John's Golden Years

Meanwhile, back in the heartland: John Mellencamp releases a killer retrospective and avoids giving Dylan advice

Vote for Change Tour, MCI Center. First act, John Mellencamp, October 11th, 2004. Credit: Tracy A. Woodward/The Washington Post/Getty

TO FIND THE BELMONT MALL STUDIO, you head a few miles out of Bloomington, Indiana, and turn right at the bait shop. After heading through the woods down some narrow back roads, you reach the building where John Mellencamp has made music for the past two decades.

The walls are covered with dozens of Mellencamp's gold records. He sits behind one of four desks, his sleeves rolled up, trading insults and boasts with his office staff. The current object of discussion: yesterday's peewee football playoff game, which was an upset victory for the team that included Mellencamp's two sons, Hud, 10, and Speck, 9. "This looks like an office," Mellencamp confides, "but it's like a barbershop in here."

Mellencamp is fifty-three. He's wearing blue jeans, Pumas and a gray sweater. His face has grown weather-beaten, but he still looks like a well-toned bantamweight. He works every day but Saturday. Right now, he's preparing for another tour and working on blues and Cajun songs for Mississippi Ghost Brothers, a stage musical he's writing with Stephen King. In it, a quarreling Southern family goes on vacation to the haunted cabin where two uncles killed each other; it's set in the present day and the 1940s. "What you think is your conscience is actually your past haunting you," Mellencamp says of the show.

He has now made twenty-one albums, the first of which, Chestnut Street Incident, was released in 1976, a fact that makes him eligible for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. He hasn't gotten in yet. "People have a disposition against the Midwest," he says cheerfully. "I'm not worried about it — I'll get in when they run out of everybody else who plays rock. They'll say, 'Oh, yeah, let's go back and get Mellencamp.'"

The real testament to Mellencamp's career is his new thirty-seven-song compilation, Words and Music. "What surprised me was that I had a video to accompany almost every song," Mellencamp says with a laugh. "For a guy who didn't like to make videos, I sure did a lot of them." He didn't program the two discs chronologically, which obscures his career progression from meat-and-potatoes rock about girls to fiddle-enhanced vignettes of heartland life to rhythmically complex folk rock about racism.

"What's consistent across the years is the quality of the songwriting and the memorable portraits of Americans groping toward something bigger than themselves. Mellencamp says, "I try not to write songs about myself — I'm just not that interesting. For me, songwriting is when you can make somebody say, 'Hey, that guy's eavesdropping on my phone calls.' But you can't do that if you get too specific-everything has to be vague."

Mellencamp's early songwriting idols were Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. He and Dylan eventually became friendly; for a while in the early Nineties, Dylan would call to read him lyrics to his new songs, looking for feedback. "It was really awkward," says Mellencamp of the phone calls, which would come at all hours of the night. He didn't feel remotely qualified to criticize Dylan's work — "Look at the shit you write, and look at the shit I write," he told him — so eventually Dylan stopped calling.

Mellencamp leans back in his chair, sucking on his umpteenth cigarette. (He had a heart attack ten years ago but still smokes quite a bit, even waking up in the middle of the night sometimes for a cigarette. "Smoking's the only thing I do well," he says.) Reclining in his studio's control room, he is such a genial host that it's slightly uncomfortable to point out that Mellencamp does have a public image, or at least a reputation. He is known for being hardheaded and confrontational; in short, people say he has the red ass.

"You're not telling me something I haven't heard," he says. He freely concedes that he's tenacious and stubborn but thinks those qualities come into play when he's tangling with record companies. "I would rather have the red ass than have somebody pull my strings," he says. "If you aren't careful in the music business, you can become a skin puppet." Not content with being tape-recorded, Mellencamp insists that I write down a quotation from Jimmy Cagney: "There is no reward in this world for settling for something you don't want."

"Most men, up until they were forty, think the world revolves around them," Mellencamp says.

Including you?

He snorts. "Of course. I was in a rock band." Mellencamp recently completed his stint on the Vote for Change Tour, where he was partnered with the R & B artist Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds. Also an Indiana native, Edmonds produced the two new tracks on Words and Music. Mellencamp marveled at how Edmonds stacked up forty vocal tracks for background harmonies. "I couldn't do that in ten years," he says. Living in Indiana, Mellencamp is surrounded by his past and his family. One of his two daughters from his second marriage (he has been married to his third wife, Elaine, for twelve years) attends nearby Indiana University. His parents are also still close at hand: "My father can whip us both, "he says. "He's seventy-four and looks like my younger brother."

Two years ago, however, his grandmother died at age ninety-seven. She sang "Grandma's Theme" on the 1985 album Scarecrow; she always called him Buddy. "She got kind of nutty toward the end," Mellencamp says. Grandma would ask Mellencamp to lie in bed next to her so they could talk and then she'd get overwhelmed by religious fervor. "I'm ready to go!" she'd shout. "God, take me and Buddy right now!"

Mellencamp could only make flailing gestures, trying to steer the Lord toward his grandmother. "Not Buddy!" he'd whisper, like a man who still had work to do in this world.