Herald Times: TV Special Tonight Examines Bloomington ‘Cat’ Mellencamp

By Mike Leonard

Rock star and Bloomington resident John Mellencamp performs at the Crump Theater in Columbus in this still from tonight’s 90-minute documentary special “Homeward Bound: John Mellencamp,” airing on the Biography channel.

John Mellencamp has never enjoyed spending much time talking about how he got saddled with the stage name of Johnny Cougar.

It was an embarrassing and infuriating marketing decision made by his manager at the time and enforced with the threat of “no name change, no record.”

For years, the moniker was more like an anchor around the neck of the 57-year-old Seymour native and longtime Bloomington resident. Few fans or critics were willing to take seriously a cat named Cougar, or even the artist formerly known as.

“Are we through talking about this now?” Mellencamp asks on camera during the new 90-minute documentary, “Homeward Bound: John Mellencamp,” which premieres at 9 tonight on the Biography channel (Bloomington Comcast cable digital channel 482).

It’s a light-hearted moment among many in the documentary. And it’s not like Mellencamp didn’t know he’d have to talk about the early and tumultuous years of his career, because the concept behind the program is to tell the “before they became famous” stories of successful entertainers.

Mellencamp speaks in detail about those early years — the bad bands, the rejection letters, the times when he got booed or “bottled” off stage. It’s darkly comical when current and former band members Mike Wanchic and Robert “Ferd” Frank describe trying to develop an American rock band in England at the same time the punk movement took off, fueled by groups such as the Sex Pistols. Spit, hair brushes and bottles would come flying out of the crowd, and as Frank points out, with the spotlights in your eyes, you can’t even see what’s coming at you.

Johnny Cougar and the John Cougar Band began to garner respect with the first hit song, “I Need a Lover.” And as Mellencamp says, when the album, “American Fool,” soared to the top of the album charts in 1982, it changed everything. He was then able to morph into John Cougar Mellencamp and then, at long last, his given name, John Mellencamp.

Success — and a reputation for pugnaciousness — enabled him to really take his music in directions he wanted to go, instead of doing the things that record labels and producers wanted him to do.

“Homeward Bound” producer Anthony Uro says he came up with the concept for the show three years ago but only this year was able to sell it to the Arts and Entertainment Network and its BIO affiliate. Tonight’s show is essentially a pilot. “They’re really happy with the show,” he says, “but whether they pick it up for a series depends on ratings.”

Uro’s Stage 3 Productions crew works fast. It began filming interviews for tonight’s show in early September and completed the film phase by the end of the month.

The last third of tonight’s show provides excellent concert footage from the show staged at the historic Crump Theater in Columbus, one of the first venues Mellencamp played at the beginning of his career.

This same show will be edited down to 60 minutes for broadcast at some point in the future on A&E.