John Mellencamp: My Life in 15 Songs - Rolling Stone
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John Mellencamp: My Life in 15 Songs

He’s had one of the greatest careers in pop and rock, and hated almost every minute of it

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John Mellencamp lives in a lakefront mansion at the edge of a wooded 65-acre estate outside Bloomington, Indiana. It has felt bigger since he split with his wife, Elaine Irwin, in 2010, and his two youngest children, Hud, 19, and Speck, 18, took off for college. "Some nights it's weird," Mellencamp says. "I used to walk into my house and I could always go, 'Who loves their dad?' And throughout the house I'd hear Elaine go, 'I do!' Then I heard Hud go, 'I do!' and then Speck, 'I do!' It was this greeting that I always had. I walk in now sometimes and go, 'Who loves their dad?' Nothin'."

Moving to New York to be with his girlfriend, Meg Ryan, would solve the empty-nest problem, but Mellencamp says that's out of the question. "I'm too sensitive to live there," he says. "I can't see poor people. I can't see the suffering. I can't see the trash on the streets." There's also the big-city paparazzi, who trail the couple. "I don't give a fuck about me, but I don't like it for [Ryan]," he says. "I'm not leaving Indiana. I'm going to die here."

These days, Mellencamp, 62, spends much of his time in a large, bright room over a barn, painting. "I get up at 8:00, I have breakfast, I go to the art studio, and I don't come out until dark," he says. He's 86 hours into a giant picture of Ryan and her friend Laura Dern, but he's not quite sure it's finished. In the painting, Ryan is wearing red clown makeup, and both are wearing white dresses, under the words the stardust sisters. Says Mellencamp, "I wanted to turn them into the kind of girls you would find dancing at the Savoy in 1931."

He's also writing songs for his 20th studio album, which he'll begin recording with T Bone Burnett in January. And on December 10th, he is releasing a massive box set containing 19 of his albums. "Before CDs totally go away," he says, "I wanted to make sure that people who were fans of John Mellencamp could go, 'OK, I've got every fuckin' record he's made.'"

Mellencamp took that excuse to tell the stories behind 15 key songs from his career, opening up about his life and art in a way he never has before.

By Andy Greene

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“I Need a Lover”

John Cougar, 1979

I went to New York in 1976. It was my first time in an airplane. I would have signed anything – I would have signed the bottom of a shoe. I ended up signing with Tony DeFries [who famously managed David Bowie]. He gave me a choice: "Record under the name Johnny Cougar or move back to Indiana." He also paid off my college loans. I was like, "Are you shitting me?" I didn't realize he was going to charge me back.

I knew that if I wanted to continue in the music business, I had to get on the radio. It wasn't like I had the support of critics – my first Rolling Stone review said something like, "This guy is a phony, picked out of central casting." But I knew if I delivered a song that could get on the radio, I had a shot.

By the time of "I Need a Lover," I had three albums out. They sold nothing. We were recording in Miami at the same time that the Eagles were finishing up Hotel California. I would walk by and hear "Life in the Fast Lane," go back into my session and hear, "I need a lover that won't . . ." I'd be like, "Oh, fuck. I don't know what I'm doing here."

I was washed up and over by my midtwenties. Then two record producers named Chinn and Chapman heard "I Need a Lover," and they had Pat Benatar sing it. It was her first big hit, and then mine went to Number One in Australia. It became a semihit in America, and it let me make another album.

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“Jack and Diane”

American Fool, 1982

It was 1980, and I was down in Miami again, making a record. We had spent $300,000, and I had three songs done. The record company was not happy. Finally the president of the company came down and was like, "You're spending money like crazy!" He went nuts. The three songs were "Jack & Diane," "Hurts So Good" and "Hand to Hold On To." He hated them. Hated them! He said, "We expect you to become the next Neil Diamond. What is this shit?"

"Jack & Diane" was originally about race. I was playing nightclubs and I was seeing new American couples, mixed-race couples. I thought it was cool. The song was my effort to make a song about that, but of course the record-company guy didn't like it. He said, "Maybe if you put some horns on this song and really build the chorus up, then maybe you have a shot. But take the race thing out."

I took his advice and made Jack a football star. I think people, particularly in the Midwest, really identified with these characters. I can't tell you how many people have come up to me and said, "I'm Jack and I'm Diane. You wrote about my life." To me, that's a successful song.

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“Crumblin’ Down”

Uh-Huh, 1983

Radio was my friend after "Jack & Diane" and "Hurts So Good." I was coming off this huge fucking record, but it wasn't a good one. Very uneven. My task with Uh-Huh was to make a more even record and get away from juvenile topics like "Hurts So Good." But I also knew if I wanted to continue, I had to have more hits.

"Crumblin' Down" is a very political song that I wrote with my childhood friend George Green. Reagan was president – he was deregulating everything and the walls were crumbling down on the poor. The song was the last one recorded and the first single. It was a hit immediately. I felt like I was pulling the wool over everyone's eyes.

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“Pink Houses”

Uh-Huh, 1983

I was driving through Indianapolis on Interstate 65 and I saw a black man holding either a cat or a dog. He was sitting on his front lawn in front of a pink house in one of those shitty, cheap lawn chairs. I thought, "Wow, is this what life can lead to? Watching the fuckin' cars go by on the interstate?" Then I imagined he wasn't isolated, but he was happy. So I went with that positive route when I wrote this song.

This one has been misconstrued over the years because of the chorus – it sounds very rah-rah. But it's really an anti-American song. The American dream had pretty much proven itself as not working anymore. It was another way for me to sneak something in.

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“Small Town”

Scarecrow, 1985

"Small Town" reflected conversations that I heard in the music business. I had a stuttering problem, and my accent, and people would say, "You talk funny." I would think, "You're the one with the New York accent." In interviews people would ask, "Do people in Bloomington even have MTV? Do they have CNN?"

I wanted to write a song that said, "You don't have to live in New York or Los Angeles to live a full life or enjoy your life." I was never one of those guys that grew up and thought, "I need to get out of here." It never dawned on me. I just valued having a family and staying close to friends.

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“Rain on the Scarecrow”

Scarecrow, 1985

I wrote this one with George Green too. Our songs always came about the same way: talk around the kitchen table. I had just played "Small Town" for him. He said, "I don't know why these towns are going out of business" – towns like Freetown and Dudleytown, Indiana. We couldn't figure out why they were disappearing. We did our research and wrote this song – Reagan had been using grain against the Soviet Union and all sorts of other things. Talking to people was heartbreaking. Nobody wanted to lose their farm.

Around this time the press started calling me a "heartland rocker." I never really knew what that term meant. I never took offense, but I didn't like it either. It's a foolish pigeonhole to put somebody in. On the bright side, I'd rather be a successful heartland rocker than a guy that pours concrete.

Al Pereira/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

“Between a Laugh and a Tear”

Scarecrow, 1985

There's a great line in this song: "I know there's a balance/I see it when I swing past." I suffered severely from panic disorders and anxiety around this time. Still do. I'm also very excitable and get angry very quickly. This was the peak of my success, but I didn't enjoy any of it.

I blame it on the fact that I was born with spina bifida. I had one of the first successful operations for it in the world. It meant I had a hole in my spine and all my nerve endings were on the outside of my body. They were all exposed to air, so it's no wonder I go up and down so quickly.

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“Paper in Fire”

The Lonesome Jubilee, 1987

After Scarecrow, the critics all kinda went, "Whoa, now we gotta pay attention to this guy." I think "Paper in Fire" is the ultimate John Mellencamp song. I wasn't trying to be on the radio anymore. Radio was on my side. There wasn't any Woody Guthrie influence. There wasn't any Rolling Stones influence. There wasn't a Bob Dylan influence. I made the decision, much to everyone's dismay, to use violins and accordions, and incorporate an Appalachian sound of original country. I tried to figure out how to make that work in rock & roll. And then after I did that, there were thousands of fuckin' bands with accordions and violins.

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“Pop Singer”

Big Daddy, 1989

This song is me realizing what kind of monster I'd created. I was going through a divorce [with second wife Victoria Granucci], and I was questioning the validity and the importance of music. Things were changing. Everybody was having to kiss everybody's ass. If you want to be on MTV, then come here and do this. All these backroom deals were getting made. I was like, "I don't want any part of this."

In the song, I write, "Never wanted to be no pop singer/Never wanted to write no pop songs." I didn't want to go over to the radio station and play their Christmas party. I couldn't play that game. People went nuts on me after that record came out. "You're an ungrateful fucker! Rock & roll provided you with such a great life!" I understood what they were saying, but they didn't understand what was happening behind the scenes.

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“Jackie Brown”

Big Daddy, 1989

After the divorce went through, my wife took my two little kids and moved away from Indiana, which she was allowed to do because I didn't contest it. I had a family, and all of a sudden I didn't. I had just done the Lonesome Jubilee tour, it was the biggest, most successful tour in the country that year, and it meant nothing to me. I was grateful that people liked the songs, but I felt like a monkey on a string. We did 190 shows, and it was like, "Oh, let's get out there and give them one more rousing chorus of 'Pink Houses.'" I was like a cheerleader, and I didn't like it.

I wrote "Jackie Brown" about myself in a different scenario: me disguised as a poor guy – not as a guy that had been successful and pretty much lost everything, which in my mind I had, because I'd lost my daughters. The song is about how you have to go outside to use the bathroom because you've sunk so low.

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“Love and Happiness”

Whenever We Wanted, 1991

In the 1990s, I was trying to do as little as I could. My records were paint-by-numbers – when I first made this list, I didn't pick a single song from the 1990s. I really had lost my taste for the music business and songwriting. Then all this grunge music started happening, and I thought, "This is what the next generation is doing. Let these fucking guys do it." But I still had these record deals. I tried to get out of them, and they wouldn't let me leave. I really felt like Prince – I was a slave.

But this song I like. With "Love and Happiness" I turned back to folk songs. We were dropping our bombs on the Southern Hemisphere, and people there were starving. It was an indictment of our culture. It was another song about the politics of shoving people around. I know it has the same title as the Al Green song, but at that point I didn't give a fuck.

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“Peaceful World”

Cuttin' Heads, 2001

I signed to Columbia at this point against my better judgment. On "Peaceful World," I brought in India.Arie to sing on it. I won't mention any names, but when this song was delivered to Columbia, one of the executives said, "Why does Mellencamp always have a fuckin' nigger singing with him?" My manager came back and told me that, and I was like, "Get me off this fucking label. I don't give a shit. Get me off Columbia right now."

The song came out one month before 9/11. The New York Times said it could become the "Imagine" of our generation.

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“Troubled Land”

Life, Death, Love and Freedom, 2008

I'm not going to name names, but some bands just make up their songs in the studio. That's what I did in the 1990s. For Freedom's Road and this album, I wrote acoustically, just me and a guitar. If a song works like that, it should work if I get the right arrangement with the band. This was the first record I made with T Bone Burnett. I put a lot of music on my records, but he's a minimalist. He was like, "[Sighs] You don't need this part, that part. . . . Let's take this background vocal off."

"Troubled Land" was a very easy song to write. Any liberal can relate. I was speaking for a certain silent generation at the end of Bush's eight years. We were all exhausted and couldn't believe what was coming next.

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“If I Die Sudden”

Life, Death, Love and Freedom, 2008

I don't like to talk about it, but my best friends in the whole world – Mark Ripley, Tim White, Jay Nicholson and George Green – all died around that same time. I used to talk to [Billboard editor] Tim White every single day. I used to talk to Mark every single day. Then my grandmother died and my mother died. I saw everybody I love just disappear. "If I Die Sudden" is kind of an instructional thing, about what to do and not do when I die. I had an uncle that said the same exact thing. The song is also in honor of all those people.

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“No One Cares About Me”

No Better Than This, 2010

Feeling sorry for yourself is a number-one pastime here in America. This song is a bunch of little vignettes about why nobody cares about this guy, but at the end, it's that he really doesn't care about himself. I was feeling that way in the moment, so the song is really about me.

At this point, though, I hate people knowing where I am. I had to get a cellphone after I divorced Elaine, but I don't like people being able to get hold of me. I've been around so many people for so long that I take great delight in my own company.

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