The News Herald: Rock Hall Celebrates Veteran Rocker With ‘Mellencamp’ Exhibit

By John Benson - The News Herald

John Mellencamp may be known as the Heartland’s storyteller, but there’s much more to the Grammy Award winner than meets the eye.

To fully explore the juxtaposition of the “American Fool” and iconoclast for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s new exhibit “Mellencamp,” appearing in the Ahmet Ertegun Main Exhibition Hall, organizers present a renaissance man who belies his “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.” artist image.

“He’s pretty complex,” Rock Hall Vice President of Collections & Curatorial Affairs Karen Herman said. “He’s an artist when you look at his work, it’s very deep with warmth, but then again there’s an edginess to him that we wanted to portray.”

The exhibit features selections from an exclusive multi-hour interview with Mellencamp, as well as more than 100 items mainly from his personal collection. The list includes a 1966 Silver Honda Scrambler 305 motorcycle, a Dove acoustic guitar performance outfits and six original paintings.

“When we were first talking about doing this exhibit, we met with Mellencamp himself,” Herman said. “We asked him, ‘Who are you?’ It really came down to he is an artist, a complete artist. Everybody knows his music, but there’s this other part of him that’s into visual arts as a painter.

“He’s had some very significant shows just with art in museums and galleries. They’re very big pieces, so to see them in person, they’re stunning.”

In terms of being wowed, Herman said that was her first reaction upon seeing the exhibit’s original handwritten lyrics to “Small Town,” “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.,” “Cherry Bomb,” “Pop Singer,” and ““Longest Days” (“Life Is Short”).”

“He has a very specific style, and I think for him, a lot of it is the poetry of his writing,” Herman said. “There’s a storytelling part of it. ‘Jack and Diane’ is a perfect example: He’s creating characters that we know very little about, but yet we know a lot about them.

“And so many people can relate to that. It’s really in his songwriting. That really hits a nerve.”

Speaking of hitting a nerve, that includes Mellencamp’s penchant for the aforementioned edginess. He wasn’t afraid to speak out about injustice and social issues. Not only is the Indiana rocker a co-founder of Farm Aid, but the 2008 Rock Hall Inductee often commented on inequality in a way that perhaps raised a few eyebrows in the Midwest.

Just think back to the video for his 1987 song “Cherry Bomb,” which featured a black man dancing with a white woman. Therein lies what Herman feels is Mellencamp’s legacy.

“He’s a rebel, and he spent a lot of time fighting,” Herman said. “He fought against that name, Cougar, and eventually became Mellencamp. I think there are a lot of those things that people will remember him for, that rebellious streak and the ability to kind of at the end really stand up for who you are.”