John Mellencamp

John Mellencamp This was my only interview with John Mellencamp, who has a reputation for a short temper. So I was on my best behavior when he called me at home in January 2007 to talk about his new album, Freedom’s Road. Turns out he was also on his best behavior. He was quite the funnyman, handily dodging a few questions amid the frequent laughter.


Mellencamp (pictured at his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction a year later) fired back some questions at me about New Zealand, which he visited in 1976, “and it was fuckin’ great! … The TV set just had two buttons, and that was your choices. It took me back to the ’50s.” He was even thinking of moving down there to make good on a vague promise if Bush got re-elected. He contacted a Realtor but nothing came of it. He also loved the OMC novelty song “How Bizarre.” (R.I.P. OMC)

A chunk of this interview focuses on his controversial decision to license a new song, “Our Country,” for a Chevy commercial. Pundits were aghast that the heartland rocker would sell out to Madison Avenue. His label boss warned of overexposure, which Mellencamp told me was a “goofy” thing to say. I had completely forgotten about this matter until now (March 2013), but it was a big deal at the time. It’s a reminder of how our lives are buffeted by so many storms in teacups.

QUICK RECAP. WHAT HAVE YOU BEEN UP TO IN THE THREE YEARS SINCE TROUBLE IN MIND (2003) AND THIS RECORD COMING OUT?

A lot of things. It took almost a year just to write these songs. And I’ve been working on a musical with Stephen King which has got, like, 17 songs on it! So I’ve been writing that. We were in New York and we worked on that. Plus, I’m a painter, so I’ve been painting. And I’ve done maybe 70 shows. Is that enough?

WELL, YOU DIDN’T MENTION THE DOMESTIC CHORES, RAISING A FAMILY AND ALL THAT STUFF

That all comes with it. I forgot that I had this interview, and the guy that works for me came up and said, “John, you’ve got an interview.” Oh yeah, I forgot about that. And I was refereeing a basketball game between my two boys, and I was glad to get out of that, because they were killing each other!

HAPPY TO HELP. WERE YOU SERIOUS ABOUT WANTING TO GIVE UP THE MUSIC BUSINESS AFTER YOUR PROBLEMS AT COLUMBIA?

Oh, I’ve always been an outsider in the music business. Always. Ever since I was a kid. I’m 55 years old now and I’ve done kinda things the way that I wanted to and sometimes they’re not always what the record companies have wanted, or what was considered cool or not cool. I’ve always been kind of an outsider. I’m used to it.

AND YOU’VE GOT THIS REPUTATION FOR BEING INTENSE, SO MAYBE COLUMBIA MIGHT HAVE A DIFFERENT VERSION OF EVENTS?

I don’t know what you’re talking about! What kind of reputation?!

I’M PROBABLY THE ONLY PERSON ON THE PLANET WHO DOESN’T HAVE A PROBLEM WITH YOUR CHEVY AD. BUT WHY ARE YOU PUSHING A GAS GUZZLER FOR A CORPORATE DINOSAUR? WHY DIDN’T YOU HOOK UP WITH VICTORIA’S SECRET, OR APPLE?

That Victoria’s Secret worked out good for Bob (Dylan), didn’t it?

WELL, HIS LAST RECORD WENT TO NUMBER ONE!

Yeah, but it wasn’t because of that commercial. I don’t even understand why people are even talking to me about it. I answer the question, but I don’t understand what they’re talking to me about. I don’t see that commercial half as much as I see (sings) “I’m Free!” (for a Chase Bank credit card). That commercial’s on everywhere, and that’s the Rolling Stones.

WELL, I DON’T THINK THEY DON’T HAVE CONTROL OVER THAT SONG. THAT’S ALLEN KLEIN’S DOING. ALL THE STUFF PRE-72 IS OUT OF THEIR CONTROL

I thought they got all that stuff back?

NO! HELL NO! THEY’VE REACHED AN AGREEMENT WHERE THEY AGREE TO DISAGREE.

That’s the problem with the English is that they used to have a thing there that the manager was also the publisher and was also the agent. They would tie these bands up totally. That’s what happened to me. My first two managers were English. I remember when I signed away my publishing. It was 1977, I was in London, I had no money, I had six guys with me that were in a band. We were all living together in a house. And my management company said to me, “John, have you thought about your publishing?” And I said, ‘No.’ I didn’t even know what it was. So I go to this place, and this attorney goes, “Billy (Gaff)’s worried about your publishing, and he would like to –.” These were the exact words, man. “He would like to relinquish you of the responsibility of having to worry about it. Here’s 30-grand.” So for $30,000, I sold some songs. I tried to buy it back in 1984 at $7 million, but he wouldn’t take it.

WHAT SONGS DO YOU OWN, FROM WHAT PERIOD ONWARDS?

From ’84 on. (laughs)

IT’S NOT LIKE YOU’RE TOTALLY BEREFT OF COPYRIGHTS. BUT IT WOULD BE NICE TO HAVE EVERYTHING

I think in 2012 everything reverts back to me. So I get it back eventually. But when you sign away that stuff when you’re 22 years old, that’s 1976-77, 2012 seems a long way away.

YOU HAVE TAKEN A LOT OF FLAK FOR CHEVY. I THOUGHT GAS GUZZLERS WERE ANATHEMA TO ENVIRONMENTALLY CONSCIOUS LIBERAL TYPES?

My plan is to use up all the fossil fuel in the world, and that makes ’em go somewhere else!! (Huh?) No, actually, I think the reason people are giving me grief about it is because I … I still don’t think people should sell their songs for commercial use, but things have changed dramatically. For a guy my age, there’s no place — it’s not just me, it’s Petty, it’s all of us guys — there’s just no place for our music to be heard. These records take too long. They’re too hard to make, and they’re too hard to do, and why would you want to do ’em unless people are going to hear ’em? I’ve said this before: Chevrolet actually has been a better record company to me than Columbia ever was. At least they were honest. They said, This is what we’re going to do, and this what they did. I never got that kind of honesty from Columbia. And quite honestly, anybody that’s ever signed a major record deal knows when they’re signing that deal, they have sold out. So let’s just call a spade a spade. When you sign a record deal, you have sold out.

I GUESS OLD SONGS LIKE “JACK AND DIANE” OR “HURTS SO GOOD” WOULD BE OFF-LIMITS? YOU WOULDN’T SELL THOSE?

I don’t want to say this, but I probably never will. I don’t see any point. I think also that’s another reason why people are so confused. This is kinda uncharted territory. Most people will sell old songs, but won’t sell a new one. This is a brand new song that’s on a record. And if you hear the CD and you hear the content of “Our Country” inside the CD, it’s a whole different song inside that album.

DID CHEVY HAVE ANY SAY OVER THE LYRICS?

Oh, no, no, no. That song is three years old. I was playing that song live, and that’s how they heard that song, opening up those 70 shows I was telling you about. I did shows in places like Green Bay, Wisconsin, and Ann Arbor, Michigan, towns like that, and I was opening the show in these arenas with that song. They heard the song, and that’s how the whole thing came about.

… That first commercial, they said, “What do you want to do?” I said, “If you’re going to show ‘Our Country,’ show our country. Show the good, show the bad, show the people who’ve achieved, show the people who have betrayed.” That’s how that commercial ended up like it did. Actually, when you see the very first commercial, it’s like seeing a video and they roll a truck out at the end. And they did exactly what they said they would do. Unlike some record companies I’ve been on.

YOUR WIFE DRIVES AN AUDI. WHAT DO YOU DRIVE?

She has an Audi. You know, I have 50 cars. My favorite car to drive right now though, unless it snows, is a 1956 Nomad station wagon, a Chevy station wagon, that I’ve had for years, that barely has a front seat in it, doesn’t have a back seat, doesn’t have a headliner, doesn’t have carpet, doesn’t have any of that stuff. But it does have XM Radio.

IN “THE AMERICANS,” YOU MAKE THE POINT THAT YOU TRY TO UNDERSTAND THE CULTURES OF THE WORLD, WHICH I THOUGHT WAS VERY ADMIRABLE. BUT DO YOU THINK THE PROBLEM IS THAT MORE AMERICANS PROBABLY RELATE TO THE ALAN JACKSON SONG (“WHERE WERE YOU WHEN THE WORLD STOPPED TURNING?”) WHERE HE PROUDLY SAYS HE DOESN’T KNOW THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN IRAN AND IRAQ?

When I was writing these lyrics, songs like “Ghost Towns Along the Highway,” those songs were written on two different levels. It seems like there’s a lot of geography going on in this record. But actually “Ghost Towns” is about things that each individual leaves behind, the way that you thought you would go in your life, and the turns that have taken you from New Zealand to Los Angeles, how did that happen? And the people that you’ve hurt or the people you’ve loved. That is what that song is about. It’s two levels. The song “The Americans,” this is not who we are, this is who we say are, this is what we’re striving to be, this is who we wish we were, but it’s not who we are. Each verse is really addressing a geographical part of the country, and it talks about the West Coast “with our agriculture and beautiful movie stars.” Well of course the agriculture that you’re bragging about on the West Coast is all corporate farming, and it’s all factory farming. And beautiful movie stars? Well, perhaps. You can’t take these songs at face value. I wrote a song a long time ago called “Pink Houses” (from 1983’s Uh-Huh) where the chorus went, “Ain’t that America.” And it was the biggest slam on America that you could ever write, but so many people just only heard that chorus. I think “The Americans” is a positive song. It’s who we would like to be. It’s who we say we are. But it’s not really who we are now, is it?

SO YOU’RE ACTUALLY BEING A WEE BIT IRONIC?

Well, I live in a town (Bloomington, Indiana) that is the most liberal town in what people would refer to as a red state. There’s a college here, and a lot of my friends are that way. But a lot of my friends are not that way. So, like I said, all the cultures of the world? Yeah, if you would ask a couple of guys that are professors here that I know, and are coaches here, they would say, “Yeah, I know all about it.” I also have some other friends who would say, “Let ’em rot!”

HOW WOULD YOU FEEL IF THE REPUBLICANS, OR EVEN THE DEMOCRATS, CO-OPTED “THE AMERICANS” IN MUCH THE WAY AS RONALD REAGAN DID “BORN IN THE USA”?

Here’s the thing. I am a very liberal person. I’m liberal-minded and I’m for people doing well. I’m always for Tom Petty. Do good, Tom, because if you do good there’s an opportunity for me to do good. Do good, Bruce. If there’s an opportunity for Bruce to do good, there’s an opportunity for me to do good. I’m for people doing well. But I have found with politicians — and I am more Democratic-leaning than Republican — when you take their pants down they all have the same underwear on. So I’m always a little skeptical of what will happen, and what won’t happen when you commit to… Nothing in this world is as it seems.

FOR ME “FORGIVENESS” RANKS ALONGSIDE “HUMAN WHEELS” AS ONE OF MY FAVORITE MELLENCAMP TRACKS, HOW DID THAT COME ABOUT?

    Since it’s right in the middle of the record, it’s sorta the theme of the entire record. All of the things that we’ve done, and all of the things that we will do. I’ve been married 15 years to my wife, and if she wasn’t so forgiving, I probably wouldn’t have been married that long. It’s her ability to forgive, and in a marriage it’s always kinda nice to have somebody that’s got a big heart, and can forgive and also is a little blind. I think that probably works pretty well in government too. If we were a little blind and had a little forgiveness and a little bit more diplomacy, perhaps we wouldn’t be in the problems that we’re in here. I’ve always been against this Iraq War from the fuckin’ get go. Never saw the sense in it. Never was one of those people who wanted to get revenge at any cost: “Let’s just be revengeful for whatever reason. Whoever’s close.” And now look at the mess we’re in. It’s a terrible thing.

ALL WARS ARE PRETTY MESSY AREN’T THEY? WORLD WAR II WASN’T GOING VERY WELL FOR A LOT OF IT, AS FAR AS AMERICA WAS CONCERNED?

Listen, I’m not a religious guy, but there’s a big rule. The bible — all those stories and all that stuff — may or may not have happened. It is an instructional way of living. A biggie in the bible — thou shalt not kill. And it doesn’t say, Unless this guy did this. None of that crap.

BUT DOESN’T THE BIBLE SAY A WHOLE LOT OF WEIRD STUFF TOO? YOU CAN GO AROUND KILLING GAY PEOPLE?

No! No, no, no. You’ve been took in. That has never ever. They mention gay stuff one time in the fuckin’ Old Testament, and I think it’s Leviticus, mentions man-on-man relationships, for a second. It’s like three words. The rest of the bible there’s no mention of homosexuality. Zero, none.

WHAT ABOUT PEARL HARBOR? IF YOU’D BEEN PRESIDENT WHEN PEARL HARBOR WAS BOMBED, WOULD YOU HAVE SAID, “OH WELL, NEVER MIND, LET’S MOVE ON” — OR WOULD YOU HAVE DECLARED WAR?

I probably would have got the Japanese guy who was sitting in front of me in a headlock, and said, “Motherfucker! What are you doing?”

ONE THING THAT BUGS ME ABOUT THE RECORD IS THE HIDDEN TRACK. I THINK THE RECORD’S ENDED AND I GO TO THE OTHER END OF THE HOUSE AND GET A SHOCK WHEN I HEAR THIS UNEXPECTED VOICE BLARING OUT OF SOMEWHERE

I think it’s great, because the same thing happened to me. That’s how the song ended up there. “Rodeo Clown” really didn’t belong on the record, but it was something that I wanted to say. At first we thought about all kinds of clever ways — advance and then it would go to the front of the record and you could hear that song. And I thought, “That’s too much. Let’s just wait about 4 minutes, and then have the song come in. People will think it’s over.” It’s kind of like a little P.S. Don’t forget about this.

IS GEORGE BUSH THE RODEO CLOWN?

Absolutely

IS HE ALSO THE DEVIL ON “FREEDOM’S ROAD”?

No, no. That’s different. Every time you try to do something, “Oh this will make a positive response,” there’s always something there to fuck it up. No matter what it is. If it’s a personal thing, or a big thing, every time I try to put my best foot forward there’s always something there to trip me up. I think that’s true in life, in general. So if you’re going to make a statement — it says in the song, “Freedom’s Road is a promise to the people” — OK, that’s a big promise. So you’re gonna have to go through hell to even remotely come close to finding that freedom that we speak of in this constitution that we hold so dearly.

“SHE HAD BLOOD ON HER FACE SO SHE HAD TO GET EVEN” — THAT’S ABOUT AMERICA’S POST 9/11 RESPONSE?

Yes.

YOU’VE ALWAYS HAD A SOCIO-POLITICAL BENT. WOULD IT BE FAIR TO SAY THIS RECORD IS THE MOST OVERTLY POLITICAL OF YOUR CAREER?

I wouldn’t say it was political at all. I’d say it was very social. It’s a very social record. I don’t think it’s political at all, other than “Rodeo Clown” which, as I said didn’t belong on the record. And “Rodeo Clown” is probably more social than political. I’ve written some political songs. I wrote a song called “To Washington.” That was very political. It’s on Trouble No More. He goes to war, he’s doing it for oil and he sends out the National Guard, he wants to fight with many. That’s a political song. It’s very direct. All of these songs, like I said, I was very cognizant of having two levels to these songs. There’s the level, “Hey, we’re the Americans.” And if you read between the lines, “Well, maybe not.” No, I don’t think it’s political, but I would agree that it’s a very socially and individually minded album.

THERE AREN’T ANY LOVE SONGS ON THIS ALBUM. YOU’RE ALL TAPPED OUT?

I’m not very good at those. I never even wrote any in the first place, and the ones I did write weren’t that great. So I just kinda stay away from it, let somebody else do that.

YOU MENTIONED YOUR WIFE BEFORE, THAT YOU’VE BEEN MARRIED FOR 15 YEARS. DOES IT AMAZE YOU THAT YOU’VE HELD IT TOGETHER SO LONG ON YOUR THIRD ATTEMPT?

Well, like I said, she keeps my life civilized. It’s her. Elaine has been a very civilized force in my life. We can’t even believe we’ve been married 15 years. I met her when she was 21. She’s 37. It’s been, like, wow! But here’s the bad news. I got uglier than fuck, and she still looks the same. I aged like a son of a bitch and she looks the same. (The couple split in 2010, and Mellencamp hooked up with Meg Ryan.)

YOU MENTIONED TOM PETTY A FEW TIMES. ARE YOU FRIENDS? DO YOU CHAT OVER THE PHONE?

No, but Petty had a lot to do with the Chevy commercial, and he doesn’t even know it. As I was making this record this summer, is when Chevrolet started talking to me about using this song, and I was kinda on the fence about it. But at the same time, Petty had just released an album called Highway Companion, that had this beautiful song on it, which was the first single. It had a kinda Bo Diddley-type vibe to it. I heard it one time. I said to the guys in the band, “Oh, this is gonna be big for Tom!” And I was pulling for him. I never heard that song again. Well, I did hear it one other time. I had to go to his Web site to hear it. As I’m talking to Chevrolet, I’m thinking, “Y’know? Nobody’s playing this Petty record.” People that go to his concerts are probably hearing the song, but the general public’s not hearing it.

IT’S A PITY. HE GROSSED $30 MILLION ON THE ROAD LAST YEAR, BUT WHAT PERCENTAGE OF PEOPLE WHO SHOWED UP WENT AND BOUGHT HIGHWAY COMPANION? IT’S KINDA LAME THAT HIS AUDIENCE OF 30- AND 40-YEAR-OLDS DON’T SUPPORT THE ARTIST

But here’s what happens, and I think it’s a pretty general thing that happens to people. Most people think they’ve got the best Rolling Stones record ever made already. “I don’t need to buy any Rolling Stones records. I already got Sticky Fingers. I already have Exile on Main Street. They’re not going to make a better record than that.” “Oh, I don’t need to buy any more Bob Dylan records. Bob already made the best record he was gonna make.” And I think people have that attitude towards any artist that has a long career, and the only way that you bust out of that is by having something that is really big.

SO WOULD YOU LIKE SOME SORT OF SANTANA-STYLE RESURRECTION WHERE YOU DO SELL 10 MILLION COPIES?

Yes, yes. That’s the only way that people respond to artists who have got 20, 30, 40 albums out. I’m not even sure that we should be writing songs other than for ourselves at this point in our career. If you’re going to release a song to radio, then you would hope that the record company would work it. Of course they’re not going to. Then you have to go look for other means, like Chevrolet or Chase Manhattan Bank.

DO YOU HAVE ROCK-STAR FRIENDS?

I have guys that I talk to periodically, in the music business. But basically, I talk to the guys in my band, and I talk to business people, and I have a couple of actor friends.

OH REALLY? WHO?

I don’t want to get into that. I always like talking to them because they’re crazier than I am … They’re (actors in general) the nuttiest people in the world.

GIVE ME A COUPLE OF ROCK-STAR FRIENDS

I don’t even want to get into that. Just a couple of guys who write songs. I will tell you, one guy is like the best guitar player in the world. So I talk to him.

WE TOUCHED BEFORE ON THIS ISSUE. THERE ARE RELIGIOUS REFERENCES IN ABOUT FIVE SONGS. IS THAT A SIGN OF YOUR INCREASING SPIRITUALITY, OR THAT WE SHOULD ALL BE PREPARING FOR THE IMPENDING APOCALYPSE?

No, I just think it’s a matter of good judgment. Listen, I don’t think a person has to be religious, or has to attend church. But there does have to be a spiritual side, and there is a spiritual side in all of us, whether we want to call it that or not. I have found people who are not spiritual to be kinda boring. They’re just not interested in anything. They’re negative all the time. I’ve got a couple of friends who would probably say they were spiritual, but they’re just not. They’re just bland.

BUT THEN YOU GET PEOPLE WHO ARE OVERLY SPIRITUAL

Then you want to kill yourself. There are people that are over spiritual, that use religion and use the bible to be judgmental. “I can be more judgmental by throwing this shit at you.” Which is wrong, wrong, wrong. I have an old girlfriend who I still talk to, and I’m going to quit talking to her because I just said, “This new religion that you have found in the last 10 years, you’re just so judgmental about everything.” I always tease her, “It’s not really the Christian way, is it, baby?”

THAT’S THE GOOD THING ABOUT HARDCORE CHRISTIANS. YOU CAN THROW THEIR WORDS BACK AT THEM: “HEY! WHERE’S THE FORGIVENESS?”

They have none. It’s be like me, or got to hell.

THERE’S A COUPLE OF SONGS WHERE YOU TALK ABOUT CRYSTAL METH. YOU’RE PROBABLY ONE OF THE FEW PEOPLE WHO TOUCHES ON ONE OF THE BIGGEST PROBLEMS FACING AMERICA. IS THAT SOMETHING YOU’RE FAMILIAR WITH IN INDIANA?

Well, you can see it around here. It’s sad. It’s a very vicious drug addiction. It’s really sad when it gets its needles into younger folk. You can see ’em age right in front of you. I don’t understand. I say in that song, in “Rural Route,” prison is not the place for these people. Jail is not the place for this. They’re not criminals. These people are lost, sad people. I don’t think it shows much dignity the way that we treat our drug-addicted and mentally ill in this country. It shows little or no dignity at all. We would just as soon throw ’em away and hide ’em. Let’s just put them in prison, or kill the sons of bitches. That’s the kind of attitude we have.

SPEAKING OF DRUG ADDICTION, HOW MANY CIGARETTES ARE YOU SMOKING THESE DAYS?

Is that addiction?! I thought that was a habit?!

I INTERVIEWED OZZY OSBOURNE ONCE, AND HE SAID HE’S DONE EVERY DRUG ON THE PLANET, BUT THE HARDEST ONE TO KICK WAS NICOTINE

I don’t even try anymore. I’ve just surrendered that I am a confirmed smoker, and I know what the consequences are, and I’m sure that I’ll be fuckin’ crying like a baby when I get lung cancer. As a matter of fact, I’m walking through the house right now to grab a cigarette.

YOU DO HAVE HEALTH ISSUES, SO I GUESS YOU HAVE TO BE PRETTY CAREFUL?

I had a … heart problem a few years ago (a mild heart attack in 1994). Got that straightened out.

AS LONG AS YOU’RE NOT SUING THE CIGARETTE COMPANIES. IT WILL BE A PITY…

But I don’t like seatbelt laws either.

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NOTE: Unrelated to the above interview, my gossipy rock bio Strange Days: The Adventures of a Grumpy Rock ‘n’ Roll Journalist in Los Angeles is available here. For more info, go to strangedaysbook.com

Copyright © 2007, 2013 by Dean Goodman. PLEASE DO NOT CUT AND PASTE THE WHOLE THING

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