I'm a little weary of Jack and Diane but I can't hate them too much.
By SIMON COSYNS
Life Death Love And Freedom
I’d always put John Mellencamp down as a nearly man, nearly in the same bracket as Bruce Springsteen but not quite.
He’d shifted truckloads of albums in the Eighties. His Jack And Diane were the most celebrated couple in song.
He could sell out vast arenas, write an endless stream of multi-platinum albums ... but something was missing.
We’d seen Johnny Cougar the pop star but perhaps we hadn’t always seen the real John Mellencamp, the uncompromising, searingly honest artist he is today.
His new album Life Death Love And Freedom is, without question, the most compelling work of his 30-year career. It stares life’s big issues in the eye, unflinching and sincere. It rails against injustices and greed in the United States with unerring ferocity. It confronts the passing years and the prospect of death with compassion and grace. It finds salvation in the power of love and freedom.
Produced by the reliably excellent T Bone Burnett (Robert Plant and Alison Krauss), it has a raw, rootsy sound and plenty of reverb to frame John’s seasoned tones.
I met the singer, still sporting his trademark quiff, in London this week on his 57th birthday. I found him with both feet firmly on the ground, a man who tells it straight, just like his songs, but there’s plenty of added charm.
He lights up a cigarette (having asked politely if I mind) and reflects: “I started out as Johnny Cougar and there was nobody in the world, in 1976, gonna take that seriously. And it was an English guy who gave me that name. You guys were big on that stuff. Elvis Costello (real name Declan McManus) and I were talking about how he got the better name last week. I only had one route to take ... to have such big hit records that people would say: ‘Never mind his name, he’s got great songs!’”
Here, John, who lives in his beloved Indiana with his ex-supermodel wife Elaine, talks about the album, politics, religion and why Jack And Diane still have a special place in his heart.
When you were inducted to the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, your friend Billy Joel said, “Stay ornery, stay mean, we need you to be p****d off.” What did you make of that?
I don’t know what he’s talking about! I guess that’s what people think because I’m not one of these artists who is accommodating to people, particularly record companies. I don’t have a vendetta against anyone but if somebody says something or does something I don’t think is right, I tell them. In today’s pop culture, artists are expected to get in line and conform. What Billy should have said is, “John Mellencamp is a tough guy with heart”, that’s what I would have preferred! You know like James Cagney.
Your album title pretty much covers everything ...
I wrote what I thought were things that people my age are confronted with but don’t wanna talk about. I was also very mindful of the American songbook, so no topic was off-limits. There’s a danger of having too many hit records, particularly in the United States. I used to deliver an album and the first question was: “How many singles do you have? And I would be like: “Why don’t you listen to the f***ing album?” As time has gone on, I have stepped back from all that. In any case, radio in the United States would never play a song by anybody my age. It’s all geared around people like the Jonas Brothers. It’s almost as if you’re not from Disneyland, they’re not gonna play you. Knowing that has given me a tremendous amount of freedom.
You confront death in a very open way on songs like Longest Days and Don’t Need This Body.
This record is for people who are serious music listeners, serious about their own personal lives and serious about trying to find some kind of comfort. There’s a real famous actor in the United States, you know him here, I won’t tell you, but he’s dying. He called me and I thought: “What the f*** does he want to talk to me about, I don’t even know this guy?” And he said: “Hey John, listen, you’re record has brought me unbelievable comfort.” I said: “Listen man, if you could find one moment of peace through these words, that’s a great success.”
There’s a political aspect to this album. Jena reflects on continuing racism in America.
Hanging nooses in a tree or painting swastikas on a Jewish person’s door is not going to solve any problems. This is not the type of country that America needs to be. Don’t let the fact that Obama has a ten-point lead make you think he’s gonna win this election because people will say: “Yeah, I’m gonna vote for the guy, but when they get in the booth ...”
Who is John Cockers (he’s the title of a song)?
He’s just a lot of people that I see who are so selfish or so ignorant they can’t recognize the value of life. There are a million John Cockers and you’ll see them when you walk down the street, when they cut you off in their car and tell you: “Get the f*** out of my way!’ In the United States, values and respect for other people have dissipated. “I don’t accommodate nobody!” is the first line in the song and a lot of people feel that way.
So, is society very damaged?
I just saw this thing on TV where this cop killed himself here because he was played out. He couldn’t even stand himself. That’s the hungry beast man! It is inside of all of us. It’s in our DNA to be that way but if people just did what they wanted, it would be like Lord Of The Flies. We would just be hitting each other with sticks. I did an interview yesterday with a woman who said: “John, this record is so depressing that I had to listen to it in dribs and drabs. People want to be entertained and happy.” I said: “Listen, when all else fails ...dance! But I don’t think we’re there yet.”
You ask Jesus for “a ride back home.” Are you religious?
I think people use religion in a funny way. I’m not real sure God responds to: “Help me get this new job.” I don’t think he has time for that. If there is a spirit up there, he’s not bothered with you if you’re throwing up because you drank too much. I don’t think you can make deals like that. In the United States, we have a Right-wing agenda. This Palin woman thinks that the Iraqi war is a war of God. No, it’s a war of oil.
What was it like working with T Bone?
He’s the George Martin (The Beatles) of our time. He is so passive and so articulate when you’re in the studio. He’s not like me because I’m all over the place. He knows more about music from 1950 back to 1900 than anybody I’ve ever met.
Does it bother you that you’re best known for Jack And Diane?
That song is 30 or so years old and it gets played more today in the United States than it did when it came out. As much as I am a little weary of those two, I don’t know any other two people in rock and roll who are more popular than Jack and Diane. Some people probably think there’s a place in hell for me because of those two people! But it gave me the keys to do what I want. I’m 57 today. I’ve lived the way I wanted to live, sometimes recklessly and stupidly, but still been able to do that. I’ve been able to live on my whims, that’s what Jack and Diane gave me, so I can’t hate them too much.
Was there ever a point where you thought you would give up?
I’ve never felt like I was at the mercy of anybody. Even at my lowest point, I was never at someone else’s discretion.
Will we see you touring over here?
I gotta work out how to go on stage without my ears ringing so loud. As soon as I figure that out, maybe. But I am happy to say that I have had a very fortunate life.
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