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Author Topic: 1982 American Fool Article  (Read 5205 times)
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« on: June 19, 2011, 12:16:26 am »

John Cougar: No wonder he's feeling so up

Gene Sculatti, LA Herald Examiner
August 7, 1982

Who is John Cougar and why are people saying these things about him? Critics are calling him a shameless Mick Jagger mimic and the Rich Little of Springsteen imitators.

His publicists insist Cougar albums like the current American Fool are "writing the 20th-century 'Spoon River Anthology.'" The man himself has just walked away from his first serious skirmish with the Top 40 with a smash single (‘Hurt So Good’). He has another on the way, and Monday he is set to headline the Country Club after having opened for Heart last night at the Forum. So who is he, exactly?

For one thing, he's not even John Cougar. "The first time I saw the name was on the cover of my first album," claims John ‘Cougar’ Mellencamp, 30, of Bloomington, Ind. "My manager gave it to me and that was that." The year was 1976. The manager was Tony Defries, then also handling the fast-rising David Bowie. The flamboyant Defries changed Mellencamp to Cougar, told the young singer what songs to record, how to cut his hair, how to behave on and off stage. None of which seems to have made the slightest impression on the public.

They didn't buy John Cougar's debut LP, Chestnut Street Incident on MCA. Nor did audiences buy what they saw early in 1977 when Defries' charge made his first Los Angeles appearance, opening for England's punky Jam at the Whisky. Cougar started his set that night by slouching beneath a prop street light, Sinatra style, in a trenchcoat and fedora, crooning the opening bars of ‘I Need a Lover (That Won't Drive – Me Crazy)’.

Thirty minutes later, he was screaming his lungs out, strutting around the boards clad only in a pair of bikini briefs and a black biker's cap. Sort of Prince-meets-Judas Priest. Sort of ridiculous.

"I know my image has always been kind of confused," admits Cougar, sitting inside his manager's Coldwater Canyon house. "Especially in California. I didn't get out here too often and when I did, nobody knew what to make of me. Part of it had to do with the way management packaged me. But I take some of the blame. I was desperate to make records, man. I did a lot of things to try and prove I was different, to show I could be 'creative.'

"When I look back on a lot of it now; it seems like I was doing a sort of Andy Kaufman routine – you know, wrestling women, doing anything to get attention. Now, I hope I'm in better shape."

Despite the unsettled identity crises. Cougar rarely had trouble getting attention. That very same Whisky debacle brought superstar producer Mike Chapman (Blondie, Suzy Quatro, the Knack) backstage, begging for the chance to cover Cougar's ‘I Need a Lover’. Chapman eventually cut the tune with Pat Benatar; it become her biggest hit. Around the same time, almost out of the blue, Cougar was asked to consider starring roles in a pair of films – The Killing of Georgie, a script based on a Rod Stewart song that, for various reasons, never made it to the screen, and The Idolmaker, which did get made.

"I didn't even know who (producer) Howard Koch Jr. was," says Cougar, "when they came to me about The Idolmaker. He said, 'Well, you'll have to get a shave, cut your hair in a ducktail, do this and do that.' I said, 'Hell, no.' I'd just come from that whole routine with Defries. I didn't want to do it all over again."

It wasn't until last year that Cougar's public image began to solidify, as a kind of James Dean/early Brando loner who chronicled the ups and downs of the average American anti-hero. By then he'd recorded two more albums (John Cougar and Nothin' Matters and What If It Did on Riva), and started circling closer to the charts, first with his own version of ‘I Need a Lover’ and then with ‘Ain't Even Done With the Night’. He'd taken on a new manager, a new-found confidence and was ready to enter his second marriage.

Then the critics started in. He danced like Jagger, they said. He wrote like Springsteen, peppering his songs with the same gaggle of losers, groovers, beauty queens and big-hearted hard guys that hung around the Boss' Jersey pit stops. And that was the real no-no. Never mind that Bob Seger had publicly acknowledged Springsteen as the direct inspiration for his recollections of Midwest adolescence in ‘Night Moves’. But let some cheeky Hoosier in a Harley-Davidson shirt try the same thing and watch out.

Cougar got clobbered.

"The comparisons never really bothered me," says Cougar. "All that stuff they wrote about me – they missed the real truth." He laughs. "The truth is, I always wanted to be Ronnie Van Zandt!"

The reference to the late leader of blue-collar rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd is made only half in jest. Cougar is not being facetious when he describes himself as "a working stiff who happened to luck out. How can I take all this stuff seriously anyway? I love it, going onstage and watching people reach out to touch me. It's great, and I'd be a real chump if I didn't say I enjoy it. But I know none of this is going to change the world."

Cougar's metier, best exemplified by such songs as ‘The Great Midwest’, ‘To M.G.’ and his current single ‘Jack & Diane’, is the ins and outs of growing up in Seymour, Ind. (pop. 13,352). Hence the comparisons to Asbury Park's laureate and all the Spoon River ballyhoo. Jack, Angelina, M.G. and Mister Ruby's Girl drive their Chevys to the levee, to the car wash, dig Sam Cooke on the radio, munch trench fries, dream about the world across the state line. Like teen-agers anywhere, they fight boredom the best they can, as in these lyrics from ‘Jack & Diane’:

"Hold on to 16 as long as you can

Change is coming real soon

Make us women and men

Oh yeah, life goes on

Long after the thrill of living is gone."

Unlike James Dean, who was born in Marion, a scant 50 miles from Seymour, most of the cool-obsessed characters in Cougar's miniseries are destined to play their lives out in a less glamorous version of the future they imagined at age 16. "Most people don't ever reach their goals," explains Cougar. "But that's cool, too. Failure's a part of what you're all about anyway. Coming to terms with failed expectations is what counts.

"I try to write about the most insignificant things, really. I mean, someone who picks up a copy of; Newsweek, then sits down and writes a song about the troubles in South America – who cares? What's that song telling us that we don't already know? Write about something that matters to people, man."

And the song that gave Cougar his ticket to the Forum last night, where did that come from? He and a friend composed ‘Hurt So Good’ as a goof, which hasn't kept some people from hearing it as an ode to the joys of sadomasochism. "My friend George said, why didn't I write a song with the title 'Hurt So Good'? We thought of it as like a Shel Silverstein thing. I wrote it in three minutes, scrawled the first line in soap on the glass door in the shower. It was really just a joke. I think all good things probably started as jokes. Wasn't God having a laugh when he made this whole place?"

The song could conceivably confuse potential fans about Cougar's real identity. Will he now be cast as the torchbearer for the nation's fetishists, become some kind of troubadour for a kinky generation? Or will he find himself stuck, like some of the characters in his songs, forever rewriting his past, the eternal scribe of Seymour?

Neither fate seems likely. ‘Hurt So Good’ remains a goof, and Cougar sees ‘Jack & Diane’ as pretty much the end of the Seymour song cycle. His American Fool album covers itself with general love songs and plenty of hearty rockers (‘Close Enough’, ‘Take It’).

The bottom line is that Cougar is not Bruce Springsteen (do we really need another?). He's not Edgar Lee Masters, either. And he's not Mick Jagger, nor some charlatan hawking a bogus cure-all for whatever malady currently afflicts rock 'n' roll. He may be playing it a bit too modest when he claims he's merely a hayseed who lucked out, but there's something undeniably affecting about the directness – even naivete – of his best stuff.
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