Indianapolis Star: Mellencamp At Ease, No Hits In Sight
Indianapolis Star By Dave Lindquist
Never wanted to be no pop singer.
Never wanted to write no pop songs."
-- Opening lines of "Pop Singer," a Top 20 single for John Mellencamp in 1989.
In retrospect, John Mellencamp couldn't have been much clearer about wanting to
change his career path.
He devoted MTV hit "Pop Singer" to complaints about trendy haircuts, photo
shoots and showbiz schmoozing.
The song arrived at the end of Mellencamp's go-go 1980s, a decade packed with
nine Top 10 singles and six platinum-selling albums for the Seymour native.
Many listeners interpreted "Pop Singer" as the work of someone unappreciative of
Today, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer says the intended message was a desire to
stop "chasing hit records."
Seated in his aluminum Airstream trailer outside IU Auditorium one day before
the launch of a tour that includes two Indianapolis dates this week, Mellencamp
said life on top -- or within striking distance of Reagan-era icons Michael
Jackson, Madonna, Bruce Springsteen and Prince -- proved to be unfulfilling.
"You just become a monkey on a string," he said. "But I couldn't quit. I had
only learned to do stuff one way."
Across the next two decades, Mellencamp managed to buck pop-star convention in
notable, if not earthshaking, ways:
He didn't tour to promote "Pop Singer" and its accompanying album, "Big Daddy."
He became a painter of portraits, landscapes and social commentary.
He directed and starred in 1992 film "Falling from Grace."
He dabbled with dance-club rhythms on 1996 album "Mr. Happy Go Lucky."
He played a series of free, unadvertised shows in public parks and civic spaces
He recorded an album of blues covers, "Trouble No More," in 2003.
He's worked with Stephen King on a long-gestating musical play, "Ghost Brothers
of Darkland County," that's expected to premiere in 2011 or 2012.
"Life is exhausting," Mellencamp said. "To make it not exhausting, you have to
continue to challenge yourself and try to do something that you never thought
you could do.
"He said to me, 'John, you had the misfortune of becoming a big rock star in the
'80s. Now how are you going to finish your career with some dignity?' We're
trying to figure out how to make that work."
At the same time, Mellencamp said, he doesn't regret making the music that made
him a star.
"We knew we had to have hit records," he said. "Critics weren't going to like
us, and my songwriting ability was pretty undeveloped at the time. I had a
record deal, and I had only written two songs."
Volunteering a thumbnail summary of ways he's changed since signing that first
recording contract in 1975, Mellencamp is 59, he's traveled the globe, been
married three times, raised five children and "fought with everybody he's ever
come in contact with."
One standout lyric of "No Better Than This" is found in the song "Right Behind
Me": "I know Jesus, and I know the Devil. They're both inside me, all the time."
Mellencamp claims he can't analyze his lyrics in terms of one line being any
better or worse than the others.
"All I know is that my last three albums (dating to 2007's "Freedom's Road"),
songwriting-wise, were just handed to me," he said. "I didn't really do
anything. You hear guys say, 'I'm just a conduit.' I'm a conduit for somebody
now. I don't struggle. I don't have to rewrite."
When the tour visits Butler University's Clowes Hall on Monday and Hinkle
Fieldhouse on Thursday, it will be the first time Mellencamp has played a
legitimate "home" show in Indianapolis.
In addition to homes in Bloomington, Savannah, Ga., and Daufuskie Island, S.C.,
Mellencamp recently established residency in Indianapolis with his wife, Elaine
Irwin-Mellencamp, and teenage sons Hud and Speck.
Hud, a Golden Gloves boxing champion, trains at the Police Athletic League gym
"Indianapolis has grown up to be such a nice town," Mellencamp said. "Not that
Bloomington's not, but every now and then, it's nice to go to a different
restaurant and kind of have a date night."
Regarding Hinkle Fieldhouse -- a rare "arena" stop on a tour that includes
theaters such as Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tenn., and Radio City Music Hall
in New York City -- Mellencamp expressed concern that the venue may be too big.
"We want John Mellencamp fans here," he said. "This is not the casual guy, 'Hey,
let's go listen to Mellencamp, party and get drunk' tour."
"So many people think about me as 'Pink Houses' and 'Jack & Diane.' That's
great. I'm very fortunate to have those songs. But I've written thousands of
songs that aren't like that."
More than 20 non-pop compositions are found on 2008 album "Life, Death, Love and
Freedom" and this year's "No Better Than This."
Both projects were produced by T-Bone Burnett, known for overseeing the
soundtrack for the film "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" and the Robert Plant-Alison
Krauss album "Raising Sand."
"No Better Than This" is a collection of folk, blues and rockabilly tunes
recorded at three historic sites: Sun Studio in Memphis, Tenn. (site of
hit-making by Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins),
First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Ga. (which bills itself as the
longest-running black congregation in North America), and the Gunter Hotel in
San Antonio, (where blues icon Robert Johnson cut 16 songs in 1936).
As the first mono-only album to reach Billboard magazine's Top 10 since James
Brown's "Pure Dynamite! Live at the Royal" in 1964, "No Better Than This"
finally makes a break from Mellencamp's pop singer days.
"T-Bone has been such a good influence on me," he said.
For the 48-date "No Better Than This" tour, Mellencamp has ditched a standard
format of performing greatest hits interspersed with a few tracks from the
New material, rarities and his best-known songs have been overhauled and slotted
into stylistic segments across a two-hour show.
Accompanied by guitarists Mike Wanchic and Andy York, violin player Miriam
Sturm, drummer Dane Clark, bass player Jon Gunnell and keyboard player Troye
Kinnett, Mellencamp plays a rockabilly transformation of "The Authority Song," a
Nashville-friendly version of "No Better Than This" and a steamroller blues-rock
rendition of "If I Die Sudden."
When collecting a lifetime achievement award for songwriting at September's
Americana Music Awards in Nashville, Tenn., Mellencamp credited Burnett for
being the singer's artistic conscience:
Yet Mellencamp hasn't completely closed the door on an era that produced raucous
fan favorites such as "Hurts So Good," "Play Guitar" and "Lonely Ol' Night."
He recently wrote material for a "reunion" album that would feature himself,
Wanchic and three musicians identified with Mellencamp's MTV days: guitarist
Larry Crane, bass player Toby Myers and drummer Kenny Aronoff.
Mellencamp shelved the project, however, because he didn't want to give the
impression that a tour with Crane, Myers and Aronoff would follow.