There hasn't been a "Cougar" in John Mellencamp's name for nearly 25 years, but that doesn't mean his feistiness has gone away.
The Seymour, Ind. born Mellencamp, 63, hates being idle, still smokes cigarettes 20 years after a heart attack and refuses to stop rockin' out for his fans in the Midwest and beyond.
"If I’m not taking any risks, I’m not having any fun," Mellencamp told MLive.com over the phone Wednesday. "Playing it safe is for sissies."
Mellencamp's latest endeavor: a musical he co-created with horror novelist and good buddy Stephen King called "Ghost Brothers of Darkland County."
This supernatural, gothic production stars Billy Burke and Gina Gershon and will make a Nov. 26 stop at Detroit's Fisher Theater.
MLive.com caught up with Mellencamp to get details about his latest project — which he created the music and lyrics for — his fondest Detroit memories and much, much more.
You worked with Stephen King on this musical for 16 years. How did the project evolve and change over that time?
Well, as you can probably imagine, over 16 years there’s been a lot of evolution. Steve is basically a guy who is a book writer and I’m a guy who is basically a song and dance man. And we’re doing something that basically hasn’t been done before, so there’s definitely a learning curve. It takes time to do this and that, so it’s still really in an evolution process right now. That’s what these next few shows are for us; they give us the opportunity to keep working on things and improve things. We’re trying to create something unique here. We want a great show; it’s more like a play with music.
So how does that work? Well, I guess ‘My Fair Lady” was kind of that way with the movie because that was a play, and then they added songs. We’ve learned that Steve tells the story with his words and I develop the characters through the songs. And that’s quite contrary to what most musicals do; most songs move the story forward and the character development is basically done in unison. But with this, this is a horse of a different color.
What did you learn about Stephen and his work through this whole process?
Steve and I have become like brothers. Over all this time, we’ve never had an argument and have been very respectful of each other. We’ve never had an argument. I don’t play well with other kids generally — I have a hard time with record producers — but Steve and I have just gotten along fantastically. And that’s why we can keep this thing going. We don’t get mad each other and say ‘(Bleep) you’ and give up.
We’re just not going to do that. We’re going to keep working on this thing until it’s done. The reason Steve is so productive is because he’s a writer, and he is constantly writing. His mind is open to suggestions, to creativity, and the only way that can happen is if you do it all the time. You can’t be a part-time guy. Well, I guess you can, and you can make nice stuff, but I don’t think you can be as productive as Steve without getting up every morning and going to work.
You know Detroit since you played so many shows here. I bet you're excited for this musical.
I love Detroit! I can’t believe the property you guys have for sale up there! I can take a house off your hands! What’s that lake up there? (Lake St. Clair) There’s some beautiful (bleeping) old houses up there! If I could square living in Detroit I would. I’m not afraid of gunfire either.
Playing it safe is for sissies! I'm not going to sit around and play it safe. I'm looking for trouble!" - John Mellencamp
You're heavily involved in Farm Aid and all the annual concerts to support it. What do you think about how this country treats its farming industry, farmers in general, and this movement to shop more local and do things like urban farming?
We’ve been promoting and advocating local and organic and sustainable agriculture for years with Farm Aid, but now it is just getting it people’s pockets and minds for the first time. We just had our 28th Farm Aid and we feel like people are starting to understand the difference between having your food shipped in 10,000 miles away as opposed to having it brought in locally. I think that it has taken a long time, and I doubt will solve the problem in my lifetime or Willie (Nelson's) lifetime, but I think people are starting to go ‘Hey, I finally get it now!’
Are you worried about any kinds of career risks you'll be taking with this musical?
Man, that’s what I was born to do — to take risks. If I’m not taking any risks, I’m not having any fun! Playing it safe is for sissies! I’m not going to sit around and play it safe; I’m looking for trouble.
What kind of memories do you have of playing the Detroit area?
I used to be in the house band at the place they used to have in (the Plymouth-Canton area) back in the 70s (called Center Stage). I got knocked out on stage there one night (accidentally by one of his own guitarists) and had to be rushed to the hospital. We were the house bad! Back in the 70s you’d be playing here, then you’d be playing there and then you’re playing in Plymouth. I should’ve had a house in Plymouth because I was there so much. Then things moved to Joe Louis — from there to Cobo back to Joe Louis and so on. What’s that theatre in Detroit that’s so beautiful? The Fox. I played everywhere there is to play in Detroit.
What did you learn from those early days performing in the Detroit area?
I’ve learned this world is full of opportunities, that opportunities are always in front of you, and it’s just whether you want to step in and take them. I’ve done a lot of things: I’ve directed films, I’ve worked with Steve King, I’ve worked with Larry McMurty — the greatest American authors. I’ve worked with Bob Dylan, I toured with Dylan. I’ve worked with some of the greatest people this generation has produced, and it’s only because I had my eyes open.
It wasn’t because I was so talented or so great, it was because opportunities present themselves and I took them. I remember the first time I heard Bob Seger sing “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man.” I know where I was at, I know what I was doing. I thought ‘Who the (bleep) is this guy?’ I was like in eighth grade or something. I’ve got all sorts of great stories about Detroit, but I just can’t tell them in a newspaper.
Ever feel you had to compete with Seger or Springsteen, or feel likely you were all unfairly lumped in together under the same category?
Never, never, never, never in my mind. All those people have been nothing but gracious to me. Never did I feel competitive with those guys. First of all, they’re older than me! Both those guys were making records when I was in high school.
I was proud to be lumped in together with those guys. It was like ‘Hey, wait a minute, you’re talking about some of the greatest song writers of a generation.’ And just being in that tradition (with those people was an honor). Let’s not forget that I was in a bar band (to start). If we could play three chords, that was it!
How often did you play at Center Stage in Canton?
Like a million! Listen, we played Michigan all the (bleeping) time. We played Ohio, Indiana, Illinois. We started out locally, kinda grew nationally and then internationally. It was grass roots. The longer it takes you to get somewhere the longer it takes you to get back, so people who come out with just one record and are big stars aren’t going to last very long. It took me a long time to even find out what I was supposed to be doing.
You're somewhat of an activist in your music. Knowing what Detroit's going through right now with bankruptcy, with still a lot of challenges ahead, what are your thoughts on the city's future.
I hope Detroit will rebound and be better than ever. I’m not being patronizing, but it's too great a city to go under.