Associated Press Interview: Mellencamp Transitions From Rocker To Songwriter
By NEKESA MUMBI MOODY –
NEW YORK (AP) — Although John Mellencamp was recently inducted into the Rock and
Roll Hall of Fame, the veteran doesn't consider himself a rocker — at least not
These days, Mellencamp uses the phrase "ex-rock star" to describe his place: "I
am trying to make the transition from rock star to songwriter in public," he
An odd statement, perhaps, since Mellencamp pens most of his music, including
some of his biggest hits, from "Jack & Diane" to "Our Country." But while those
songs had Top 40 appeal, he readily admits that the songs off his new album,
"Life Death Love and Freedom," produced by Grammy-winning producer T Bone
Burnett, are designed more for personal introspection than heavy radio spins.
He'll still trot out classics like "Jack & Diane" on tour, but you won't hear
all of the old favorites (Mellencamp admits to recently disappointing one of his
wife's friends by telling her "Cherry Bomb" won't be on his set list this time
around). Mellencamp says he's more interested in being an artist, not a jukebox.
The veteran talked with The Associated Press via phone from his tour about his
new music, America's woes and navigating today's tricky musical landscape.
AP: What made you go to T Bone?
Mellencamp: Well, this is the first time that I've really had a musical outside
producer in my career. Most producers that I worked with were from the technical
point of view, but I had been knowing T Bone for about ten years, socially. ...
So when I saw the nature of these songs, it just made perfect sense that he was
the correct guy to work with these songs.
AP: It's being described as a dark album.
Mellencamp: It reflects perfectly the mood of this country, economically,
socially, racially, in every aspect. There are enough songs on this record that
reflect each one of those topics that I spoke about.
AP: Are you hopeful things can turn around?
Mellencamp: I don't believe they'll ever go back to the way they were. I think
we're too far past that. I think that (Barack) Obama is definitely a hopeful
light on the horizon, but will we ever enjoy the place that we once enjoyed? I
don't think it's going to happen, simply because everything is changing so
rapidly: Technologically it's changing, the way that we do our stock market is
crumbling, the two-party system doesn't really work anymore ... But you know
what (chuckles)? I'm just a (expletive) guy in a rock band.
AP: One of the songs "Jena," is inspired by the Jena Six case. Can you explain
Mellencamp: The best way I can say it is when I was 14 years old, I was in a
band ... and this was 1967 and I was a 14-year-old kid and I was singing dual
lead vocals (with) — I don't mean to identify him like this, but he was a black
kid — and he and I would sing songs by James Brown or the Righteous Brothers,
and we would harmonize and we would dance together, and people just loved that
kid onstage. It's when we got offstage there was trouble. And that made a big
impact on a 14-year-old John Mellencamp, and it has haunted me and perplexed me
my entire life — how people cannot show any more understanding, any more unity.
AP: Do you see the racial climate changing, especially with Obama's success?
Mellencamp: We create the illusion that we are a nation of compassion and
understanding and I'm in Philadelphia right now, walking down the street and I
don't see it. I have a house in Savannah, Ga., I don't see it. We just don't say
the N-word in public anymore. Big deal. And of course you know there's all that
subculture that uses it to make money, so you have all of that. So, it's not
nice, it's not correct, white or black, red green, we don't know how to deal
with it. We haven't dealt with it.
AP: You got so much criticism for using "Our Country" in the Chevrolet
commercials. Do you regret it?
Mellencamp: The reason why I got so much criticism is because I had been such a
large opponent. I had been against it and spoke out against it in the '80s and
'90s, and then to turn around and do it made me look like a hypocrite. I am a
walking hypocrite. I have to roll with the punches. In a perfect world, I don't
think we should have to do that but this isn't the record business that I once
knew. So, I rolled with the punches and I caught criticism, but, at the end of
the day, everybody remembered the song.
AP: Is harder now to write a song now?
Mellencamp: It's never old hat. I just think that there is this illusion that as
people get older, that their work isn't as good. I don't think you see that in
Picasso, I don't think you saw that in Hemingway, I don't think that you saw
that in Stephen King. It's just changes, and it changes generally ... away from
the general public. It becomes more personal, it becomes more insightful, and
therefore not for the general public. I mean, when you write a song called
"R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.," that is for the general public to consume. When you
write a song called "Ain't Gonna Need This Body," ("Don't Need This Body") that
is for people who are halfway through their lives.
Click HERE to read the article online.