John Mellencamp Is Still Looking For Trouble

The rock icon talks about his decades-long career, not giving a shit, the dangers of the Internet, and his grandfather's advice

By Dan Hyman - Esquire

It was sometime around 1988, John Mellencamp recalls, when he found himself having little use for pop music. "I decided that having hit pop records was not a very pleasant road to travel down," says the singer-songwriter, who for each of the preceding six years had notched a Billboard Hot 100 top-10 song and, to that end, etched himself into the American Songbook with radio-friendly heartland rockers like "Jack & Diane," "Pink Houses," and "Small Town."

Talking on the phone from his longtime home in sleepy Bloomington, Indiana, Mellencamp looks back on a two-decade run since then spent riding a freewheeling collision course with his own shortcomings. "I prefer the more bumpy road," he offers, with blunt assessment, of a decision to turn his pen inward. As demonstrated with poignant precision on his recent work — principally 2008's unflinching self-evaluation, Life, Death, Love, and Freedom, and now his latest LP, the fierce, poetic Plain Spoken, out next week — the 62-year-old, however, has never been more dialed in to his craft. "I just can't even imagine that I'm still doing this," he says with a laugh. "I started making records when I was 21. That was 1974, 75. And the idea back then that it was a lifelong occupation was just... It just never did register with a young guy."

JOHN MELLENCAMP: So where am I talking to you from, Dan?

ESQUIRE.COM: I'm in Chicago. How about yourself?

JM: Bloomington, Indiana.

ESQ: Ah, I love Bloomington. I've gone there several times in the past to visit friends at college.

JM: Probably got drunk and fell down, didn't yah?

ESQ: I don't remember the falling down part. But that's probably because I was drunk.

JM: [laughs]

ESQ: So I really enjoyed Plain Spoken.

JM: Wait, and you're how old?

ESQ: I'm 29.

JM: And you liked the record?

ESQ: I did. Ever since Life, Death, Love, and Freedom, I've loved your more introspective, hard-hitting music.

JM: A lot of the new songs have been around for a long time. But I wasn't mature enough to release them. Like "Troubled Man" off the new record: I think I started writing that song in the early nineties, but I just couldn't get it to sound somehow like I thought it should. So you know, I don't ever throw anything away. So I would go back and I would go, "What was I trying to do here?"

ESQ: Some of the album's most intriguing moments are when you look at your life in the harshest light. "Troubled Man" and "The Isolation of Mister" come to mind.

JM: That's why I asked you how old you were. Because I'm trying to write for people my age. And my inspiration over the years has changed dramatically. From being 22, 23 years old, my inspiration was the Rolling Stones. Now my inspiration is John Steinbeck, Tennessee Williams, Faulkner, Shakespeare. It has nothing to do with what I started out to do. If you read Shakespeare — and I don't mean to sound like a dick [laughs] — he talks about all of these things, you know? He says so much in one line. What I'm drawing from now and what I was drawing from as a kid are totally two different things. Because what kind of person's interests stay the same their entire life?

ESQ: Of course. What's ironic is that even though you haven't pursued pop hits for almost two decades, in recent years, as a result of dating Meg Ryan, you had to deal with the paparazzi.

JM: Well, you're right. And there's been such a paradigm change in our culture. Music actually meant something when I started doing it. Too bad I wasn't mature enough to write anything that meant anything [laughs]. I wrote some songs that connected with some people and, as a friend of mine said, "John was very fortunate to be a big pop star and that's also a very unfortunate thing." As early as '88 I wrote a song called "Pop Singer," and man, did I catch shit for that. But I was still a kid. I don't mean to call you a kid, but you'll find out that you get to be a certain age and it's like "This stuff just doesn't interest me anymore." I mean, I can't even imagine writing a song like "Hurts So Good." I don't even know who that guy was who wrote that song.

ESQ: Your younger self, I imagine, would not have looked at the world with as critical an eye as you do in "Lawless Times," on which you sing, "You can't trust a neighbor/husband or wife/you can't trust the police with the guns or their knives... You can't trust the banks the way that you used to do/Hope that Wall Street has been good to you."

JM: There's a paradigm change happening in our culture where people just don't seem to care. I mean, they don't vote in their own interests. "Don't take away our guns! You can't amend that!" Wait a minute, it's an amendment already! That's why they call it the Second Amendment! It's those types of things that were thought about in "Lawless Times." And the line that I like best is "If you want to steal this song it can be easily loaded down." Because actually I said a few years ago, and caught all kind of crap about it, "The Internet is the most dangerous thing since the atomic bomb." And I think that we're finding out that it is. I don't think that people really realize what can be done on that thing and what's going to happen. It's just not good.

ESQ: Look at ISIS being able to upload their horrific videos as propaganda.

JM: Exactly. And when you think about it, Dan, that is just one little teeny thing that's happening on the Internet. They could close down our banking. They could close down our electrical grid. We could do a lot of stupid things with that. It's just not people doing stuff to us. Who knows what we're doing to other people? I'm a firm believer that the government, it needs to revamped. This shit's not working.

ESQ: But obviously you must know how beneficial the Internet has been to our cultural evolution?

JM: Listen, like anything else there are positive things about the Internet. I mean the fact that we can get on and research a topic el pronto mundo... It's not all bad. It's not all black and white. But the recklessness with which it can be used is terrible. The recklessness of our privacy is terrible. When radio first came out it was a new delivery system. And smarter people said: "Wait a minute. You guys have this radio thing and you're playing our music. We need to get paid for that." But with the Internet nobody did that. It just became lawless. And you did whatever you wanted and people threw up their hands and said, "We don't know what to do with this." But in reality it was quite simple: It was a new delivery system of information and entertainment. Treat it exactly the same way you treated radio. Treat it exactly the same way you treat television. The arts wouldn't be suffering the way it is. Because the arts as you've known it, as I've known it, is gone. It's gone and it's not be retrieved at this point.

ESQ: From your tone of voice you don't seem any less impassioned about rallying against social ills than in your past.

JM: I'm looking for trouble. A lot of people get to be a certain age and they just kind of lose interest or they give up. But I'm looking for trouble. I have a bunch of information in my head that I'm not afraid to put in song or onto a canvas. Into any conversation. A friend of mine goes "I thought life was supposed to get easier as you got older." And it is if you don't have so many things that you feel you need to do. I've got a million things I feel like I need to do. Not for anybody other than myself.

ESQ: You mentioned the canvas. I know you're an avid painter. What does painting give you that songwriting does not?

JM: I am pretty much a... What do you call a guy that keeps to himself?

ESQ: A hermit?

JM: Well that's one word [laughs]. Let me put it this way: I enjoy the pleasure of my own company. I've been around so many people my entire life: bands and road crews and record companies and photographers. I enjoy the solitude of my own company. That makes it rough on anybody around me. When you live life for yourself it's hard on everyone. And that hasn't changed. For me, if anything, it's gotten worse.

ESQ: Though sometimes people care so much about others they wind up neglecting their own interests.

JM: I don't often say this, but really, I don't give a shit. I could care less. I mean, I'll listen to what people say and if they make a good point I respect it and I'll filter it through my brain and see if it makes sense to me. But generally, I don't care. To me, it's like "Well dad, everybody else is jumping off the top of the building! Why can't I?" And that's what most opinions sound like to me. I have two teenage sons, and one goes to Duke and one goes to RISD, and my youngest one, he's always throwing that one at me: "Well everybody..." I said, "I don't give a fuck what everybody else is doing! I don't care. What do we care? I spent my entire life trying not to be like everybody else."

ESQ: Funny you should mention your sons. I'm curious, what's something every father should teach his son?

JM: All I can do is repeat what I think is the best information that anybody ever gave me.

ESQ: And who was that from?

JM: My grandfather. He migrated here from Germany. Or he was the first generation to be born from German descent. And here was his big advice to me. Now don't forget this guy was pretty rough around the edges. He was a farmer. His advice to me was, "John, if you're going to hit a cocksucker, kill him." What he was saying is that if you're gonna just sit around talking about things — what you're going to do, what you're not going to do, how you're going to be successful or how you're going to fail or how you're going to live your life or what your beliefs are going to be — just shut up. But if you're actually gonna do it, do it. Listen, I think [Bob] Dylan said, without failure there's no success. He's right. You've gotta fail. Look at all the records I've made. I've made like 27 albums. I had about 10 good albums. C'mon, the rest of them... I mean, I made some songs that weren't exactly that great. Either I didn't have my heart in it or I didn't care. So when a person has their heart in it and they really believe it, fuck it, you can't quit. You can't ever quit. There's no quitting. This is life. Life will quit on you soon enough.