Long before he gained fame, Indiana-born and raised roots rocker John Mellencamp was already married and a father, just two weeks after graduating from high school in 1970. After two-years in a community college—and a stint with a New York Dolls-influenced glam rock group called Trash—for a period of about 18 months he travelled back and forth several times between New York City and his small town home of Seymour trying to get his foot in the door of the music business. In 1976 Mellencamp was signed by none other than the infamous Tony Defries, the flamboyant and ruthless manager of David Bowie, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and other outré performers (like electro chanteuse Annette Peacock). It was Defries who dubbed him “Johnny Cougar” thinking his German surname sounded too hillbilly.
In fact, the young Mellencamp had little choice but to go along with the name change which he saw for the first time already plastered across his Chestnut Street Incident album cover without his consent:
“I was totally unaware of it until it showed up on the album jacket. When I objected to it, he said, ‘Well, either you’re going to go for it, or we’re not going to put the record out.’ So that was what I had to do… but I thought the name was pretty silly.”
That’s rough! Imagine how pissed off the guy was holding his debut album in his hands for the first time and finding out he’s got a brand new—stupid—name? Mellencamp’s career survived Defries, and the name went from Johnny Cougar to John Cougar then to John Cougar Mellencamp before he settled on the name he was born with. Mellencamp was no overnight sensation. His first album flopped—selling just 12,000 copies—and ultimately he found himself on a record label that wanted him to be a middle-of-the-road pop songsmith like Neil Diamond.
It was during this time, a couple of years before his commercial breakthrough with American Fool that Mellencamp released the Steve Cropper-produced album Nothin’ Matters and What If It Did in 1980. That album featured on its cover, the artist posing with none other than John Waters’ star Edith Massey, who was also in the video for one of the record’s Top 40 singles, the charmingly goofy love song “This Time.”
Mellencamp told Rolling Stone in late 1980:
“I was looking for a typical heavy woman to convey a lower-middle-class way of living.”
More like desperate living, right? It looks like Edie got over the Egg Man?