Rock Hall: John Mellencamp

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During his long career John Mellencamp has sung songs about hard-working Americans living in the Heartland, while at the same time maintaining his bad-boy image as a non-conforming rock and roller.  Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008, Mellencamp maintains a strong relationship with the Rock Hall, often performing at Music Masters tribute concerts here in Cleveland.  Known as a reticent interviewee, Mellencamp spoke in detail with Rock Hall curator Karen Herman and shared some of his most treasured keepsakes.  The result is the new exhibition, Mellencamp, on view now at the Rock Hall. 

Herman says the exhibition has some fun with Mellencamp's many names over the years.

"He was born Slate Mellencamp.  He was born with spina bifida and he almost didn't live through it.  They had some experimental surgery and he came out of it and his grandfather said 'let's rename him John,'' she said.

But before Mellencamp got his first break in the late 70's with the song "I Need a Lover," his manager Tony DeFries gave him the stage name Johnny Cougar. 

"The rest of his career he was really fighting against that name.  It went from Johnny Cougar, to John Cougar to John Cougar Mellencamp to now back to John Mellencamp," Herman said. 

In the exhibit is an acoustic guitar that DeFries gave to the young musician from Seymour, Indiana, that Herman explains originally belonged to another Rock Hall inductee. 

"We have David Bowie's 'Ziggy Stardust' guitar that he played onstage.  His manager actually managed David Bowie.  Mellencamp had read about [DeFries] and wanted to meet him and that's really how it started.  There's an interesting connection how [Mellenamp's] the complete opposite of David Bowie yet this manager saw this charisma that he knew would make him a star," Herman said. 

Another artistic side of Mellencamp's comes into view in the exhibit as well. 

"He's always been a painter.  His mother was a pretty talented artist.  She had a studio in the basement where [Mellencamp] had his room.  He says he grew up with that smell of turpentine and paints and it really infused his sensibilities," she said.

Herman also says the paintings are intense. 

"He started painting in earnest in about 1989.  He says he paints everyday.  These are giant format paintings, all portraits and they're dark," she said.   

Herman was a bit surprised when she first saw them. 

"When you think of John Mellencamp you think you're going to get this Grant Wood 'American Gothic' kind of painting and that's not it at all.  If you said 'which hall of fame inductee painted these?' I don't think everyone would say 'clearly it's John Mellencamp.'  He's a very complex person," she said. 




Karen Herman, Vice President of Collections & Curatorial Affairs at The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

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