ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME INDUCTION SPEECH, 3-10-08:
03.12.2008 - Announcer: Here to induct John Mellencamp into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Billy Joel.
Billy Joel: Hey. Am I coming through on this thing? All right. John Mellencamp called me up back in 1985 about doing the first Farm Aid concert. It was out in the boondocks in Southern Illinois somewhere. I said, “John, you’re crazy. I’m a New York Jew, they hate people like me. They’ll kill me.” John says, “All the more reason for you to show up and prove that you care about them. These people are losing their farms, their livelihoods. They need to know folks like you want to help.” So I said, “All right, look, let me see if I can get another Jew for you. (crowd laughs) Let me see if I can get somebody from the west coast.” I didn’t want to be the one token Jew. So I called up Randy Newman. And I say, “Randy, you want to play in this Farm Aid thing?”, and Randy says, you know, in the voice that he has, “You’re crazy, I’m an L.A Jew, they hate people like me.” And I said, “All the more reason to show up and prove that care about them, right?” He comes back with, “They’re gonna lynch us. Where is it?” And I said, “Peoria”. He goes, “It sounds like a urinary disease. You can’t even get a good steak in the Midwest where they grow them”. I said, “Come on Randy”. So he came, he actually showed up.
So on the afternoon of the show, I’m standing there next to the stage with Randy before he goes on. He did not look happy. We looked out in the audience and saw what looked like 100,000 children of the corn wearing John Deere hats. (crowd laughs) So Randy turns to me and he mutters, “I hate you. They’re gonna kill me just like I told you and they’re gonna kill you too.” But Randy went over just fine, we went over fine. But, as he was leaving the stage, he glares at me and looks over and gestures (Billy make gesture w/hand as if he’s on the phone) as if to say “Don’t ever call me again”. Anyway, Farm Aid turned out to be a big success, still raising money to help farmers to this day. I figure this might work out for me because with all the real estate I’ve been buying, I just might take up farming soon.
Now a few years after this, I’m doing a concert in Indianapolis. I get a message that John wants to invite us out to his neck of the woods to play a game of flag football. So we thought, this might be a lot of fun since we have a day off after the show and we take him up on it. We get out to John’s place. I had a talk with the guys in the band. I said, “Listen, take it easy on John. Don’t rough him up or anything. We don’t want to hurt the guy who writes the songs, right. Just score enough points to win but not by too much because the deal is, whoever loses has to buy a steak dinner for both teams.
Well as it turns out, we didn’t need to be worrying about John getting hurt. He’s all over the field. Throwing passes, catching passes, running, blocking, intercepting, going “nan nan nan nan nan”. You name it, he did it and we got creamed. The score was something like 63 to zip right up to the very last play when his team laid down on the field and let us score a touchdown. Class. After the game, we find out that their best player was the first-string quarterback from the University of Indiana. (BJ in a mocking voice: Jackie gonna be a football star)…my ass! But it all worked out great in the end. John took us to a joint called Little Zagreb in the middle of nowhere and he paid for the whole thing and I had the best tasting steak I ever ate in my life.
The first thing I did when I got back to the hotel was I call Randy Newman. He didn’t answer, so I left a message. “Randy, it’s Billy Joel. I just wanted you to know, I found you the best steak restaurant you’ll ever eat at right here in the Midwest”. I don’t know if he ever followed up ‘cause he still hasn’t called me back. (crowd laughs)
Now, they call John the Little Bastard. So, since some of the people who tour with John also go on tour with me, I asked them if they had any nice things to tell me about John so I could tell you about it tonight. Here’s the responses I got: “Uhhh….nice things….no, I can’t think of any nice things about John”. Another one was: “Are you talking about John Mellencamp?? Let me think about that. I’ll get back to you on the next tour”. And then there’s, “You’re kidding me right? This is a joke right? Don’t tell him I said that or I’m toast”. But they still said they love you, and they don’t know why. And maybe it’s because you’re a fighter John. You can talk the talk because you’ve walked the walk. You’ve lived a life. You didn’t take any (bleep) from anybody.
Now you know, in this business, they only really love you when you die young. People don’t like it when we get old and start aging. I guess it reminds them of their own inevitable decrepitude. You see, if we die young, we become “icons”. Unfortunately, we also become dead. (crowd laughs) And while old age is not a glamorous prospect, it still beats the (bleep) out of being fertilizer. (crowd laughs)
Now you scared me a couple of times when I heard we might have lost you John. Even though it might have seemed like a good career move at the time. You know in this line of work, the only thing sexier than a hit record, is death. But I should have known, you were too ornery to die. And nowadays, you don’t have to worry about being called a “pop singer” or a “pop star”, let’s face it, nobody’s selling records anymore. The record industry died before you did. Congratulations John, you outlived the music business. (crowd laughs and applauds)
And what do you know, NOW they induct you into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Well, welcome to the club, although I still don’t know what the big deal is. There’s no golf, no tennis, no horseback riding, no picnics, no barbeques, no poker games, no softball games, definitely no flag football games. Hell, they don’t even have a swimming pool.
You know it used to be a lot more fun before it became a TV show. People would come up here under the influence of all sorts of substances and really go off, on everyone and everything. Now we have to be all nice and polite so they can sell ads for VH-1. Right? (crowd moans/applauds)
John, do you remember all those dumbass videos we used to have to make in the 80’s? You know where all that shit ended up? VH-1 Presents, Behind The Music That Sucks. (crowd laughs/applauds) Thanks a lot. (bleep) you. I’m not gonna be careful with my language here. The more they bleep me, the less programming they have for their next smartass show.
Anyway, don’t let this club membership change you John. Stay ornery, stay mean. We need you to be pissed off and restless, because no matter what they tell us, we know, this country is going to hell in a handcart. This country’s been hijacked. You know it, and I know it. People are worried, people are scared, and people are angry. People need to hear a voice like yours to echo the discontent that’s out there in the heartland. They need to hear stories about it. (crowd applauds) They need to hear stories about frustration, alienation, and desperation. They need to know that somebody out there feels the way they do, in the small towns and in the big cities. They need to hear it, and it doesn’t matter if they hear it on a jukebox in the local gin mill or in a (bleep) truck commercial. Because they ain’t gonna hear it on the radio anymore! They don’t care how they hear it as long as they hear it. Good and loud and clear, the way you’ve always been saying it all along. You’re John, this is still Our Country, and someone’s gotta tell ‘em, don’t take any (bleep), and John, you do that very well.
So now it’s time for me to present you with this shiny little tschotchke. (crowd laughs) Welcome you to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Ladies and Gentlemen: John Mellencamp.
(Crowd applause – music from Small Town playing)
John Mellencamp: The thing that Billy doesn’t understand is that in the Midwest, we don’t know from Jewish people. (crowd laughs) Ya know, they thought he was Italian. (crowd laughs) And they didn’t know from Italian people either.
There’s no doubt that anybody’s who ever stood up here to accept this award, nobody has put themselves behind the eight ball more than I did. I came to New York after reading an article in Creem magazine that said Mainman was looking for new talent. That was my plan. I was 22 years old and I was a bar room singer, married with a kid, had never been on an airplane, never been in a building more than four stories tall and I was ripe for the picking to be the full catastrophe of the record business. So I made a deal with the devil, and I didn’t even know it. If they wanted to call me Rumplestilskin, I woulda done it to have the opportunity to make records. Tsk…Johnny Cougar indeed.
But I knew something that they didn’t know.
I was born very lucky and this might sound obtuse, but I was born with a disease called Spina Bifida. I had a birth defect on the back of my neck the size of a man’s fist. Spina Bifida is when the spinal column doesn’t fully form around the spinal cord. Back then, it was fatal. It would paralyze from the opening, you know, wherever the opening of the spine was. It my case, it was the neck. I should have been paralyzed from the neck down. And in 1951, they operated with pinking shears and a screwdriver. So you can imagine my parents, who were only 20 years old, when they heard this prognosis. It was grim.
It was unheard of back then to operate on a newborn, you know, a kid they just didn’t really...So they waited like six weeks to see if the kid would live. To see if there were complications, see if they were fatal, and they waited the six weeks and they performed the operation on me and I was born lucky. It was a high-risk operation. It took 18 hours. A young surgeon carefully worked on my spinal cord without damaging it, and damaging any of the nerves, and the doctor charged my parents, who didn’t have any money, a dollar. (Crowd applauds)
I called the guy up, his name is Dr. Heinberger, he’s still alive, he’s 92 years old now. I talked to him before I came here to get all the details.
So my parents took me home. Twelve years went by and I was sitting in class and some kid said, “Hey John, what’s that big pink scar on the back of your neck?” It goes from here to here (John putting his hands on each side of his neck). And I said, “What scar?” My parents had never even told me anything had ever happened to me. I’m lucky.
And my grandma, my entire life, from a little kid until she died, would always come up to me and whisper…she called me Buddy…she’d go “Buddy, you’re the luckiest boy in the world”. And I am. I’m lucky to be standing here for any number of reasons.
Over the last 15 years, I’ve had about 15 guys in my band. I take great pleasure and pride in seeing these…I always use local musicians…grow into passionate and powerful performers. Their dedication and determination have shaped them into world-class musicians whose hard work and their performances...they make it look effortless. I’m proud of their accomplishments and I thank them for putting up with me all these years.
I’d like to thank Miriam Sturm, who’s been in the band 10 years. I’d like to thank Andy York, 14 years. Pat Petersen, 25 years. Toby Myers, 20 years. Kenny Aronoff, 20 years. And Mike Wanchic has been in the band with me for 32 years and I’m just now getting used to him. (crowd applauds)
I’d like to say a special thanks to Don Gehman and George Green who helped me at the beginning of my career. All the assistant engineers and engineers who’ve put up with me in the recording studio, and all the guys on the crews that have been with me on the thousands and thousands of shows that I’ve done. I was at Polygram for 25 years. I’d like to thank Dick Asher and Alain Levy for their support.
I built my own recording studio in 1982. You gonna fall asleep Alan? You all right down there? (John chuckles as he is speaking to Alan Grubman in the audience). I’d like to thank the people at my recording studio, Belmont Mall. In particular, a guy named Tim Elsner, who was also my college roommate. He’s worked for me for 35 years. (crowd applauds)
And a really interesting thing happened to me, at least for me it was interesting. A few days ago, for the first time, I saw a picture in a newspaper from 1942 that showed my mom, who was a young girl at the time, picketing for the union in Austin, Indiana to get a union into the canning factory. And there was a guy standing there, a folk singer, who looked like Woodie Guthrie, and there was my mom, a 17 year old girl singing with him. So that made me proud and I want to thank my Mom and Dad who taught me….scroll up man (John talking to the teleprompter operator)…who introduced me to music and taught me the value of hard work and dedication and they’re sitting right up there (John points to his parents in the loge). Thank you Mom and Dad. (crowd applauds)
I’d like to thank my Grandparents who are no longer with me, Laura Mellencamp and Harry Mellencamp, who always supported me when nobody else gave a damn about me. So they were always on my side.
I’d like to thank my daughters, Teddi Jo and Justice and Michelle for having broad shoulders, for not having a dad when they were growing up as teenagers ‘cause I was on the road all the time.
And I’d like to thank my sons, Hud and Speck. You’ll meet Speck later ‘cause he’s gonna play with me. And Hud…just to bring it full circle…my son Hud is 13 years old and he’s getting ready to have his…to compete in the Midwestern Gold Gloves champ fight. (crowd applauds). And the reason I bring that up is because Hud’s bigger than me now and he’s 13 and we think he’s gonna get to be about 6’1” and about 235. And in about 4 years I’m gonna be 60 years old and I’m gonna treat myself to bringing him back to New York to whip some asses of some people who I didn’t get along with in the music business. (crowd laughs/applauds) So, you guys know who you are. So if you’re sitting in your office, if you still got an office, and you hear “Hud’s at the door, that’s your ass”.
I’d like to thank my wife of 17 years, Elaine. (crowd applauds) She always reminds me that I’m a pair of blue jeans and to lead with my left and to keep sluggin’ even when I don’t have the energy to sometimes.
And you know, you meet a lot of funny people in the music business. Some you like, some you don’t like so much, right? But rarely do you meet long-time friends. You know, the guys you can borrow money from and of they get you out of a scrape if you’re in a scrape. Some of these guys I talk to everyday and sometimes, you know, I’ve just known them for a long time. Like Jann. I’ve known Jann for 28 years. It’s hard to believe that we’re that old Jann. We were just telling each other how handsome and young we are. We just told each other that the other night (John laughs and Jann Wenner laughs hysterically).
I’d like to thank Rob Light who’s been my agent from the beginning. (crowd applauds) Rob and I have fought many a round together and generally Rob’s on my side, whether I’m right or wrong and I appreciate that Rob, thank you.
Alan Grubman has achieved much success in the music business. Riches. And he handles a lot of people in this room I’m sure and your artists. But when Alan started handling me, when he became my attorney, he was still teaching school in the morning, and in the afternoon, he did some, you know, some work of some kind. But Alan was poor when I met him, he didn’t even have a match and I had to give him money to get home in the cab. Not much has changed today. I give him a check and he gives me some change sometimes. (John chuckles, crowd laughs) Yeah, he was basically…you were just moonlighting when you met me right? (John looks at Alan) Pretty much.
I met John Sykes and Tom Freston when they first started MTV (crowd applauds). I introduced John to his wife. I don’t know if he’s mad at me or not about that. But he even managed me for a couple of weeks, he hung in here for two weeks. And Tom Freston and I have always found something to laugh about even when there wasn’t anything funny.
Bo-bo-bo-Bob Merlis, thank you.
And Randy Hoffman. Randy thinks it’s his job to keep me behind the eight ball. He thinks that’s his job. He’s been my manager…scroll up (John instructs teleprompter operator)…when nobody else wanted the job. That’s how he got the job, nobody else wanted it. But he’s been unwavering and loyal to me and I appreciate it Randy, thank you very much. (crowd applauds)
There’s a couple of people…There’s a few people I’ve got to thank who aren’t with us anymore but they meant a lot to me. Russell Shaw. I wouldn’t be here …Russell died in 1988 and I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Russell.
Sigmund Balaban became a very good friend of mine and a father figure. I loved that guy. He died a few years ago.
Tracy Cowles was my constant companion on tour. He died a few years ago. For 20 years he traveled with me.
Tim White. Tim White, many of you people know. Tim and I talked everyday on the phone for 25 years. He was my conscious, my cheerleader, and one of my best friends. Tim died in 2002.
So anyway, to end this thing up, when I came to New York, I was the unwashed, unwanted immigrant worker who showed up everyday who wanted my ticket to go to work. Some days I was on top of the coffee bags and some days I was down in the hole. I had to create my own job because New York and Los Angeles didn’t have a job for me inside the music business. So I created a job outside the music business and I was fortunate enough to write a couple of songs that connected with people and people thought the songs were about them and I want to thank those people.
And I’ve been a total walking contradiction my entire career and I intend to stay that way. I’ve never cared about money, but I always wanted to get paid. (crowd laughs) I never cared about having hit records, but I always wanted to hear my songs on the radio. I never cared what the critics had to say, but I always paid close attention to what they wrote.
After 32 years of having the opportunity, from playing many years, playing in the back rooms of bars, and the barns, and getting an education from the farm workers, and the factory workers, watching the struggle of the people far away, people far away from the interstate that the public eye no longer looks at. The people who built this country on their sweat, who built this country have slowly and silently been left behind.
I’m the guy who rolls the ball up the hill, who wakes up every morning to find that the ball is back at the bottom of the hill. I’m that guy.
And as long as I can hear a song that puts a tear in my eye, and a lump in my throat, I know there’s still hope and I got a job that’s unfinished. There’s still work to be done. You know, the sword is a mighty weapon, but it ain’t nothing compared to the songs and the words in the songs that we sing, so thanks a lot.
(Crowd applauds and gives standing ovation)
A special thank you to Paula E., Lori H., Kyra D., Cindy B., and Diantha M. for their help transcribing and proofing!