My Life in 15 Songs
From Jack & Diane' to 'Peaceful World,' he's had one of the greatest careers
in pop and rock, and hated almost every minute of it
By Andy Greene - Rolling Stone
John Mellencamp lives in a lakefront mansion at the edge of a wooded 65-acre
estate outside Bloomington, Indiana. It has felt bigger since he split with his
wife, Elaine Irwin, in 2010, and his two youngest children, Hud, 19, and Speck,
18, took off for college. "Some nights it's weird," Mellencamp says. "I used to
walk into my house and I could always go, 'Who loves their dad?' And throughout
the house I’d hear Elaine go, 'I do!' Then I heard Hud go, 'I do!' and then
Speck, ‘I do!' It was this greeting that I always had. I walk in now sometimes
and go, ‘Who loves their dad?’ Nothin’.”
Moving to New York to be with his girlfriend, Meg Ryan, would solve the
empty-nest problem, but Mellencamp says that's out of the question. "I'm too
sensitive to live there," he says. "I can’t see poor people. I can’t see the
suffering. I can’t see the trash on the streets." There's also the big-city
paparazzi, who trail the couple. "I don’t give a fuck about me, but I don’t like
it for [Ryan]," he says. "I'm not leaving Indiana. I'm going to die here."
These days, Mellencamp, 62, spends much of his time in a large, bright room
over a barn, painting. "I get up at 8:00, I have breakfast, I go to the art
studio, and I don’t come out until dark," he says. He's 86 hours into a giant
picture of Ryan and her friend Laura Dern, but he's not quite sure it’s
finished. In the painting, Ryan is wearing red clown makeup, and both are
wearing white dresses, under the words THE STARDUST STSTERS. Says Mellencamp, "I
wanted to turn them into the kind of girls you would find dancing at the Savoy
He's also writing songs for his 20th studio album, which he'll begin
recording with T Bone Burnett in January. And on December 10th, he is releasing
a massive box set containing 19 of his albums, "Before CDs totally go away," he
says, "I wanted to make sure that people who were fans of John Mellencamp could
go, 'OK, I’ve got every fuckin' record he's made."'
Mellencamp took that excuse to tell the stories behind 15 key songs from his
career, opening up about his life and art in a way he never has before.
I Need a Lover
John Cougar 1979
I went to New York in 1976. It was my first time in an airplane, I would have
signed anything - I would have signed the bottom of a shoe. I ended up signing
with Tony DeFries [who famously managed David Bowie]. He gave me a choice:
"Record under the name Johnny Cougar or move back to Indiana.” He also paid of
my college loans. I was like, "Are you shitting me?" I didn’t realize he was
going to charge me back.
I knew that if I wanted to continue in the music business, I had to get on
the radio. It wasn’t like I had the support of critics - my first Rolling Stone
review said something like, "This guy is a phony, picked out of central
casting." But I knew if I delivered a song that could get on the radio, I had a
By the time of "I Need a Lover," I had three albums out. They sold nothing.
were recording in Miami at the same time that the Eagles were finishing up Hotel
California. I would walk by and hear "Life in the Fast Lane," go back into my
and hear, 'I need a lover that won’t..." I'd be like, 'Oh, fuck. I don’t know
I was washed up and over by my mid-twenties. Then two record producers named
Chinn and Chapman heard "I Need a Lover," and they had Pat Benatar sing it. It
was her first big hit, and then mine went to Number One in Australia. It became
a semihit in America, and it let me make another album.
Jack & Diane
American Fool 1982
It was 1980, and I was down in Miami again, making a record. We had spent
$3oo,ooo, and I had three songs done. The record company was not happy. Finally
the president of the company came down and was like, "You're spending money like
crazy!" He went nuts. The three songs were “Jack & Diane," "Hurts So Good” and
"Hand to Hold On To." He hated them. Hated them! He said, "We expect you to
become the next Neil Diamond.
What is this shit?"
“Jack & Diane" was originally about race. I was playing nightclubs and I was
seeing new American couples, mixed-race couples. I thought it was cool. The song
was my effort to make a song about that, but of course the record-company guy
didn’t like it. He said, "Maybe if you put some horns on this song and really
build the chorus up, then maybe you have a shot. But take the race thing out."
I took his advice and made Jack a football star. I think people, particularly
in the Midwest, really identified with these characters. I can’t tell you how
many people have come up to me and said, "I'm Jack and I'm Diane. You wrote
about my life." To me, that's a successful song.
Radio was my friend after "Jack & Diane" and "Hurts So Good." I was coming
off this huge fucking record, but it wasn’t a good one. Very uneven. My task
with Uh-Huh was to make a more even record and get away from juvenile topics
like “Hurts So Good." But I also knew if I wanted to continue, I had to have
"Crumblin' Down" is a very political song that I wrote with my childhood
friend George Green. Reagan was president - he was deregulating everything and
the walls were crumbling down on the poor. The song was the last one recorded
and the first single. It was a hit immediately. I felt like I was pulling the
wool over everyone's eyes.
I was driving through Indianapolis on Interstate 65 and I saw a black man
either a cat or a dog. He was sitting on his front lawn in front of a pink house
in one of those shitty, cheap lawn chairs. I thought, "Wow, is this what life
can lead to? Watching the fuckin' cars go by on the interstate?" Then I imagined
he wasn’t isolated, but he was happy. So I went with that positive route when I
wrote this song.
This one has been misconstrued over the years because of the chorus - it
sounds very rah-rah. But it's really an anti-American song. The American dream
had pretty much proven itself as not working anymore. It was another way for me
to sneak something in.
"Small Town" reflected conversations that I heard in the music business. I
had a stuttering problem, and my accent, and people would say, "You talk funny."
I would think, "You're the one with the New York accent." In interviews people
would ask, "Do people in Bloomington even have MTV? Do they have CNN?"
I wanted to write a song that said, “You don’t have to live in New York or
Los Angeles to live a full life or enjoy your life." I was never one of those
guys that grew up and thought, "I need to get out of here." It never dawned on
me. I just valued having a family and staying close to friends.
Rain on the Scarecrow
I wrote this one with George Green too. Our songs always came about the same
way: talk around the kitchen table - I had just played "Small Town" for him. He
said, "I don’t know why these towns are going out of business" – towns like
Freetown and Dudleytown, Indiana. We couldn’t figure out why they were
disappearing. We did our research and wrote this song - Reagan had been using
grain against the Soviet Union and all sorts of other things. Talking to people
was heartbreaking. Nobody wanted to lose their farm.
Around this time the press started calling me a "heartland rocker" – I never
really knew what that term meant. I never took offense, but I didn’t like it
either. It's a foolish pigeonhole to put somebody in. On the bright side, I’d
rather be a successful heartland rocker than a guy that pours concrete.
Between a Laugh and a Tear
There's a great line in this song: "I know there's a balance/I see it when I
swing past." I suffered severely from panic disorders and anxiety around this
time. Still do. I'm also very excitable and get angry very quickly. This was the
peak of my success, but I didn’t enjoy any of it. I blame it on the fact that I
was born with spina bifida. I had one of the first successful operations for it
in the world. It meant I had a hole in my spine and all my nerve endings were on
the outside of my body. They were all exposed to air, so it's no wonder I go up
and down so quickly.
Paper in Fire
The Lonesome Jubilee 1987
After Scarecrow, the critics all kind of went, "Whoa, now we gotta pay
attention to this guy." I think "Paper in Fire" is the ultimate John Mellencamp
song. I wasn’t trying to be on the radio anymore. Radio was on my side. There
wasn’t any Woody Guthrie influence. There wasn’t any Rolling Stones influence.
There wasn’t a Bob Dylan influence. I made the decision, much to everyone’s
dismay, to use violins and accordions, and incorporate an Appalachian sound of
original country. I tried to figure out how to make that work in rock & roll.
And then after I did that, there were thousands of fuckin' bands with accordions
Big Daddy 1989
This song is me realizing what kind of monster I'd created. I was going
through a divorce [with second wife Victoria Granucci], and I was questioning
the validity and the importance of music. Things were changing. Everybody was
having to kiss everybody's ass. If you want to be on MTV, then come here and do
this. All these backroom deals were getting made. I was like, "I don’t want any
part of this."
In the song, I write, 'Never wanted to be no pop singer/Never wanted to write
no pop songs." I didn’t want to go over to the radio station and play their
Christmas party. I couldn’t play that game. People went nuts on me after that
record came out. “You're an ungrateful fucker! Rock & roll provided you with
such a great life!" I understood what they were saying, but they didn’t
understand what was happening behind the scenes.
Big Daddy 1989
After the divorce went through, my wife took my two little kids and moved
away from Indiana, which she was allowed to do because I didn’t contest it. I
had a family, and all of a sudden I didn’t. I had just done the Lonesome Jubilee
tour, it was the biggest, most successful tour in the country that year, and it
meant nothing to me. I was grateful that people liked the songs, but I felt like
a monkey on a string. We did l90 shows, and it was like, "Oh, let's get out
there and give them one more rousing chorus of 'Pink Houses."' I was like a
cheerleader, and I didn’t like it.
I wrote "Jackie Brown" about myself in a different scenario: me disguised as
a poor guy - not as a guy that had been successful and pretty much lost
everything, which in my mind I had, because I'd lost my daughters, The song is
about how you have to go outside to use the bathroom because you've sunk so low.
Love and Happiness
Whenever We Wanted 1991
In the 1990s, I was trying to do as little as I could. My records were
paint-by-numbers -- when I first made this list, I didn’t pick a single song
from the 1990s. I really had lost my taste for the music business and
songwriting. Then all this grunge music started happening, and I thought, "This
is what the next generation is doing. Let these fucking guys do it." But I still
had these record deals. I tried to get out of them, and they wouldn’t let me
leave. I really felt like Prince - I was a slave. But this song I like. With
"Love and Happiness" I turned back to folk songs. We were dropping our bombs on
the Southern Hemisphere, and people there were starving. It was an indictment of
our culture. It was another song about the politics of shoving people around. I
know it has the same title as the Al Green song, but at that point I didn’t give
Cuttin' Heads 2001
I signed to Columbia at this point against my better judgment. On "Peaceful
World," I brought in India.Arie to sing on it. I won’t mention any names, but
when this song was delivered to Columbia, one of the executives said, "Why does
Mellencamp always have a fuckin' nigger singing with him?" My manager came back
and told me that, and I was like, "Get me of this fucking label. I don’t give a
shit. Get me off Columbia right now." The song came out one month before 9/11.
The New York Times said it could become the "Imagine" of our generation.
Life, Death, Love and Freedom 2008
I'm not going to name names, but some bands just make up their songs in the
That’s what I did in the 1990s. For Freedom Road and this album, I wrote acoustically, just me and a guitar. If a song works like that, it should work if I get the right arrangement with the band. This was the first record I made with T Bone Burnett. I put a lot of music on my records, but he's a minimalist. He was like, "[Sighs] You don’t need this part, that part….Let's take this background vocal off."
"Troubled Land" was a very easy song to write. Any liberal can relate. I was
speaking for a certain silent generation at the end of Bush's eight years. We
were all exhausted and couldn’t believe what was coming next.
If I Die Sudden
Life, Death, Love and Freedom 2008
I don’t like to talk about it, but my best friends in the whole world – Mark
Ripley, Tim White, Jay Nicholson and George Green – all died around that same
time. I used to talk to [Billboard editor] Tim White every single day. I used to
talk to Mark every single day. Then my grandmother died and my mother died. I
saw everybody I love just disappear. "If I Die Sudden" is kind of an
instructional thing, about what to do and not do when I die. I had an uncle that
said the same exact thing. The song is also in honor of all those people.
No One Cares About Me
No Better Than This 2010
Feeling sorry for yourself is a number one pastime here in America. This song
is a bunch of little vignettes about why nobody cares about this guy, but at the
end, it's that he really doesn’t care about himself. I was feeling that way in
the moment, so the song is really about me.
At this point, though, I hate people knowing where I am. I had to get a cellphone after I divorced Elaine, but I don’t like people being able to get hold of me. I’ve been around so many people for so long that I take great delight in my own company.