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This article by Richard Skelly was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on

October 20, 1999. All rights reserved.

Mellencamp to Cougar & Back: Trust the Art

Bruce Springsteen, New Jersey’s poet-laureate, once

said, "trust the art, not the artist." Such is the case with

John Mellencamp, who is often compared to the populist singer-songwriter.

Both men write of their experiences growing up in lower-middle class

environments in their respective home states, Indiana and New Jersey.

Both write a lot of songs filled with working class imagery and the

struggles that are part of the middle class existence; both are known

for putting 110 percent into their live shows, and both are known

for varying the repertoire greatly from one show to the next.

John Mellencamp’s "Rural Electrification Tour" show Friday,

October 22, at the Sovereign Bank Arena in Trenton marks the debut

of this new venue as a concert facility. It’s likely the eyes and

ears of all the artist booking agents in the country will be on the

arena Friday night, as it may prove over time to be a viable venue

for other arena-sized touring acts.

Mellencamp’s latest albums, "John Mellencamp" (Columbia Records)

and "Rough Harvest," (Mercury/Universal Music) are a sort

of a "Basement Tapes" for the 1990s. [The "Basement Tapes,"

as Bob Dylan fans will know, is a double album featuring Dylan and

The Band recorded at Big Pink, the cozy basement studio in the West

Saugerties, New York, house The Band shared for a time in the late


"Rough Harvest," his contractual obligation album for what’s

left of Mercury/PolyGram Records, and "John Mellencamp," his

debut for Columbia Records, were recorded in 1997 when Mellencamp

and his group, most based in and around Bloomington, Indiana, were

between tours and had time to reflect, or "woodshed," and

in general, make music to please themselves.

Mellencamp, ever the prolific songwriter, had a backlog of tunes he

had not recorded since a heart attack in the middle of his tour in

the summer of 1994 put his performing career on hold. Both "Rough

Harvest" and "John Mellencamp" were recorded at the singer-songwriter

and guitarist’s home studio, Belmont Mall, so there were no financial

pressures to produce quality tracks for a new album in a finite amount

of time.

Mellencamp explained the modus operandi behind his current

"Rural Electrification Tour," which kicked off its second

leg on October 1 and which will continue into 2000. Mellencamp calls

it "rural electrification" as a way of defining the anticipation

and excitement he and his band feel for performing, and going on tour

in general.

"In the ’30s, `rural electrification’ brought electricity to farmers

and other rural dwellers for the first time in their lives," he

explains, "and along with that electricity came radios and record

players: Music! We’re lucky enough that for the last 20 years, we’ve

had the opportunity to play our own small part in bringing music to

people; to entertain them and have a lot of fun in the process."

At Friday’s concert, Mellencamp will be accompanied by many of the

same people who accompany him on his Columbia debut: Dane Clark, drums

and percussion; Toby Myers, bass, vocals; Miriam Sturm, violin, keyboards,

vocals; Mike Wanchic, guitars, vocals; Andy York, guitars, Indian

instruments, keyboards, vocals; and Moe Z. MD, keyboards, and vocals.

John J. Mellencamp was born October 7, 1951, in Seymour, Indiana.

He joined his first band in fifth grade and by the mid-1960s, he was

performing classic R&B music with one of his first bands, Crepe Soul.

After graduating from Seymour High School in 1970, Mellencamp formed

a 1960s cover band, Trash, and studied at Vincennes University. He

graduated in 1975 and was laid off that same year from his job with

the phone company. At 24, he set out for New York City with a demo

tape, dreams of being a recording artist, and the hope of making the

rounds at record companies. He met representatives from David Bowie’s

management company, MainMan, and recorded his first album, "Chestnut

Street Incident."

He got even more than he wished for — in the form of a new identity,

courtesy of the management company eager to exploit his full potential.

In 1976, Tony DeFries of MainMan Management secured a deal for Mellencamp

at MCA Records, and when his first album, "Chestnut Street Incident"

was finally released, he saw his last name had been changed to Cougar,

courtesy of DeFries. As the singer began to have radio success in

the early 1980s, he added his proper surname Mellencamp back to his

name. By 1991, he dropped the "Cougar" moniker altogether.

In this case, Mellencamp trusted his audience to follow his art, not

his name changes.

In 1977, Mellencamp moved back home to Bloomington, Indiana, where

he recorded a second album, "The Kid Inside," not released

until 1982 when it was released on the heels of the success of "American

Fool," his breakthrough record. Mellencamp’s third release, "A

Biography," was released in 1978 and contained the hit single,

"I Need A Lover," a track that became a hit for Pat Benatar

as well. Performing with his then-band, The Zone, he performed these

songs on Dick Clark’s "American Bandstand" television program

in 1979. His third U.S. release, "John Cougar," which included

"I Need A Lover," and "Small Paradise," — the

former featuring one of the longest instrumental introductions for

any song in rock history, i.e., two-and-a-half minutes before lyrics

are sung — rose to No. 64 on U.S. album rock charts.

Mellencamp, influenced as much by classic rhythm and blues and soul

as he is by folk singers like Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, asked

Booker T and the MG’s guitarist Steve Cropper to produce his next

album, "Nothing Matters and What If It Did." That album rose

to No. 37 on the U.S. album rock charts, and his next record, "American

Fool," his breakthrough, became the best-selling album of 1982.

In four weeks in October, 1982, Mellencamp had a No. 1 album and two

Top 10 singles at the same time, and he was the first recording artist

since John Lennon to do so. His single "Jack and Diane," was

the number one single in the U.S. and "Hurts So Good" spent

28 weeks on the Hot 100. "American Fool" also received three

Grammy nominations, and Mellencamp eventually took home to Bloomington

a Grammy Award for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance for "Hurts

So Good."

With cable television channel MTV beginning to find a substantial

viewing audience in the early 1980s, Mellencamp became a video music

pioneer, directing a video for Bob Dylan and adding much of his own

input to his own video productions. His track, "Hand To Hold Onto"

from his album "Uh Huh" reached No. 9 on the singles charts.

Other hit singles followed in 1983 and 1984, including "Crumblin’

Down," "Pink Houses," and "Authority Song."

As full a schedule as all this radio success brought

him, he still found time to help coordinate the first Farm Aid concert

with Willie Nelson and Neil Young. That first concert, held in 1985

in Champaign, Illinois, was marked by Mellencamp’s speech, midway

through his set, asking the audience to write their Congressmen to

demand action to help American family farmers. Since then, 12 more

Farm Aid concerts have been held — most recently last month in

Virginia — with all of the artists appearing and performing at

their own expense. NARAS, the organization of music industry professionals

that votes on the annual Grammy Awards, presented Mellencamp with

the President’s Merit Award for his efforts on behalf of Farm Aid.

Since the release of "American Fool" in 1982, Mellencamp has

continued to push himself in new directions as a songwriter, musician

and producer, experimenting with folk-rock balladry, blues-rock guitar

pyrotechnics and songs from the heart that address the concerns of

the nation’s working poor and struggling middle class. Mellencamp

has been nominated for 11 Grammy Awards. Since 1979, he has racked

up 10 Top 10 singles, 29 Top 40 Singles, seven Top 10 albums and 11

Top 40 albums.

Most recently, HarperCollins released a book showcasing 75 of Mellencamp’s

oil and watercolor paintings. Mellencamp has pursued painting as an

avocation since the late 1970s. Called "Paintings and Reflections,"

it was released last November.

With a new book of paintings, a new concert venue in Trenton and a

new album from Mellencamp, we’ll just have to trust the art, not the


— Richard J. Skelly

John Mellencamp, Sovereign Bank Arena, 640 South

Broad Street, Trenton, 609-520-8383. America’s troubadour-poet from

Bloomington, Indiana. Susan Tedeschi opens. Ticketmaster, $28.50

to $42.50. Friday, October 22, 8 p.m.

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