John Mellencamp Interviewed in New Issue of Rolling Stone Magazine
The coughing fit doesn't last long, but it's ferocious: Four sharp hacks, and
then John Mellencamp can speak again. "Fuckin' cigarettes," he says, catching
his breath. Mellencamp is sitting on a brown leather couch in the rural Indiana
studio where he's recorded all of his music since 1985 — including a haunting
new album called Life, Death, Love and Freedom that leans hard on the death
part. It's disquieting stuff, especially from a guy who suffered a heart attack
in 1994 and kept right on smoking. On the ghostly folk song "Don't Need This
Body," Mellencamp sings of impending mortality in such stark terms ("Ain't gonna
need this body much longer") that his wife and kids burst into tears when he
played it for them.
Despite the doomy songs and smoker's cough, Mellencamp, 56, has no intention of checking out in the near future. "It's just a song!" he says, voice rising a couple of decibels from his usual gruff near-whisper. "They took it so personally." The mumbling is a remnant of a long-vanished childhood stutter; the twangy accent is a pure product of geography; the laconic tough-guy drawl is on permanent loan from the James Dean and Paul Newman movies he watched over and over as a kid. He is wearing what he almost always wears: a black T-shirt tucked into Levi's, and black leather boots. "I haven't changed my fuckin' clothes in 40 years," he says, brushing ashes off his shirt.
Sitting beneath a giant reproduction of a vintage Johnny Cash concert poster, his feet up on a stool, Mellencamp takes a bite of a peanut-butter sandwich and tries to explain why he's recorded the darkest music of his career — songs about lonely old men, racist juries, carny murderers. Here, the darkness and anxiety that lurked at the edges of his Reagan-era hits move center stage — these are anti-anthems for bleak American times, when Jack and Diane can't afford gas to drive to the Tastee Freez, and the banks are foreclosing on all those little pink houses. "The album title is perfect — Life, Death, Love and Freedom," Mellencamp says. "If you listen to Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie, those were traditional topics in American folk songs — the songs are about the parts of life that most people don't really want to discuss. Which doesn't necessarily work for pop music that record companies really want to put out. I made this album for me."
Mellencamp mined some of the same territory on last January's Freedom's Road, but all of the attention went to "Our Country," the "This Land Is Your Land"-style tune he sold to Chevrolet for a TV ad. It got more airplay than he ever expected: "That Chevy ad killed Freedom's Road," he says. But he's not apologizing. "I don't think people like the idea that I did that. But you know what? I've done so many things in my career people didn't like. If I thought it was the end of the line every time I did somethin' that people didn't like, hell, I'd been done with Johnny Cougar."
With its rich, gothic-Americana sound, shaped by the impeccably tasteful roots-music producer T Bone Burnett, Life, Death, Love and Freedom is an "adult record," as Mellencamp sees it, marking the end of his hitmaking days and the beginning of something new. "I'm trying to live up to, you know, what a guy my age should be doing," he says. "I'm trying not to look silly. You know, it's like people say, 'Hey, you're a rock star, man.' And I don't see myself that way anymore. I'm just, like, a journeyman electrician or something."
Mellencamp's house overlooks Lake Monroe, massive, pristine and blue; the property encompasses a good chunk of what used to be Paynetown, a village flooded by the government to create the state's largest man-made body of water. Mellencamp and his former-supermodel wife, Elaine ("the prettiest girl in the world," in his estimation — which objectively speaking is not far off), built the house from scratch a decade ago: It's a tasteful, Italianate mansion with a single turret. Inside, it's all high ceilings, dark-wood floors and eclectic art on the walls. After driving up a long and twisting driveway in his 1956 Chevy 150 station wagon (no air bags, seat belts unused), Mellencamp looks up at his home like he still can't believe it's his. "Not bad, right?" he says. "Talk about a house."
We're sitting at a picnic table in the decked-out pool area behind the house — which offers a lakeside view so spectacular that T Bone Burnett compared it to the Bavarian Alps — when Elaine comes home with their two kids, Hud, 14, and Speck, 13. Hud (named after Paul Newman's reckless man-child character in the 1963 movie) is a junior champion boxer — in his last fight, he broke his opponent's nose in the first 30 seconds of the match. "That kid over there is one tough fuckin' guy," Mellencamp says. "But the first time I saw him fight, I didn't like it — after it was over, I pulled him aside and said, 'Hey, you don't have to fuckin' do this, 'cause this is serious stuff.' " Longhaired Speck is a musician who played guitar with his dad when Mellencamp was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame this year: "I learned to play 'Whole Lotta Love' today, Dad," he says.
Speck has other news: He and Hud just went to the doctor, who informed them that they'll both end up being over six feet tall — unlike their dad, who's five-feet-seven on a good day. "Who said that — the doctor?" Mellencamp says, not hiding his delight in this revelation.
"What the fuck does he know?"
Elaine, who is five-feet-eleven, looks at her husband, big blue eyes glittering: "You probably would have been six-feet-four if you hadn't started smoking," she says.
"I know!" John says, as his kids smile.
"I'm the littlest guy in my family."
The Mellencamps have a vacation home in Georgia but otherwise spend most of their time here, on the edge of the sleepy college town of Bloomington, the kind of place where the firing of an Indiana University basketball coach dominates small talk. Coastal-elite types might call it the middle of nowhere. Her glamorous past aside, Elaine is comfortable with this life, perhaps because she, too, was born in a small town, albeit in Pennsylvania. She's lived with Mellencamp in Indiana since they married in 1992, when she was 23 years old. It's John who has moments of doubt: "Sometimes I say to Elaine, to this day, 'Why the fuck do we live here?' The weather's wacky, and people are mad at us 'cause we're too liberal. I've probably got more friends in New York than I do here. But some of the people I like most live here."
The sound of motorboats cruising on the lake below occasionally intrudes on the conversation, and we hear dudes shouting, "Jooooohn! Yo, John!" They're friendly enough, but a couple of years back, there were more-hostile voices coming off the lake. With his 2003 song "To Washington," Mellencamp became one of the first singers to take on George W. Bush, and his red-state neighbors were not happy. "It wasn't like we were the only two Democrats in the entire state," says Elaine. "But I felt ostracized. When people come up in their boats and scream things at you, and leave notes on your car and scream things at your kids on the playground, it is irritating."
Mellencamp is a lifelong Democrat, as are his parents — he recently found a photo of his mother protesting at a labor rally in the Forties. But his music has broad appeal in areas of the country that haven't voted Democratic in decades. "I have known for a long time that I was at odds politically with my surroundings," Mellencamp says. "I never wrote to my base. Nobody who is a Republican in Bloomington, Indiana, is going to buy Neil Young's last record, not even going to entertain the idea. But they might buy mine."
Mellencamp has a grim view of the state of the nation. "I don't know the denotation of fascism, but it's something like, you know, when government and big business control policymaking — we're there, baby. We're there," he says. "I said it on one of the songs on Freedom's Road: You know, when you say America's free, what freedom you talkin' about?"
This year, polls suggest that Indiana might go blue, but Mellencamp doesn't expect forgiveness for his anti-Bush stance. "Before, it didn't matter to people that Mellencamp was a little left," he says, looking grim. "Because gas was only $1.85 a gallon, and, you know, nobody was really gettin' killed, and, you know, there weren't so many bad things happening. The housing market was booming. People were pissed at me. And, you know, they probably still are. My ticket sales, everything I do — I'm paying a price for that."
Earlier that day, Mellencamp and his six-piece band of bedenimed, arena-hardened pros are crammed into the garage next to his studio trying, without much luck, to find a new way to play "Pink Houses."
It looks like a place more appropriate to prep for a junior-high battle of the bands than for a national amphitheater tour. It's also loud as hell. "We've all given up on earplugs — we've already lost everything they're supposed to protect," says guitarist Mike Wanchic, sipping a protein energy drink between songs. Wanchic has managed to stay in Mellencamp's band for 32 years, even as every single other slot turned over — the rest of the current lineup joined in the Nineties or later.
And right now, Mellencamp is fixated on Wanchic's 12-string guitar, which is supposed to be giving this version of "Pink Houses" a fresh vibe. He has Wanchic play the song's signature ringing riff over and over, while the rest of the band looks on. "It just doesn't sound like a 12-string to me," Mellencamp says, glaring at the offending instrument over the plastic-frame reading glasses he's wearing to decipher his lyric sheets. "We need that color, or else it's pointless." The band starts the song from the beginning for the umpteenth time, and Mellencamp turns to face it, folding his arms across his chest, staring down his employees. His face is sour. It's not the old days, when Mellencamp was known for mike-stand-throwing tantrums, but it doesn't seem like much fun, either. "Our rehearsal sessions are like a young man going to Parris Island after he joins the Marine Corps," says Wanchic. "It's not for the meek. A great band cannot be run by democracy. You need a benevolent dictator — and John supplies that very, very well."
This is the smallest band Mellencamp has had in two decades. His backup singers and percussionists are gone, replaced by a leaner sound. "When I had that big band," he says, "I needed all those people to re-create the record. I don't care — I don't do that anymore. Now when we play 'Paper in Fire,' it doesn't sound anything like the record. I'm not a general-public man anymore."
Mellencamp has an uneasy relationship with his hits, in part because he has so many of them — no fewer than 17 Top 40 singles in the Eighties, which is more than, say, Bruce Springsteen, and nearly as many as Michael Jackson. "There's a danger in having too many hit records," he says — meaning that with each hit comes the expectation for more. But as he sees it, he had to aim for the charts. "I had to take the path that I took because when you start out with such ridiculous, humble beginnings as Johnny Cougar, there's not any rock critics or anybody that's ever going to take you seriously. We were tainted by the late Seventies," he says, lapsing into a rock-royalty We. "We had to be so successful that nobody could really tell us what to do. That was the only way that we were going to ever gain any control over anything in the music business, our own career, even our name."
Mellencamp was shaped by his time in bar bands, cranking out endless cover songs — and he argues that rockers who skip that training are missing out. "The shows lasted forever," he says. "Four or five sets a night. Lots of covers: 'Can't Get Enough of Your Love,' 'Saturday Night's Alright (for Fighting),' 'Gimme Shelter.' You're not going to get the kind of longevity today that you see from guys my age, because they don't have that type of background. You have to go where Tom Petty started out, or where I started out, or Billy Joel started out, or Springsteen started out. All of us started in the same bar; the difference is, me and Seger were in the Midwest. 'Cause, you know, some nights you walk in there and you're playin' for guys who got more tattoos than teeth."
Back at the house, Mellencamp hops into a small utility vehicle and drives us a few yards to the steel-paneled building that serves as his art studio. Mellencamp has been serious about his art for 20 years, and there are paintings everywhere, including an unfinished, abstract work-in-progress on the floor. There are dozens more stacked in closets downstairs — Mellencamp doesn't like seeing them after they're done, though he does project them onto video screens at his shows. He is convinced that he has more innate talent as a painter than as a musician.
The paintings don't seem like the work of the guy who wrote "Jack and Diane." They're dominated by dark colors — purples, blacks, browns — and darker imagery: Many of the human figures in them are twisted, grotesque. As far as T Bone Burnett is concerned, the new album is the closest Mellencamp has come to these paintings. "His art is raw and tough, and these songs are real like that," Burnett says. "They're sort of the underside of the Midwest."
Mellencamp's original version of Life Death, Love and Freedom was missing its most buoyant and hopeful track, "My Sweet Love," which he felt was too light, too poppy. Elaine helped convince him to put it as the second track on the album, arguing that it was one of the only songs to emphasize the life and love parts of the equation.
For all of his faith in his new music, Mellencamp isn't sure it will get a chance. "There's a lot of people who have bad ears on for John Mellencamp," he says. In his more hopeful moments, though, he takes inspiration from a friend: "In the mid-Eighties, Bob Dylan couldn't do a right thing. The critics hated him. But all of a sudden, he made one great record, and all is forgiven." Mellencamp offers a rare smile and says, "That's the great thing about music, isn't it? All you gotta do is make magic one time."