Bloomington Herald Times: Mellencamp Elected To Rock 'N' Roll Hall Of Fame

By Mike Leonard | [email protected]
Saturday December 15, 2007

The announcement that John Mellencamp has been elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame lacked an element of surprise after Mellencamp leaked the good news to a concert audience two weeks ago.

The Cleveland-based Hall made it official Thursday. Mellencamp, Madonna, Leonard Cohen, The Ventures and the Dave Clark Five will become the Hall's newest members and will be inducted into the prestigious fraternity at a gala celebration at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City on March 10.

"I'm very honored and pleased to be recognized this way, especially among people whom I greatly admire," Mellencamp said in a prepared statement.

Although Mellencamp was nominated for induction to the Hall classes of 2004 and 2006, music critics and industry insiders had pointed to this year as the likely time the longtime Monroe County resident would be selected. While the official rules state that artists become eligible for tion 25 years after the release of their first record, Mellencamp's 1982 release, "American Fool," was the breakthrough album that spawned the hit singles "Hurt So Good" and "Jack and Diane."

"Jack and Diane" held the No. 1 spot on the pop charts for four consecutive weeks. Mellencamp said in an interview earlier this year that the song was played so often on the radio that he'd change stations upon hearing it - only to hear it being played on the station he switched to. "Hurt So Good" never reached No. 1, but its 16 weeks in the Top 10 made it the longest-tenured Top 10 song in the 1980s.

But if there is any one thing that got Mellencamp elected to the Hall of Fame, it's that there is no one thing. Virtually from the time Mellencamp released his first album, a flop released under the nom de plume of Johnny Cougar, Mellencamp and his band have worked tirelessly, both in the recording studio and on the road. Mellencamp's prodigious output of consistently high-quality recordings and concert performances since 1982 might be unparalleled in rock history.

"It's the ultimate recognition that you've done well and your work is good," Mellencamp's band leader, Mike Wanchic, said this week. "The bottom line is that there are only 150 people in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and to be in there is a recognition of the art we've made for 30 years."

"I'm glad he made it. He deserves it," said former band member Kenny Aronoff. "He has a big body of work. Lots of hit songs. Lots of good albums. I contributed 17 years of my life to making that music, so it's exciting for me, too."

Aronoff parted ways with the Mellencamp band in 1996 and went on to become probably the most in-demand recording session and touring drummer in rock history. He had just finished a short tour with another Hall of Fame member, John Fogerty, when reached at the Dallas/Fort Worth airport, waiting for a flight to Los Angeles.

The superstar drummer, who graduated from the Indiana University School of Music and studied under the late, great George Gaber, reacted excitedly when reminded that many music critics called the Mellencamp band the best in the business during his tenure with the group. "Hell, yeah!" Aronoff exclaimed. The Scarecrow and (Lonesome) Jubilee tours - I think we were as good of an American rock band as there was, right there with Springsteen and Tom Petty and Bob Seger.

We had a great band. We kicked ass.

"We were ruthless. We took no prisoners," Aronoff went on. "We were all about shoving it out there. I liked that. We were very athletic and passionate in our approach to the music. Actually, we were kind of a bunch of athletes on stage."

The band in those days consisted of Aronoff on drums, Wanchic and Larry Crane on guitars and Toby Myers on bass - all players based in Bloomington or Indianapolis. Longtime Mellencamp friend George Green would contribute lyrics to several hit songs and outstanding album cuts including "Hurt So Good," "Rain on the Scarecrow," "Crumblin' Down," "Human Wheels" and "Key West Intermezzo (I Saw You First)."

Band members would change over the years. Aronoff would leave for a lucrative session and sideman career and be replaced by Dane Clark. Lisa Germano, who added the mood and color of violin to the band, left for a solo career, to be replaced by another School of Music-trained violinist, Miriam Sturm. Crane's lead guitar role would be followed by David Grissom and Andy York, who has held that position for more than a decade. Keyboard virtuoso John Cascella would die unexpectedly of a heart attack and be replaced by a succession of talented players. And longtime bass player Myers would leave to spend more time with his wife and newborn child, to be replaced by John Gunnell (a former bassist for rocker Ted Nugent).

Several talented backup singers would come and go as well, including Pat Peterson, Crystal Taliefero and Jenn Cristy.

Mellencamp also has tapped the talents and creativity of a variety of accomplished recording artists, including Me'Shell NdegeOcello, Chuck D, Joan Baez and the country group Little Big Town. Most recently, he's teamed with author Stephen King on a dramatic musical, "Ghost Brothers of Darkland County," which is expected to premiere in 2008. Most recently, Mellencamp and band worked with the famous producer T-Bone Burnett on a new album tentatively titled "The Company We Keep," scheduled for release in early 2008.

Ironically, 2007 was the year that one Mellencamp song became ubiquitous to the nation's television viewers. After years of resolutely refusing to allow his music to be used for advertising and television commercials, he relented and signed a contract with Chevrolet, which wanted to adopt his song "Our Country," as the automaker's theme for advertising its Silverado truck line. For the past year, it's been virtually impossible to watch a sporting event on television without hearing the song frequently.

Wanchic, who a friend-of-the-band joked "has spent more time with John than any of his three wives," said part of the genius of Mellencamp is that while he has an ego, as any high-achieving artist does, he's never been intimidated by other talented artists and has always actively sought out collaboration and advice.

"That's one of the beauties of John as an artist. He knows a good idea when he hears one," Wanchic said. "In addition to being a brilliant songwriter and band leader in his own right, he can glean a great idea and work with it. He has the humility to not assume he has all of the best ideas.

"If I come up with a good idea for a drum line, John will say, let's go with it. If John has an idea for a guitar line, he'll say, try this. John is in charge, there is no question about that. And that's the way it should be. Great albums don't get made by committee. There needs to be one voice saying, this is the way it's going to be."

Another reason Wanchic said he believes the 56-year-old songwriter and performer richly deserves his Hall of Fame recognition is that he's never been complacent. "Inspiration has never been a problem for this band, ever," the guitarist and band leader said. "John has never been one to stay in one place. When you take a stationary position as an artist, you're doomed. So that's what we've always done - looked to make a new record and not a record like the last one.

"It's always a risk," Wanchic said. "But that's what art is. Art without risk is mediocrity."
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