Q&A: John Mellencamp

Indiana's favorite son talks about great American songwriters and the the Beach Boys hate his guts

John Mellencamp during 'Willie Nelson and Friends: Live and Kickin'' Premiers on USA Network on May 26th, 2003 Rehearsal and Backstage at Beacon Theatre in New York, April 9th, 2003. Credit: Theo Wargo/WireImage/Getty

IWENT BACK AND EXPLORED the music I had grown up with," says John Mellencamp, 51, whose new disc, Trouble No More, is a collection of songs from great American song writers such as Hoagy Carmichael, Robert Johnson, Woody Guthrie and Son House. "Dylan's first two records were basically like this — covers that he played every night at a bar or a club." Prior to hitting the studio, Mellencamp and his band spent a month in rehearsal, honing unique but sincere renditions of the songs. "The joy of this record is over for me, "he says from his home in Bloomington, Indiana. "It was sitting down with musicians and playing, not worrying about the other crap that goes with making records these days."

What are your earliest musical memories?
When I was five or six, my dad would have bongo parties. We would go to bed and could hear Dad singing and bongo-ing with his friends. They also listened to records. I'll always remember that Julie London record, Julie Is Her Name. Julie had this sweet voice, red hair and very sexy dresses, But, to be honest, it was the breasts on the album cover that got me.

Do you remember the first album you bought?
Peppermint Twisters by Joey Dee and the Starliters.

Did you twist to it?
Are you kidding me? I was in a twist contest when I was nine or ten. It was 1961 at the GC Murphy dime store, and kids would twist in the window. Me and a girl named Tracey Evans won. This girl was so pretty, we had to win. I was riding her coattails.

Which musicians did you idolize growing up?
[A] Guthrie and Dylan. Then when I was in college in the Seventies, I got sidetracked with Iggy and the Stooges, Lou Reed, the Velvet. Underground, stuff like that When you grow up in the country, you like everything urban. So I had the best of both worlds. See, I'm a music lover, never a discriminating listener. I like James Brown to Woody Guthrie.

You played covers for a long time. How did you eventually find your own voice?
All of that early stuff-Johnny Cougar, John Cougar — that was all lifestyle, because we didn't have any material. I didn't know how to write songs. In about 1979, Mercury came to me and said, "We're tired of passing the time of day with you. This is your last chance." So we made American Fool, with "Jack and Diane" and "Hurts So Good." I was writing at the top of my game. And Mercury hated the record. What they wanted me to do was become Neil Diamond. I said, "Look, it's not your job to like these records, it's your job to sell the fuckers." The record was a big success. After that, they never gave me any shit.

When you were coming up, you were on some strange bills, opening for the Kinks, Kiss and REO Speedwagon.
I got kicked off all those tours.

How did you accomplish that?
With REO Speedwagon, I think I only lasted three shows. They had these "ego ramps" — those great big ramps going into the audience. The first thing Speedwagon told me was to stay off the ramps, and I said, "Fuck you! I'm going out!" The second night, they lined the ramps with folding chairs, so I kicked them off the stage.

Did you ever brawl with any musicians?
Oh, yeah. The biggest problem I ever had was with the Beach Boys. I agreed to use their equipment, and all of it broke down. so I got mad and threw it into the audience. The Beach Boys had to go on, and I had given all the equipment away. Mike Love was not happy. And I walked offstage, and he was kind of squaring off with me, and I just looked at him and said, "Don't you say anything to me."

What is the perfect song?
Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" is the perfect song. Long enough, smart enough, clever enough, and the melody is beautiful. What it's saying is beautiful. The arrangement is so loose but so organized. I asked Bob, "How the fuck do you do that?" and he just looked at me like I was a nut: "What are you talking about, man?"

Do you remember when you first heard that tune?
I was fourteen years old, driving around with my friend John, and it came on the radio, and I said, "Pull the fucking car over." I feel so fortunate to have grown up in the time of rock music finding itself. Goddamn, to be able to say, "I was there. I got to see it. I got to dance to it. I got to fuck to it." How could you be luckier than that?