Sound & Vision: John Mellencamp: Rock and Roll Is Not Coming Back

By Bob Ankosko - Sound & Vision

Lit cigarette in hand, pop-rock icon John Mellencamp sauntered to the front of the room in McIntosh’s swanky Soho townhouse. He had a serious look on his face. No hint of a smile. Maybe he’s nervous, I thought to myself as he sat on a stool with a large ashtray at his side. Or is it just that he’s the personification of cool and really doesn’t give a rat’s ass about what people think…

Turns out, Mellencamp is quite the character and, as he’s quick to admit, opinionated. His appearance was the latest installment of the Direct Connection interview and storytelling series McIntosh and Republic Records launched in January. Before a small group of invited guests, Mellencamp spoke candidly about his storied career and musical influences, the state of rock and roll, and collaborating with Carlene Carter on his new album, Sad Clowns and Hillbillies, in a free-wheeling interview with journalist Elysa Gardner.

In a surprising exchange, Mellencamp said matter-of-factly that rock music as we know it has more or less run its course.

“We (boomers) grew up in a different time,”Mellencamp said. “Music was everything to us. I don’t think it is so much anymore with young people. I’ve got two boys, 22 and 21, and I don’t think they ever sat down and listened to a whole album in their whole life. They like songs. I read just the other day—I think it was Ray Davies—that rock and roll is going to come back. It’s not going to come back. We’ve seen it. It happened…It’s like we had a 50 year run of a particular type of music and history will tell us that…

“I’ll give you guys a good example: Before rock and roll there was big band music and it was as popular as rock and roll. People loved it. They were jitter-bugging in Harlem to it. Every kid, every adult knew Glenn Miller, this one, that one. Okay, here’s a little test for you: Name four of those bands and then, if you can, tell me one of those songs. Things have a lifespan and then it goes away. I’ve been saying for years, the further we get away from the original rock music—and I hate to sound like a cranky old man, but I am—the worse it gets. Now, I’m not saying there aren’t great songwriters out there. There are. But we’re never going to experience them the way we able to experience them in the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. We’re not set up for that anymore.

“When I first started making records, there was no MTV. Guys in rock bands were little pictures on albums and every now and then you’d hear them on the radio. Then MTV came along and catapulted them to the world and rock became so much bigger than it ever would have. MTV was a huge thing. I hated it myself because I didn’t want to make those videos…So rock has really morphed and changed and is so far away from what it started as that I don’t believe we can find our way back. Plus, there’s no business model to get it back. What, streaming? You really think that’s going to catapult a 22-year-old songwriter into the national spotlight. Look at me. I’m a fucking average songwriter, average singer but I was at the right place at the right time. And there were others guys like me…but because we had a look or were at the right place at the right time, we were catapulted into this huge arena. Where is that arena today? It doesn’t exist.”

In another exchange, Mellencamp reveals the back story to one of his most famous songs, “Jack and Diane,” still heard regularly on classic rock stations. “Originally, ‘Jack and Diane’ was about an interracial relationship,” Mellencamp said. “He wasn’t a football star—he was black, an African American. It said so in the song. I was a kid when I made that record in 1981 and the record company came down and said, ‘I don’t know about saying that.’ And so it was kind of an argument and then I relented and made him into a football star.
“I think I was the first guy to have [an interracial video] on MTV… I made a video called “Cherry Bomb” and it was a black guy dancing with a white girl, and boy, that pissed a lot of people off. I got letters from the [Ku-Klux] Klan. I was in Paris and I got a letter that said, ‘Mellencamp, we like you but if you keep having these ‘N-words’ in your videos you will see us in Atlanta. So I immediately shot off a letter back to them that said, ‘I guess I’ll see you in Atlanta, fucker.’ That was pretty much it but, guess what, we never saw them.”

When the conversation turned to Mellencamp’s collaboration with Carlene Carter, daughter of country legend June Carter, Mellencamp asked Carter to tell the audience what her famous mother told her when she said she couldn’t write a song.

“When I was young and just started playing guitar and singing, wanting to be like Linda Ronstadt…, mama said [adopts a deep Southern drawl], ‘Well, you look pretty good. You look kinda cute and you sound all right when you sing but what you really need to do, honey, is you need to learn how to write a song. You see, if you could just write one simple, little song…kinda like the one I wrote for Johnny Cash—Ring of Fire—it could change your life…
I tell the audience that every night because it was the most pivotal part of the direction I was going in my life—to just sit down and try to write a song. I was studying classical music so for the first song I ever wrote I took a chord progression from Tchaikovsky. Go figure, I’m a country girl from Hendersonville, Tennessee, y’all, and that’s how I started. And then I became obsessed with the craft of it. You know, there are no rules. That was the other thing my mom told me. There are no rules. It don’t have to rhyme. It don’t matter. Just way what you want to say. And I just thought, how cool is that.”