NY Daily News Interview: John Mellencamp Set To Take Radio City Music Hall By Storm With Film And Three Live Segments

NY Daily News By Jim Farber

To hear John Mellencamp tell it, his entire history of hits - a stretch that helped define the '80s and allowed him to headline arenas all over the world - was besides the point.

"All those records that were very produced and got on the radio were a sidetrack for me," he says. "To be able to survive at that time, in the '80s, you had to do that. But now, as a fully grown man, I don't feel I have to survive on any terms except my own."

Of course, it's those hits that gave him the profile, and the finances, to make such options possible. But at least Mellencamp actually chose to exercise them, a decision made plain by his new tour. Instead of hitting the biggest venues and filling them with hits, Mellencamp's new show parks at more intimate spaces (at least by his standards) and moseys through a surprising quartet of segments.

The event, at Radio City Friday and Saturday, will open with a film and then move into three live segments: Mellencamp alone on an acoustic guitar, then backed by a spare, down-home band, and finally joined by a full electric one.

While some well-known songs turn up, they're unmoored from their original arrangements. If that's not enough Mellencamp for you, his artwork will be on display in the lobby.

The featured movie, titled "It's About You," isn't really about him, Mellencamp insists, even though it was shot during his 2008 tour with Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan. "It's not a concert movie," he explains. "It's about [director] Kurt Markus and his son. They're trying to make a movie about a rock band, but really what they discover is America is not the place they thought it was."

Much of the live music follows the style of Mellencamp's most recent CD, "No Better Than This," which mines the roots of Americana to the point of fetishism. It obsesses on spindly instrumentation, raw vocals and, yes, mono production. That's not a new route for Mellencamp. Nearly all his works since 2003's "Trouble No More" have hit that ascetic tone.

In discussing his inspiration, Mellencamp doesn't mention musicians, but writers. "It's about trying to get to the root of John Steinbeck, to the root of Tennessee Williams and to the root of William Faulkner," he says. "It's down to the essence of what makes humanity the way it is. I don't think you can do that with guitars blazing."

Mellencamp takes a similar, eye-level approach to a musical he's been working on, "Ghost Brothers of Darkland County," with a book by Stephen King. When the specter of U2's "Spider-Man" fiasco is raised, Mellencamp flinches. "We're so far away from that. I'm done with anything to do with spectacle."

Instead, he says the music hews closer to Woody Guthrie. It has been recorded already, using both singers and actors. The musical will open in Atlanta later this year, at which point Mellencamp will have turned 60. He says that number doesn't faze him. "I'm actually starting to embrace my age, which I resisted for a long time," he says. "But it's okay because now, I realize, I'm a dangerous old man."

Or, at the very least, a free one.