Toledo Streets Newspaper - Lengthly Mellencamp Interview & Public Service Announcement
08.08.2010 - In 2007 John visited a tent city in Toledo, OH raising awareness of the homeless which sparked the founding of 1Matters.org. John has continued his support not only for 1Matters, but all of those who have lost domestic autonomy in our nation.
During a recent concert stop nearby Windsor, ON, John Mellencamp sat down to talk with 1Matters’ Ken Leslie on behalf of Toledo Streets Newspaper to talk about homelessness, music, and progress.
To most people the “homeless” are nothing more than vague faces of poverty
reflected in the mirror of a society afraid to even look, much less help.
Over a career spanning 25 albums John Mellencamp has written about who he is.
Then, more importantly, John Mellencamp has always walked his talk. This is
Thrust into superstar status by the music machine in the 80’s, he got a taste of
the soulless part of the music business. So he said “Whoa, screw that! That’s
not who I am, ‘Cougar’ out!”
Rejecting this money-making machine, his walk tells us he cares more about
people than money. He has always worked for those without a voice. Everyone
matters! That’s why John did this interview.
There were no conditions for this interview, nor the public service
announcements for 1Matters and World Homeless Day, October 10th. None. He
literally said, “I will do what ever you need.” Complete unconditional trust.
Why here instead of the mainstream press which would have garnered much more
publicity? His single and absolute intent here is to talk to those in the middle
of the struggle directly. His hope is vendors of street papers worldwide, having
an exclusive interview no one else has, will achieve financial and domestic
His hope is each one of the 640,000 people on the streets of the United States
and in its shelters on any given night never give up. He hopes they do whatever
hard work necessary to overcome any and all obstacles between themselves and
His hope is all reading this interview will support your local street paper with
your time and dollars. If there are none in your city, you can direct your
support to the North American Street Newspaper Association (NASNA). Your support
today allows us, those currently and formerly on the streets, to encourage each
other and share the hope of our successes in one collective voice.
These are his hopes.
Because every 1Matters.
“Oh, but ain’t that America for you and me;
Ain’t that America, somethin’ to see, baby;
Ain’t that America, home of the free…
Little pink houses for you and me.”
- Little Pink Houses –
Ken Leslie: On behalf of 1Matters, Toledo Streetsand the street paper movement,
and everyone who has lost domestic or financial autonomy in our country, thank
you for your time today.
We first met two years ago or so when you made an un-promoted stop at the annual
Tent City, Project Homeless Connect in Toledo. You just wanted them to know they
matter. Bob Merlis (Mellencamp’s publicist) told me you were touched by the
experience. How so?
John Mellencamp: When you see what progress can produce, and also what progress
can discard, it makes a feller wonder if some of the progress, let me put it
this way, calling it progress does not make it right.
In this country right now there is no middle class, no place for middle class.
You are either really rich or you are really down and out. It’s hard times in
this country right now.
KL: You brought your wife Elaine and son Speck with you to Tent City.
When you had your private talk with some of the unhoused, at first Speck stood
back, but by the end of your conversation he was in the circle listening to
every word. Compassion is a pretty cool thing for a father to pass on to a son.
Did he share his thoughts on the experience before and after? JM: I don’t remember exactly, but I will tell you he is a very activist type of
kid. I found that out when he was pretty young. He did some research at school
on some chocolate company and he wrote them a letter and it said, “You
cheapskates, why don’t you hire and why don’t you pay fair, ya so-and-so.” And
he almost got me into trouble last year, too.
KL: How so? JM: He had a petition on Facebook to try to get me to stop smoking. He
had, I think, about a half a million people sign up and he had to get a million.
The whole conversation was just at Thanksgiving last year. We had completed our
Thanksgiving dinner and I lit up a cigarette at the table. He looked at me and
he went like, “Really, Dad?” And I said, “What do you mean, ‘Really Dad’, I
smoke all the time?” And he said, “Yeah but it’s Thanksgiving, I’m not done
eating.” I said “OK, I’ll go somewhere else; it’s a big house.” So I went into
A couple hours later he walks up and said, ”Hey Dad, if I get a million people
to sign up on Facebook would you stop smoking?” And I said, “Yeah, go ahead.”
That was the end of the conversation.
By the time the thing had started, ya know, a couple weeks into it, Larry King
wanted him to come on, Good Morning America asked him, and of course I wouldn’t
let him go on anywhere. First of all, I don’t want him talking about my bad
habits; and second of all, ya know, I knew he’d reach his mark.
KL: And then what? JM: And then I’d have to stop smoking.
KL: Would ya? Have you tried? How many times have you tried? JM: Listen, I have no desire to stop, so there’s no reason to even have
that conversation. If I would have wanted to stop smoking I would have years go.
KL: Took me like 32 times of quittin’ to finally do it. JM: Yeah, well, you wanted to stop. I’m confirmed.
KL: And your other son Hud? JM: He’s 16 years old and he fights tomorrow night.
KL: Boxer or Extreme? JM: Boxer. He holds five state championships right now. He just got back
from Annapolis. They want him to be a boxer for them and he went up and trained
for two weeks.
KL: Was that nerve wracking to see him box? JM: No, I know how much Hud trains, he’s ready to fight. His record is
20-2. He’s a bad-ass, I can tell ya that.
KL: Did you ever box? JM: No, I could fight in the street, but this is a sport to him, he’s
very good at it. I’m proud of them both.
KL: When you were on stage at Tent City, you spontaneously decided to
invite everybody there to your concert, all of the unhoused people. JM: Right.
KL: 60 – 70 people went and I understand you talked to them from the
stage about hope. As you know, one of the guests came back from the show and
said “Ken, John talked to us from the stage – I guess I really do matter.” That
was the founding moment of 1Matters and actually that’s why we’re here today.
Your whole career, you’ve had the compassion for and worked for those with
little or no voice. What is the root of that compassion in John Mellencamp,
where does it come from? Was there something in your childhood maybe that
started this feeling of compassion?
JM: Well for me, it started with race. I was in a band when I was 13-14
years old and it was the mid-60’s and it was a racially mixed band. I was the
lead singer and this black kid was a singer he was a couple years older than me,
really good. We’d play every weekend at fraternities and in hotels and stuff
like that. It was a soul band. And I saw the way people treated him. Ya know, it
was like wow, really? Wait a minute, you loved him on stage, but now he’s gotta
go wait outside? And so I think that made quite an impression on me as a young
“An all white jury hides the executioner’s face
See how we are, me and you?
…Oh, oh, oh Jena,
Take your nooses down”
- Jena -
KL: How’d you respond? JM: Well, there were times that there were fist fights. I remember in a
little town in Indiana there was a fist fight in between one of our breaks
because of his race. So, ya know.
KL: And since then you’ve carried on standing up for farmers, for the
people, I remember Jena, you stuck up for people there and actually put a lot of
your work and effort into that. JM: Well I’m Sisyphus myself; I’m always the guy who’s rolling the rock
up the hill. Ya know, and every time I get too close to the top I either let it
roll back down on purpose or it just rolls back, catches on fire and rolls down
at someone. So I know what it’s like to have to work at something. My struggle
is obviously different than some folks’ struggle, but, nevertheless, we all have
KL: How would you define your struggle? JM: Um, well I’ll answer it like this: A man writes to what he strives to
be, not what he is.
“Out there somewhere
You know there’s gotta be a place
Where a man can live
With a smile on his face
And every day something
- The West End -
KL: The crucible that caused me to get involved in this movement in 1990
was a result of performing in comedy clubs all across the country in the late
80’s and seeing more and more people on the streets. It was the statistic that
60% of them were families with children that forced me to act and do something.
For you, with Farm Aid, tell me about that one moment that caused you to be a
part 25 years ago and to maintain it even today. JM: I had written a song with a friend of mine called Rain on the
Scarecrow and I had just made an album about what I had seen. Ya know, what
prosperity had done to the small towns. How they had leveled them out and
devastated small town America. So we made this record called Scarecrow and then
when Willie called, there was like, it took me about a second to decide I wanted
to be a part of Farm Aid. When Willie called up, he had like a vague notion of
what Farm Aid was gonna be. It was no more than just a vague notion and we
really had no idea it was gonna last. We have our 25th anniversary coming up
Well there’s ninety-seven crosses planted in the courthouse yard—
Ninety-seven families who lost ninety-seven farms.
I think about my grandpa and my neighbors and my name,
And some nights I feel like dyin’, like that scarecrow in the rain.”
- Rain on the Scarecrow -
KL: What was Willie’s notion? JM: Ah he didn’t really have much of a notion, it was a bunch of maybe’s
and guesses and I don’t know’s, ya know.
KL: Did that start because of Bob Dylan’s comment at Live Aid? JM: Ah, that’s what he said, you know, that Bob had said something about,
you know, that we should try to take care of our own people. I think that
“Save some time to dream,
Save some time for yourself;
Don’t let your time slip away
Or be stolen by somebody else.”
- Save Some Time to Dream -
KL: One of the things that I’ve always admired about you is your courage
in social justice. You take a huge pile of truth, dump it in front of them and
say, “Smell this.” Based on your lifetime of fighting for the truth, has your
position changed in the sense that does authority always win? JM: Oh, I’m a hypocrite, there’s no question about it. Don’t you know a
hypocrite when ya see one? You’re looking right at him? Ah yeah, I’m in the wind
all the time because ya have to be in the wind all the time. If you’re steadfast
on your commitments… I have a new song, it’s called “Save Some Time to Dream”,
and I address that and it says always keep your mind open and always question
your faith. You can’t just say that this is my position and this is my position
for life because, ya know, you discover new information, you see, you grow up.
You see things through different eyes. So, you know, I suppose that in the
world’s eyes, I’m a hypocrite because I’ll say one thing and do another, but I
said one thing 25 years ago and being judged for an action that I did today. So,
ya know, things change, man.
KL: How so? I hear more respect for you and your work in fighting
authority and I see you winning over time in the things you’re taking on. Is
that an illusion? JM: I guess that’s an illusion, ‘cause I don’t feel that way.
KL: How do you feel? JM: I feel like you’re dammed if ya do and damned if you don’t – so to
hell with it. That’s what I feel about it.
KL: Just go with your spirit then. JM: Yeah.
KL: In the past few years there have been people talking about drafting
you to become an authority, to get you involved with politics. I see you as too
honest for that. JM: Oh, I couldn’t do that at all. My “c*ck-s*ckers” and “mother-f*ckers”
would probably not fly very well in conversation in the congress, ya know.
KL: I could see you on the floor: Your honorable son-of-a-bitch… JM: “Ya’ lying c*ck-sucker.” Yeah, I don’t think it would go very good.
KL: Which is a real good segue to… JM: Besides, why was that job open? Cause the guy that was doing it
couldn’t stand it any more. He wanted to quit because the hypocrisy was too
great for him so he said, “I can’t do this anymore.” Not me.
“You know the devil,
He thinks he’s got me.
But he ain’t got me…
- Right Behind Me -
KL: You’ve always fought convention in your work, your life, and your
music. And “No Better Than This” is the perfect example of busting convention to
shreds. It’s so not the McMusic they play on the McRadio today. This is a tasty
CD. What was your inspiration for the whole premise? JM: Well, I knew I was gonna go on tour, Bob [Dylan] and I did a tour
last summer and I knew I was gonna come close to all these places. It was kind
of a leisurely tour, so I thought, well hell, at the time, let’s make the most
out of this – we’re gonna be in these places and that was just how it started.
And then I wrote the songs and I wrote all those songs in about in about 10-15
days, I don’t’ know. It was just I’d get up every morning and I’d write. I’d
write two or three songs in a day and I let the songs write themselves, as
opposed to sometimes when you write songs you try to steer them a way that you
would like them to go. But these songs, I just, they kind of wrote themselves
really, I just let them go wherever they wanted to go and that’s how they ended
KL: What about the idea of the recording process, recorded in Mono? JM: ell, of course, it was a rebellious act of, ya know. There is a song
on the record called “The West End” and it says “it’s worse now, look what
progress did.” So I decided that, you know, to go just as far away from the
popular culture of music as I possibly could and just go back to where it began.
The whole record was recorded on one channel and, ya know, one tape machine (a
1955 Ampex), and the whole band played it once and there was one microphone.
KL: It is such a pure sound. JM: There are no over dubs, no echo, there’s no anything. It’s just what
the room sounded like and it was fun because it was musicians actually playing
music, as opposed to building a record or constructing a record.
KL: How did you choose the locations? JM: By the way the tour was routed. I knew that I was gonna be close to
Memphis, and I knew I was gonna start in Savannah and I have a house in right
outside of Savannah on an island, so it gave me an opportunity to stay there and
work a couple days, and then we went to Memphis. Then we tried to go to Texas to
the building where Johnson also recorded, but it was condemned and they wouldn’t
let us in. So we ended up having to go to San Antonio, which was kind of out of
the way, but we were only there two days.
KL: We absolutely love “Right Behind Me” – the sound, the feel. From the
very start with Miriam Sterm’s attacking strings… JM: It’s that corner, that’s the same corner that Robert Johnson recorded
“Hell Hound’s on My Trail” in San Antonio, Texas, Gunter Hotel. And like T-Bone
[Burnett] said, that’s the best sounding corner I ever heard.
KL: Right, that is such a great song. And the hook, the hook is
incredible you know, “You know the devil, he thinks he got me, he ain’t got
John and all in the room: … “No.” (Laughter)
KL: Last question, I can tell you that from when I was unhoused and
living in my car, you nailed the feeling of hopelessness in “Graceful Fall.”
“It’s not a graceful fall from dreams to truth, there’s not a lot of hope if
you got nothing to lose.”
Since 2007, foreclosures and job losses increased the number of families in
shelters nearly 30%. Each night there are 640,000 unhoused Americans who have
lost domestic autonomy and are living on the streets and in shelters, 15% are
Some of those will be selling the very street papers which are carrying your
words right now. As you did from the stage in Toledo, what are your words of
hope to all of our brothers and sisters who are living on the streets of our
JM: Wow, that’s a big question, that’s an awfully big question. I wish I had
something that I could say that seemed to address that question, but I’m not
sure I really do at this point in our country. So, I don’t know, you know.
KL: You’ve always been a fighter, you’ve always had hope. JM: Well, I’ve always, ah, I’ve always had a bunch of dumb cliché things
that my family taught me that I always passed on to my kids. My grandfather
passed them on to me and they’ve always provided some sort of hope in my life.
They’re not very eloquent, but the greatest advice I ever got in my life and,
it’s not very eloquent, but “If you’re gonna’ hit a c*ck-s*cker, kill him.” And
what my grandfather meant when he said that was if you’re actually going to do
something, don’t talk about it, don’t brag about it, just go do it and do it to
the best that you can possibly do. And that’s what he was saying, don’t be
threatening, don’t be talking, don’t be bragging. I think that as un-eloquently
as it was said, it was probably one of the most important things said to me in
KL: Which is a perfect thing to say to the people on the streets, because
if you’re gonna get off the streets, you can. JM: You can, you need to! See the problem is most people give up too
early and I’m not talking about just the people on the street, I’m just talking
about people in general. They give up on relationships too early, they give up
on themselves too early, they give up on life too early. I mean I’ve been
writing that since I was a kid. In the song called “Jack and Diane” you know
they were only 16 and already giving up. People just give up too early, they
just quit, you know, “this is too hard,” or, “I don’t wanna do this anymore.”
I think that’s a problem, and I think that’s a problem our country has. Over the
decades it was allowed to happen by the work ethic and through capitalism, a lot
of things that affect this country that allow people to think that way, that the
world owes them a living. And as soon as you start thinking that somebody owes
you something, forget it man, you’re done. And as soon as you start thinking
you’re right and everybody else is wrong… It’s like the guy who was married six
or seven times, hell, I think it might be me – I think this could be me, I’m
starting to think this is my problem.
KL: Amen. Thank you, John. JM: Well, thank you.
“Save some time to dream,
’Cause your dream could save us all,
Your dream might save us all.”
- Save Some Time to Dream -
Mellencamp's Inaugural Walk To Make 1 Matter Public Service Announcement
A Grammy Award winning rock star is helping to bring awareness to
homelessness in Toledo.
In November 2007, John Mellencamp made a stop at Toledo's Tent City, an event
meant to help area homeless and draw attention to the issue of homelessness.
"He was really touched by the experience. When he came down, he talked to a few
of our people in a private health van, and when he was talking to them in the
crowd, he was moved enough he literally invited everyone there to come to his
concert," says Ken Leslie, found of the organization 1 Matters.
When the Tent City organizer asked Mellencamp's publicist if John would be
willing to help with this year's event, the answer was an immediate and
Mellencamp has already shot public service announcements promoting Toledo's Tent
City and World Homeless Day. He also did an in-depth Q&A with Leslie. The
full-length article is in Toledo Streets, a newspaper sold by the un-housed as a
way to make some money.
The Toledo Streets paper featuring Mellencamp is now on sale for $1. The public
service announcments featuring him will begin airing in mid-September.