A few Decembers ago, I spent a pivotal hour of my life with John Mellencamp at his sprawling manse in Bloomington, Ind. • I was the pop music critic for the Washington Post at the time, and I flew to Hoosierville to do a story on how the former Johnny Cougar, a once-beloved native son, had seemingly become the last blue Democrat in a very red state. The famously taciturn Midwesterner invited me to his rococo-style home on the shores of Lake Monroe (where they filmed the Jack and Diane video many moons earlier). We chatted in his snooker room — yes, snooker room. The tape kept rolling, and John kept smoking and talking and smoking some more. It was surreal; it was sublime. As I was leaving, I met John's blond sons, Hud and Speck, and his blond wife, Elaine Irwin, the statuesque Victoria's Secret model.
Skip ahead five years: I just read a story that Speck Mellencamp, who is now 14, has started a Facebook campaign to save the life of his famous father, who is now 58 and already has one heart attack on the books. Speck writes on his FB page: "I made a deal with my dad that if I get a 1,000,000 to join this group, he will quit smoking."
That's a good kid, huh?
At press time, Speck had 189,145 members, one of whom is me. The irony of my inclusion, and the curious guilt that goes with it, is that I shared a smoke or three with John on that memorable night in December '04. (We gnawed through a pack of American Spirits, I believe.)
My Post feature revolved around his harsh habit, not so much celebrating it as marking it part of his individuality. This included a tar-stained story of nostalgia that remains the best kicker to any story I've ever written. In the shadows of his snooker room, as he puffed almighty, this is what John Mellencamp told me:
The first time I was married, I was 18. And the father of the woman I was married to was in his early 50s. His name was Chet. Lovely guy. Lovely guy. Big fat guy. His hair was all gray. Chet would eat and he would sweat. Ever see anybody sweat when they eat? That's bad. I was living in their house. I had no job. I was in a band. I was married to this guy's daughter, had a kid with her. Mooching off these people. And Chet treated me so good.
Anyway, I used to see Chet get up in the night and smoke. Hack around. And I told myself, "I'll never do that. If ever do that, I'll quit." Now I get up in the night. No shirt on. Just a pair of underwear on. And I'll sit on the couch and smoke and think, "I'm Chet, man. I'm (bleepin') Chet."
Who knows if Speck will get to a million? And if he does, will John really be able to kick the habit? But I say we help father and son find out. If you want to join Speck's Facebook group, or read my original Mellencamp feature, go to Pop Life online at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.
Them Crooked Vultures
Album: Them Crooked Vultures (DGC/Interscope)
In stores: Now
Whole Lotta Love Affair: Them Crooked Vultures isn't so much a supergroup as it is a fantasy camp: Foo Fighter Dave Grohl and chum Josh Homme (from Queens of the Stone Age) trade riffs and swarthy thunder-rock with Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones. Grohl loves sitting in with his heroes, from Nine Inch Nails to Paul McCartney, and he's in a constant battle with Jack White over who can star in more side projects. But that restless spirit is born of fanboy love, and you just know he's sporting a big goofy grin as he makes like John "Bonzo" Bonham crashing the cymbals behind the kit. Homme is having a blast, too, wailing like a '70s stoner-rock god and shredding like a guitar hero as the legendary JPJ leads with bass lines and keyboard hooks more acrobatic than the next. It's not all a Zep homage, although New Fang definitely has a Trampled Under Foot stutter-swagger to it. Cuts range from the deep, purply prog stomp of Caligulove to the faux-acidic White Room swirls of Scumbag Blues. Lyrics run from femme fatales to topical malaise, but the complex rhythms and multilayers of racket (including Grohl's Foo-ey backing vocals) are more important than the silly-pompous meaning of Mind Eraser, No Chaser or No One Loves Me & Neither Do I. It all gets a bit sloggy by album's end, but you'll have a ton of fun before you need a break.
Reminds us of: Cream, with hairier knuckles.
Download these: Mind Eraser, No Chaser and Bandoliers