerhouse encore of Iggy's `Search & Destroy' that was many times
better than the Sex Pistols' cover of `No Fun'. Later during the
interview, he impressed me with his impeccable taste in music, listing
numerous R&B greats (James Brown, Sam & Dave, Motown, etc.), the
Animals, Mitch Ryder, the Lovin' Spoonful, early Doors, Lou Reed & the
Velvets, Bowie and Iggy Pop as his favorites. (His current fave rave
is Prince.) Or consider Cougar's videos for his Nothing Matters LP
which featured John Waters star Edith Massey, or his new `Pink Houses'
video which lifts a scene directly from the Marion Brando/Tennessee
Williams film, The Fugitive Kind. Not exactly "unhip" things.

Or consider this quote I took from the Dream Syndicate's Steve Wynn
when he was berating the pretentious "New Music" mentality: "I think
John Cougar is the best spokesman of our time. The guy's not fucking
around. He says, 'Well, I'm an idiot, but I know what I like, and
where I come from, people want to hear rock 'n' roll.' John Cougar's a
better spokesman for our time than any art critic's band. I mean, what
has Gang Of Four done for the heartlands of America that John Cougar
hasn't done? Maybe 'Oh, yeah, life goes on long after the thrill of
living is gone' is kind of a stupid thing to say, but it made a lot of
people probably feel like 'OK, I've got some ground to stand on.' Of
course, if you want to play for a cult following and just be a cult
band for critics...but I think the point is to move as many people as
you can."

Cougar was thrilled when I read him the quote. "That's great, because
it's exactly how I feel. What's the sense of making records if people
aren't going to listen to them? Let's face it: in the beginning John
Cougar was the biggest joke in the music business. It's not like I
don't know that. I understand that completely, but I think it's worked
for my strength. To start out with such stupid, ignorant, ridiculous
beginnings as I started with, and then to be able to still make
records 10 years later. Here it is 1983, and a lot of the same critics
have turned around and said, 'Well, John's changed his style, he's
better now.' It's not true. I'm still doing the same old shit I've
always done. It's just that people are willing to listen to the shit
I'm putting out now. People are more open to what I do because like
Wynn said be it how ever silly or stupid it may have sounded when I
said it, I think a lot of people did connect to it."

(or I've got over three hours of interview tapes!):

ON THE LONDON, ONTARIO CONCERT: "The real deal is the promoter in that
area asked me to come and open for the Beach Boys, but I refused
because I was on tour with Heart. They said 'Oh, but it's your day
off, and you're in Toronto anyway, so just fly over.' So I sent back a
message that my equipment was on the truck with Heart's stuff, and
they said they'd rent us equipment. So that became part of the deal. I
get there, and we started looking at the rented gear, and we just
thought 'Shit.' Nothing that we wanted was there. Then I find out that
before I got on the bill, they'd only sold 2,000 seats. I get added,
and 10,000 seats are sold-out. But the real dastardly deed came when
they told my brother, Ted he's my road manager that we had to cut
our set from 55 minutes to 35, because they were running late. I
thought the people who paid 10 bucks to see this mess are going to be
bummed out when the act they paid for only plays 35 minutes. They're
going to hold it against me, and I ain't got nothing to do with it!

"So we went onstage, and the minute (guitarist) Mike hit a chord on
his amp, it broke. That's the kind of junk they rented. I spent most
of the time fighting microphone cable because it was all fucked up.
The PA system was inadequate, and we're thinking this is what these
people think we do onstage. The longer I was up there, the more angry
I got. So finally, I just said 'Fuck it!' I went through this long
spiel about how promoters are fucked up, and then we put all the
equipment he'd rented that had fallen apart it was junk into the
audience. So there was some kid there that night who left with a bass
drum, or a cymbal or whatever. And it was inaccurate reporting,
because we didn't heave it out in the audience. We handed it to
security guards who handed it out to the audience.

"And I'll tell you what if somebody got hurt, don't you think they'd
have sued me right away? Rich rock star, let's get some of his money.
I never even got a letter! Oh, I got some letters saying thanks for
the drums. We went back and did two free shows in London about three
months ago to make up for it, and it cost me a lot of money. But it
taught me a good lesson. I'm going to be careful what I say onstage
from now on."

ON THE CBS NEWSWATCH INCIDENT: "It was the woman not accepting my
answers. She asked me the same question five different times, I
answered it five different ways, and it was like hey, what the fuck
else do I have to say to you? Don't get me wrong you know from
talking to me today that I'm definitely for women having equal rights,
but this woman had equal rights and being a bitch mixed up. She kept
saying that I had responsibility to my audience, and I kept saying,
'No. I do what I do, and if kids see me as a role model, then it's a
wrong, because I make a lot of mistakes.' I answered it that way once,
she asked again, so I answered it a different way. I answered it five
times, and finally I thought it was on tape, it wasn't live I
said, 'Fuck it. I don't need to get on national TV and argue with you.
Forget it!' And the total pimp job was that they ran it the day
(publicist) Howard Bloom was in negotiation with them on what we could
do to reconcile the situation.

"That was another instance that I let someone talk me into something.
Hence, the album title, Uh-Huh. I didn't want to do the show, but they
called me numerous times and begged me. 'Listen, it'll add credibility
to the show, and we'll be able to get more rock people on.' Finally,
they sent a representative over to the hotel I was at in New York, and
he talked me into it."

ON MITCH RYDER: "Mitch was very serious about the whole project. I
think he was afraid because he saw it as his one last break, and I
don't see it that way at all. It's just another page in the Mitch
Ryder story because he's the type of guy who's never going away. He
doesn't know that about himself, but it's the truth. I think the
record's done what it was supposed to do, and that was to let people
know that Mitch is still an important force in rock 'n' roil. It
hasn't been a huge seller, but it's got him back on the radio. He's
got a great song, 'Bow Wow Wow Wow', on the new Was (Not Was) album. I
originally thought we could use the song on our record together, and
it was disappointing when we couldn't. But I liked that song so much
that I opened some of my own concerts with it last year. I took Mitch
on the American Music Awards with me last year, and that's the only
reason I did the show. I originally told them 'No,' but then I made a
deal. I said I'd do it, but I'm just going to be an appendage of Mitch

INTERESTING TRIVIA (or my obligatory Lou Reed reference): "Lou Reed
sent us a song to use on Mitch's record, but we couldn't because it
was too weird. It was about a guy who kills his girlfriend because
she's fucking around on him. Wasn't right for Mitch Ryder, we didn't

ON THE "LITTLE BASTARD" MONIKER: "That came about because I'd go in
with these big producers, and I'd have to argue with them because
they'd change my songs around. I heard one of them say, 'Well, that
fucking John's a little bastard!'"

ON `CRUMBLIN' DOWN': "I was having problems after American Fool came
out because all of a sudden I turned into the guy I hated the guy
who's on the radio all the time, and the guy dealing more with
business sometimes than music. It was hard for me to deal with, and I
think writing 'Crumblin' Down' helped me. Because when the walls come
crumblin' down when all the bigtime deals fall through I'm still
going to be 'the same old trouble you've been having for years.' So
why the fuck are people treating me differently? What's the big deal?
People seem to be more affected by what they think I am than I am
about the whole thing myself."

ON `PINK HOUSES': "It's saying the American Dream and all that shit is
propaganda. It's not rah, rah, rah America at all, and I think it puts
America in its place. It's like the Russians shooting down that plane,
and we want them to apologize. I'm not condoning what Russia did, but
that's bullshit! There's so many things we've done, and then we expect
them to apologize when we had a spy plane beside the plane that got
shot down! Let's see the deal as it really was! And the majority of
the public is going to fall right in line with the way Reagan wants
them to think. I don't mean to get political, but I do get wound up
about these kinds of things because so many people see it as it's
really not. They believe the propaganda. And that's sort of what 'Pink
Houses' is about."

ON NEW YORK: "I don't have any distaste for New York at all. I like
New York. I just don't want to live there. I like going there because
it's like Ma & Pa Kettle go to the big city. The big distaste I have
is for the record business. That's why I'm so down on big companies
and promoters, and I think that's why when the record companies talk
about me, they say I'm too dangerous to deal with. They say that
because I'm not going to kiss ass. I'm not a hard-ass. It's just if I
feel something's wrong, I won't go along with it."

ON DRUGS: "If you want to stick needles in your arms, go ahead and
fucking do it. You're the one that's going to pay the consequences. I
don't think it's a good idea, and I sure don't advocate it, but I'm
not going to judge people. Hell, if that was the case, you wouldn't
like anyone in the music business because everyone's blowing cocaine."

ON TONY DeFRIES RELEASING KID INSIDE: "He suffered the repercussions,
not me. If he'd have been smart about it, he'd have worked with us
because I've got other records that never came out in America. We
could've put together a compilation. But it was the way he did it. He
released it right on the tail of American Fool, and it confused a lot
of people."

ON NEW WAVE: "I had a kid come up to me in a record store, and he
said, 'I don't like your music, but I want your autograph for my
sister.' I asked what kind of music he liked, and he said punk and new
wave. He was buying the New York Dolls album, and this was last year.
I said 'So this is new wave?' He said 'Yeah!' I said, 'You know that
record's only about 10 years old.' I was into that 10 years ago when
it first came out. I was in a band called Trash that looked just like
the Dolls. But I think it's good. Every kid should have an opportunity
to go through something like that, whether it be hippies, glam rock,
punk or whatever. But I was just in L.A., and all that new wave stuff
has turned pretty manicured. There's no longer any substance in most
of it. And that's why I stick so much to being a purist with the
songwriting. Fads are great when you're a kid I've had crazy
haircuts, dyed orange but when you get to a certain age, you have to
find a direction. The things Bowie did were amazing because he never
got away from songwriting. But now the cheaper models of these guys
who copy Bowie forget that there was always a song in what he was doing."

ON CRUDITY AND "SEXISM" IN HIS SONGS: "I think it's almost a
compliment. Let's take an old song like 'Maybelline'. Now what the
fuck was that song about? I mean, that's what rock 'n' roll is. Sex is
something we all talk about and we've thought about since the age of
10, and we'll think about until the day we die. So what's wrong with
writing about it? If it's supposed to be degrading to me because I
write about that, well then fuck it. I guess I am."

ON EDDIE AND THE CRUISERS: "I heard there's a movie out where the
guy's supposed to look like me. Ugly fucker, eh? (laughs) Well, I hope
he gets laid more than I do! I've had a few movie offers, but I'm
really not interested. Maybe if the right people approached me, but
the stuff I've been offered is stupid."

ON THE PAST: "Before I was in the business, I had zero drive. I was
married with a kid, didn't have a job, didn't want a job. I was
content staying home, throwing a frisbee in the morning, going out and
sitting on the hood of a car in the afternoon, smoking cigarettes,
doing dope, going home and eating dinner, and then listening to
records at night. But I'd never be content doing that now. So that's
the best thing about this career. It helps you get in contact with

ON THE FUTURE: "I've got a lot of things I want to do. I'm starting to
dabble in a lot of things, like rock video, and I've had numerous
offers to produce records since American Fool and Mitch's. And
sometimes I entertain the idea of finding an act and just producing
like Peter Asher did with Linda Ronstadt. I'd like to find some new
kid who's hungry and help him because let's face it you've really
got to be hungry to stick in this business. But, hell, who knows?
Maybe I'll end up like Charlie Watts nearing 50 and still rocking
strong. I can't see myself doing that right now, but who knows? I'd
like to be able to make records as long as I want and quit when I want
not when I have to quit because nobody buys them anymore. Or keep
making them 'cause they're breaking my arms to make them. I guess I'd
most like to be like an old soldier and just fade away. Because
there's a lot more to life than playing in a band."
I'm ROCK-in' In The USA
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« Reply #1 on: March 30, 2011, 09:36:00 am »

Love the Charlie Watts line!
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