Indianapolis Star: Mellencamp At Ease, No Hits In Sight

Indianapolis Star By Dave Lindquist

Never wanted to be no pop singer.

Never wanted to write no pop songs."

-- Opening lines of "Pop Singer," a Top 20 single for John Mellencamp in 1989.

In retrospect, John Mellencamp couldn't have been much clearer about wanting to change his career path.

He devoted MTV hit "Pop Singer" to complaints about trendy haircuts, photo shoots and showbiz schmoozing.

The song arrived at the end of Mellencamp's go-go 1980s, a decade packed with nine Top 10 singles and six platinum-selling albums for the Seymour native.

Many listeners interpreted "Pop Singer" as the work of someone unappreciative of success.

Today, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer says the intended message was a desire to stop "chasing hit records."

Seated in his aluminum Airstream trailer outside IU Auditorium one day before the launch of a tour that includes two Indianapolis dates this week, Mellencamp said life on top -- or within striking distance of Reagan-era icons Michael Jackson, Madonna, Bruce Springsteen and Prince -- proved to be unfulfilling.

"You just become a monkey on a string," he said. "But I couldn't quit. I had only learned to do stuff one way."

Across the next two decades, Mellencamp managed to buck pop-star convention in notable, if not earthshaking, ways:

He didn't tour to promote "Pop Singer" and its accompanying album, "Big Daddy."

He became a painter of portraits, landscapes and social commentary.

He directed and starred in 1992 film "Falling from Grace."

He dabbled with dance-club rhythms on 1996 album "Mr. Happy Go Lucky."

He played a series of free, unadvertised shows in public parks and civic spaces in 2000.

He recorded an album of blues covers, "Trouble No More," in 2003.

He's worked with Stephen King on a long-gestating musical play, "Ghost Brothers of Darkland County," that's expected to premiere in 2011 or 2012.

"Life is exhausting," Mellencamp said. "To make it not exhausting, you have to continue to challenge yourself and try to do something that you never thought you could do.

"He said to me, 'John, you had the misfortune of becoming a big rock star in the '80s. Now how are you going to finish your career with some dignity?' We're trying to figure out how to make that work."

At the same time, Mellencamp said, he doesn't regret making the music that made him a star.

"We knew we had to have hit records," he said. "Critics weren't going to like us, and my songwriting ability was pretty undeveloped at the time. I had a record deal, and I had only written two songs."

Volunteering a thumbnail summary of ways he's changed since signing that first recording contract in 1975, Mellencamp is 59, he's traveled the globe, been married three times, raised five children and "fought with everybody he's ever come in contact with."

One standout lyric of "No Better Than This" is found in the song "Right Behind Me": "I know Jesus, and I know the Devil. They're both inside me, all the time."

Mellencamp claims he can't analyze his lyrics in terms of one line being any better or worse than the others.

"All I know is that my last three albums (dating to 2007's "Freedom's Road"), songwriting-wise, were just handed to me," he said. "I didn't really do anything. You hear guys say, 'I'm just a conduit.' I'm a conduit for somebody now. I don't struggle. I don't have to rewrite."

When the tour visits Butler University's Clowes Hall on Monday and Hinkle Fieldhouse on Thursday, it will be the first time Mellencamp has played a legitimate "home" show in Indianapolis.

In addition to homes in Bloomington, Savannah, Ga., and Daufuskie Island, S.C., Mellencamp recently established residency in Indianapolis with his wife, Elaine Irwin-Mellencamp, and teenage sons Hud and Speck.

Hud, a Golden Gloves boxing champion, trains at the Police Athletic League gym in Haughville.

"Indianapolis has grown up to be such a nice town," Mellencamp said. "Not that Bloomington's not, but every now and then, it's nice to go to a different restaurant and kind of have a date night."

Regarding Hinkle Fieldhouse -- a rare "arena" stop on a tour that includes theaters such as Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tenn., and Radio City Music Hall in New York City -- Mellencamp expressed concern that the venue may be too big.

"We want John Mellencamp fans here," he said. "This is not the casual guy, 'Hey, let's go listen to Mellencamp, party and get drunk' tour."

"So many people think about me as 'Pink Houses' and 'Jack & Diane.' That's great. I'm very fortunate to have those songs. But I've written thousands of songs that aren't like that."

More than 20 non-pop compositions are found on 2008 album "Life, Death, Love and Freedom" and this year's "No Better Than This."

Both projects were produced by T-Bone Burnett, known for overseeing the soundtrack for the film "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" and the Robert Plant-Alison Krauss album "Raising Sand."

"No Better Than This" is a collection of folk, blues and rockabilly tunes recorded at three historic sites: Sun Studio in Memphis, Tenn. (site of hit-making by Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins), First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Ga. (which bills itself as the longest-running black congregation in North America), and the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, (where blues icon Robert Johnson cut 16 songs in 1936).

As the first mono-only album to reach Billboard magazine's Top 10 since James Brown's "Pure Dynamite! Live at the Royal" in 1964, "No Better Than This" finally makes a break from Mellencamp's pop singer days.

"T-Bone has been such a good influence on me," he said.

For the 48-date "No Better Than This" tour, Mellencamp has ditched a standard format of performing greatest hits interspersed with a few tracks from the current album.

New material, rarities and his best-known songs have been overhauled and slotted into stylistic segments across a two-hour show.

Accompanied by guitarists Mike Wanchic and Andy York, violin player Miriam Sturm, drummer Dane Clark, bass player Jon Gunnell and keyboard player Troye Kinnett, Mellencamp plays a rockabilly transformation of "The Authority Song," a Nashville-friendly version of "No Better Than This" and a steamroller blues-rock rendition of "If I Die Sudden."

When collecting a lifetime achievement award for songwriting at September's Americana Music Awards in Nashville, Tenn., Mellencamp credited Burnett for being the singer's artistic conscience:

Yet Mellencamp hasn't completely closed the door on an era that produced raucous fan favorites such as "Hurts So Good," "Play Guitar" and "Lonely Ol' Night."

He recently wrote material for a "reunion" album that would feature himself, Wanchic and three musicians identified with Mellencamp's MTV days: guitarist Larry Crane, bass player Toby Myers and drummer Kenny Aronoff.

Mellencamp shelved the project, however, because he didn't want to give the impression that a tour with Crane, Myers and Aronoff would follow.