OVER LUNCH THE OTHER DAY, I THREW OUT John Mellencamp as a topic of discussion. "Does anyone here have a problem with him?" I asked. Around the table sat a club booker, a salesperson, a punk rocker, a couple of jaded journalists, and a mini-mogul. In under five seconds all agreed, hands down, that no ill could be spoken of John Mellencamp. "I think people on the East Coast don't like him," set forth one of the bunch--philosophizing that the eastern folks' allegiance lies with no one but the Boss. Unbelievably, the tattoo-covered punk rocker shut him down with his own personal knowledge that Syracuse, New York, is "huge" on Mellencamp. "That guy's a saint."

Honestly: Does anyone in these Great United States have a problem with John Mellencamp? The guy has got to be the most benign performer in the industry. It's doubtful anyone could single out and say they "hate" any of the Indiana boy's many chart-topping hits, from his sweet tributes to teenage love like "I Need a Lover" (containing the number one requirement on every commitment-phobe's wish list "someone who knows the meaning of 'Hey, hit the highway!'") and "Jack and Diane," to the quasi-patriotic comments on American life like "Pink Houses" and "Rain on the Scarecrow." "Get a Leg Up" is wholly sexist, but forgivably catchy. In 1994 Mellencamp teamed up with renowned DJ Junior Vasquez on Mr. Happy Go Lucky; on the album before that he dueted with the enigmatic Me'shell Ndege'ocello.

Yeah, he went through that confusing Cougar to Cougar Mellencamp to just plain Mellencamp crap, but that wasn't his fault. The blame lies on the shoulders of his first manager--young Johnny didn't even know his name had been changed to Cougar until he saw it emblazoned across his first album, Chestnut Street Incident, released in 1976. It takes a few years to work out the kinks.

A few years and a few albums: none contained more than one good single until his fifth attempt, 1982's clap-happy American Fool, which spawned "Jack and Diane" as well as "Hurts So Good." His career remained uncompromised, however, and continued to prosper; all the while Mellencamp never strayed from his steady interpretations of contemporary life for the average, down-on-his-luck American. He further illustrated his deep knowledge of the downtrodden by co-penning a screenplay with Larry McMurtry which would eventually become the film Falling From Grace, in which Mellencamp would make his big-screen acting debut, alongside fellow folksinger John Prine.

This is the guy who, on the eve of the taping of his MTV Unplugged episode nearly 20 years after his humble beginning, carved "Fuck Fascism" into his guitar, eventually agreeing to cover part of the letter U with a "Censorship is UnAmerican" button--but everyone who saw the show got his message. Along with Willie Nelson and Neil Young he founded Farm Aid, the less pretentious, more meaningful and long-lived American answer to puffy '80s hunger benefit Band-Aid. There have been 12 Farm Aids in the past 15 years, and another installment of the summit--which brings committed artists together to raise money for the embattled agricultural industry--is scheduled for September 12, in Bristol, Virginia.

The only time I saw Mellencamp live, he was still Johnny Cougar. A friend and I, listening to the car radio on the way home from a day at the coast, heard the DJ say Cougar was playing an outdoor show at the local speedway. We drove straight there, strictly on a whim--two temporary new-wavers giddy with the mutual confession that we both kinda loved "Ain't Even Done With the Night." Mellencamp was younger-looking than his years (though he wasn't yet 30), dirty and greasy, dressed in jeans and a sleeveless black T-shirt with a big floppy load of bangs hanging across his face like a shadow. Equal parts danger and "shucks, ma'am"; a guy with a kid and a divorce already in the dust. It was an excellent, oil-soaked evening of straight-up rock and roll, yet a mere hint at what Mellencamp was to become in the next decade. Now a grandfather, still living in Indiana, and slated to be honored in June--alongside Kurt Vonnegut, Larry Bird, and David Letterman--by the Indiana Historical Society as an "Indiana Living Legend," Mellencamp hasn't done too bad for a greasy hayseed.

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