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August, 1985 Penthouse Magazine Volume 16, Number 12
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He makes rock 'n' roll heroes of lost and drifting Americans

JOHN MELLENCAMP'S HEARTLAND

By Timothy White

------------------------------------------------------------

"Everybody has an image of the midwest as a bunch of tired old white people
in dreary livin' rooms, watchin' TV with the color tuner broken. That just
ain't it," says John Cougar Mellencamp. At 33, he's a stumpy, muscular guy with
a peculiarly pinched drawl and a turbulent, high-tide hairdo. "Every corner
of this country has its own subculture," he continues as he flips the
star-struck, New England coffee-shop counter girl a crumpled sawbuck as a
late-breakfast tip. "I mean Seymour, Indiana, my roots, is just as unique as,
say, Los Angeles. In L.A., the locals are tied together culturally by two things-the
garden hose and the sushi bar. Every mornin' half the citizens of that place
get up and hose down the entire fuckin' town, rinsin' off everything from
driveways to buildin' facades, while the other half of the population gets on
the phone and makes dinner reservations for the evenin'.

"Whereas in Seymour, everybody wakes up, gets the kids tattooed, pops a can
of Big Red, and starts verbally or physically breaking bad all over each other
on the way to the Cummins Diesel plant or the Otis Elevator factory. The kids
have a pasttime called Seymour ball, which is an elbow-jab style of
basketball with a no-blood-no-foul philosophy. And when alla ya git tired of
gettin' slammed, you do what I did ten years ago and move to Bloomin'ton, Indiana
Yessir, I had to get me a taste of the big city!"

He explodes with the heaving, hiccuping rasp that is his laugh, doing a
characteristic chest-thumping, sideways shuffle/stumble out through the glass
doors of the Marriott Hotel in Farmington, Connecticut. Bracing, mid-March gusts
swirl around the long gleaming "Das Bus" idling before him. It's one more
tardy (postnoontime) rollout for John Cougar Mellencamp's Uh-Huh Tour-'84,
destination Albany, as the itinerary dwindles down to two weeks of dates before
what will prove to be a triumphant sellout celebration at New York City's cavernous
Radio City Music Hall.

A NEW NAME
Eight years ago, Mellencamp was one more snicker-scarred footnote in the rock
wars-damaged goods from the hype factory of pop Sventgali Tony DeFries, whose
cynical MainMan organization had foisted the Ziggy Stardust-phase David Bowie
on a bored America. It was DeFries who took the liberty of deleting the
bumpy Dutch "Mellencamp" from the jacket of John's 1976 Chestnut Street Incident
debut album, replacing it with "Cougar," and constructing a "next-big-thing"
circus around the promotional drive. When the inflated big top collapsed of its
own weight, Johnny Cougar found himself the odd clown out, stuck on a very
distempered record label (MCA), which had invested a cool million in DeFries's
flop. Cougar contracted an attorney chum, who extricated him from the MainMan
morass and introduced him to Billy Gaff, then Rod Stewart's manager, who
signed him to Riva Records. He moved to London for a year and in 1978 cut
A Biography, his second LP, spawning a No. 1 hit in Austrailia, "I Need A Lover."
When that song reached the American market on his third album, John Cougar,
newcomer Pat Benatar asked permission to cut it and created the most-played
single in the nation, securing her stardom and making Cougar's second chance a
possibility.

Guitarist-songwriter-producer Steve Cropper, the legendary Stax-Volt session
wizard, took Cougar into the studio for what John consciously billed as his
last hurrah, 1980's Nothin' Matters and What If It Did. Two modest hits, "This
Time" and "Ain't Even Done With the Night," gave him new incentive, however,
and he drew on his southern Indiana roots for fresh inspiration. American
Foo
l, a dark horse in the rock sweepstakes of 1982, went on to become the
best-selling record of the year, with two singles, "Hurts So Good" and "Jack and
Diane," in the Top Five simultaneously. Uh-Huh, which featured the restored
surname of Mellencamp, clinched Cougar's phenomenal comeback, with a million
copies sold in the first month of release. Three scrappy, eloquent songs off the
album -- "Crumblin' Down," "Pink Houses," and "Authority Song" -- were
propelling the Uh-Huh road trip, their surly brio equal parts Rolling Stones, James
Brown, and the Bobby Fuller Four, leavened with a unique folk-rock snarl that
made them greater than the sum of their influences.

A REQUEST FROM REAGAN
When the largely uninitiated capacity crowd in Hartford was treated to
Mellencamp's exhilarating act, they were promptly dumbstruck with its quirky
might.

The show commenced with tough, stunning rearrangements of Top 40 classics
like Lee Dorsey's "Ya Ya," and the Animals' "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," and
the Left Banke's "Pretty Ballerina" -- each as crisp, stark, and bright as the
pink-lit white "Shindig" stage set from which the band roared. Greeted by
this homage to the golden age of rock radio, with the group attired in simple
black suits, white shirts, and string ties, the largely middle-class,
mid-twenties audience vibrated with gleeful disorientation -- a vaguely
evocative Shock of the Old.

After explaining with a sly grin that "I love doin' those songs from the
fifties and sixties to warm us up," he triggered the band into a pounding,
propulsive rendition of "Jack and Diane," Kenny Aronoff's thunderous but stately
drums beautifully intercut with John's chiming acoustic guitar. The sound and
saga of the contemporary heartland never felt so bold, ran so deep, rang so
true.

By the time the band tore through the stirring "Pink Houses," every college
sophomore and Yuppie in the house was singing along at the top of his or her
lungs. No wonder Ronald Reagan wanted to use the bristling ballad as the
soundtrack for his 1984 reelection landslide.

REQUEST DENIED
"Reagan doesn't know nothin' about workin' people in the Midwest or anywhere
else," Mellencamp allows. "So when I got a direct approach from his people
for permission to use 'Pink Houses,' I made it clear from day one that he just
had to forget it. I couldn't bear gettin' involved that way with any
politicians, least of all Reagan, and corrupt what is essentially a basic,
humble dream of contentment he can't even understand.

"But I gotta tell you, too," he adds, less heatedly, as he hoists himself
into the cabin of the bunkhouse-on-wheels as it sighs into gear, "you're gonna
have to experience southern Indiana for yourself to get the full flavor of what
'Pink Houses' was really about."

"Gimme a Red!" says dough-faced lead guitarist Larry Crane, a carrot-haired,
Seymour-bred scamp who looks five years younger than his brash 27, as he
reaches across the aisle past Mellencamp for a slender bottle of something that
resembles Lavoris, smells like Bazooka gum, and tastes, well, red.
"Goddorities, John, it's too early to be up!"

"Keep talkin', hotshot," says Mellencamp, as he redirects his associate's
attention to the three willowy adolescent groupies shyly slipping out from under
the hotel canopy, the smirking girls striking poses in the pale prespring sun.
"One of those ladies looks a tad like the crazy chick that jumped onstage
last night to dance with me durin' 'Authority Song.' That was a pretty nice
little spin we had, ditn't it?" he muses in his backassward Hoosier parlance.

"Aw, set down, fella, 'fore ya git yerself inna some foolish thang."

"Don't be worrin' 'bout me, Larry," the little guy assures his guitarist. "I
ain't got the strength this afternoon to whip shit with an eggbeater."

Mellencamp drops onto one of the tweed couches running the length of the
compartment, and props his snappy blue-and-white loafers on the wall. As the
rest of his squint-eyed fellow travelers hasten on board -- a half dozen other
Indiana-based musicians (most boyhood friends of John's), two female backup
singers, and a husky road manager -- he scratches the Woody Woodpecker and broken-heart tattoos emplazoned on opposing biceps and scans the interior of the custom tour
conveyance, a long, chunky behemoth coated with the same burnt-orange rug and
walnut paneling that overrun the lodgings he just checked out of.

"Jeez, every day this rig looks a little more like the coffee shop I signed
my first fuckin' record deal in. Gawd, it was a place called the Big Wheel
right on College Avenue in Bloomin'ton. I can still see myself sittin' there in
that booth in 1975 with my tongue hangin' out. Tony DeFries jerkin' my chain
and tellin' me I'll be gettin' $250 a week. Guess it beat pourin' concrete,
installin' telephones, and gettin' my head busted in Bloomin'ton bar fights. I
haven't gone in that place since, even though I drive by it every day when
I'm home. Phew! Too depressin'.

"We [he indicates his grinning cohorts], we all grew up respectin' nothin'
and that's a hard thing for me to get over. We were so macho, it'd make you
puke. Toby!" he calls to his bassist, lanky, lantern-jawed Toby Myers. "Mike!"
he hollers at Michael Wanchic, his broad shouldered, sad-eyed rhythm
guitarist, "I'm tellin' it straight, ditn't it?"

"Yessir," says Mike, "jes' a bunch of first-rank, hard-partyin' assholes..."

"...but cool as hell," Toby interjects, "because we knew somethin' the other
motherfuckers didn't know, about dressin' right, about hangin' out, about
fightin', about great music. Man, we had attitude. When everybody else was
listenin' to 'Papa's Got a Brand New Bag,' we" -proudly- "were listenin' to
'Night Train.'"

"We had our own way of walkin'," Mellencamp continues, "our own way of
talkin', our own way of doin' everythin'. You grow up thinkin' your shit
doesn't stink, and it's a hard thing to deal with to learn you're just like everybody
else."

When did he finally realize the honeymoon was over?

He grimaces, shouts for the bus to pull out, and then replies straight-faced,
"Two years ago -- if that. I'm 32 years old and I'm just wakin' up to the
world like I am tryin' to this mornin', Fella," he says, waving distractedly to
the blondes as we slip into the New England woods, "it was one wierd
upbringin' like you never heard of, so lemme tell you all about it."

GROWING UP WEIRD
He was born John J. Mellencamp (the initial stands for nothing) on October 7,
1951, the second son of electrician's assistand Richard Mellencamp and the
former Marilyn Lowe, one of three boys and two girls. It was a cold, dreary
Sunday in Seymour, a tough city of 18,000 located in the center of the sloping
farm country (corn, wheat, melons) of Jackson County. Founded in 1852, the
district, originally known as Mule Crossing, was renamed for one J. Seymour, a
railroad-construction superintendent who was persuaded under suspicious
circumstances to route the present-day Baltimore and Ohio Railroad through the
settlement. It was only fitting, then, that shady Seymour be the site -- in
1866 of the nation's first train robbery, courtesy of the notorious Reno Gang. Six
of their number were subsequently hanged from a Beech tree by typically ornery
Seymour vigilantes.

The town was still living up to its randy reputation on the morning of
Mellencamp's birth, its citizenry far less concerned with the American war
effort in Korea or the outcome of the Yankees-Giants World Series than the indictment
of the three young Black brothers ("Tudie," "Tiny," and "Babe") for superbly
brutal beating death of another man during a Saturday night brawl.

For the Mellencamp clan's part, father Richard and his three brothers (the
eldest was run over by a car at 15) had a fierce reputation for holding their
own in a fracas. John's Uncle Joe was the biggest and surliest of the lot, a
six-foot-two football star at Indiana University in the 1940s who could "kick
anybody's ass straight into next week," according to his nephew. John's dad was
always up for a slugfest, too, but he was more playful impish, and horny in
his off-hours. He enjoyed minor celebrity at Seymour High when it was learned
that he was shacking up with one of his teachers, but in true Mellencamp style
he pressed his luck for want of broader public acclaim.

"She was this cute girl just out of college, and he patted her ass up at the
blackboard to show off," John remembers, "so she broke bad on him and
humiliated him in front of his friends." A grave indiscretion in a small burg
where social currency is predicated on giving adversaries their unbridled
comeuppance.

"So he picks her up and is holding her out the third-floor window of the
classroom by her feet, her skirt down over her face, her panties in the breeze,
and she's screaming!" Cheerful shrug. "He got kicked out of school for a
while."

Happily, Richard Mellencamp's introduction to his bride-to-be was a
considerably more romantic chance encounter on an already eventful day.

"Dad was runnin' down the street in Austin, Indiana, on a Saturday afternoon,
the cops chasin' him, and he knocked Mom over, pitched her right on her butt.
What happened was Dad had gotten in a fight with some guys down in Austin,
and two guys beat him up. So what did Dad do but git his brother Joe to go
back and get them. Joe and Dad were beatin' the fuck out of four guys when the
cops came. The cops got Joe, but Dad took off, and mom was just walkin' out of
a store when he hit her. She remembers that he had on a pair of jeans, a
T-shirt, and a pair of loafers -- the same fuckin' clothes I got on most of the
time."

John was raised in a little brick cottage at 714 West Fifth Street, and the
family attended the First Church of the Nazarene. "You couldn't dance, girls
couldn't wear makeup or jewelry, no goin' to movies, no smokin' or drinkin',
none of that. And the idea was for guys to go around wearin' clean white shirts
all the time.

"The funniest story I ever heard about religion was from Larry's wife, Nancy,
whose dad is a strict Nazarene. When she was in high school she used to go
out and have a drink or smoke a joint, and then come home and feel so guilty
about it that she'd get up in the middle of the night and go and see if her mom
and dad were still in bed, because she was afraid that the second comin' of
Christ had happened and they came and took her parents but left her behind!
That's true, ditn't Larry?"

"They had her half-crazy," Larry nods gravely as the bus lurches onto the
interstate. "It seemed like anybody in Seymour who had an extreme personality
and very religious parents was either crazy or one of the wildest people in
town."

John and his troops began skipping out on services when they were 13,
stealing away to smoke the brands of cigarettes favored by the black R&B singers
they idolized. He hung around the same street corners his dad did, sticking with
the Steinkamp's beanery when it was re-christened Marilyn's, wolfing grilled
cheese sandwiches, and gulping down the ever-present Big Red, a Waco,
Texas-confected elixir developed (as Sun-Tang Red Creme Soda) during the
Depression.

In 1961, a name change was inspired by an impromptu abbreviation -- "Go get us
a couple of those Big Reds!" -- yelled out by the San Antonio bottler's black
golf caddy. Distribution of the streamlined product spread to Seymour, where
a local bottler ensured that the "Drink a Big Red Instead" slogan became part
of the regional vernacular.

Frosty helpings of the scarlet soda at hand, John and his friends haunted
Silver's record store and the local Lyric outlet, rifling through the racks in
search of black dance music. "Thepopular music of blacks," he says, "was
somethin' we calculated that everybody in the area would hate," southern Indiana
being a decidedly unliberal outpost whose racial sectarianism mirrored that of
the rural Deep South. The first record Mellencamp ever purchased with his own
money was "The Twist," Chubby Checker's 1960 hit, but his taste soon ran to
more obscure, salacious fare.

At 14, he became a full-fledged church truant and beer hound, singing for
$100 a week beside a 17-year-old black kid in an eight-man band called the Crepe
Soul, doing covers of Sam and Dave hits at college mixers. He wore pegged
pants, pointy Flagg Brothers shoes, Adler Thick and Thin sheer socks, and fake
satin capes like James Brown featured in his Famous Flames-era stage antics.

By the mid-sixties, music had been eclipsed in Mellencamp's life by girls and
fighting; nocturnal rallying points for either were at Bill's Auto at the
corner of Second and Chestnut streets. That is, until the dawning of the
discotheques. By the end of the decade, there was a circuit of teen clubs
between Seymour and Indianapolis: the Scene, the House of Sound, the Sugar Shack, the
Last Exit, and best of all, the Whiteland Barn, on which Mellencamp and his boys
would descend every summer Sunday evening after an afternoon spent trolling
for nooky along Starve Hollow Lake.

At this juncture in his adolescent passage, the blue-eyed soul-brother
aesthetic had been supplanted by a kind of midwestern Ivy League dadaism, a
gently absurd corruption of the collegiate look that fed furiously on itself.

"Basically," says Mellencamp, "it was Bass Weejuns with no socks, Gant shirts
with button-down collars, baggy, pleated Cotler pants with cuffs, and
Beatle-length hair, the bang only peroxided so that it looked like a chicken had
Shit on your head. We all carried gravity knives. I had about ten of them, one
in every pocket. It wasn't that we were the meanest or most evil -- it was the
bluff, the image. The Whiteland Barn had a guy called the Wild Photographer
who'd race around the dance floor takin' pictures of the sharpest people to
put up on the wall, and the cool thing was to get yours up there.

"If you could dance, you were happenin' -- it was respect immediately. And
you don't wanna be dancin' to no fuckin' English bands -- the Beatles and Paul
McCartney were for your little sister; if you liked them you didn't tell
nobody. The Stones and the Animals were okay, Mitch Ryder was all right, but
we're talkin' soul music. Otis Reddin' and Mr. Dynamite -- Mis-ter James Brown.

"But we really went there for one reason: to fight. If we could find a girl,
great; and if you were a guy with a date, your girlfriend was the one we
wanted. But fightin' was the main hustle."

Ballsy bravado was something also cultivated by the women in his world.

"These girls were as macho as Joan Jett. They were hot," he exults. "They
wore skirts crotch-short, with small, full halter tips, most of 'em brunettes
with butt-length hair with two blond streaks runnin' all the way down, who did
the bump and grind when they danced. At 16, they cussed, smoked cigarettes,
and fucked. We didn't want girls who wanted to hold hands; we wanted girls who
were goin' to treat us like we treated them: rough."

It was all part of a full-bore effort to postpone the inevitable -- meaning
resignation to a grinding life working on a farm, or in the imagination-numbing
cacophony of factory shifts. The latter option was seen as the more colorful
because of the prospects for close-knit comradery with fellow sufferers, but
no one forgot the aching limitations.

John's coming of age was nearly identical to that of his father and his
grandfather, Harry, a German immigrant who had to quit school after the second
grade to help support the family -- an ox of a man so pressured and
undereducated that, even when he was well into his eighties, he could reconcile his shame
with his rudimentary, kindergarten English only by "throwin' hands at the hint
of a snub, the drop of a cap."

Escape from the cycle of static mobility and permanent belligerence, which
arrived for the Mellencamps as father Richard finally advanced to a management
position in a branch office of a national electrical-contracting firm,
occurred just as new threats swept up against Syemour's brittle social order in
the form of drugs and hippiedom.

"We had a nice big home now, and money in the bank, but around 1968-69
everyone I knew went to hell, hair to thier shoulders, barefoot, and not
carin'."

At the mention of this point in his personal chronology, everyone on the band
bus abruptly erupts into a galloping litany of horror stories, each one
adding a downbeat anecdote to the sorry saga. One boot-wielding kid beat his
old man so badly for bogarting a joint they'd been sharing that the parent had to
be hospitalized; a local glamor boy became a fat morose acid freak, losing his
looks and very nearly, his mind from an acute overdose; another youth, a
seventh-grade comrade of Larry Crane's, succumbed from excess inhalation of
Bactine. "Yup," Larry affirms, "Bactine. He was snortin' it from a plastic
bag. It paralyzed his diaphragm, and he was instantly asphyxiated."

Not to be left behind, Mellencamp became the first student at Seymour High
ever busted for narcotics after a teacher noted the hyperlassitude he and
another friend had been exhibiting in class. "We'd only been on diet pills for
five straight days," Mellencamp deadpans, "so his eye musta been real keen. We
were hauled to the principal and a narcotics agent was waitin' there. They took
us out to my friends Volkswagen in a scene right out of Fast Times at
Ridgemont High, 'cause when they opened the van ten million little pills just
fell out on the concrete."

Somehow, Mellencamp managed to stay in school and graduate, but his ambitions
had dwindled to "drugs and Frisbee," with a side trip into marriage. On a
whim, he eloped with Priscilla Esterline, the daughter of a factory foreman in
neighboring Brownstown, who was a coed at the University of Michigan in Ann
Arbor. The couple moved in with her folks, and John, who would spend two
undistinguished years at Vincennes University, let Priscilla support him,
continuing to focus his energy on dope smoking and Frisbee acrobatics.

In time, the local dances petered out for want of an even semiconscious
clientele. On Friday and Saturday nights, Seymour fell eerily still, but for
the steady drone in the distance of the weekly sprint-car races held near the city
limits. When the time-capsule world of Seymour became too suffocating to
endure, Mellencamp and a drunk-and-wired entourage of confederates would pilot a
pickup truck out to the highway in the predawn, with a specially welded steel
cage bouncing in the back compartment. Locating a lonely stretch of blacktop,
John would hop out and climb into the cramped human coop which was affixed to
the bumper of the truck by long lengths of heavy-gauge chains. The speedometer of the pickup would hover near 80 miles per hour when the cage and its clammy cargo would be shoved out onto the highway, sparks soaring above the treetops as its occupants endured punishing jolts of adrenaline. Multiple sets of these five-minute runs could drag on for hours.

There seemed nowhere else to go, no other outlet or avenue for dashed
ambition, until Mellencamp rediscovered rock 'n' roll in the mascara'd nihilism
of the Velvet Underground, Lou Reed, the New York Dolls, Iggy Pop and the Stooges,
and David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust, a leering android painted up to exemplify
pointlessness. In 1972, John and Larry Crane dyed their hair blue and green and
formed a group called Trash, John earning money for equipment from a job as a
telephone-installation man. He wrote his first two songs, a Stooges-inspired
raver called "One-Way Driver" and an ode to Lou Reed entitled "Loser" --
"You're just grooves and black plastic and noise in the air/And nobody cares
about the bleach in your hair."

At 23, Mellencamp was laid off by the phone company. Music being the only
perceptible career option, he fell in with a clever lawyer who encouraged him to
take out a $2000 bank loan to finance a demo tape. The attorney took half
the money as his "consultation fee," and the rest paid for sessions in a
16-track studio in New York City. Nothing came of what proved to be a costly
caper; a year and a half later John was stuck with a slew of exotic bills. That's
when he turned to his hero Bowie's manager, Tony DeFries.

A LOST CLASS RING
We are pulling into Albany, rumbling past the massive capitol building on
Washington Avenue, where cantankerous boyhood governor Teddy Roosevelt once
railed against New York's sweatshops and oppressive factory working conditions.
But that was in 1899 and, as Mellencamp is quick to add, giving his bleak
summation of the current lot of grangers and rank-and-file workers in southern
Indiana, "the industrial revolution is over, the dream is completely out of
steam."

The pink houses his forebears struggled to buy are mortgaged to the hilt, the
farms they sit on are facing foreclosure, and the few politicians of
presidential promise are raising persuasive voices for their plight.

"I grew up in a small town, and what I've succeeded in doing couldn't be more
different than the lives of the people who surrounded me," he says,
grim-faced. "I still live amongst them, 'cause it's the only place I feel
comfortable, but I feel an increasing responsibility to tell their story. I don't feel
much distance from my youth and all those experiences, but my commitment to my
present is much greater than my regrets about the past."

With, perhaps, one minor exception.

"It's funny, but I was proud to graduate from high school, and I wish I still
had my class ring. One of my girlfriends at the time -- to this day, she's
still got it. I said 'Aw listen, it's all over between us!' 'cause I wanted to
start going out with college girls. She said, 'Fuck you. it ain't over,' and
she stole my class ring and stuck it up her pussy!"

The bus booms with shooping laughter as we eas up to the hotel. Mellencamp
so convulsed that tears roll down his ruddy cheeks. "Goddorities! I couldn't
get it back unless I took her doggone pants down in front of everybody!"

"John Mellencamp," Toby Myers shrieks with mock disgust, "I can't believe you
let a little thing like that stop you!"

BACK HOME
The following March, the first traces of spring have come to Bloomington, the
thaw softening the stubborn ocher clay, farmers of the region dividing their
discussion between Reagan's insensitivity, Indiana University basketball, and
the combine-and-tractor demolition derby scheduled for the upcoming weekend,
as they are hunched over peach cobbler in a tiny truck stop.

Used to be that the biggest annual expectations resided with college sports
heirarchies, crops, and Indiana U's Little 500 cycling race, immortalized in
the movei Breaking Away. But there is a new buzz in the air as John Mellencamp
rises from his late breakfast, joshing with the locals as he ambles out of the
restaurant. He's recently completed construction, just up the road, of his
own recording studio, dubbed the Belmont Mall, and word is he starts sessions
in two days on a sequel to Uh-Huh, to be called This Old World. It's gonna
have more songs on it that pick up where "Pink Houses" left off, songs about the
pain of people who work the land and man the assembly lines, music that will
make these folks feel just a little less like phantoms in a world now attuned
to the privileged and to the cynical strivers who do their bidding.

The day is chilly and clear as John steers his crow-black Jeep along the muddy
byways, the cow pastures, and the rusted Quonset huts on either side, which
merge into a green-gray blur. He pauses to check on his state-of-the-art
studio, which is being tested for its acoustics as staffers scurry around the
rustic facility. The bustling new crew includes chiseled-featured Richard
Mellencamp, retired from the electrical concern in which he had become an
executive to run John's business office, and Priscilla Mellencamp, no longer John's wife
but still his dear friend. ("Divorce don't mean you treat somebody you love as
if they died," he says.) She's a close friend as well of his second wife of
five years, the attractive blonde Vicki Granucci Mellencamp. The trio pitches
in to raise Michelle, Johns teenage daughter from the first marriage, and
Vicki and John's preschool-age girl, Teddy Jo. (Vicki is currently expecting
another child.) As with all else in this curious corner of the planet, these
Hoosiers do things a mite differently, yet somehow it works out just fine, thank
you.

Heading back to the wooded lakeside complex that is his home, a refuge
furnished and decorated with elegant understatement, he walks to a wing
enclosing an indoor pool.

He steps over to a cassette player and flicks it on, and a haunting, sinuous
instrumental track issues forth as sunlight bathes the huge room. There are
no vocals on the tape, but he cannot resist throwing his head back and
supplying the words he's got thus far. It's a song called "Rain on the
Scarecrow," an exploration of labors denied, desperate measures taken, and the ebb and flow of dignity under a tyranny of choicelessness.

Onstage, John Cougar Mellencamp moves with a self-assurance that is by turns
a catlike tread, a cool swagger copped from Mr. Dynamite himself, and some
sporadic bursts of the R&B dancefloor flair he had long ago honed in the
Whiteland Barn. Inside, his brutish but handsome face showing the mounting
creases of 33 years of intemperance, he's no less absorbing to behold. As he stalks and
pirouettes in his Weejuns, jeans and taut T-shirt, shutting his eyes and lifting his voice with unself-conscious emotion, the sight is extraordinarily moving:

There's rain on the scarecrow, blackbirds in the barn
Four hundred empty acres that used to be my farm
I worked this land like my father did
And I walked these fences while Grandpa held my hand...
This land fed a nation, this land made me proud
And son I'm sorry there's no legacy now
There's just rain on the scarecrow and blood on the plow.

(Riva Music Inc. (ASCAP))

As the anthemlike music fades, the countenance of the forthright fellow who
once dared to name an autobiographical LP American Fool shows a quiet
satisfaction with his work-in-progress. Then he winces, recalling the boldness
of the searingly honest turnaround record that brought him to this higher ground.

"Can you imagine if American Fool had stunk?" he asks quietly. "I mean with
a title like that, I could have been crucified." Small smile. A growing chuckle. "But the original name was even worse. I've never told anybody this" -- hesitant pause -- "but the name of that record was gonna be 'I May Look Silly, But I've Still Got a Job.'"
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