The UK Times - The Singer Tells Sarfraz Manzoor About His Love For Fighting, Smoking and Bruce Springsteen

UK Times - By Sanzoor Manzoor

John Mellencamp was not expected to last. He was born with spina bifida, which in 1951 was a death sentence. When a pioneering young neurosurgeon treated three babies with the spinal defect Mellencamp was the only one who survived. At one point his musical career seemed similarly doomed: in 1976 his debut album, Chestnut Street Incident, released under the name Johnny Cougar, sold poorly and received shocking reviews, and he was dropped by his record company.

His time as a musician seemed to be over barely before it had begun, and yet here we are, 46 years later. Now 70, he has sold 60 million albums and had hits including Jack and Diane, Pink Houses and Hurts So Good. His rustic, Appalachian-tinged rock has won him a Grammy and earned comparisons to Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan, whom he counts as friends. About to release his 25th album, Strictly a One-Eyed Jack, he is on the phone from a hacienda where he is staying on the top of a mountain in northern California. “If the breeze blows the wrong way sometimes I’ll drop the call,” he says in a gravelly voice.

“The secret to longevity,” Mellencamp says, is that “most people give up too early. Most people expect to have happiness as if it’s God-given. If you had sat behind a guitar as long as I have you could write songs.” He grew up in small-town Indiana and never left, and has been playing in bands since he was 14. This did not make him popular at home. “My dad was the vice-president of a big electrical firm,” he says. “I had long hair and he didn’t approve of that.” When he was 17 he punched his father in the face during an argument and his father responded by raining blows down on him.

“I’m a Mellencamp and we had chips on our shoulders,” he says. “I got beat up more times than you can imagine. I wasn’t afraid to fight but I didn’t win many of them.” His fondness for a scrap extended beyond his family. In a bar while at college, “I was stoned, drunk and went and sat down next to the biggest guy I could find and I shoved him,” he says. “We went round the back and he beat the f*** out of me.” Later that same night Mellencamp fell out of a car while a friend, also drunk, was driving. “I woke up the next morning and I was unrecognisable to myself,” he says. “I had chunks of hair pulled out. I had road rash on my legs. I looked at myself in the mirror and said, ‘John, this drug and alcohol thing is not working out for you.’ ” He has not touched either since.

He got his musical break thanks to Tony Defries, the British manager who had been instrumental in the rise of David Bowie. Defries signed Mellencamp, renamed him Johnny Cougar and tried to sell him to the world as the next clean-cut, all-American pop-rock hero. In 1977, the year after the release of his debut, Mellencamp flew to London to record the follow-up and play some concerts. Punk was in its ascendancy and the Indiana rocker was not used to audiences showing their approval by spitting at him. “I did not belong in London,” he says with a laugh. At one show, “I stopped playing and said, ‘Look guys, I know that you think that this is good but it’s not good for me and if you do it again I’m going to stop and whip your ass.’ And they kept doing it and I jumped off stage and got in a big fistfight.” Punching your fans is perhaps not the most obvious way to win their undying loyalty but it is quintessential Mellencamp.

He may have felt musically adrift in the Seventies but by the early Eighties his blue-collar heartland rock was finding an audience. His 1982 album, American Fool, sold ten million copies and topped the US charts for nine weeks. The album featured Jack and Diane, which would become his most popular song. It was originally intended to be about an interracial couple but Mellencamp, in a rare instance of listening to someone else, agreed to make them both white. “The guys in the band were the ones who talked me out of recording Jack being black,” he says. “They were like, ‘John, we need a hit record and if you take this one line out, it’ll be a hit record.’ ”

They weren’t wrong — the song was No 1 in the US for four weeks in 1982 and 40 years on it is an American classic. No one is more surprised about that than Mellencamp. “These kids [Jack and Diane] just won’t go away,” he says. “I don’t know what the f*** I was saying when I wrote that song, but apparently it connected with a lot of people. Particularly that chorus — ‘Oh yeah, life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone’ — which is not a positive statement but people sing it like it’s the national anthem.” Mellencamp is working on a stage musical adaptation of Jack and Diane with the playwright Naomi Wallace. “In the musical version Diane is Hispanic and they live in a small town,” he says. “It’s about corporate America destroying small towns.”

In the Eighties Mellencamp released albums such as Scarecrow and The Lonesome Jubilee that were masterpieces of bleak, populist roots rock, merging catchy melodies with downbeat lyrics. “Days turn to minutes and minutes to memories,” he sang on Minutes to Memories. “Life sweeps away the dreams that we had planned.” The albums brought him commercial success but he was rarely accorded critical respect.

“‘Poor man’s Springsteen’ — it would sometimes piss me off,” he says. “I know it’s not true, Bruce knows it’s not true; it was just lazy journalism.” They may have been considered rivals in the Eighties but these days Mellencamp and Springsteen are friends. They have appeared on stage together and Springsteen contributed guitar and vocals to three songs on Mellencamp’s new album. “Bruce is the sweetest man I know in the music business,” he says. “We have laughed about the idea that we were rivals — he and I get along like brothers.”

Dylan is another spiritual sibling. They first became close in the late Eighties when Dylan asked Mellencamp to direct a music video. “Bob has always liked me and treated me like a little brother,” he says. “He used to call me up in the early Nineties and read me his lyrics. The phone would ring at 3am and he’d call me up and say: ‘Hey, John. Let me read you these lyrics. See what you think.’ Finally, I told him: ‘Bob, you can quit calling me. I’m not a good sounding board because I think everything you write is great. If you wrote f***ing Mary Had a Little Lamb I’d think it was f***ing great.’”

Mellencamp has been painting since the late Eighties and it was Dylan who encouraged him to show and sell his work. Mellencamp painted the self-portrait that is the cover of the new album and he has 55 works on display at the Museum of Art — DeLand in Florida. His paintings have been described by one critic as “handsomely grotesque portraits . . . as solemn and stirring as his hit songs are catchy and inspirational”.

“During the pandemic I painted eight to ten hours a day,” he says. “In an art studio it’s just you and the canvas and the paint. It gives me a certain peace of mind. I like the idea of being by myself.”

He has been married three times, first at 17, and was a father in his teens and a grandfather at 37. He lives in Belmont, Indiana and has five children — his daughter Teddi appeared in The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. After his last divorce, in 2010, he was in an on/off relationship with Meg Ryan — now permanently off — and dated Christie Brinkley, the former supermodel and ex-wife of Billy Joel. He is currently single.

“Women seem to like me in the beginning — it’s after they get to know me that they don’t seem to like me so much,” he says. “I just had a girlfriend for three months and she said, ‘John, you’re just too much. You’re a 69-year-old man who’s still a teen — some moments you’re so mature and other moments it’s like I’m babysitting.’ I didn’t know what she meant but I’m going to figure it out one of these days.” Mellencamp says he is not certain why he finds relationships difficult but offers a hint: “I’m an obstinate cocksucker and I don’t take orders.”

I ask how he has survived for so long in the music business. He remembers seeing James Brown towards the end of his career, when he was trying to repeat the same stage moves he did as a younger man. “That was so awful,” he says. “He tried to do the splits and he couldn’t get up. I thought, ‘Oh f***. If I make it this long, I’m going to remember this happening to James Brown.’ I see people trying to recreate what they were in their twenties or thirties and it’s embarrassing.” The folk singer Pete Seeger once told Mellencamp to “keep it small and keep it going” and it is advice he has tried to follow.

Seventy is good going for a man who had a heart attack in his early forties and continues to smoke. “My voice is 40 years of cigarette smoking,” he says. “My voice has changed dramatically and I finally sound like Louis Armstrong.” What wisdom have those years brought? “What I’ve learnt is that you only have so many f***s to give,” he says. “If you’re in a car and he doesn’t take off when the light turns [green], and that pisses you off, that’s just a waste of f***. Save your f***s for something that amounts to something that’s f***worthy.” You sound like Indiana’s answer to the Dalai Lama, I say. “I was with the Dalai Lama once,” he says. “I was with my ex-wife Elaine and him and a couple of monks. The Dalai Lama grabbed my hand and wouldn’t let go of it. And the monks went over to my wife and said: ‘He’s giving John a reboot.’ As silly as it sounds, I did feel elevated for a few years.”

“How many summers still remain, how many days are lost in vain,” Mellencamp sings on Wasted Days, his duet with Springsteen from last year. “Who’s counting out these last remaining years? How many minutes do we have here?”

“I started smoking when I was 14 and I still smoke, so if I make it to 80 I’ll be happy,” Mellencamp says. “I figure that gives me ten summers and I’m gone. I don’t want to f*** them up.” He doesn’t know what the future holds but he does know that, while he may once have been ridiculed, he had the last laugh because he lasted. “The ability to have an artist’s life and make life bearable by painting and writing songs are the happiest moments of my life,” he says. “I’ve lived an artist’s life. I’ve never had to work for wages. You’re talking to the luckiest guy in the world.”

Strictly a One-Eyed Jack is released by Republic/EMI on January 21