John Introduces Himself--And "No Better Than This"--To His New Label

So maybe you've seen the photo of John and Elaine walking the streets of New York, John with a silver-knobbed walking stick in one hand, in the other a more expected, three inch stick that was burning at one end.

So here's why they were in town:

He and Elaine greeted a dozen or so Rounder Records executives who had bused in from their Boston headquarters to listen to "No Better Than This," which Rounder will release on August 3. They gathered at The Magic Shop, a tiny Soho studio where any number of great records have been cut, mixed and/or restored, including albums by Sam Cooke, Woody Guthrie and the Rolling Stones.

It was John's first album-listening event for label brass in over a decade he said softly at the outset--something, he added not surprisingly, "I don't like to do."

But he bit the bullet--and enthralled his new marketing/promotional team with tales of the album's recording process, prior to leaving them alone to savor it via the reel-to-reel master tapes.

"I made it because T Bone Burnett and I had such good success with 'Life, Death, Love & Freedom,'" he explained. But the concept, he noted, came last year when "Bob Dylan called up and said, 'Do you want to tour?' And I looked at the places Bob and I and Willie Nelson were playing and realized I had an opportunity to do something that no one really ever does: record in different locations."

The locations, of course, were the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia; historic Sun Studio in Memphis; and the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio--Room 414, specifically, where Robert Johnson recorded his classic blues songs in 1936.

John and Elaine have a place near Savannah, and were knowledgeable about The First African Baptist Church, which was the first African-American church in America.

"It was built by slaves and is across the street from the 'flogging square,' where they publicly humiliated the slaves," he said. "But everything else in town is covered by Spanish moss, and there's a certain magic that you feel."

John related that all of the sessions--in the church, at Sun and in the hotel--were done using a single microphone and a vintage 1955 Ampex Model 601 one-track machine that served as a portable recording studio. This was the case even at the legendary Sun Studios, as the equipment currently installed there has been updated over time.

Regarding his experience at Sun, John marveled, "Everything was still marked out where all the great rock 'n' roll pioneers were supposed to stand! They were actual musicians singing and playing--without worry about technology at all."

Likewise, he added, his session "was all organic recording--all old mono gear. No modern stuff."

The final "studio" was Room 414 of the Gunter in San Antonio.

"I'd done lot of research and it was almost exactly the same layout as it was when Robert Johnson recorded there," said John. "But I walked in and my engineer set it up wrong! There was a carpet, so we had to cover it with a wooden dance floor and also take the curtains down. Then I faced into the corner the same way Johnson did. I sat in exactly the same place Robert Johnson sat. What an experience!"

He laughed in noting that while Johnson's recordings there proved immortal, "ours turned out OK," then noted that Burnett mastered the tapes in Los Angeles "in a way that made them coherent."

John revealed that the entire album had been written in an intense 10- to 13-day creative spurt, during which he wrote all day long.

"I was tightly focused," he said. "I got up every day and wrote and wrote and wrote." He said he recorded three days at Sun, one at Gunter and three in Savannah; of the 16 songs recorded he kept 13.

He told the Rounder staffers about acclaimed fashion/western photographer Kurt Markus's documentary of the album production. "He's obtuse to say the least!" he said of Markus, pointing out that the title of the film is "It's About You." "It's not about me but about Kurt being with me--which is a whole different slant than these kinds of movies usually have."

He suggested that a novel promotional strategy is in the works for "No Better Than This," and confirmed that he'll commence a world tour at the end of October.

"We'll let people try to discover this music in a natural way," he said, then turned reflective: "I've had a record deal since I was 22 and I'm now 58. During the '90s I got tired of the business, of having to put out a record every 18 months and being asked 'How many singles do you have?' I wanted to kill myself! I will not have a permanent record deal of any sort, now, but I'm glad to be with you folks."

He acknowledged his "reputation for being quite brutal with people sometimes," then laughed in assuring his listeners that "I haven't had to be that way in a while." He also singled out Burnett for special praise: "T Bone's a genius. I never allowed anyone to touch my records ever in any fashion until I met T Bone. Now when I think he's out of ideas, he has the greatest idea I've ever heard in my life!"

And then he announced "That's about as much John Mellencamp as I can stand!" and took a few questions before exiting the studio to let his new label mates listen to "No Better Than This" without him breathing down their necks.

"We could have had George Martin and The Beatles and it wouldn’t have been put together any better," he stated, then added, "It was absolutely the most fun I've ever had making a record in my life, because it was about making music--not 'what's the single?' And it's organic music made by musicians, that's heartfelt and written from the best place music can come from."

He concluded: "Every now and then I reach into myself and hit that blues point--and it even has a couple pop songs."

He kept tapping his cane on the floor for emphasis, much to Elaine's chagrin. She was worried he'd hit someone, and sure enough, he came dangerously close--unknowingly--to my broken big toe.

As for the listening session, the Rounder people were enrapt--and more than happy to tell John so when he returned to say goodbye at the end. What they heard was indeed what John had told me a year or so ago when he was conceiving the stripped-down, blues-inflected project: It's John Mellencamp like we've never heard before.

--jim bessman