Chapter One: Small Town CHAPTER ONE Small Town
Well, I got heart disease from my dad’s side and diabetes from my mom’s side. I got my temper from both sides.
John was always a troublemaker. He got us into trouble a lot.
—Joe Mellencamp, John’s half brother
It was an 1800 Land Act from the government in Washington that created Indiana Territory, and from the middle of that century, the new state began to be widely populated. Pioneers ranged up south to north, from Kentucky and the Appalachians, across the Ohio River. From the north, they trekked downcountry from New England, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia. From the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, they arrived from southern and eastern Europe, but mostly from Germany. Around this time, Johan Herman Friedrich Mollenkamp left his hometown of Anger, a suburb of Hanover, and pitched up in the rural south of Indiana, meaning to farm the land.
Germans soon made up more than half the foreign-born population of Indiana. Statewide, they quickly established German-language newspapers, German schools, and German social clubs. Yet Johan Mollenkamp married outside of this tight community, taking for his bride a Native American girl, Anna. Johan couldn’t speak English, Anna knew not a word of German, but somehow they managed. Together they built up a farmstead outside of Seymour which passed to their eldest son, born to them in 1855 and also named Johan. With his wife, Carrie, the next Johan Mollenkamp had ten children and to each they gave a more Americanized surname: Mellencamp. Among their brood was a son born November 4, 1903, and named Harry Perry, “Speck” to all who got to know him; this was John Mellencamp’s grandfather.
The southern Indiana land was tough to work, back- and soul-breaking. Speck’s father didn’t see sixty, dead of a gallbladder attack in 1924. Young Speck wed nineteen-year-old Laura Nancy Nobliott the same year, and they set up home in Seymour. He worked as a carpenter; he had left school in second grade to help keep money coming into the family. The newlyweds also got a hard, unforgiving start to their lives together. Six children were born to them: four boys, James, Jerry, Joe, and Richard; and two girls, Mary and Shirley. By the time the youngest boy, Richard, came into the world in the summer of 1931, the Great Depression had hit rural American families like a wrecking ball. When Richard was ten, a drunk driver ran over and killed his fifteen-year-old eldest brother, James.
After World War II, Speck, who’d barely had the time to learn to read or write, but was as enterprising as he was unyielding, set up his own construction company. He prospered in the building boom that followed through into the next decade, although the terrible, suffocating weight of all the loss and hurt inflicted upon him and his kin left him bitter, resentful. Ever after, Speck Mellencamp seethed and raged. He had a hair-trigger temper, volcanic and fearful to behold.
This much Speck passed on to his two youngest boys. Both Joe and Richard grew up rough and wild, one just as fearsomely competitive as the other. Joe, big, broad, and muscle-bound, excelled at boxing and football, and he was star running back at Seymour High and then Indiana University. Richard, known by “Dutch” within the family circle, was slighter, the junior by two years, but made up the difference with relentless determination. Together, they were hell to pay. On a hot, sticky afternoon in 1950, like so many others before, they set themselves to brawling. Earlier that day, Richard had got jumped by four local toughs and had taken a pounding. Joe didn’t need persuading to join him for a revenge beating.
Two cops arrived on the scene as they were in the act of administering their brand of justice. The brothers ran off down the street, cops in pursuit, Richard headlong into a local beauty, Marilyn Lowe, knocking her off her feet. Six months after dumping her on the sidewalk, Richard married Marilyn. She hailed from Austin, twenty miles south of Seymour, where her father, Joe, ran a restaurant. According to local gossip, the place served as a front for his bootlegging, gambling, and other nefarious activities. Marilyn was three years older than Richard. She was a runner-up in the 1946 Miss Indiana pageant, a divorcée, and mother to a three-year-old boy, Joe, who lived with her parents. Marilyn soon fell pregnant again and, on October 7, 1951, bore a second son. Richard and Marilyn named the boy John, after his paternal great-grandfather, and in the knowledge he’d likely not live long.
He was born with a growth the size of a fist on the back of his head. The child’s fetal vertebrae hadn’t fused, doctors told his stricken parents, causing a buildup of fluid on his spine. They called the condition spina bifida, and at the time, it was usually terminal. John’s parents were, though, given a chink of hope. A young neurosurgeon based at Indiana University Medical Center, Dr. Robert Heimburger, was just then pioneering a surgical treatment for infants afflicted with spina bifida. At six weeks old, little John Mellencamp was one of three children operated on by Heimburger and a fellow physician, Dr. John Russell. One child died on the operating table. Another, a baby girl, survived to be a young teenager, but was confined to a wheelchair. Baby John’s procedure alone was wholly successful.
Grandma Laura, who doted on him from his first breath, never failed afterward to tell him he was the luckiest boy alive, “and don’t you forget it.” Laura was a devout, God-fearing woman and it surely seemed to her as if the very devil himself had been chased off, and a curse lifted from the family, at least for a while.
“My grandmother really was the biggest influence on me, and my grandfather, too,” John says.
“They were from a whole different generation than my parents. They were Depression people, World War One people. Every day of my life my grandmother told me how lucky I was. You get told that enough and you believe it. I just never thought I wasn’t. What that did to me was it gave me great confidence in anything I tried to do.”
The Mellencamps’ peace was short-lived. The previous summer, US forces had begun shipping out to Asia to go fight the Korean War. With the conflict escalating, Joe Mellencamp enlisted in the army, where he served as a corporal. Richard was drafted into the air force for two years. Upon his discharge, he enrolled at college in Indianapolis to study electrical engineering for four more years. A second son, Ted, came along and Richard moved his growing family into a new house at 714 West 5th Street, in Seymour. In time, two more children were born to Richard and Marilyn, daughters Janet and Laura.
Their home was small and cozy: two bedrooms, a living and dining room, a little kitchen, and a porch out back. Marilyn kept hog-fat grease to make gravy right from the stove. In whatever spare time she had to herself, Marilyn painted in oils, still life canvases of flowers and landscapes. She fancied herself something of an intellectual, an activist. She had a photograph taken of herself on a picket line, protesting workers’ rights at a canning factory in Austin back in 1945. Richard, like his father before, was quick to temper. A stickler for discipline, he was strict, unwavering, and ever ready to wield his belt. After graduating college, he took a job with a local company, Robbins Electric. Diligent, conscientious, and a hard worker, he soon rose up the ranks, first to becoming a supervisor, and then to an estimator, a white-collar desk job.
Young John grew up cute as a button, Marilyn always said. He was made mascot of the Seymour High football team at four. Yet with it, he was precocious, mischief-making, willful, and a scrapper as much as any Mellencamp. At six, he was tall for his age and so when he started out at Emerson Elementary, he took to beating up on the other kids. Outside of school, he enlisted little Ted, already a firecracker himself, to help out with his schemes. The two of them snuck off together, the alley behind the house one of their favored destinations and from where they’d launch stones up at the neighbors’ windows.
“I’ve a lot of good memories of childhood,” John says. “I had a good childhood. All of these guys had come back from World War Two and everybody went and had babies. The house here had five kids. The house there had five kids. The house over yonder had five kids. And I lived in a big neighborhood. There were a million fucking kids for me to play with, and I never ran out of trouble to get into with them.
“The school I went to was a half block away,” John continues. “In summertime, all of us kids congregated on the playground. I didn’t have to go, ‘I’m going to the playground.’ I just went. My parents always knew where I was at. ‘John’s at the fucking playground.’ Back then, it wasn’t like now, where folks have to keep their eyes on their kids all the time. When I was growing up, parents didn’t give a fuck. It was like, ‘Get the fuck out. Shut the fuck up.’ You’ve got five kids, I mean, Jesus Christ—it was out of sight and out of mind. In America, a whole generation grew up like that.”
Not so much happened in Seymour and hadn’t since the 1860s. The evening of October 6, 1866, three men, John Reno, Sim Reno, and Frank Sparks, members of the Reno Gang, a motley gathering of local troublemakers and tearaways, boarded the Ohio and Mississippi Express at tracks east of the town. From there they committed the world’s first recorded robbery of a moving train, making off with $16,000 from the safe. Altogether, the gang robbed four trains across the Midwest. Frank, Sim, and another brother, Bill, were captured and lynched, in New Albany, Indiana, in December 1868. Three more members of the gang were apprehended boarding a fifth train three miles outside of Seymour on July 9, 1869. Each was hung from a tree near railway sidings at a spot known ever since as Hangman Crossing. Frank, Sim, and Bill Reno’s remains lie still in the old town cemetery.
The Reno Gang’s exploits were a huge deal in a place like Seymour. The town nestles in a landscape of flat farmland and scattered woodland. The course of the East Fork of the White River arcs over the northern limits of town. By the 1950s, the population was still much less than ten thousand. Folks left car keys in their vehicles overnight and went to church on Sundays. Downtown Chestnut Street was lined with hardware and paint stores, a barber shop, the Tastee-Freez ice-cream parlor, and the resplendent Majestic cinema. For their part, the young Mellencamp brothers’ troubles were altogether commonplace. On one occasion, their stone-throwing excursions took them further afield, to take aim at a big old barn out on the edge of town. A police car brought the pair of them home. The arresting officer issued them a rebuke and assigned their father to pass sentence.
At such times, John’s sanctuary would be Grandpa Speck’s and Grandma Laura’s farmhouse, which was right around the corner on Enos Road. He was Grandma Laura’s pet, her favorite always. She soothed and spoiled him, called him Buddy. In his fifties now, Grandpa Speck still was just as rough as a cob. He chain-smoked Camels, tore off the filters, and rasped out homespun wisdoms through an ever-present cloud of cigarette smoke. Thanksgiving dinners were spent over at the farmhouse. Uncle Joe, who lived next door to them with Aunt Rose, his long-suffering wife, went off and shot a duck or goose for Grandma Laura to cook in ladles of grease. After dinner, men and boys played football out back in the yard, Richard and Joe on opposing sides, each straining sinew to put one over the other.
Mom Marilyn’s folks, together with young Joe, moved out to Scottsburg, a hop south of Austin. There, Grandma Bessie and Joe Lowe, the old rogue, opened up a flower and bait shop. When the Mellencamps visited in the summer, Joe took the three boys off at night to hunt for bait, arming them with a flashlight and bucket. He paid them a nickel for every nightcrawler they pulled from the ground. Grandpa Joe also cooked up candy for the boys, made to his own recipe, the best in all the state, or so he told them.
Sunday mornings in Seymour meant church, no questions asked. Both Grandma Laura and Aunt Rose were reverent followers of the Church of the Nazarene, a severe strain of Protestantism which forbade alcohol, tobacco, and gambling, as well as jewelry, cosmetics, and short sleeves. Since the first three of these strictures excluded Grandpa Speck, Uncle Joe, and their father, the men stayed home. Marilyn would lead the boys off in their Sunday best, hair combed and slicked. Should a word of protest be raised, and all too often it was John’s, only then would Richard intervene. His preferred method of persuasion was a fast, sharp clout.
Their cousins also were manhandled along to church, Mary’s and Shirley’s boys, the Clarks and the Cowleses; Bobby, whose father, John’s uncle, was also the minister; and Tracy. A form of compensation was the music they got to hear at worship, since Nazarene souls were stirred by a host of Appalachian gospel and folk songs, the sound of them rousing and exultant.
Back at 714 West 5th Street, young John was introduced to other strains of American folk music through the medium of his parents’ bongo parties. These were happy, rowdy affairs. The adults would be massed around the small living room, records by Woody Guthrie or Odetta blaring from the gramophone, everyone singing along and someone or other beating out a rhythm on Richard’s set of bongo drums. The boys were supposed to be asleep in their beds, but John was apt to creep downstairs. Unable to help himself, he’d set off singing and dancing around the front room, the center of all attention. “My parents liked music,” he says. “I grew up listening to Odetta and Woody Guthrie, jazz and country music. My dad’s only twenty years older than me. In the adult world, we’re practically the same fucking age.”
Directly, he was drawn to, responded to, something primal in this music; its rawness, its earthiness; Odetta’s angels-summoning voice, Woody’s righteousness, the whole of it making his head hum, and his heart hammer. Of all his parents’ records, the one he paid closest attention to was Julie London’s Julie Is Her Name. Not on account of the music it contained, sweet-voiced though this was, but for the photograph of the fragrant London that adorned the LP cover. He fixated on London’s cascading red hair, her eyes of ocean blue. On her scarlet pout and, glory be, the vision of her pert, half-bared breasts, which summoned up feelings he couldn’t possibly yet comprehend.
The summer of John’s seventh year, nine-year-old Joe arrived from Scottsburg to live with them in Seymour. Richard made arrangements to legally adopt the boy. An extra body to accommodate, Richard also set about adapting the house. The basement was cleared and divided in two, one part made into an art studio for Marilyn, the other a den for the three boys with bunk beds and a TV set. Six years separating them, Joe, John, and Ted were made by Richard to compete against each other. The better to mold and steel them into being men, was their father’s firm belief.
Down in the basement, the old man set them to wrestle and box, do pull-ups and handstands. Out back, they played ball and touch football, and they had foot races, all of it to determine who was strongest, quickest, and best. The eldest, Joe was also tallest, the one with the most stamina, but still: “Goddamn it, keep up with your brother,” Richard would exhort John. Winning was all, their father preached, second best didn’t count. It was Joe, always Joe—top of his class at school and talented at sports, music, and drama—who John was measured up to. Joe was going to be an engineer, a senator even some day, his parents told him, before adding: “Now, quit bothering your brother so he can study, and why don’t you go draw a picture or something.”
Both boys shared a blossoming interest in music. Joe had an acoustic guitar he’d pick at; John mimicked Elvis. Their first year living together, they’d team up to sing Everly Brothers hits for the rest of the family. John was willing, but Joe had the better singing voice, least so most everyone said. Such was the crucible through which his childhood passed and so whatever demons drove and haunted the older Mellencamp men, whatever fires flared inside each of them, these same things raved and were ignited inside of John, too.
“I grew up around a bunch of men who were angry,” he says.
“My grandpa was that way. My uncle was, too. My dad was a tyrant,” John continues. “You fucked with these guys, you had to pay. It was that simple. They’d just grunt at you and smack you. That’s all there was to it. There was no, ‘Let’s try to figure this out and have a rational conversation.’ It was just, bang! My uncle Joe, if I said something he didn’t like, boom! This guy’s six-three, he weighs two hundred thirty-five pounds, what am I gonna do? That’s all he knew. You just had to take this shit. I was so high-strung, all over the place. So much even I didn’t know what the fuck I was talking about.
“Yet Grandpa Speck gave me the greatest advice. ‘John,’ he told me, ‘if you’re gonna hit a cocksucker—kill him.’ It was his way of saying: There’s no point in trying to do something in life if you’re not going to commit yourself. Don’t sit around and talk about what you’re going to do. Don’t be one of those guys. Decide what it is you’re going to do and don’t quit.”
John went up to Seymour Junior High in the second year of John F. Kennedy’s presidency, the summer of 1962. He’d about stopped growing by then, was on the short side for his age. He’d developed a mild stutter and was struggling with dyslexia, but it wasn’t diagnosed. And he had a king-sized chip on his shoulder. He drifted in class, distracted and restless, but excelled at competitive sports, the fastest on the running track and a standout on the football field.
“I first met John at eighth grade football,” says Tim Elsner, a close friend almost ever since. “He went to the public school and I was at the Catholic school. Since our school didn’t have the money for a football team, and since my parents paid their taxes like anyone else, our guys could go over and play on their team. John was on the Seymour team. He was pretty good, and he knew it. Even then, he was pretty full of himself.”