CapeCodOnline Blog: Mellencamp at the Grammy Museum On His New Record, The Internet and More By Ken Capobianco

John Mellencamp appeared at the Grammy Museum in downtown Los Angeles for an interview and question and answer period (along with a short acoustic set) on Tuesday timed with the release of his new record, “No Better Than This,” one of the finest of his career.

Mellencamp was unusually honest about his music and said some provocative things about the future of music, the Internet and his own legacy.

Relaxed, chewing gum through the early part—no doubt, stemming his incessant smoking habit, which is a no-no in the museum—Mellencamp came across as the straight talker you’d expect him to be.

His conversation was peppered with plenty of stories (a funny one about playing in front of President Clinton in the early ‘90s with an obscenity scratched on an old acoustic guitar he happened to pick up before hitting the stage to sing a Woody Guthrie song was the highlight) and plenty of insight into his career.

Of course, the focus was on the new record, which was recorded in mono on an Ampex reel-to-reel tape recorder in three specific places: the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Sun Studios in Memphis, and a hotel room in San Antonio where Robert Johnson once recorded.

Obviously, the recording process was steeped in history and it comes through on the songs, which owe plenty to folk and blues narratives of the past.

No doubt, listening to the new record, his touring with Bob Dylan this past year (as well as during a minor-league ballpark trek a few years ago) has paid off. There’s a vintage sound to the set, produced by T-Bone Burnett, and it includes songs that confront aging, loneliness and America while also having a darkly humorous bent, at times. There are also some sweet love songs (especially “Thinking About You,” which he played).

When told that the disc is a bit of a throwback by moderator Robert Santelli, Mellencamp strongly demurred adding that the word made it seem as if he was aiming for slavish imitation.

He claimed that he was trying to just capture a moment, which he feels so much of pop music fails to do today. He was referring to the generic sterility of today’s pop that not only has no authenticity or sense of the past, but is also made without much soul.

Mellencamp reflected on his own music saying, “My first six records were terrible” and that had many of the hardcore fans in the audience—it was a mixture of media, fans, and museum members—shaking their heads in disagreement.

But he was firm adding that he feels he and his band had no idea what they were doing in the studio and that he didn’t have a grasp on songwriting. He was adamant that he was learning on the fly and when a pop hit like “Jack and Diane” came out, it was a happy accident. Of course, millions of people responded to that accident, so he must have been doing something right.

From my view, his skills didn’t come into focus until “Scarecrow” and he’s probably right about everything that came before it.

Yes, he addressed the fact that he adopted the name “Cougar,” which was a curse he had to live down for years because so few people took him seriously.

But he said that he had gone to New York as a 21-year-old to get a record deal (which he secured) and when the name was proposed to him, it was either accept it or go back to Indiana with nothing. The decision gave him an opportunity to reach an audience, but also worked against him for a couple of decades.

The member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ultimately got around to talking about the Internet, which he called “the most dangerous invention since the Atom bomb.”

Now this shouldn’t be taken out of context as I’ve seen it done on, well, yes, the Internet. He was lamenting the Internet’s affect on the music industry, but he was really talking about how hackers working for foreign governments or terrorists could shut down this country’s power grid or wreak havoc with our financial system. Anyone who would disagree with that is not paying attention.

Now Mellencamp doesn’t seem like a Luddite and I’m sure plenty of people reading his quotes will assume that. Frankly, it appeared he feels that technological terrorism is where Homeland Security should be focusing on because that’s where the real dangers are. Unfortunately, Santelli let such a provocative quote linger instead of following up and audience questions were more in the “what do you think of Willie Nelson’s haircut?” mode.

Other topics touched on included his populist bent, education (or, more properly, its failure), the Farm Aid benefits he has been such a major contributor to, and the inability of this country to take care of its own people.

He made interesting insights about rock music and how much of its legacy will evaporate. Mellencamp lamented how the Internet has destroyed the music business and the quality of the music we hear (he certainly will not be the next spokesman for iTunes).

He ruminated on how popular big band music was in the ‘20s and ‘30s and that everyone thought it would be permanently ingrained in the American psyche. Then, he asked the audience to name five big band leaders (plenty of silence).

He said, “Rock `n’ roll, as important as we think it is, and as big as it was and as much money as was made on it…at the end of the day, they’re gonna say there was this band The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and this guy named Bob Dylan. And the rest of us, we’re all going to be footnotes.”

Imagine what Maroon 5 and Katy Perry fans have to look forward to?

The evening, clearly, was more than a promotional appearance for a record from an American songwriter at his very best.