On the road with Johnny Cougar

30 years later, here's a little ditty about the tour that made John Mellencamp famous and the guy who drove the bus.


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Bill Klaes' 31-foot Bluebird Wanderlodge was crowded with 11 passnegers - including band memebers and road crew - when it first hit the road touring with John Mellncamp in 1982. Bill and the Wanderlodge toured with Mellencamp for about six months./ Photo courtesy of Bill Klaes

Bill Klaes asked himself the same question in 1982 that every recent college graduate struggles with: What now? It was two summers after his graduation from Indiana University, and, without a better idea, Bill attempted to start his own photography company. After spending the day shooting with a client, Bill stopped for a bite to eat and a beer at a small sandwich shop in his hometown of Seymour. A man with a familiar face walked up.

“Hey Billy? Your dad still have that big motor home?”  “Yeah.””

“Would he be interested in renting it out?”

“I’m sure he’d probably do that, yeah.”

“They’ll need a driver, too. You wanna drive it?”

That familiar face belonged to Ted Mellencamp, and he was talking about a music tour for his older brother, John Cougar Mellencamp.

That fall, Johnny Cougar was touring as the opening act for the band Heart and promoting his new album, “American Fool.” Although Mellencamp had already hit the road the previous year touring for the album, “Nothing Matters And What If It Did,” his fifth attempt at a successful record, he wasn’t a rock star yet.

Zach Dunkin, who has known Mellencamp since 1976, has followed his music career since day one. When the Indianapolis Star and Indianapolis News merged, Zach became the arts and entertainment editor for the Star, along with simultaneously writing as a music critic for 12 years. Zach wrote an article for the Star when Mellencamp was first picked up by Tony Defries, the manager behind David Bowie’s success and responsible for Mellencamp’s transformation into Johnny Cougar.

“He created this Johnny Cougar character, this cool, Elvis kind of guy with slicked back hair,” Dunkin says. “Defries flew in all kinds of people to Seymour from magazines like Rolling Stone for the debut of Johnny Cougar. It was a big deal, with spotlights out in front and everything. But nobody bought it. They didn’t fall for it– the whole plan failed.”

Despite the moderate hit “Ain’t Even Done With the Night,” Mellencamp’s “Nothing Mattersalbum belly-flopped into his pool of failed past records.  It did, however, hoist Mellencamp onto the Billboard charts for the second time (“I Need A Lover” made it’s way to spot number 28 in 1980) and paved the road for his American Fool tour.

Bill was behind the wheel of that tour – literally. He drove his father’s Blue Bird Wanderlodge from show to show. The motor home was nothing fancy – Bill had used it to tailgate with his fraternity brothers during his college years – and not too big – it was a narrow-body, front-engine 31 footer. He felt like he was driving for a small bar band that was warming up the crowd for a big leaguer.

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While watching a show from backstage, Bill Klaes snapped this photo of Mellencamp jumping on the shoulders of one of his guitarists. / Photo courtesy of Bill Klaes

But success came faster than Bill’s motor home could drive. For four weeks, the single Jack and Diane held the number one spot on the Billboard charts, with Hurts So Good on its tail at the number two spot. The atmosphere of the tour began to change, and venue signs now put the name John Cougar before Heart.  The band moved up to jet planes bumping the road crew up from the class C Minnie Winnie they were riding in to Bill’s Blue Bird. “American Fool” climbed the charts.

“I was backstage the night the album went number one,” Bill remembers. “There were bottles of champagne, and they were celebrating – the band and the managers and the crew.  They toasted that night, and after it was over I stole the wine rack they used to hold the wine bottles. I still have it, that $2 wine rack. There is nothing on it that says it was backstage with John Mellencamp when his album went number one, so it has no value. But I’ve still got that thing.”

Kenny Aronoff, who played drums with Mellencamp for 17 years, remembers that electric atmosphere. “It was a great time for us,” Aronoff says. “We were all over the radio stations. Back then, if you were number one you were everywhere, on every radio station, MTV, any music news and all the big music magazines. We were the new kids on the block and started to get a lot of attention. It’s amazing to look back and realize we were a part of the music business when it was the most happening, ever.”

At 22, Bill was the youngest member of the tour (Mellencamp celebrated his 31st birthday on the road). That was true until one day when Bill was spending his down time swimming in one of the hotel pools.

“I felt a guy kick me and he says, ‘Hey, you’re Bill Klaes?’ It was a high school buddy of mine and turns out he was the pilot hired to fly John’s private jet. It’s funny because the singer’s from Seymour, his driver’s from Seymour, and now the pilot’s from Seymour, too.”

Despite Mellencamp’s leap to stardom, Bill and the road crew continued to wheel from show to show in the motor home, sometimes with more bumps than just potholes. The first day Bill went to meet up with Mellencamp and his crew, he blew a hole in the radiator. And in the days before GPS, it’s no surprise they sometimes got lost.

“Back then, there were no computers, we hardly had technology. The next show we were going to was in Kansas City, so I pulled out my atlas and started looking at the state of Kansas,” Bill says. “Well it turns out Kansas City is in Missouri, and I was in the wrong state entirely. Everyone is sleeping in the back of the bus and I turn on the radio to try and hear about Mellencamp coming to town and that’s when I figured I was in the wrong place.  Nobody ever knew I made that mistake, everyone was back there sleeping and never woke up. I was running early, so no one was late for the performance.” It’s ironic that Bill made the mistake of thinking Kansas City was in the state of Kansas, since the entire crew called him Einstein.  He was the only one to have graduated from college.

The day-to-day life on the tour consisted of a lot of standing around and hanging out. They would roll into town early in the morning, around 6 or 7 a.m., and Bill would drop everyone off at the hotel. The sound checks were in the afternoon and the performance at night. Bill, however, was on a different schedule than the rest of the band.

“I would sleep during the concerts because I was on the night shift,” Bill says. “After the concert, we’d load up, and I’d drive all night to our next stop while the band slept on the bus. I’d stay at different hotels with the other drivers because they were on the same schedule as I was.”

The opposing schedules didn’t mean that Bill missed out on the experience of being on tour with a rock star. “I got to go to as many concerts as I wanted and had an all-access sort of pass,” Bill says. “But it got to the point where you just wanted the concerts to be over. Not because you weren’t enjoying the music, but because you wanted to start driving and doing your job again.”

The boy with a guitar from small town Indiana had become a full-fledged rock star and everyone wanted a piece of him. An editor from an Indianapolis magazine approached Zach Dunkin and asked him to write a story on Mellencamp. With his success, however, Mellencamp was only giving interviews to big name papers in cities such as Chicago or New York. But Zach gave him a call, and he agreed to do the interview.

“John asked if I was going to make any money on the story,” Zach says. “I told him I’d probably make a couple hundred dollars, so he said ‘Let’s do it.’ He thought if he could help me out, he should do it. What he did for me meant a lot, it meant a lot to get the story and I got an interview with John Cougar when no one else could.”

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30 years after touring with John Mellencamp, Bill Klaes still wears the leather jacket he recieved on the tour. Colorful embroidering on the back of the jacket shows a skull with a dagger, along with a patch on the shoulder that reads 'John Cougar Mellencamp, Bloomington, Indiana.' / Photo by Cindy Uecker

After the tour was over, Bill packed up his father’s motor home and headed back to Seymour. Not only did he return home with memorabilia that he didn’t realize would become valuable –like vintage Aerosmith t-shirts from a music festival,  just “stuff laying around when you were working” – but also with Mellencamp’s legacy. Bill pitched the idea to the Jackson County Visitors Center of a driving tour of Seymour for fans that came to learn about Mellencamp.

“I wanted to produce something that you could only get when you came to experience Seymour,” Bill says. “Not something for sale to just anyone or on the Internet, but something you could only get by coming to see where John grew up.”

Working with the Visitors Center, Bill spent 10 years producing “The Roots of an American Rocker: A Driving Tour of Seymour, Indiana.” Pop the CD into your car and listen to Mellencamp’s family and friends tell you about the different places where he spent his childhood. The guide takes you to 14 different stops, including the schools he attended, and the hospital he was born in.

“John was never on the tape himself, but even after listening to it, I felt something was missing,” Bill says. “So I added some of his music in the background, and then it felt complete.”

Click for more information on the driving tour of Seymour that Bill Klaes helped to create.

Back in his hometown, Bill went out and bought his own motor home. He is involved in corporate video training, and with friends in the video business as well, has gotten good use out of that motor home. When a friend of his is shooting a commercial in Indianapolis, they’ll ask to rent out his motor home as a space for people such as Peyton Manning, Tony Stewart and politicians to rest.

“I’ve come back around to the point where I’m driving my bus and hanging out with stars, 30 years later.”

A few years ago, Bill ran into that same high school friend – the pilot – from the hotel pool again.

“Did you ever do anything more with flying Mellencamp around?” Bill asked him.

“Nah. It was a one-time thing. Did you ever do anything more with it?”

“Nah,” Bill said. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime gig.”

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