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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Born In A Small Town by Heather Johnson


A much-needed biography for Mellencamp fans

John Mellencamp
It is hard to believe that this is the only biography of John "Cougar" Mellencamp written in the last 20 years. This book makes use of a previous biography, American Fool: The Roots and Improbable Rise of John Cougar Mellencamp by Martin Torgoff, but that was published in 1986, before John's most successful era with the Scarecrow and Lonesome Jubilee and Big DaddyBig Daddy.

Heather Johnson's unauthorized, but nonetheless well-researched biography is based on the Torgoff book, interviews with 25 people over an eight-month period in 2006. These include band members, producers and even Elaine Mellencamp, but not John. There are 4 pages of sources, including magazine, newspaper and TV interview and even a letter Mellencamp wrote to Seymour Daily Tribune when he was in high school. But, the book lacks some credibility without having John's explicit involvement.

Positives:

Well-researched, as already noted.

The author, Heather Johnson, knows her way around the music studio, which is a credit to the book since that is where the music that Mellencamp fans is created and recorded.

Wonderfully detailed index.

Nice discography, including the unauthorized releases by the Main Man producers after John made it big.

Negatives:

-When I read Born In A Small Town there were times where I wondered if she has actually been to Indiana. She refers to an ancestor (Johann Herman Mollenkamp) that helped organize the White Creek Lutheran Church in Hamilton Township (Jackson County). Well, that church is in Bartholomew County (although not far away). Nitpicky, maybe, but this is a big deal to me because I grew up right in the heart of Mellencamp-land and I went to Indiana University. I learned to skate at the Rok-Sey roller rink (a Mellencamp family businesss where you could request John Cougar songs all night long.) and I can talk about all of the places in Seymour in the Small Town video.

-She refers to Vincennes, IN as being "nearby" to Seymour, IN (p. 5). Hardly.

-She claims John and his band performed 1,000 dates with the Kinks in 8 months in 1980 (p. 41). That would be 4 performances per day, every day. Wow. Also, highly unlikely.

-She calls Guns 'N Roses guitarist Izzy Stradlin an "Indianian". There is no such word, as any Hoosier will tell you.

At times her low-key writing style wears thin - too informal, too many repeated phrases.

**********

Okay, despite these nit picky negatives, I did enjoy the book. Johnson's details about the process of the creation of John's music are interesting. Mellencamp's songs are the soundtrack of my life in a lot of ways. I listened to American Fool, Uh-Huh, Scarecrow and The Lonesome Jubilee so many times that if you play me one of the songs, I can sing it, tell you the album and the songs that precede and follow it. If it is the same with you, go ahead and pick this one up.

I rate this biography 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Born in a Small Town.

Reviewed on July 19, 2008.

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