John Mellencamp was born October 7, 1951 in Seymour, Indiana, but John Cougar was born on the radio–FM radio–in 1979 when American stations began playing his anthem, “I Need a Lover” . . . as in “who won’t drive me crazy.”
The song originally appeared the year prior on his second album, a disc called A Biography. Mellencamp’s manager at the time insisted his young Hoosier go by the name of Johnny Cougar. A Biography wasn’t released in the United States, but after “I Need a Lover” hit #5 on the Australian charts, Mellencamp’s new label, Riva Records, included it on his third LP, the eponymous classic of 1979, John Cougar.
“I Need a Lover” would reach #28 on the American Top 40, but in terms of longevity it’s been a #1 for decades. I have no doubt that it’s playing right now on a Rock station somewhere in America.
Majestic and refreshingly unconventional, the song bursts like a dam giving way, instantly washing over you with wave after wave of instrumental melody; Cougar doesn’t begin singing his earnest petition until exactly two and half minutes into the track. Even as it ends, the song trails off in an unusual rumble of floor toms and feedback.
The Legacy abounds with lyrics which fans have struggled to decipher. Rock’s most renowned ode, “Stairway to Heaven,” contains the gnomic, ear-evading pronouncement: “it’s just a spring clean for the May-Queen.” In those pre-Internet days, a lot of fans would’ve been stumped by that one had Led Zeppelin not mercifully transcribed the lyrics in monkish calligraphy on the album’s inner sleeve (the words to “Stairway” the only lyrics provided, by the way.)
For my money, “I Need a Lover” contains the most indecipherable line of Rock lyrics in all The Legacy. At about four minutes into the song, Cougar begins the third verse with the rapid-fire mouthful: “Now I’m not wiped out by this pool hall life I’m livin’ (he continues: “I’m gonna quit this job and go to school and live at home.) If you were able to figure that out just by listening then you’ve probably got a career waiting for you at the NSA.
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Many years ago I bought John Cougar on tape to play–so appropriately–in my car. In short order I ditched the brittle plastic case but kept the insert, the miniaturized version of the album cover with young Mellencamp’s mug, a cigarette defiantly jutting from his lips. I’ve carried that cassette-sized snapshot in my wallet for decades, a talisman which I occasionally produce as a conversational non sequitur to knowing smiles from my oldest friends.
Man, what a photo! The great Rock photographer Norman Seeff snapped it. As far as I’m concerned, that portrait should hang in the Louvre next to the Mona Lisa. And what a face, so deeply American, that smoldering stare half insouciance, half mutiny. Cagney had it, James Dean, Steve McQueen. It’s a kind of face we don’t see much of these days with the systematic (and weirdly voluntary) emasculation of the American male. But whatever else it conveys, it’s definitely the look of a guy who’ll tell you straight up: “I need a lover who won’t drive me crazy.”
Ain’t that the truth.