Relix: John Mellencamp Channeling John Huston

“I had no plan. I’ve never planned anything in my life,” John Mellencamp says, while musing on the process of selecting the material that appears on his intimate, absorbing new studio record, Strictly a One-Eyed Jack. “We had started recording and then the pandemic hit, so we had to stop. That’s when I was able to look back and realize that all the songs were coming from the same place, the same voice. The guy was a John Huston character for sure— he’s Gay Langland or another one of his characters. These characters are kind of floating, free-range, down-and-outers, who are proud of themselves.”

Mellencamp recorded Strictly a One-Eyed Jack at his home studio in Belmont, Ind., enlisting his friend Bruce Springsteen to join him on three tracks, including the meditative first single, “Wasted Days.” As he has done for most of his career, Mellencamp self-produced the album, although he worked with T Bone Burnett for a stretch in the late 2000s and early 2010s and credits Burnett with some advice that remains applicable: “He reminded me of something I already knew, but I had forgotten. That’s to ‘Keep it simple, stupid. Keep it small.’”

You mentioned Gay Langland from John Huston’s The Misfits. You programmed that film for TCM last September. What are your favorite Huston films and has he always been an influence?

The Misfits and Treasure of the Sierra Madre are two of my favorites. His first film was Maltese Falcon. Since it was a low-budget film, the studio said, “Go ahead and make it if you want to.” Look what he did with it.

I am a fan of John Huston and it’s not only his work; it’s his personality. I always identified with John Huston more than I ever identified with Mick Jagger. John Huston was a ruffian and that’s how I saw myself as a young man

Given your interests in painting and film, did you always envision a musical career for yourself when you were growing up?

I was singing in bars but I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I went to New York thinking I might go to The Art Students League, but I also took a demo tape with me. It turned out that The Art Students League wanted money and the record company wanted to give me money. So I was like, “OK, I’ll take the money.”

Had you written any songs at that point?

No. As a matter of fact, I questioned why they even wanted me to write any songs after they told me that I’d have to. I said, “There are so many songs already written that I couldn’t sing all of them if I started today and sang for the rest of my life. Why does somebody need to write more?”

I didn’t get it. I just saw myself as a singer. I had never really written a song. I had played around with writing songs but it wasn’t an ambition of mine. I wouldn’t even call it a hobby; it was just something I tried a couple of times.

So I really grew up in the public eye, learning how to write songs. That became a challenge because, when I was a kid, my record contract dictated that I had to make an album every 18 months and I had to do a certain number of shows to support it. That meant that I was doing record, tour, record, tour, record, tour, for 20 years. It doesn’t leave much time for writing songs because you’re exhausted.

Can you recall the first one you wrote where you were able sit back, listen to what you’d done and say to yourself: “Now that’s a song”?

I haven’t written that song yet. Sometimes I’ll write something and go, “I can’t believe I wrote that.” But then I need to record it, and it’s not an easy transformation from a little folk song to a rock song. Once you add a band then it changes everything. I can’t just go in and say, “OK guys, here’s the chords, here’s the song, let’s go play.”

I had a friend who wanted to know why it was taking me so long to make a record and I had to say, “Do you think we just walk in and everybody knows what to play? We have to figure it out.”

If the kick-drum is making a certain sound at a particular beat, and the bass player starts playing something that doesn’t match up, then your foundation’s fucked up. So it’s not an easy transformation because the song itself is a melody and lyrical content. Everything else is arrangement, and arrangements take a long time.

When I was a kid, I bet you we cut “Hurts So Good” 123 times. The song was so simple that if you fucked up even a little bit with the rhythm or the performance, then it was fucked up because there’s nothing else to listen to. It’s gotta be spot-on, and that was hard when you’re in a band in the late ‘70s and nobody knows how to play.

You say that you haven’t written that song yet but, to my ears, “Simply a One-Eyed Jack” achieves that goal.

That one’s complicated both lyrically and musically. It was the hardest song to cut on the record because what’s being said is vague, but it’s really not. That’s the hardest thing to do. There’s a whole bunch of conversations in that song about ego and pride. You have to be careful when you’re dealing with those things. But, luckily for me, John Huston sent me an easy way of doing it that I couldn’t have done 20 years ago. I couldn’t have written that song 20 years ago because it’s too complicated. But it still came across as simple.

Can you think of a song that you recorded and, when you took it on the road, it revealed itself to you in a new way?

That happens with a lot of my songs because I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing. I’m a professional songwriter, I guess, because they pay me. But as far as having a plan or even understanding what the songs mean, I wrote “Jack and Diane” when I was like 28. How the fuck did I know that life was gonna go on long after the thrill of living was gone?

But it turned out to be true for a lot of people. This country is loaded with people who can’t find work or have no ambition or have given up after high school or didn’t even make it through high school. They just gave up. That’s a problem a lot of people have—they quit everything too early.

You’ve had to alter tour plans due to COVID. Do you anticipate supporting this record on the road?

We’ll see. I’ll take it as it comes. I’ve done more shows than you could imagine. My biggest tour was 180 shows in one year. When I had a heart attack, I didn’t play for three years and, through the pandemic, I didn’t play. But other than that, I’ve averaged 60 shows a year for the last 40 years. On my last tour, I was on an airplane 280 hours. That’s a lot of flying. They don’t pay me for going onstage, they pay me for leaving home. -- Sharon Carone Executive Assistant To Randy Hoffman / Hoffman Entertainment Inc. Email: [email protected] Phone: 212-765-2525 Reply Forward