John Mellencamp's Void in the Heartland - Rolling Stone
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John Mellencamp’s Void in the Heartland

He’s a rich, respected rock star who is making some of the best music of his career, so how come he’s not happy? A portrait of the artist as a not-so-young man.

John MellencampJohn Mellencamp

John Mellencamp in 1989.

Raymond Bonar/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank

Was Bruce Springsteen really successful with Born in the U.S.A.?” asks John Cougar Mellencamp one crisp spring afternoon in Bloomington, Indiana. “Think so? I think the record was great — that has nothing to do with it I wonder if he’s the same guy he used to be. That’s what success is about: happiness. I wonder if he’s as happy as he was.”

Mellencamp takes a pull on one of his ever-present Marlboros and continues. “I’m not bad-mouthing him. I like the guy. Every time I’ve been around him, he’s been a blue-chip fella to me, right? But I wonder about his happiness. I wonder about Madonna’s happiness. I wonder about Michael Jackson’s happiness. We put him down so bad that he feels he has to make a statement about it. Let’s quit feeding off these people.”

Mellencamp is looking at the big picture these days (“Is Madonna happy?” — now there’s a puzzle worthy of a Zen master), and he doesn’t like what he sees. He is full of questions — about his own identity, about the pop-culture world that envelops him, about the life he has led to this point — and that makes him extremely uncomfortable. It’s not a place he’s used to being. Growing up as a hell raiser in a small town, playing in rock bands through your teens and landing a record deal in your early twenties are not great incentives to the contemplative life.

Nor is the fiery singer suited by temperament to indecision and ambivalence. Confronted with a problem, Mellencamp is far more prone to ride roughshod over it than to analyze it coolly. Brash, even arrogant at times, he likes to shoot from the hip and from the lip. He can be stubborn and demanding, and his temper is legend. By the close of the seemingly endless world tour that followed the release of Mellencamp’s album The Lonesome Jubilee, in 1987, Mellencamp’s band had dubbed his dressing room Valhalla, in honor of one of the singer’s favorite jokes: “You know what makes a good Viking, don’t you? Severe mood swings.”

As his raw, poignant new album, Big Daddy, indicates, Mellencamp’s mood has swung into darkness. The bitterness that courses through the album’s first single, “Pop Singer,” in which Mellencamp excoriates the music industry and declares, “Never wanted to be no pop singer,” is palpable — and some say hypocritical. There’s no doubting that Mellencamp — the product of a pre-punk world in which bigger was better and it was assumed that rock & roll stars were supposed to be popular — ardently pursued mass success and occasionally made a fool of himself in the process.

Unfortunately, going after something doesn’t necessarily guarantee that it will be what you thought it would be once you get it. Also, in Mellencamp’s younger years pop music was a term that stood in direct opposition to rock & roll. Rock & roll was tough, Dionysiac and serious; pop music was light and frivolous. In Mellencamp’s view, pop has won out.

“At thirty-seven years old, I am at total odds with the pop business,” Mellencamp says. “That’s what ‘Pop Singer’ is about. As I sit here every day, I just become at total odds with my generation, too. I hate to say this, but I feel like what John Lennon must have felt: I don’t want to be in this race anymore, because it leads to nowhere. “I’m living the dream of a nineteen-year-old boy from Indiana,” he continues, “and I’m thirty-seven years old. Some people would say, ‘Well, then, hell, you’ve got it made, man. You’re young forever.’ But what happens when you don’t want to be young anymore? When the fascination of being a young man has left you?”

In the course of what Mellencamp will later describe as “probably the best Marlon Brando interview I’ve ever done, where you just hate everything,” it becomes clear that the singer has arrived at the critical point reached by many rockers before him — Elvis Presley, the Beatles and Bruce Springsteen among them. It’s the point where, amid the delights, temptations, rewards and horrifying fun-house reflections of media-driven celebrity, you either find yourself or lose yourself. It’s growing up in public: the rock & roll midlife crisis.

As he nears forty, the self-mocking “Little Bastard” — a sobriquet Mellencamp borrowed from that other Indiana icon, James Dean — finds himself facing some hard realities with nothing but wildly contradictory emotions to support him. Despite a string of first-rate albums — Uh-Huh, Scarecrow, The Lonesome Jubilee and now Big Daddy — Mellencamp is rarely regarded with the seriousness accorded the likes of Springsteen and U2, and it bothers him.

“There was a writer who likes my music — I know this guy — and I’m reading one of his articles about another artist, right?” Mellencamp says. “He says, ‘Well, it was a good record, but it was like a John Mellencamp record.’ It wasn’t what they should have been doing. I’m thinking, ‘Man, there’s a thousand guys that sold out — use their name, don’t use mine, like I’m a second-rate artist’ And he did, and it was like ‘Well, thanks, bub. Appreciate it.’ That hurt me.”

Mellencamp’s uncompromising stance against corporate sponsorship has made him feel anomalous in an age when even esteemed figures like Lou Reed, Steve Winwood, Robert Plant and Eric Clapton have hawked products. The trivializing of rock & roll is a problem he sees in the media as well. “Nothing against USA Today,” he says, “but that’s what people want — ‘Let’s cut to the chase, give me the dirt.’ This is our generation doing this. It’s sad. And, like, Rolling Stone, there’s the Critics Poll, and then there’s all those advertisements around it. How are we supposed to take you guys seriously when you’ve got a corporate sponsor underneath your names?”

Other difficulties plague Mellencamp. Early on in his career, he signed a disadvantageous publishing deal, and to this day he does not own his own songs. “I had to give up something to get something when I was twenty-two years old,” he says wearily. “And at thirty-seven, it’s pretty disheartening to me to write hundreds of songs and not own them.”

Finally, Mellencamp, in the wake of tabloid reports about his womanizing, is currently separated from his second wife, Vicky, the mother of the two youngest of his three daughters. Mellencamp’s eldest daughter, now nineteen, from his first marriage, is about to be married.

“Oh, I’m the world’s worst at relationships, are you kidding me?” Mellencamp says ruefully. “I’m retarded. I’ve been married two times — and both times married to wonderful women — and I’ve managed to fuck those up somehow. Relationships — yeah, they’d mean a lot if I knew how to have one. To really relate to a woman — ah, I don’t know how to do it.”

On the new album’s “Big Daddy of Them All,” a grim parody of all the self-congratulatory “my way” songs, Mellencamp, the rock & roll star and former paterfamilias, sings, “You did it your way and, man, you did it all.” His voice is filled with a sad but unsentimental irony. “How does it feel to be the big daddy of them all?”

And if all this sounds to you like nothing more than the self-pitying posturing of a pampered celebrity, a kind of rock-millionaire version of thirtysomething, Mellencamp’s got a characteristic reply. The singer ponders how his situation might look from the outside and concludes, “Anybody who thinks, ‘Well, Mellencamp’s rich, he ought to be happy, fuck him’ — well, fuck you.”

Amid his problems, consolation has come to Mellencamp in the form of art — or, as he puts it, “this painting shit.” These days, of course, every socially aspirant philistine twit in the music business who earns a six-figure salary is an art collector. The fashionable taste tends to run toward contemporary painting that is abstract but pretty and unthreatening — and, needless to say, a sound investment. Speculating on the careers of younger painters — an extension, really, of the market-think that determines the signing of new bands — has eclipsed stock speculation as a hip money sport for record-industry executives and artists alike.

Typically unpretentious and almost willfully self-confident, Mellencamp has avoided such nonsense. Instead, beginning last August, he started to paint himself — a fact amiably noted by Lou Reed, who refers to Mellencamp as “my painter friend Donald” in “Last Great American Whale,” on the album New York. Mellencamp is drawn less to contemporary art than to late-nineteenth-century European masters, and his own work strives for a style that, like his songs, “is impressionistic but at the same time has a certain realism to it and creates a mood.”

“If an art critic came in and looked at my paintings,” Mellencamp says, “he’d go, ‘Man, you are so old-fashioned and you are so behind the times that this has nothing to do with contemporary art.’ Sorry — I’m not dying to be hip.” On the other hand, he understands how incredulous people will be about his new interest. “I’m sure people reading this are going to have a good laugh,” he says at one point.

Wearing a gray turtleneck and black jeans, his brown hair cut back to medium length after it grew past his shoulders on the last tour, Mellencamp sits at a table in the art studio he recently had built next door to his house in Bloomington. “It’s been here since Christmas,” he says of the studio. “I was tired of painting in the garage. It was winter, and there’s no heat in the garage. I’d get the oil on the palette, and the fucking oil would freeze. I dig the struggling-artist stuff, but this was a little ridiculous. I said, ‘If I’m gonna paint, let’s try to get some place where it’s a little more comfortable.’ “

Set close by the woods on Mellencamp’s property, the studio building is pristinely white, with high ceilings and light streaming in from the windows that line the studio’s southern wall. The space is large, open and airy, and canvases of Mellencamp’s paintings, along with art books and supplies, are everywhere. Significantly, even in this environment, which is a kind of hymn to the ideal of fine art, one rock & roll note intrudes and dominates. Virtually surrounded by canvases beside the door stands Mellencamp’s enormous, gleaming black motorcycle.

“My mom painted when I was a kid,” Mellencamp says, over a lunch of ham-and-cheese sandwiches, barbecue potato chips, melon and Perrier. “I thought oil paintings took forever to paint. She had a little studio set up downstairs in our basement. She’d do florals and still lifes — pretty boring stuff, I thought. But she had to take care of us kids, so she’d paint for fifteen minutes, and then the painting would sit for three weeks. I thought, ‘Man, this is fucked. This oil painting takes too long.’ But that was a kid’s perception. The reality is, I never spend more than a day on a painting. That’s my problem with this art: I don’t have the patience to do what I need to do.”

Nor does Mellencamp have any interest in taking formal lessons. “I think lessons screw people up,” he says. “I know a girl here in town, she’s my age, and she just started painting. She was a pretty good painter till she took a couple of classes. Now she’s all balled up in what’s right and what’s wrong. And what they teach in school now, I’m not interested in learning. I’m not interested in drawing a guy’s dick, you know? That’s one of the things she had to do.”

For Mellencamp, painting has become a retreat from the pressures of his life on the pop roller coaster. Increasingly, his world has narrowed to his home, the art studio and his recording studio, Belmont Mall, located about seven miles away, where he records with his band and produces other artists. The pleasure he takes both in his own work and in encountering the work of the masters lends his conversation the conviction of a convert.

“I think you can say much more in a painting than you can in a stupid song,” he says. “I just went to Chicago to see a painting by Renoir. I’ve gone to Chicago four times to see it. I wouldn’t go to Chicago to see any rock band, but I’ll go up there just to look at that painting. It’s thrilling. It’s what rock & roll used to be to me when I was younger. I mean, my heart beats fast, I get excited, I break out in a cold sweat. It’s called Two Sisters on the Terrace — the most beautiful painting ever painted. The first time I saw it, I cried. It’s so fucking beautiful.”

About his own painting, Mellencamp says, “It’s honest. There’s no commerce involved — there’s nothing for fucking money. I don’t know, it’s just a much better medium. I’m thirty-seven now; hopefully by the time I’m fifty-seven, I’ll be …” He doesn’t allow himself to complete the thought. “All these paintings are just John practicing — I mean, you’re looking at Chestnut Street, right?” he continues, alluding to his critically devastated 1976 debut album, Chestnut Street Incident, which he recorded as John Cougar. “And I think that I’m ahead of Chestnut Street, as far as painting goes. So we’ll see what happens in ten years, if I can keep with it.

“Some days I start at seven o’clock in the morning, and I paint until five, eat dinner and come back and paint till midnight. I don’t have to see anybody. I don’t have to talk to anybody. It’s better than sex, for me.

“The songs, it’s like ‘Oh, I don’t know, this guy already did this.’ ‘What are they gonna think about this?’ All these fucking things that come into your head that limit you as a songwriter. Then you’ve got your stupid image that people are thinking about. All that garbage. It kills every artist’s songwriting eventually.”

Mellencamp’s acrid perception of the vagaries of the pop world has formed at a time when he arguably could be poised to goose his record sales into the tens of millions. Instead, he has refused to tour in support of Big Daddy — “It’s not that type of record,” he says, with a knowing chuckle, “there’s no ‘R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.’ on it” — and he is doing relatively few interviews.

“What’s the point?” Mellencamp asks. “This other step that people keep wanting me to take to become another level of recording artist — to be Madonna? To sell out? To bend over? To kiss somebody’s ass? I ain’t gonna do it. I don’t want nothin’ to do with it.”

Even so, Mellencamp has always been fiercely competitive — he is managed, for example, by one of the most high-powered management firms in the music industry. While the commercial aspects of the music business may disgust him, he acknowledges that he is not fully indifferent to the standards set for him. “I’ll say, ‘I don’t give a fuck if the record sells or not. If people like it, they buy it. If they don’t, they don’t.’ But the minute it comes out of my mouth, I know I’m lying — to myself. ‘Who you kidding, Mellencamp? If this record doesn’t sell a certain volume, you’re gonna be bummed out.’ I’ll sit there and contradict myself about what I believe over and over and over again. And I haven’t really found a place where I’m comfortable with it.”

And, as you might think, Renoir and the high-art tradition are not the only cultural beacons by which Mellencamp measures his dissatisfaction. Another one is much closer to home, and much more intimately related to the cultural heritage of which Mellencamp is a part: the imprisonment of his idol, James Brown, on misdemeanor weapons and traffic charges, in South Carolina. If James Brown, “the greatest fucking soul songwriter in the world,” can be allowed to languish in jail, Mellencamp seems to think, what possible value can American society be said to place on the popular arts?

“Don’t we respect anything?” he asks, his voice rising from a whisper to a shout. “Don’t we respect what James Brown gave us? I just can’t believe that there hasn’t been 90 million letters written to the governor of South Carolina saying, ‘You should pardon this guy.’ I mean, they’re gonna pardon Ollie North!

“You should pardon James Brown, give the guy some help, because he has given his life to us. He gave us ‘Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.’ You know what that song meant to me? Everything. ‘I Feel Good’ means everything. The minute James fucks up, ‘Take this, motherfucker.’ It ain’t right. It just ain’t right.”

A few moments later, Mellencamp collects himself, pauses for a second and, his blue eyes flashing, cracks his infectious smile. “You didn’t know this was going to be so much fun, did you?” he says.

You can only fall as far as you rise, and the depth of John Mellencamp’s disillusionment is partly a reflection of how completely he embraced the rock & roll dream. The working-class Midwestern culture in which Mellencamp grew up was as far removed from insider status as it could be, and the singer’s early notions about how the music business worked were touchingly naive.

“I figured if a guy made a record, it was on the radio,” he says. “I thought all disc jockeys were handsome. I thought the record business was run by kids. I was shocked when I got my very first record deal: I went out to California, MCA, to meet the president of the company — he was an old man my dad’s age. I couldn’t believe it. It really threw me for a loop.”

But as with many outsiders trying to penetrate a more sophisticated world, Mellencamp’s naiveté was laced with a suspicion that what separates insiders from outsiders is not talent but a knowledge of how to play the game. To get his break, Mellencamp sought out Tony DeFries, the Svengali manager who had helped transform a hippie-ish London R&B fan named David Jones into the androgynous glitter rocker David Bowie. DeFries thought he had found his next mark in Mellencamp, whom he rapidly dubbed John Cougar and signed to a record deal.

“Let’s face it, I got out of Vincennes University,” Mellencamp says, referring to the two-year college in southern Indiana that he graduated from, “and I had a record deal like that [snaps his fingers]. I’d written, like, three songs. I got a record deal for all the wrong reasons. This guy sees me, he’s from England, he thinks my accent’s funny, and he didn’t give a fuck what the songs were like. ‘A real American‘ — and I’m thinkin’, “Man, they’re all over the fucking place!’ So it never was the music in the beginning to me. It was a hustle…. I mean, Larry [Crane, Mellencamp’s guitarist] was still in high school, and we’re making records.”

Mellencamp began to attract attention when Pat Benatar covered “I Need a Lover,” from the album John Cougar; his own version of the song cracked the Top Forty in 1979. Three years later his album American Fool yielded the Top Ten hits “Hurts So Good” and “Jack & Diane,” but it wasn’t until 1983 and the bracing populist rock of “Pink Houses,” from the album Uh-Huh, that Mellencamp began to achieve critical respectability — a process he encouraged by actively courting the press. That stature was enhanced when his next album, Scarecrow, articulated a bleak vision of Midwestern farm culture in crisis; Mellencamp then turned art into action by helping Willie Nelson and Neil Young organize the first Farm Aid show.

On both The Lonesome Jubilee and Big Daddy, Mellencamp seems, in the aftermath of his political awakening, brought up short by the elusive nature of human happiness. “I went through a period in ’84 and ’85 when I was in a real positive frame of mind,” Mellencamp says. “My personal life was great, my career was going well. But in 1989, I’m not that positive about anything. It seems real complicated to me now. Back then, when I wrote ‘Pink Houses,’ it was pretty simple. When Scarecrow came out, it was pretty simple. I fell back into that idealism of the Sixties for a while. I liked being there — but it was false. I do think that music can change things. But not now. Not with the way it’s going now.”

Mellencamp and his stalwart band — guitarists Larry Crane and Mike Wanchic, bassist Toby Myers, violinist Lisa Germano, accordionist John Cascella, drummer Kenny Aronoff and background singers Pat Petersen and Crystal Taliefero — recorded Big Daddy in their “spare time,” often laying down basic tracks in one evening. Mellencamp produced the album himself, bypassing his coproducer Don Gehman for the first time since 1982. As on The Lonesome Jubilee, the group’s lean, gritty sound is embellished by a variety of folk instruments; this gives the music a haunting flavor that suits the album’s emotional terrain well.

“I got off The Lonesome Jubilee tour, and I just started to look at myself and evaluate my life, trying to see what it meant,” Mellencamp says about the genesis of Big Daddy, for which he wrote about thirty songs. “I say it in ‘Void in My Heart’: ‘Hundred dollars in my pocket/And it didn’t buy a thing.’ I’m just real discouraged about it. That’s where this record comes from.”

Out of a kind of inverse respect for the edginess of the feelings he’s expressing on Big Daddy — and with a nod to records by Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones that he’s admired in the past — Mellencamp did not include a lyric sheet with the album, and he buried his vocals in the mix. Most of the songs are sung in a grainy, world-weary drawl.

“As far as the singing goes, I can’t wait to read some of the reviews,” Mellencamp says. “‘Mellencamp’s flat on the first song.’ I just know some kid somewhere is going to write that. For me to go up there and sing ‘Big Daddy’ in my best voice is kind of silly, isn’t it? A lot of those songs shouldn’t even have been sung; they should have been spoken — quietly. That’s the way it felt.”

Still, Mellencamp has been gratified by the early responses to Big Daddy. “It verifies everything that I’ve always thought: When you don’t try so hard, it just turns out better,” he says. “See, I was so afraid when I made records when I was twenty-five years old, thirty years old. I’m not afraid any more. What can you do to me? So you don’t like the record? The record don’t sell? Those things will hurt, but I’ve got a thick motherfucking skin. Afraid of what — making a bad record? I made a hell of a bunch of them. And I made some good ones.”

Our car pulls through the electronic gate that encloses the grounds of John Mellencamp’s house, and a pile of disassembled wooden crates, packing materials, broken screwdrivers and a hammer come into view, littering the ground outside the studio. “Uh-oh,” says Rick Fettig, a large, friendly guy who went to high school with Mellencamp in Seymour, Indiana, and now works as his assistant. “John’s paintings must have arrived, and he couldn’t wait.”

Inside the modest, attractive house, done in muted tones, Mellencamp is admiring five paintings he purchased from a gallery on his recent trip to Chicago. They are propped up in the living room, which is dominated by a large piano, and in the adjacent den, which contains a pool table. Gold and platinum records line one wall of the den, and Mellencamp suggests that they be taken down to make room for art.

Three of the newly acquired paintings are by an artist whom Mellencamp describes as “a forty-year-old hippie girl from Ireland or Wales,” and two are by an eighty-year-old male artist. The woman’s paintings are quiet, romantic and personal — impressionistic scenes of children eating cake at a table with their mother in a country house or of a woman walking through a gorgeously colored field with a young girl. Mellencamp is enthusiastic in his praise of all the paintings, and in his bluff way he wants that enthusiasm shared. Rick and a young woman who also works for Mellencamp seem slightly uncomfortable. They want to participate, and they want to say the right things, but they seem a bit out of their element amid all the art talk.

One of the paintings is meant as a gift for Vicky, who is coming by to see it. As she pulls into the driveway and walks through the door, Mellencamp watches her intently through a window, as if there were something to be learned from the mere sight of her

A slender blonde whose features are, no doubt, as lovely now as when she was a teenager, Vicky looks sad, determined and mildly careworn. Mellencamp’s natural energy and charm are blunted by his desire not to assume too much from the fact of her presence. The playful domestic joke of the sweat shirt Vicky is wearing — THOROUGHBRED SPENDING TEAM, it reads — is almost heartbreaking in this context.

The lines between intimacy and distance have been blurred, and no one quite knows how to act. Mellencamp presents the painting hopefully, and Vicky accepts it graciously. As Mellencamp walks her to her car, they talk, and he puts his arm around her shoulder. The intent of the gesture and its stiffness seem separated by an abyss of unstated emotion.

Asked when he’s alone about the possibility of a reconciliation, Mellencamp says, “Well, I don’t know. I mean, that would be nice, but I have to look at the situation and wonder, if we got back together, what would be different? I don’t want to hurt this woman any more. She doesn’t deserve it.”

The scene at the house and the feelings that churn beneath its surface recall a moment from the day before when Mellencamp pulled out a book of Degas paintings. “When is it ever going to work?” he asked, speaking about the struggles of men and women in relationships as he leafed through the text. “Degas was an artist that had a great understanding of that conflict between man and woman that basically governs our entire living, breathing moment.”

As Mellencamp turned the pages, one scene after the next depicted men and women occupying the same physical space and different emotional worlds. “It’s like the battle of the sexes,” Mellencamp said, looking at one work. “Men taunting women and women taunting men. He painted that as a young man.” He continued to flip through the book, stopping when something caught his eye. “The conflict between man and woman is in every single painting,” he said, stopping again. “I mean, this is a sexually charged situation. This is like …”

He stopped himself, and we both silently stared at the image of a man and woman in a room, neither looking at the other. Then Mellencamp looked up and whispered, “I mean, me and you are going to solve this problem?” Then he broke into laughter.


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