“All right, you wanna have a joke?” John Mellencamp asks. Mellencamp, whose nineteenth record, Cuttin’ Heads was released yesterday, is reflecting on how it all began. “Go back and read the first review ever of my records written in Rolling Stone. Oh man, you’ll go, ‘Why did this guy even continue to make records?'”
In 1976 Mellencamp posed that pride-swallowing question to himself when Chestnut Street Incident — his debut album featuring covers like the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Do You Believe in Magic?,” the Doors’ “Twentieth Century Fox” and Roy Orbison’s “Oh, Pretty Woman” — was credited to one “Johnny Cougar,” the doing of his then manager. “I knew that those records were terrible but I was a twenty-two-year-old kid,” he says. “I’d never really written songs. I’d never been in the studio before. I was in a band and we did cover songs in bars, and the idea of writing songs was really foreign to me. So you know, I think that from my humble beginnings to be able to still be here is a real success story.”
He’s right. Nearly twenty-five years after Johnny Cougar made his debut, John Mellencamp has become an icon for a brand of hard-won success. The prototypical heartland rocker, a label Mellencamp eschews, the Indiana native used his perseverance and self-determination to surpass the expectations of his small town and of his critics to gain commercial success. And while hit singles like, “I Need a Lover” and “Hurts So Good” essentially bought him back his real surname (which he added to his stage name in 1983), mainstream popularity did not garner him the critical credibility he continued to seek. Not satisfied, Mellencamp pushed on; musically, exploring American roots music, and, socially, drawing attention to the struggle of heartland farmers and becoming an outspoken critic of the music industry and corporate America.
His latest release continues in the tradition of the civic-minded singer-songwriter, exploring race issues on the title track with a guest spot from Chuck D, and contemplating a “Peaceful World” by dueting with newcomer and unfailing idealist India.Arie. At fifty, with plenty of album sales and rave reviews to his name, Mellencamp still manages to be the working man’s rock star.
Do you feel like you’re still learning as a songwriter?
I think you never stop learning how to write songs. I never understood guys who said they had a writer’s block. I always thought, “Man, look out your f—ing window. There’s so much to write about.” So, yeah, I think you’re always continually trying to get next to the truth somehow. And it’s hard to shed old clothing, try to find something you haven’t done before, looking around for a different kind of sound — at least not put so much music on the record.
What do you mean by “music”?
There’s so much music on my last few records, I thought. I hear these records on the radio, and I think, “What the f— was I thinking about putting all that music on there?” There’s too many melodies, too many violin parts, too many guitar parts — where’s the melody at? Where’s the melody of the song? Too many drum parts. It’s easy to do today with all these tracks and all the technology. And we’ve been making records so long, and I have such great musicians around me and thousands of ideas and it just seems like a good idea at the moment. If I go back listen to the records that inspired me to get in this in the first place, there’s no music on those records, just some guy’s voice and a guitar, and that’s about it.
So do you listen to your old stuff?
I don’t really listen to my records very much. The only time I hear my records is when they play them on the radio . . . When I finish my paintings I just give ’em away or sell ’em. They don’t really mean anything to me once they’re done. I think it’s the making of them . . . I’m always rolling the rock up the hill. Once you’ve seen the Grand Canyon you’ve seen it — “Ok, let’s get rolling that rock back up the hill.”
There’s a great narrative voice in your lyrics. Is that something you set out to do?
No, never. If they do, then that’s what they do, but I never really sit down to do anything in particular. I always just try to let the song go where it needs to go and not dictate to the song where it needs to go. Let the song kind of have its own space to go on. You really don’t want to get into that “moon,” “spoon,” “June” thing. I really hate hearing songs of mine from the past or anybody’s for that matter when I’ve never heard the song before and I hear the lyric and I know what the lyric is gonna be before it gets there just because they’re gonna use a cliche rhyme.
So how would you describe this record? Sounds like you’re going for a simpler sound.
Simple would indicate people are going to go “one, two, three, four,” now you have to be smart about it. You have to have a performance and you have to do something that’s not so generic and cliche. You know, I hear so many records today that [I think], “I’ve heard this, I’ve heard it a million times. Play something else, play it smart. Turn the beat around, you know, something.” So no, I don’t think it’s simpler. The truth of the matter is it’s much harder and that’s why I worked on this record for months. Because it’s hard to make it sound like a bunch of guys walked in and fell down and played this song. All you got to do is put that in your own life. Every time you think something’s going to be a walk in the park, it’s brain damage. That’s the way everything is. Anything appeared that it just kind of fell off the log, that didn’t happen.
So what do you listen to now to inspire you? Is it some of the same music you listened to when you were starting out?
Oh sure. I mean I suppose I sound silly saying this, but that’s when rock music was a person’s life. It’s not like it is now. Music really meant something back then, and there was a lot of optimism about what music could do and how it could change things that were reflected in the songs of the time and by the people listening to the songs of the time. I have teenage daughters and these girls they don’t give a s—. As long as they think the song’s cute in the moment, that’s all they care about.
Any concerns about putting out an album right now with music leaning towards pop and rock/rap?
I don’t really know what the future will hold for music, so the only thing I can do is not concern myself with trends. And, you know, what’s on the radio now, you’re really talking about money there. That’s money songs. There’s nothing wrong with money songs. I think they’re OK. Somebody’s gotta make money . . . My wife said it to me ten years ago. When I dropped out of the music business for awhile, I was confused when I came back and all this new music and rap and stuff, and she just looked at me and said, “John, you’re a pair of blue jeans. Stay a pair of blue jeans. Jeans will come in and go out and you wear ’em sometimes, but they’re always comfortable.” So that’s pretty much sound advice. I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve been making records twenty-five years. How many people can say that they’ve been able to do that? But it’s my nineteenth album, godd—!
So where did the album title come from?
Cuttin’ heads is what the old blues guys used to do to each other. On a weekend or a hot summer night, they would get on a street corner and start playing. And down the block would be another blues guy playing for change, and whoever drew the crowd would be the winner, and they called it cuttin’ heads. Sometimes you’d get down in a town, I guess in Mississippi and there’d be seven guys on the street playing, each trying to outdo the other guy. Robert Johnson was the king of cuttin’ heads. He always cut everybody’s head ’cause when Robert Johnson showed up everybody was [saying], “F— that guy! We quit. He’s gonna get the crowd.” It’s really kind of one-upmanship.
So, in titling the record that, are you throwing down the gauntlet and saying, “This is what a rock & roll record is supposed to be.”
Well, I hope that’s what I’m making. It’s really hard though when you know the industry. This music today is being made from the top down, and that’s not the way music is intended to be made. Music that I enjoyed and grew up listening to came from the street, from the gutter: Robert Johnson, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones — they were all playing songs from the street, all black songs. That’s why I always loved black people so much, ’cause, man, they gave me every f—ing thing. They gave me this music to listen to. The music today is made by these guys sitting up there, my age, saying, “Wouldn’t it be good if this girl looked this way and did this kind of ad.” And that’s OK, but it can’t be all that there is. My gut feeling is that maybe rock’s dead now, I don’t know, because it’s been here so long and money is so important. I mean, as long as I’ve been in the music business, I’ve never seen money be so premier in music or in movies. I mean, the movies, you’ve got one week to open big, and if you don’t the movie is a flop. The music business is becoming the same way. And they all want to enter high . . . When I was a kid, the East Coast was quite a bit different than the West Coast, and the Midwest was different too. People looked different, they spoke differently, the South had it’s own image, people from Boston looked and sounded differently. Now, you know, it’s all pretty Gap. I think it’s funny that myself and my kids — I have a seven-year-old boy and a six-year-old boy — these f—ing guys dress just like me. I mean, that’s ridiculous isn’t it? [Laughs] It’s funny. When I was a kid, I didn’t look nothing like my dad. He had a whole different set of clothes that he wore, but we all look the same. We all watch CNN, we all watch the Weather Channel, we’re all from the same town now, and I think it’s sad. You know, I’ve been yelling about this since I’ve been making records: Corporations are absolutely going to steal our identity. And it’s happening.
Do you think you’ve been able to maintain your identity, even though you’ve been on big labels?
Not really, because I have forever been cast to the idea of a Midwestern rocker. I don’t know what the f— that is. Is that REO Speedwagon? I don’t know. I’m from the Midwest. Bob Seger is from the Midwest, Dylan is from the Midwest, are we all Midwestern rockers? I don’t get it. So it’s hard to have an identity, I think. I feel lucky that people even remember my name, to be honest.