Why Doctors Once Cut Off John Mellencamp’s Head
John Mellencamp describes himself as the luckiest person in the world while recalling the dangerous surgery he underwent as an infant.
The 71-year-old was born with the most serious form of spina bifida. His spine and spinal cord weren’t fully formed, a potentially fatal situation that can lead to lifelong problems for those who survive.
“I had my head cut off when I was six weeks old,” Mellencamp tells Esquire. “There were three other kids who had that same operation that day. The other kids died, and I lived. One girl made it for a while, and I used to see her at basketball games. She was paralyzed from the neck down. She died when she was about, I don’t know, 13.”
His early health challenges didn’t lead to a clean lifestyle, though. “I used to love to street fight,” Mellencamp admitted. “I didn’t care if I won or lost. It was the adrenaline of fighting another male. I used to like to get drunk, get a little stoned, go into a bar, and pick a fight with the biggest guy I could find.”
That changed one night when “this guy beat me up so fucking bad, he just left me like a wet rag in the alley,” Mellencamp said. “I was unrecognizable to myself the next morning. I looked in the mirror and said, ‘John, the drugs and alcohol are not working out for you.’ I never had a drink or smoked pot or did any drugs after that. I was 21 years old.”
Mellencamp says he still smokes a pack of cigarettes a day, claiming he remains “a really good smoker.” As for his diet, Mellencamp said: “People will research for days a flat-screen TV they’re thinking about buying. They’ll research the fuck out of buying a car. But then they’ll go to the grocery store and put any goddamn thing in their mouth that they’re selling. They don’t give a shit what’s in it.”
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His survivor’s instinct is strong – as illustrated when he said: “If you listened to some of my first albums, you’d ask: ‘Why did you even continue?’ My first records are that bad. My first paintings are that bad. Terrible. But I kept going.”
Mellencamp hated being called “John Cougar” by his record label, but he’s come to realize that it had made him “work twice as hard as I probably would have” to keep the name from overwhelming his artistic ambitions. Referring to his 1982 hit “Jack & Diane,” he added: “In the ‘80s and ‘90s, I hated singing the line ‘Life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone.’ Now I love it. … My goal is to get to 80. That gives me 10 years. Do you know how fast 10 years goes by for me? I’ve got only 10 summers left … not that long.”
Mellencamp also offered a definition of luck, built from his own experiences: “Luck is thinking you’re lucky. If you think you’re lucky, you are.”
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Gallery Credit: Nick DeRiso
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