What does it take to be a rock ‘n’ roll legend?
At age 66, John Mellencamp probably never asked himself this question. Yet despite his indifference to the whole idea of fame — his aversion to it, actually — that is what he has become. Go figure.
For example, where most superstar wannabes have tried to hasten their success by putting out a live album early in their careers, Mellencamp always shied away from the idea. “For years I’ve been asked, ‘When are you going to put out a live performance DVD?’” he says, his voice a quiet rasp over the phone. “I didn’t want to do that. I don’t think you can capture what a person does onstage, put it in a box and expect that it even remotely resembles what happened that night in that room.”
Why, then, did he reconsider after all these years and decide to release Plain Spoken: From The Chicago Theatre on Friday? Because he found a way to do something different with it.
“Growing up, I used to listen to a radio show in the 1960s with this guy who would just do a monologue all night long,” Mellencamp explains. “I can’t remember his name; I think he was from Texas. But he’d just talk about whatever he wanted to talk about. That’s what I decided to do.”
Plain Spoken comes in several formats — DVD+CD, Blu-ray+CD and digital. More important, it offers two experiences. One is a traditional concert, capturing Mellencamp and his band as they deliver a spirited career-spanning set. The other is exactly the same except for a voiceover from Mellencamp, in which he reflects on his history and the issues that concern him in these fractious times. He also muses on learning to love, a lifelong exercise that culminates in his ongoing relationship with actress Meg Ryan. As he explains it, “I had one foot out the door most of my life. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve pretty much run out of places to run to.”
Improvised over a two-day period, this monologue doesn’t comment specifically on songs as much as reflect on his creative methodology. Engineer Mark Hood then spent the summer at Mellencamp’s Indiana home, arranging the content into what the artist describes as an arc. From an opening admonition to “keep it small but keep going” to an affirmation of taking responsibility for all his endeavors, Mellencamp reveals much not only about his music but also his passion for visual art.
“I got a great compliment the other day,” he says. “A guy told me, ‘I own one of your paintings. I look at it every day. And every day it says something different.’ That’s why I don’t view paintings as static images. To me, they’re just like music, except they take longer. If you’re going to fret over a song for as many hours as you put into a painting, you might as well start writing a different song.”
In his visual work, much of it currently on display at the ACA Gallery in New York City, and his music, Mellencamp bares his feelings freely — perhaps more politically provocative in the visual realm, a bit more abstractly in his lyrics. “I can be a little more on the nose with painting than I can with songs,” he admits. “With songs, it’s not about me. I make them about the listener. A song has to start somewhere between your legs, go to your heart and then to your head. It entertains and informs — and you can dance to it. That, to me, is the perfect song.”