John Mellencamp wants to go back and start again. He doesn't want to become Johnny Cougar again -- God, no. He has nothing but contempt for his own early work as a late-'70s/early-'80s, floppy-haired heartland poster boy. When he speaks of his first eight albums of pandering pop-rock -- full of Top 40 hits, mind you, like "I Need a Lover," "Hurts So Good," and signature songs like "Jack & Diane" and "Pink Houses" -- it's with a scoff and a sneer.
He's tried to reboot several times. The name change, for one -- Johnny Cougar, then John Cougar Mellencamp, cat-free since '91. The turning point came when Mellencamp, a native of Seymour, Ind., released 1985's "Scarecrow," a transitional album that gave us "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A." but also rootsy, populist tracks like "Small Town," "The Face of the Nation," "Justice and Independence" and "You've Gotta Stand for Somethin'." It was a bid for critical respect, and it worked. (That same year, he helped found Farm Aid with Neil Young and Willie Nelson.) Each album since -- an admirable catalog of a dozen more records with a thoroughly Midwestern blend of Friday-night fun and corner-diner speeches -- has received various and consistent acclaim.
But people at the shows still expect him to do the splits.
"I talked to my next-door neighbor this morning," Mellencamp, 59, said during our recent interview from his Indiana home. "She was at the show in Bloomington [Ind.]. She said, 'Really, I like the old John better.' And I said, 'Well, Cathy, that guy doesn't exist anymore.' It'd be foolish of me to try and do at my age now what I was doing at 32. It's not dignified. Jumping off an amp at my age would be stupid. Singing 'Hurts So Good'? Please. If people are coming to see 'The Coug,' they should stay home."