I love the spirit of that music. I would never be as presumptuous as to say I write anything remotely as exciting as that. But that is the spirit of what I do. If you turn on the radio, what I do is so far away from other bands that I see are popular. The only person that is close is Springsteen. And that's because we both have guitars and drums and scream over them.
What current music have you been listening to?
The last record I bought was Joni Mitchell's new one. Also that band from Los Angeles, Cruzados. I hear a couple of new acts every now and then, like Los Lobos. I love that song "Will the Wolf Survive?" I'll tell you what, though. I just can't get away from those old records.
When Tony DeFries launched his ill-fated Johnny Cougar campaign in 1976, he wasted no time in comparing you to Springsteen, David Bowie, Bob Dylan and Elvis Presley. Then he staged a big Johnny Cougar Day concert and parade in Seymour. How did your friends and neighbors react to the hype?
They couldn't believe it. Some of them thought, "Well, this must be the way it's done. This is the music business." Others thought, "Why are we supposed to be applauding John all of a sudden? Because some English guy wants to throw a bunch of money around?"
I can remember me and Larry [Crane] getting in the limo for Johnny Cougar Day to drive through town and wave at these people. Both of us went, "Wait a minute," then went behind a garage and threw up. I looked at him and thought, "We're not gonna make it, this is too fucking stupid." But we went out and did it.
Did people say "I told you so" when the Chestnut Street Incident album stiffed and you returned to Indiana?
I don't think anybody was overtly catty about it. Most people were pretty respectful. It was like somebody died. They'd send their condolences. "I feel sorry that things didn't work out for you, John." At least that's what they'd say to my face. Nobody ever goaded me.
Why didn't you drop the Cougar name after you split with DeFries?
I should have. If I'd been a little bit secure with myself, I would have. But I would call record people up and say, "This is John Mellencamp, I'd like to speak to . . ." "Sorry, he's not in." I'd call back ten minutes later and say, "Hi, this is John Cougar." "Okay, hold on."
They didn't know the name Mellencamp, so to get my foot in the door, I had to use that horrible thing that happened to me. I had also talked myself into thinking that it wasn't so bad after all. Dylan even said, "My name, it means nothing/My age, it means less." Surely that's right.
Do you think you'll ever drop it?
Why should I? People accept it. Most people know the story of why it's that way. It doesn't mean squat to me anymore. I thought at one point I could run away from it and found out I couldn't do that. So it is what it is, and I imagine it'll remain.
Considering the DeFries disaster, you made a remarkably swift comeback. In 1977, you signed with Rod Stewart's manager at the time, Billy Gaff. Then Pat Benatar's cover of "I Need a Lover" was a hit, and in 1980 you scored with "Ain't Even Done with the Night," from the Nothin' Matters and What If It Did album.
I wasn't even at that record. Nothin' Matters was my worst attitude phase: "Going to the studio today, John?" "Fuck it. Tell me what happened." I was sick of it. I'd been on the road for three years straight, playing every bar in the world. I couldn't understand why the public kind of liked me, and the critics hated me so much. They were going to hold that DeFries mistake against me forever?
I was at my most hateful, rebellious time. There is stuff on that album that is so embarrassing, things I'd do on purpose just to piss people off. I wrote a song called "The Record Company Song" [for the LP, he titled it, appropriately, "Cheap Shot"]: "The record company's going out of business/They price the records too damn high." There was a line about Rolling Stone in it. I took a shot at everybody and everything. I figured, what do I have to lose? This is it for me. Hence the title – Nothin' Matters and What If It Did.
Were you surprised by the multiplatinum success of American Fool?
I was surprised to even be on the radio. When I was making that record, the record company told me, "This is the biggest mistake you're ever going to make. This record sounds like the Clash." I ended up throwing the A&R guy out of the studio in Miami: "Get the fuck out of here. I don't need you coming in here, telling me this shit." They didn't even want to release the record. Billy Gaff went nuts. He told the record company, "Put the record out or let me out of the contract."
Did you believe songs like "Hurts So Good" and "Jack and Diane" were hit-single material?
Here's how smart I am. I thought "Hurts So Good" was a hit, but "Jack and Diane" wasn't even going to be on the record. If it hadn't been for Mick Ronson, who worked on the record with me, that song wouldn't have ever made it. He kept saying, "It's a great song, you gotta put it on." I thought it was the silliest, dumbest song. It was the only Number One record I've had, and I didn't want to put it out. That's how smart I am.
How did you get the nickname "Little Bastard"?
From the record company. It was during the American Fool record. Their suggestion to me was they might be able to save the record if we got the Memphis Horns to play on it. My remark was "Horns belong in marching bands, not on this record."
Did someone from the company actually call you a little bastard?
I heard it. "The guy's an asshole, that little bastard Mellencamp."
Do you know who said it?
Yeah, but I don't want to say. They're funny, record companies. They're always there to say, "Yeah, we were with you in the beginning." I just let them say what they want to. I can still remember all the record companies that turned me down. I remember the guys that did it. And I run into them sometimes. And sometimes I'm not too shy about bringing it up.
Are you taking on more production jobs like Mitch Ryder's Never Kick a Sleeping Dog LP or the track "Colored Lights" you did for the Blasters' last album?
I don't really want to. I get asked to do a lot of stuff, but I don't really think people want me to do it as much as they think I can get 'em a hit record. The Neville Brothers asked me to do an album for them a couple of years ago. They wanted me to do it because they thought it would be "cool." And, you know, when I worked with Dave and Phil Alvin and the rest of the Blasters, they didn't need me there. They're going to do the same thing I did. They're going to wake up one day and say, "Hey! Let's just do it ourselves." Because nobody's going to come in and be able to arrange the Blasters' house the way they want it.
You were reportedly writing a screenplay a couple of years ago. What happened to it?
I wrote it the summer before last. It's called Ridin' the Cage. The story I wrote was about guys our age, trapped – in a light way, but also in a sad way. The story wasn't that great, but the characters were really cool. This guy that I play, Dud, has two kids, he's unemployed, thirty-two years old, hates the fucking world and everybody and everything in it. But his friend, this numskull kind of guy, turns Dud's thinking around.
When I was done with it, I gave it to Warner Bros. They wanted to make the movie with me; they just wanted someone to rewrite it. It turned out that Larry McMurtry [Terms of Endearment] knew who I was, so I called him up and asked if he'd be interested in seeing it. He agreed it was a poor story, but he liked the characters. So he rewrote the story, with these same characters but in different situations. And I don't play Dud anymore. He wrote a new character for me.
The movie company was also upset because I don't sing in the movie: "So what the hell's he in it for if he doesn't sing?"
What was the company's final verdict?
It's still being discussed.
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