Reflections from “Homeward Bound”’s 80-Year Old Man

I couldn’t find the Bio Channel on my cable system—which doesn’t mean it wasn’t there!—but as I’d been interviewed at length for “Homeward Bound: John Mellencamp” (half an hour, at least!) the producer sent me a copy. I only decided to watch it, though, after notifying everyone I knew about it (“Hey! I’m gonna be in this GREAT John Mellencamp documentary”), especially those I knew back in Wisconsin when I first started telling people about Johnny Cougar (“See! I TOLD you he’d be a big star—and more important, look how big I am!”), only to hear back, “But you were only in it for maybe 10 seconds!”

Yes, maybe it was 10 seconds, total, in two appearances—but pure genius, of course. “They see themselves, they hear themselves in his music,” I say right at the beginning—at least I think it’s me, talking about John’s fans and their incredibly close relationship with him. But it’s a voiceover and I’m not really sure (mainly because even after over 25 years of living in New York I still sound like I just got back from milking the cows). But the unidentified guy on screen who follows, who looks well into his 80s, is definitely me: “He’s traveled all over the world but he’s always come back to Indiana!” Brilliant!

But enough about me—for the moment. Having indeed followed John since the Cougar days, I thought I knew just about everything about him. Not true. “Homeward Bound: John Mellencamp” taught me plenty, particularly the pivotal “Johnny Cougar Day” event preceding his initial appearance at Seymour’s Crump Theater. No wonder people hated him. And no wonder he hated Johnny Cougar.

I, on the other hand, loved John Cougar. Loved the “John Cougar” album (still such a great cover shot, staring out right at you with the lit cigarette dangling from his mouth!) and the first shows I saw him do in support of it at Headliners in Madison. He was great even then.

But “the people in Seymour thought he was a joke—a complete joke—[and] laughed at him,” noted former bassist Robert “Ferd” Frank in “Homeward Bound,” referring to the 1976 “John Cougar Day” festivities, and it’s easy to see why: It really was “a ‘Spinal Tap’ moment,” as Mike Leonard of the local Herald Times put it, what with the record company flying out national press to see John Cougar and his Tiger Force Band (what a band name!) parade through town—accompanied by the “Cougarette” girls in their yellow “COUGAR” t-shirts.

“How much longer are we gonna talk about this [bleep]?” John asked the interviewer before recounting the “humiliating” experience of the forced drive down Chestnut Street, two days before his first and only Crump Theater performance until his triumphant return there in September to tape the special concert performance for “Homeward Bound.”

“We wanted to burn the clothes we had on,” he continued. “It was a creepy situation, but at the same time, as creepy as it was, here it is 35 years later and without that beginning I don’t think we’d be here today. It enabled me to see real quickly what it was that I would never do again and what I won’t do, and made it very easy for me to say ‘no.’”

All this time I never fully understood why he hated “Johnny Cougar” so much. But I do now. And I have a much better understanding of how he transitioned into the groundbreaking singer-songwriter-bandleader that is John Mellencamp.

“It took a few years and a few albums for him to go away from the John Cougar made-up image,” said the 80-year old man. “He became, really, himself—John Mellencamp.” Such insight! I couldn’t have said it better myself…oh, yeah, that is me! Egad! Can my hairline recede any further? Will I look younger if I dye my beard? Have the cows come home?

Thank God it was only 10 seconds, but there were two or three other things I said that missed the cut that I want to claim credit for.

I know I recalled the phenomenal Mellencamp crowd response that you get a taste of when he comes out at the Crump show. I singled out one time when he came out at the New Jersey Meadowlands Arena, in the early or mid-‘90s, when the crowd stood and cheered for at least five minutes before John and the band hit the first note. It really was an extraordinary expression of love and appreciation that John graciously accepted (he made a few token efforts to start the show that only served to up the volume) that I’ve never witnessed for anyone else.

Then I talked about the songs, maybe mentioning a conversation with John when we agreed that melody and not lyrics is what hooks the listener. He expounded on this in “Homeward Bound” when he noted how he always makes sure his melodies are “singable enough” that anyone can sing along to them. I also found his comment—and “Pink Houses” demonstration--that all his songs begin as folk songs quite illuminating.

And I know I spoke about John’s rebel nature as an artist, and of course, product of the music business. But this, too, is covered extensively in a documentary that inevitably centers on the so-called star-making machinery of that business. Here, with John’s stated awareness that because of the breakthrough pop success of “I Need a Lover” and his regrettable Johnny Cougar name and image, he would never be taken seriously by the rock critic establishment until he made records that were “so undeniably popular that they had to deal with us,” it becomes an invaluable lesson in pop stardom, administered by someone who clearly never wanted to be a pop star.

--jim bessman