There were also right-wing overtones to the presentation of the Farm Aid concert. A familiar refrain during the TV broadcast was "It's time to do something for us," which was a rather jingoistic snub of Live Aid's demonstration of global unity.
I got a little confused too when I heard Merle Haggard's "Amber Waves of Grain" song. That's not why I was there. But you can't go shootin' all the dogs 'cause one's got fleas. I know why I was there. And I feel like I know why Willie was there.
During your concerts, you've been asking audiences to write letters to their congressmen asking what they are doing to help the small family farmer. What has been the response?
I don't know, it's too early to tell. Every day after the show, I take out an ad in the local paper and give the senators' names and where to write to them. I don't know if it's going to mean anything at all. I mean, some guy in a rock band isn't going to make a hell of a lot of difference with these guys.
You resisted corporate sponsorship at Farm Aid, and you have continually turned down sponsors for your own tours. Why?
I don't need to make money that way. I didn't write these songs or play these shows so they can offer me money in return for sticking their logo above my name. The beer ones get to me. I don't even drink! Cigarette ones gall me too, because I hate that I smoke.
My parents can't understand why I don't take these corporate sponsorships. "You're turning down millions of dollars, John," my old man says. "Strike while the poker's hot."
Have you been approached about licensing your songs for commercials?
That's another war. That's one of the reasons my last manager, Billy Gaff, and I parted company. He couldn't understand why I wouldn't let some ketchup company use "Hurts So Good." It was for a hot sauce. I didn't write the song for that reason. However good or bad the song was, it was entertaining. But it wasn't written for ketchup to pour out to.
You dedicated Scarecrow to your grandfather Speck Mellencamp, who died in 1983. How important was he in your life?
He was a much larger inspiration to me than Bob Dylan or Woody Guthrie ever were. He taught me the value of dedication and trying to do the best you can with the tools you've got. He'd say, "It's a poor workman who blames his tools."
He never had more than a seventh-grade education. He chain-smoked Camel cigarettes and hammered nails and planks. But he just loved to live. He was not afraid of anything. You asked me if I voted. My grandfather never voted. This is how proud he was. He went to register to vote, and the woman said, "Name?" "Harry Perry Mellencamp." The woman started laughing. He just walked out. He said, "I'm not going to go in and have people laugh at my name just to get the opportunity to vote." He was real stubborn.
Would you say you picked up your own stubborn nature from him?
Yeah. I always found that I made my biggest mistakes when I compromised myself – the Johnny Cougar name, some of the records I made, the producers I was talked into using. Whenever I compromised, I should have listened to Grandpa. Don't ever compromise yourself, right or wrong. That's something he always told us, to always believe in yourself.
Were you a troublemaker as a kid?
When I was eight years old, I got put in jail for breaking and entering. There was an old barn that this rich woman in Seymour had. She was an artist. A whole bunch of us vandalized her art, took her oil paints and threw them around the pictures, stuff like that. Every kid in the neighborhood was in on it. They took sixteen of us to jail. But we weren't arrested. It was our parents trying to teach us a lesson. So they put us behind bars for three hours.
You were also picked up for narcotics in high school.
Me and another kid were high in school, right? Just amphetamines. We'd been up for like three or four days. A teacher turned us in, and the narcotics agents from Indianapolis came down.
They didn't have anything to arrest us for. We went out to the parking lot where the other kid had a Volkswagen. When I opened the door of this old beat-up Volkswagen, all the pills ran out onto the sidewalk. Which was a blessing in disguise because they weren't in our possession at that point. They were on the sidewalk. The agents didn't have a search warrant either.
Of course, I made the mistake of telling my parents. Got my ass beat for it. I should have kept my mouth shut. The school never contacted them.
Were you a heavy drinker then as well?
Oh, man! You think I have a temper now. You should have seen me when I was drunk. When I had a half pint of whiskey in me, I was a wild man. I was so obnoxious I couldn't stand myself. I was always getting beat up when I was drunk. I just had to quit.
I quit drinking in '71 and quit doing drugs in '72. I didn't like the feeling of not being in control. When I was high on pot, it affected me so drastically that when I was in college there were times when I wouldn't get off the couch. I would lie there, listening to Roxy Music, right next to the record player so I wouldn't have to get up to flip the record over. I'd listen to this record, that record. There would be four or five days like that when I would be completely gone.
You graduated from Vincennes University near Seymour, where you registered as a communications major. Were you trying to get a job in radio?
My problem was I couldn't read on the radio. And the Vietnam War was going on. It'd be time to do the news, and there would be some Vietnamese name, Colonel So-and-so, whose name I couldn't pronounce right. People would call up and laugh at me. Then I'd play The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, the entire album. People would call: "Would you get that junk off?"
See, after I got out of high school, I laid out a year because I was already married and had a kid. But I went to college because the job market was real poor. Everybody I knew that didn't go to college was drawing unemployment. Once, when I was married to Priscilla, I landed a job as a carpenter's helper. She was working as a phone operator, and we had a kid, car payments and all that crap. We ended up with eighteen extra dollars one week. I remember walking home from the construction site with the eighteen dollars. I went into a record store and spent every cent of it. I remember I bought a Ten Years After album.
When did you first start playing in bands?
The first band I was ever in was in fifth grade. We played along with records, miming the music. I sang at a student convocation in seventh grade. Me and a guy named Sam Abbott did the song "Abilene." He played guitar, I sang, and this other kid played congas. It was horrible. But the first real band I joined was Crepe Soul. I was in that band for a year and a half. I decided bands don't work, this idea of everybody voting on everything, because nothing ever got done and we never played anyplace. After I quit Crepe Soul, I joined a band called Snakepit Banana Barn and got kicked out because I couldn't sing. Then I bought an acoustic guitar and just started playing songs. I even told my mom and dad I wrote Donovan's "Universal Soldier."
What a bald faced lie!
Right, it was. Do you know the reason I did it? Because my parents kept saying. "These guys with long hair, they're just ruining American society." I got tired of hearing it. I knew if they would just listen to one of these songs, they'd change their minds. They weren't going to listen to Donovan, but they'd take an interest in their own son, right? So I played "Universal Soldier," and my mom just went nuts. "That is beautiful, John!"
Finally, I had to tell them I didn't write the song. I just wanted to show them it wasn't all nonsense.
The long Sixties set you play at the end of your current stage show runs the gamut from the Miracles' "Mickey's Monkey" to Creedence Clearwater's "Proud Mary" and the Human Beinz' garage-punk version of "Nobody but Me." Is that medley reflective of your musical roots?
The interesting thing about those songs is that they are all by American artists. I find comfort in heritage. And I feel like I understand the Human Beinz I understand their energy, what they were doing.
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