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.”

READ MORE: John Mellencamp’s Long Battle to Escape ‘Johnny Cougar’

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.”

Listen to John Mellencamp's 'Jack and Diane'

John Mellencamp Admits His First Records Were Bad

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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A pre-fab pop singer turned heartland rocker turned rootsy moralist, John Mellencamp has had almost as many career turns as names. 

Gallery Credit: Nick DeRiso

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