“Check this out.”
He pulls back the cover.
“Oh, my God!” I say.
His hair flops down like a veal cutlet. “You gotta look at it from this side.”
“Oh, my Lord!” I shout.
“Is this cool, or what?” says John.
We are standing in the garage behind John Mellencamp’s house in Bloomington, Indiana.
“The chrome!” I yell.
“It’s just like the old-fashioned kind,” says John.
We are looking at his ’78 custom Harley Low Rider. Then we look at his FXRS and his wife’s ’68 441 Victor, which is the type of bike John had when he was a kid in Seymour, Indiana, before he was a rock ’n’ roll star, and his old BSA, and then we go into the other garage and look at his ’56 salmon-colored Corvette.
“It’s cool,” says John.
“Do you run around in it?” I say.
He shakes his head sadly. He wears all black. “No, it’s too old and fragile.” He starts to smile. He has a split between his front teeth. The nice, thick, greasy flop of hair, boy’s hips, big shoulders. “When I was a kid,” he says, “I didn’t want to do anything but play guitar, ride around on motorcycles, get drunk, smoke cigarettes, chase girls and act stupid.”
He lights a cigarette and smiles.
“What do you do now?” I say.
“Now I’m smarter,” says John. He cackles tenderly. “Only problem is, I had to get older to do it.”
At this point, you should put on a John Cougar Mellencamp song. While it is playing, I will tell you that John J. Mellencamp, second son of Marilyn Lowe Mellencamp, a Hoosier woman of fashion, and Richard Lee Mellencamp, executive vice-president of Robbins Electric Company, was born on October 7, 1951, in Seymour, Indiana, with a tumor the size of an acorn squash on the back of his neck; survived; married at 17; divorced; fell for a California girl; rose to fame with American Fool, the best-selling album of 1982 (with “Hurts So Good” and “Jack & Diane”), Uh-Huh (with “Pink Houses” and “Authority Song”), which sold 2,200,000, and the recent Scarecrow; and now he lives in Bloomington, home of Indiana University.
“So when did you go to school down here?” says John. “Yeah, yeah, I know, I know: ‘Fuck me; go to hell.’”
We are done looking at the motorcycles and are out riding around in the hills in his wife’s BMW.
“See, you don’t know,” says John, happily, “if I’m driving you out here to rape you or….”
“You think, Where is this guy taking me?”
“I was up here lots of times with Fred Schmidt, the Olympic butterflier, when I was at school here,” I say, “and Tom Van Arsdale.”
John turns his head.
“Tom Van Arsdale?” he says with wonder. “Wait a minute.” He looks at my face. “How old are you?”
“Oh, well, gads.”
“No, wait!” he says. “Tom Van Arsdale! Tom and Dick Van Arsdale played basketball for Indiana in 1964!”
“Well, you shouldn’t have brought that name up,” says John, tickled. “OK, let’s say”—he puckers up his lips and glances out the side of his right eye—“say, you were nineteen in 1964, so in 1974, you were twenty-nine, and in 1984, you were thirty-nine. So you are”—he turns pale, no doubt from dismay—“forty years old.”
I shrug my shoulders.
“You are forty years old!” he screams.
His voluminous forelock drops on his eyelid.
“Jesus Christ!” He slows down the car. “I hope I look that good at forty.”
“You are forty years old!”
He takes his foot off the gas.
“Yes, forty years old,” I say.
He slams on the brakes.
“Get the fuck out,” he says.
John has the sideburns Scotch-taped on, and he’s upstairs with the Julie London album. Ooooooh. She has the real low dress on. And those real big tits sticking up.
This is John’s earliest memory of wanting to be a singer.
He is playing at the Beta house in Bloomington, he is playing at Alpha Chi Omega, and he knows that having a bigger P.A. system and playing at Alpha Chi Omega doesn’t mean nothin’. There ain’t nobody going to fly down to Bloomington, Indiana, to see John Mellencamp singing at a toga party and think, Hey, this guy’s really got it! So he gets in the car and drives to New York. Well, the corporate music guys wouldn’t know a hit record if it banged them on the dick.
“What’d you wear?” I say.
“Jeans and a T-shirt,” says John.
“Didn’t you have a getup?”
“No. I didn’t have any getups.”
And no money. Back to Seymour. He has just enough cash to drive down to Louisville. Little record company down there, and John goes in and plays them his tapes. They say, Boy, you suck. And John says, Well, that’s it. Says, I’ve had it. I’m 22 years old and I got a wife. I got a child. I got a couch you can’t sit on, ’cause everybody who sits on it gets the crabs. Says, I gotta get a real job. And he literally walks in the front door after driving back from Louisville and the phone rings. It’s David Bowie’s manager, Tony DeFries. He says, Come to New York, John, and we’ll make you a star.
“And they put make-up on my face,” says John, “and changed my name and stole my songs, and it was downhill from there, all the way. And I’m just now starting back. Just in the past couple years. I’ve just started living all that shit down.”
It is a nice day, and we are still out here riding around because John is looking for his friend Bill Bane, who is up here logging, and he says what he likes about Indiana is his family and friends. “I never feel comfortable anywhere else,” he says. “I never feel secure. It isn’t like home—wait! There’s his car!” He rolls down the window. “Hey, Bane!”
He stops the car and listens for a saw.
“You hear anything?” He leans his head out the window. “I don’t hear anything. Maybe he’s picked up a ride.” He starts the motor. “So, you and Tom Van Arsdale. You were a cheerleader, and he was a basketball star, and you guys had a big sex scene.”
“Oh! No! Please! I graduated a virgin! Good heavens!”
John is always writing a song he can’t write. “Jack & Diane” was not going on American Fool. John hated that song.
John is cackling like a mandrill and throwing up dust. “I’ll bet it pissed those guys off,” he says.
“Well, as far as Fred Schmidt goes,” I say, “he was training for the Olympics and took so much wheat germ, he had five wet dreams a night.”
“Jesus Christ!” shouts John. “I don’t think I’ve had five in my life!”
“He won a gold medal,” I say.
“No. I don’t think I ever fucking had five wet dreams in all my life!”
“Oh, you did.”
“No. I’m serious. I mean, I had some. I mean, I’d have liked to, but—hey, you know, you should act more mature for your age.”
“If I were more mature, I wouldn’t be here,” I say.
“Naw, naw,” says John. He dips his sunglasses down and hangs back in the seat and chuckles in a soft, velvety, twangy voice. “I’ll tell everybody,” he says. “The whole world is going to know. That’s how I’ll get even with you. I’ll give another interview and say, ‘Yeah! I had this interview with this girl from PLAYBOY.’” He booms the car along. “‘That bitch was forty years old! I couldn’t believe it.’”
John is always writing a song he can’t write. “Jack & Diane” was not going on American Fool. John hated that song. Spent too much time laboring over it. Had thousands of verses. Damn thing was like an epic. Last minute, the guys in the band talked him into putting it on the album, and John edited it down to three verses. Took the beginning verse, the middle verse and the end. Became the number-one song in America. The original was a lot more tragic than it turned out on the record.
“Did you know Jack and Diane?” I say.
“I knew millions of them,” says John.
“We’re all Jack and Diane.”
“Sooner or later,” says John.
“John wrote songs in junior high school,” says Marilyn Mellencamp, John’s mother. “Oh, his room would just be full of songs he’d written. And his Sears and Roebuck guitar would be up there. And I’d go up and clean his room and I’d throw all his stuff away. He’d say, ‘Mother, where are all those songs?’ I’d say, ‘John….’ Well, he’d write up 50 on a weekend; give me a break! When I’d leave that room, I’d have stacks of songs every place. And I’d read them. And I thought, God, what garbage, John! And, you know, I’d just take them down and put them in the incinerator. And he’d come in and he’d say, ‘Mom, what’d you do with that stuff up in my room?’ And I’d say, ‘John, I can’t have all that stuff up there. I burned it. God! Give me a break!’“
A film crew is in Bloomington, shooting John’s new videos for Scarecrow, and an MTV crew is in Bloomington, shooting the film crew shooting John’s new videos; but tonight it is just the film crew shooting John sitting with his guitar on a front porch of a house at a crossroads a couple of miles outside town for the “Lonely Ol’ Night” sequence, and he is wearing his I.D. bracelet, black jeans, white shirt with the collar up and a bolo.
After they do a couple of takes and everybody applauds, Lori Weintraub, the senior vice-president of MGM/UA, walks over and says, “John, I like that bolo!”
“Good,” says John. “I’m going to wear this bolo in all my videos. Then I can sell bolos at my concerts, just like Madonna.”
The MTV people have left town, and the video crew has shot John singing in a graveyard among the tombs and a nice segment with Bill Bane felling a tree, and now everybody has had lunch out in the yard under the trees at John’s parents’ house in Seymour. The place is big and old—three stories, a football field, terraces, a tennis court. “People think John gave me this house,” says Marilyn Mellencamp. “I say, ‘Hey! John lived here when he was little. Give me a break!’”
Marilyn has invited me down to the basement while the guys are outside playing football.
“All right, now,” she says. “Is your tape recorder on?”
“OK. Is it on now?”
“OK. I’ll just start.” She sits up, a small, dark, well-built woman in a short plaid golf skirt, pearls and a gold Rolex. She starts off talking about “John’s operation.” We are seated on a couch under some of John’s gold records.
“You see, right from the beginning,” she says, “John had this rebellious attitude. So when he got to be a teenager, he really got into it with his father. It was almost embarrassing that they could get into it so much. John would just mouth off to him so bad, and Richard would just get into it with him—really, really quite physical. But you know how it is now?”
She leans forward.
“John’s a daddy’s boy. He idolizes his daddy. Richard writes his checks and handles his business. But I was the one who took care of John all those years. I did the day-to-day—all the things a mother does, but noooooooo. He is not a mother’s boy.”
I am not feeling real comfortable and want to go upstairs and watch the guys in the band and the video crew play football. “Well, you know,” I say, “John is not a woman’s man. Let’s go up and—”
“Nooooo.” She juts out her lips. “Women are there to serve him. To suit his needs. But I didn’t have enough time to wait on him. I had five kids.”
“Well—” I have had too much for lunch and my esophagus is getting nervous. “He has a great wife in Vicky, now,” I say. “And Cil, his first wife, is great, too, John told me. He said she is wonderful. So we don’t need to worry.”
“Oh, I get along with Vicky,” says Marilyn. “But Vicky’s got more energy and ambition than I have. I would never do some of the things she does for John. I would tell him to get screwed. I have seen that girl work for him 16 hours a day! I mean work!” She slams her hand down on her knees and her calves bounce together. “And Cil.” She leans forward. “Cil is very nice, but she wasn’t the one for John! She is a real mother image. I think the mother image for a wife is very bad. I told her—”
“They hated my music in London. I came back from England on July Fourth; I remember that!”
She glances at her foot, crosses her legs, leans over and brushes a piece of fluff off her golf sock.
“I told her myself when she married John—he was only 17—I said, ‘Just as soon as he becomes a man—’”
“Jean! Are you down there?”
My stomach jumps. It is Cil calling down the basement stairs from the kitchen. I look at Marilyn in alarm.
“Do you have the keys to the white rent-a-car? Lori has to be driven to the airport!”
Marilyn looks up at the ceiling and pushes out her bottom jaw.
“They’re on the dashboard!” I shout. Cil and John are divorced but are friends, and Cil is his production coordinator.
“I’m coming right up!” I shout.
Marilyn fusses anew with her sock.
“Well, I better go up,” I say.
“Cil will handle it,” says Marilyn, pleasantly. “I said to her, ‘As soon as John becomes a man, he’s going to go off with somebody he loves better and leave you, and you’re going to be out in the cold.’ And Cil sat up there in the kitchen and cried. And it was just like I predicted.”
“Well, I gotta go up and see about the car,” I say.
“Don’t worry about it,” says Marilyn, smiling. “Now. Do you want to ask me any questions?”
John goes with Billy Gaff, Rod Stewart’s manager, after leaving DeFries, and Gaff sends John to London. Says John should run over there and make records, ’cause he doesn’t have a record in the United States. So John goes over and the Sex Pistols are on television and cursing and John is reading about it in the papers. Trying to buy a turkey for Thanksgiving. Has to pay like 80 bucks for it. Still has the feathers on it.
“Tell me about the crowds who came to see you at the Marquee. Did they have spiky hair?” I say.
“The crowds were about four or five people,” says John.
“Did they love you?”
“They hated me. It was a nightmare. It was just one fiasco after another. It was the most skeptic, hateful period of my life. I didn’t like the record business. I thought it was sleazy. They hated my music in London. I came back from England on July Fourth; I remember that!
“See, I’ve never had a breakthrough. I’ve just been taking little baby steps. And I think I’m still taking them. But you’ve got to struggle. If you’ve got it made, well, then, that’s it. It’s over.”
“See, what happened,” says Richard Mellencamp, John’s father, “when John was a kid, he was the biggest kid of the bunch. And he was always the bully. He always bullied all the rest of the kids and beat the shit out of all the other kids. Then, when he came to high school, he just stayed about the same size he is now. And everybody grew up and started beating the shit out of him.”
The guys finish the football game and the film crew shoots the band out on the highway, and then everybody goes down to the Seymour drive-in so they can shoot the band’s families, and John jumps on one of the guys’ motorcycles and rides around and hitches me up behind and we ride down to the fishing access.
“Your mother has been having a little talk with me,” I say when we get there.
John lights a cigarette and scowls.
“Everybody in the family’s got personality,” says John. He is tired from preproduction and shooting three videos in six days, and his complexion looks whitish, with yellow circles under his eyes, and there is a queer, strained expression on his face.
“MTV shot three hours with her,” he says.
“Uh-oh,” I say.
“Before they left, we came to an understanding,” says John.
He looks over at the river.
“What?” I say.
“They are not going to use it.”
He cackles softly, as is his wont, but there is that look on his face and his hair hangs down like a piece of felt. Some of the guys in the crew drive up in the van with the director and John and I get into the van, and John tells the director what the next couple of shots are going to be, and the director says, “Yes, Mr. Fellini! No, Mr. Fellini!” and suddenly I remember the time a couple of months ago when I asked John what he was afraid of, and he said, Well, everything, you name it, he was afraid of it, and I said, Well, are you afraid of women, and John said, Well, he wasn’t afraid of nothing, too, at the same time, and I said, Well, are you afraid of women, and John said, “I’ve been with women my entire life; I can’t do anything.”
The crew films the Seymour congregation coming out of church for the “Small Town” sequence, and Fay Cummins, the producer, a pretty woman who lives in Los Angeles, looks at the tall, blond Indiana farmers coming down the walk and grabs John’s arm. “And you’re all heterosexuals!” she cries. “You’re all heterosexuals!”
“John was born with a physical defect,” says Marilyn. “It looked like a huge mushroom. It was full of blood and muscles and veins and things, and it grew out the back of his neck. It was watery. Like a bag. The doctors told me he had a 50-50 chance to live and they were simply going to have to cut this off and it had grown down into his spine and they were going to pull the threads out. But one slip and he would be paralyzed! And he was only five weeks old. But he was tough! So after the surgery was over, the doctors said it looked like a success but that John could go into convulsions and die, or he might never walk, and I was going to have to be prepared that John might never turn out to be normal.
“So in about six weeks, Grandma and I brought him home from the hospital. And every time he made a sound, we just bowed and scraped to him. I mean, we did not let him cry. We did not let him do anything. I lived right next door to my mother-in-law, and one of us had him all the time. And by the time he was two and a half, we realized we had one spoiled kid! Don’t you think we didn’t know it! He was a spoiled brat. And here we thought he was going to die!”
The “Lonely Ol’ Night,” “Small Town” and “Scarecrow” videos are in the can at a combined cost of $85,000, and John is in such a good mood he is treating the film crew to tattoos at Kevin Brady’s All-American Tattoo Studio on South Walnut. Kevin is the Tattooer of the Stars and has tattooed Billy Idol and John and Sean Penn, and he is a big tall man with silver earrings, and John runs around the studio, yelling, “Hey, Kev! How ’bout this!” After a while, he calms down and merely stands behind Kevin for an hour, advising him, and riffles through seven or eight issues of Tattoo Magazine, looking for tattoos for 19 people, and then he runs for more paper towels, and at 12:30 A.M., he throws his weight behind the decision of the assistant director to get a tattoo of a “shark wearing Ray-Bans.” At 1:30 A.M., he flops down on the chair behind Kevin’s desk.
“Now, this is genuine fun!” says John, gazing happily around the room.
“At your expense,” says Fay.
“Yeah,” says John, smiling. “But they got to live with it.”
“I warned him a dozen times! I said, ‘John, if you don’t quit using that word’—he was about six—I said, ‘It’s so unbecoming!” says Marilyn. “I said, ‘If you don’t stop using that word, I am going to wash your mouth out with soap. I will not tolerate that word, in my house, John.’ So he would try to watch it, but out of the blue, somebody would be talking and John would say, ‘Aw, fuck!’ So one day, I just took him into the bathroom and soaped up the soap bar and made him stick out his tongue. I said, ‘Do it!’ And he stuck it out, and I shoved the bar in as far as I could get it. The bubbles started foaming up, and I just kept washing.”
“As soon as she took it out, I said, ‘Fuck you,’” says John. “And I’ve been saying it ever since.”
It would be great to ride forever. But Bane never turns up, and it is getting late, and the sun keeps appearing and disappearing behind the hills and casting rays of orange light across the fields, which are, in fact, beautiful, and John heads the BMW toward home. “You got a nice place to go back to,” I say.
“You know, it’s odd,” he says, scratching his ear. “Most people see me living in a trailer, and to tell the truth, it was hard for me when I started making money. I almost didn’t want it. I’m just now starting to get a handle on it. I mean, it’s nice. You get a lot of dough. But what do you do with it?” He laughs. “Isn’t that stupid?”
“What do you do with your spare time?”
“Spare time?” says John. He draws his head back like he has just heard something he can’t believe. “I don’t have spare time. Sometimes, you know, on weekends, I’ll stay in bed till ten or eleven.”
“That’s good,” I say.
“I feel so guilty, though,” says John. “I can’t stand it. I can’t stand it.”
His face darkens. His shoulders spread out and his voice drops to a whisper.
“I like time to go slow,” he whispers.
“My younger sister and I compared our rears,” I say, “and hers looks better. That’s where time goes. And there is nothing we can do about it.”
“Yeah,” says John, smiling. “My old girlfriends have started getting fat.”
He removes his sunglasses, and his eyes flash very blue.
“I mean, our time is coming,” he says. “I mean, this is it. We’re in our fucking prime. And after this….”
He looks for a moment at the world in the sunlight, then he puts his dark glasses back on and drives on down the road.
[Photo Credit: Peter Richmond]