The Tragic Real-Life Story Of John Mellencamp

John Mellencamp — formerly John Cougar Mellencamp, formerly-formerly John Cougar — is an American original. His emotionally authentic, straightforward rock n' roll reflects his upbringing in the Heartland, combining pop, country, and folk to create poetic grooves that you can also jam out to on a bar's jukebox. Remarkably successful, Mellencamp has sold more than 27 million albums, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer's many hits —  like "Jack and Diane," "Hurts So Good," "Cherry Bomb," "Small Town," "Pink Houses," and "Authority Song" — are perpetually-played staples of classic rock radio. 

Similar to the way that anyone can connect to Bruce Springsteen or Bob Dylan, seemingly everybody can enjoy or even relate to the people and themes in Mellencamp's music. That's because Mellencamp is a real guy who's lived a few lifetimes' worth of drama and struggle. Here's a look into the challenging upbringing and often tragic real-life story that shaped and influenced the life and work of John Mellencamp.

John Mellencamp was born with a severe spinal deformity

John Mellencamp is lucky he made it out of his childhood alive. "Some kid, I was about nine or ten, said, 'What's that big scar on the back of your neck?' and I went home and asked my parents," Mellencamp told CBS This Morning in 2014. "They said, 'Oh, don't worry about it. You had an operation.'" But that operation was kind of a big deal in more ways that one. 

Shortly after his birth in 1951, Mellencamp underwent surgery for spina bifida, a birth defect that leaves an opening in the spinal column which can make the spinal cord extend outside the body and leave a growth. That was more or less a fatal condition in the early '50s, but a new surgical technique saved young Mellencamp's life. In 2014, Mellencamp met the surgeon who performed it, Dr. Robert Heimburger. "He remembered it 'cause it was the first one they'd ever done," the singer quipped. 

According to Mellencamp, Heimburger and associates performed operations on three infant spina bifida patients at Riley Children's Hospital in Indianapolis. "One died on the table. Another girl lived, I think, 'til she was 14, and then she died. And then me."

John Mellencamp was born in a small town ... that hated his family

John Mellencamp's songs are often from the point of view of the underdog. They're about hardworking individuals from small towns trying to get a leg up so as to afford a little pink house. That's a struggle Mellencamp witnessed in his hometown of Seymour, Indiana, and within his own family. His father, Richard Mellencamp, met his mother when he slammed into her on the street one day in the late 1940s. ”He and his big brother Joe were running from the cops after pummeling four guys in retaliation for a whupping my father had gotten earlier," Mellencamp told The New York Times. Those Mellencamps were playing the part in which the community had cast them — down low in the system. "For as far back as anyone can care to remember, there has been a rigid, petty small-town class system in Seymour," Mellencamp said, with the top occupied by "people who made their money during the Industrial Revolution." The rest were farmers. 

The singer's great-great-grandfather, Johann Heinrich Mollenkamp, moved from Germany to Indiana in 1851 and started the family farm, which had to be sold a generation later, leaving Mellencamp's grandfather, Harry Perry Mellencamp, to drop out of school in the third grade to work as a carpenter. When Harry went to register to vote, Mellencamp says the clerk laughed at him and made fun of his name. "We were always hearing talk that, 'You low-class Mellencamps will never amount to anything."

John Mellencamp was a teenage dad

At the age of 18, Mellencamp was dating a woman three years older than him named Priscilla Esterline. When she became pregnant, Mellencamp and Esterline tried to do the traditional thing and get married, but under Indiana law at the time (it was 1970), 18-year-old Mellencamp wasn't old enough to do so without parental permission. But that's when the couple hit upon a solution. They eloped to Kentucky, the next state over. That marriage lasted a little over a decade, through Mellencamp's early career hurdles, stumbles, and dead-ends, but not when Mellencamp fell for another woman. 

After seeing a photo of professional TV extra Vicky Granucci at a friend's house, Mellencamp fell in love, and they had fantastic chemistry. He and Esterline quickly split up so Mellencamp could marry Granucci (who notably stars as Diane in Mellencamp's "Jack and Diane" video). Two months after they made it official, their first daughter, Teddi Jo Mellencamp was born. And as for his daughter, she would become a cast member on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. 

John Mellencamp thinks he's a hard guy to love

History then repeated. Once more, the married Mellencamp would fall for a woman, leave his previous wife, marry the new one, and put her in a music video. This time it was Elaine Irwin, whom he met when she was the cover model for his 1991 album Whenever We Wanted. Ten weeks after their first face-to-face, they were engaged, and in 1992 they married. (She's also the star of his video for "Get a Leg Up.") Mellencamp's third marriage lasted a long time — almost 18 years — but it ended nonetheless. 

In 2011, not long after his divorce was finalized, Mellencamp struck up an on-again, off-again relationship with movie star Meg Ryan, an endeavor that apparently left the rocker a little wounded. "Oh, women hate me," Mellencamp said on Howard Stern's satellite radio show (via Closer Weekly) after splitting with the actress in 2014. "I loved Meg Ryan. She hates me to death." Well, sometimes love don't feel like it should. Indeed: After a year-long relationship with model Christie Brinkley, Mellencamp and Ryan reunited and got engaged in 2018. Unfortunately, their relationship wouldn't last. Ryan reportedly called things off by October 2019.

His next relationship with skincare pro Jamie Sue Sherrill, known as Nurse Jamie, didn't last either. 

John Mellencamp got hooked on weed in junior college

Already married with a kid before he could legally buy a beer, John Mellencamp still found a way to attend college in search of higher potential so as to provide for his family, enrolling as a communications major at Vincennes University, near his hometown of Seymour, Indiana. Unfortunately, he got caught in a couple of the traps that ensnare countless unsuspecting freshmen each and every fall: alcohol and marijuana, especially the latter.

"When I was high on pot, it affected me so drastically that when I was in college there were times when I wouldn't get off the couch. I would lie there, listening to Roxy Music, right next to the record player so I wouldn't have to get up to flip the record over," Mellencamp told Rolling Stone in 1986. "There would be four or five days like that when I would be completely gone." By 1972, the year he turned 21, Mellencamp had completely given up both booze and drugs.

John Mellencamp had a heart attack at 42

John Mellencamp left alcohol and marijuana behind, but he's not a man devoid of vice: He's an enthusiastic lifelong smoker. According to a 2018 interview with CBS News, Mellencamp started puffing on cancer sticks at the tender age of 10, and he doesn't think more than five decades of the habit has been all that bad for him. "Rightfully or wrongfully, I believe that it's the combination of cigarettes and alcohol that get people — the two of them combined," Mellencamp said. 

That theory may not carry too much weight, seeing as how Mellencamp suffered a heart attack in 1994 at the relatively young age of 42. "I didn't feel well, I was on tour, and I went back to Bloomington [Indiana], where they have real doctors," Mellencamp said on The Late Show with David Letterman (via Us Weekly). "The guy looked at me and he said, 'You've had a heart attack.' I went nuts... I called him everything in the book... He said, 'John, you can say whatever you want to me or act any way you want, but a first-year medical student can tell you you've had a heart attack.'" Nevertheless, Mellencamp didn't quit smoking — he told The Georgia Straight (via Ear of Newt) in 1999 that he did cut way back ... from four packs a day to one.

The Chestnut Street Incident incident

John Mellencamp's road to fame and fortune as an authentic rock and roll singer was not traditional or short. By the time he scored his first top 30 hit in the U.S. with "I Need a Lover" in 1979, he was almost 30 years-old — fairly long in the tooth for the youth-oriented music industry. And that came after he'd already recorded two other misbegotten albums that each failed in their own unique way.

In 1975, Mellencamp, tired of playing in go-nowhere bar bands, moved to New York City to make it as a rock star. He found a champion in David Bowie's former manager Tony DeFries. However, Bowie had just parted ways with DeFries (it wasn't amicable), and so the manager tried to position Mellencamp as the next Bowie (by way of Bruce Springsteen). Saddled with the silly stage name of Johnny Cougar, Mellencamp released his first album, the DeFries-produced Chestnut Street Incident, in 1976, consisting primarily of covers of familiar tunes like "Jailhouse Rock" and "Hit the Road Jack." It sold a paltry 12,000 copies. Mellencamp's label, MCA refused to release the singer's next album The Kid Inside and then dropped him entirely.

The Kid Inside came out

After Chestnut Street Incident flopped, John Mellencamp soon signed with Rod Stewart's manager, Billy Gaff, who also happened to run Riva Records. Through that label, Mellencamp (still as Johnny Cougar), put out the 1978 album A Biography, which generated the top 30 hit "I Need a Lover." His career was finally off and running, and in 1982 he hit #1 with "Jack and Diane." But his old manager, Tony DeFries, wasn't done with him yet. After Mellencamp got huge, his old manager took that years-old unreleased album, The Kid Inside, and released it on his Mainman Records label ... in 1983, obviously trying to cash in on the success of his former client. 

Beyond just that old album coming back to haunt him, Mellencamp would similarly be professionally stuck with that "Cougar" name for a while. Credited as John Cougar on Nothin' Matters and What if It Did (1980) and American Fool (1982), he got the public used to his real name over time, billing himself as John Cougar Mellencamp on the rest of his '80s albums, and finally dropping the Cougar part entirely with the release of Whenever We Wanted in 1991.

There's definitely blood on the Scarecrow

After the hard rocking success of American Fool and Uh-Huh, John Mellencamp doubled down on the social commentary and soul-searching with his mid-'80s albums Scarecrow and The Lonesome Jubilee. Among the biggest sellers of his career, they were certified for sales of five million and three million copies, respectively. But the success of those albums bears a painful asterisk: Mellencamp used the songwriting process for Scarecrow and The Lonesome Jubilee to cope with the deaths of loved ones and how his family shaped him. "Let's face it, you are your parents, whether any of us like it or not," he told The New York Times.The Lonesome Jubilee, like Scarecrow and the rest of my best stuff, is about me and my family tree grappling against both the world and our own inner goddamned whirlwind.”

His grandfather, with whom he was incredibly close, died of lung cancer in 1983. "Just before his death, he called everybody into his bedroom, and although he wasn't a religious person he said, 'You know, I'm having a real bad beating of a time with the Devil.' ... It stopped me cold to see my Grandpa so scared. Six hours later, he was gone." After the death, his uncle, Joe, "became the kindest soul you could imagine." But then he died, too. "'Paper in Fire,'" from The Lonesome Jubilee, "is about Joe, and the family's ingrained anger," Mellencamp said in David Masciotra's Mellencamp: American Troubadour.

John Mellencamp's close friend and songwriting partner died suddenly

John Mellencamp, as is widely known, was born in a small town: the south-central Indiana burg of Seymour. He's easily the town's most famous son, but the second-most famous might be George Green. "I've known George since we were in the same Sunday school class. We had a lot of fun together when we were kids. Later on, we wrote some really good songs together," Mellencamp told the Bloomington Herald-Times. That's an understatement: Green helped Mellencamp write some of his best-known songs, including "Hurts So Good," "Crumblin' Down," "Rain on the Scarecrow," "Human Wheels," and "Key West Intermezzo." 

The last song they wrote together was "Yours Forever" for the soundtrack to The Perfect Storm, and soon after had a falling out. "Like when you're married, when you're friends with somebody for a long time, the more things build up the more things can go wrong," Mellencamp wrote in the liner notes to his box set On the Rural Route 7609. "There were personal problems, cross-pollinated with professional issues. George has written some great lyrics and we've written some great songs together, but I just couldn't do it anymore." They never collaborated again: Green died in 2011 at age 59 after a short battle with an aggressive form of lung cancer.

John Mellencamp's sons got into some trouble

John Mellencamp has an image if not a reputation as somebody who likes to get rowdy and mix it up — after all, he's the guy who fights authority, and authority always wins. His sons, Hud and Speck, have lived out that central battle of "Authority Song" in the real world. 

In the early morning of July 16, 2017, Hud and Speck Mellencamp, the singer's two sons with third wife Elaine Irwin, got into a fight in the parking lot of a Jimmy John's sandwich shop in Bloomington, Indiana. According to the police report (obtained by IndyStar), a small group of men started "mouthing off" to the rock star scions, and then things got a little crazy. Hud Mellencamp said somebody hit him, while Speck Mellencamp had blood on his face by the time police showed up. Speck Mellencamp was sentenced to community service and probation after pleading guilty to a count of public intoxication. This isn't the first time Speck and Hud ran afoul of the cops. In 2015, Speck did four days of jail time for a misdemeanor battery charge over an incident in 2013 where the brothers kicked a teenager they thought hit Speck.

His baby grandchild had brain surgery

John Mellencamp is a father five times over, and his second child, born in 1981 during his marriage to model Victoria Granucci, according to Closer Weekly, is Teddi Jo Mellencamp Arroyave, a life coach, nutrition counselor, and most famously, a cast member on "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills" in the 2010s. Via Arroyave, Mellencamp is a grandfather to three children: a boy named Cruz, a girl named Slate, and their sister Dove, born in February 2020, according to People

At just five months old, Dove Arroyave faced a medical crisis, undergoing neurosurgery, a delicate and trying medical procedure for anyone, let alone an infant, or their parents or grandparents. Dove Arroyave spent two days in the neonatal intensive care unit and thankfully made a relatively quick recovery, spending less than a week in the hospital under close observation to look for untoward swelling in the brain and other post-surgical benchmarks, according to her mother's Instagram.

His son gave him a black eye

While riding the publicity circuit in 2013 for the release of the soundtrack album to "Ghost Brothers of Darkland County," his stage musical written in collaboration with horror author Stephen King, John Mellencamp brought a concerning, extra conversation piece to the fore: A case of ecchymosis, or the bleeding of tissue near the eye, resulting in bruising and discoloration, more commonly known as a "black eye," and which is often the aftermath of a fistfight or other physical altercation. And for Mellencamp, his black eye was evidence of a domestic dispute involving his teenage son.

"My son and I had words," Mellencamp said on "The Late Show with David Letterman" when asked about the wound. "He got a punch in and I didn't," Mellencamp added. That son: 18-year-old Speck. "He's 6'2" and weighs almost 200 pounds." Letterman incredulously wondered, "Why are you picking a fight with a kid?" Mellencamp coyly demurred. "My son punches me and my dad calls me up and says, 'John you need to change your attitude.'"

John Mellencamp's musician nephew had heart issues

According to IndyStar, John Mellencamp is one of three brothers, the younger sibling of Joe Mellencamp. Joe had a son of his own, Ian Mellencamp, whom he raised in the Cincinnati area. The famous rock star's nephew explored his own path to fame in the 2000s. He played soccer at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis and moved over to a career as one of the top male models in the world for a spell, appearing in high-profile campaigns for Ralph Lauren, The Gap, and Calvin Klein. He's also a musician, playing with a band called Bluf and releasing the electronic-tinged "Visions" EP under his own name in 2013 and "Romance in D" in 2019.

More recently, Ian Mellencamp endured a tremendous health scare. In April 2022, he underwent open heart surgery, according to his Instagram page, where he posted a photo of himself with a large scar on his chest. Mellencamp recovered from the ordeal, which often afflicts people much older than those in their early 30s.

His younger brother died

John wasn't the only Mellencamp family member to ply his trade in the music business. His younger brother, Ted Mellencamp, left a mark on the major rock music of the 1980s, too.

According to Voss and Sons (via Obitio), Ted Mellencamp spent almost the entirety of the 1970s working as a journeyman electrician, before he got the call around 1980 to join older brother John on the road, and act as his tour manager, once his singing career started to take off. Ted parlayed his success managing the road affairs of a prominent rock act into a job as a promotional representative for Polygram Records, where he helped shape the output and image of acts like Def Leppard, Kiss, Tears for Fears, Kool and the Gang, Scorpions, and John Mellencamp.

Per CelebrityAccess, the youngest Mellencamp brother died in March 2016 at the age of 62, at his home in Nashville.

John Mellencamp doesn't think we know ourselves

In 2022, John Mellencamp released his 24th studio album, "Strictly a One-Eyed Jack." It was a departure from Mellencamp's popular and best-known work in many ways. Most noticeably, his voice sounds radically different in the 21st century than it did in the 1980s. "We were laughing, when we were making this record, it was like, 'John, your voice has changed so much since you started.' And I said, 'Well, the cigarettes are starting to pay off,'" he explained to Forbes, arguing that his prodigious cigarette smoking habit caused his voice to resemble that of one of his musical heroes, Louis Armstrong. "It wasn't anything I tried to do, it's just that cigarettes take their f***ing toll on your vocal cords."

The content of "Strictly a One-Eyed Jack" is similarly far removed from Mellencamp's '80s output of socially-conscious and earnest party music. The songs are dark, troubled, and unsettled, and reflect Mellencamp's worldview as he passed 70 years old. "What I've discovered at my ancient age is that we are all in solitary confinement inside our own skins, and we don't really get to know anybody," he told NPR's "Morning Edition." He hammers that notion home on the record, alternately singing that he "always lies to strangers" and that "the world is run by men much more crooked than me."