John Cougar Mellencamp had every right to be angry. Nearly 20,000 fans had paid $17.50 a ticket to see the small-town boy play the biggest room in New York, Madison Square Garden. And on this, one of the most important nights of his career, his expensive, highly sophisticated sound system went kaput not once but twice, thanks to a faulty fifty-dollar circuit breaker.
But Mellencamp didn’t blow any fuses. He didn’t throw drummer Kenny Aronoff’s kit into the crowd the way he did during a legendary tantrum at a London, Ontario, concert in 1982. He didn’t storm offstage muttering obscenities, like he did that same year during an on-camera fracas with a CBS News interviewer. The thirty-four-year-old Indiana singer just sat in his dressing room until the sound problem was solved and then returned to the stage, where he told the crowd, “I feel so bad about this that if you got your ticket stub, you got your money back.” He sweetened the deal by playing for another two hours, venting his anger through ferocious renditions of his biggest hits and a long medley of Sixties nuggets. (Financially, he stood to lose nearly $350,000 from his refund offer, but only half the fans returned their tickets.)
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“If this had happened to me five years ago, I would probably have passed out,” Mellencamp said, laughing, a few days after the December 6th concert. “There would have been so much blood rushing to my head, I would have just blacked out.” But this is a different John Cougar Mellencamp from the bantamweight hothead who topped the charts in 1982 with “Jack and Diane” and had the biggest-selling album of that year with the cynically titled American Fool. Cursed with a corny stage name given to him by his first manager, former Bowie svengali Tony DeFries, he was a man who loved to hate – his record company, the critics who dismissed him as a minor-league Springsteen, even his own songs.
“If you’d come in here then, I wouldn’t have wanted to like you. It was safe for me. ‘This guy might not like me, so I’m going to not-like him first.’ It’s a real juvenile way of thinking, but that’s the way I functioned in my life for years.”
“I don’t think he enjoys that emotion anymore,” says guitarist Larry Crane, who has played with Mellencamp for almost fifteen years. “He liked the rush of getting angry, but not anymore. If something’s not right at a sound check, John will look at me and say, ‘Aw, do I really have to get mad at somebody today?”‘ Indeed, considering his reputation, Mellencamp was unexpectedly relaxed and thoughtful during the two sessions for this interview, backstage in Binghamton, New York, and in his Manhattan hotel suite.
Sobered by success (Scarecrow is his third straight platinum LP), Mellencamp has replaced the chip on his shoulder with the weight of private and public responsibility. Instead of relocating to a superstar community like New York or Los Angeles, he stays in Indiana, where he keeps tight with relatives, old school buddies and biker pals. He turned down an offer to play at Live Aid – “Concerts that just raise money aren’t a good idea” – but he has devoted much of his nonmusical energy to publicizing the plight of American farmers. He helped organize the September 22nd Farm Aid concert with Willie Nelson and Neil Young, and in his own shows he asks fans to write to their congressmen demanding legislative action.
“Yeah, John Mellencamp has a history of being the biggest joke in rock & roll, right?” he snaps. “But you can’t take away the fact that as far as what’s going on right now, I care about it.”
Born in Seymour, Indiana (population 15,050), on October 7th, 1951, the second of five children, John Mellencamp wanted to be a rock & roller in the worst way, and that’s exactly why he made it. He scuffled through a series of hard-luck bar bands, including a glitter-rock outfit with Larry Crane called Trash, which played only four gigs over a whole year. In 1976, Tony DeFries hyped him as a Bowie-Springsteen hybrid called Johnny Cougar, a transparent hustle (made worse by a limp debut LP, Chestnut Street Incident) that poisoned Mellencamp’s image for years. Even after he signed with Rod Stewart’s then-manager Billy Gaff, the going was rough. Larry Crane remembers one gig the Cougar band played on a 1978 U.K. tour in a broken-down soccer stadium – under the bleachers. “We were in a room that was like a refreshment stand. You wonder why John was miserable then?”
The no-frills American Fool, which contained the first hints of his garage-rock instincts along with plenty of Springsteen-Petty–Seger references, pulled Mellencamp sharply out of his commercial nose dive. For his 1983 LP, Uh-huh, Mellencamp wrote his bittersweet state-of-the-nation address, “Pink Houses,” and machine-gunned the tunes to tape in little more than two weeks. But on Scarecrow, his equation of the farm crisis with the general deterioration of the American Dream, Mellencamp comes much close to his dream fusion of lyric commitment and Sixties energy. He actually had his four-piece band prep for the sessions by learning a hundred old Sixties hits note for note, from Lou Christie and Four Seasons records to Beach Boys classics and even “Talk Talk,” by the Music Machine. “I thought he was giving us busywork,” confesses bassist Toby Myers, “but he wanted us to understand what made those songs tick so we could put some of that grit into his songs.”
When he isn’t on the road or lobbying for Farm Aid, Mellencamp lives on twenty-three acres in Bloomington, Indiana, with his second wife, Vicky, and his three daughters – Michelle, 15 (by his first wife, Priscilla); Teddy Jo, 3; and Justice, who arrived less than six months ago. Their home is a spacious old Cape Cod-style house renovated by John and Vicky two years ago – a modest luxury paid for in full with a decade’s sweat and pain, no matter what you might think of his art. During a recent video shoot, a technician stood on Mellencamp’s porch and muttered sarcastically, “Okay, little pink houses for you and me.” Mellencamp turned to him and said, “Listen, pal, don’t you pass judgment on me until you’ve walked a mile in these shoes.”
Your latest stage show is a lot like a Bruce Springsteen concert. There’s no opening act, you perform for nearly three hours, and you include several Sixties covers in the set. After so much Brucemania, weren’t you worried about the comparisons?
I didn’t even think about the Springsteen comparison. What Springsteen does is a marathon. What we do is a sprint. But I’m becoming convinced that the comparison is good. I feel like I’m giving something back to the people, and if Springsteen is doing that too, well, great. If rock & roll took a bigger cue from what he’s doing and what I’m doing, I think rock & roll, at least in the arenas, would be better for it.
Yet for years you were crucified by critics as a pale echo of Springsteen, an AOR hack ripping off Bob Seger and Tom Petty as well.
I had never even seen Springsteen perform live until last December in Indianapolis. I remember saying to one magazine, “I can’t wait until I meet Bruce Springsteen so I can tell him what a problem he’s been for me.” So when I met him at that show, I told him. He acted like he was my big brother, which was nice. He said he really liked “Pink Houses.” And I said, “Well, I stole it all from you.” We laughed and shook hands.
Somebody once said to me, “When Jon Landau said he saw the future of rock & roll in Bruce, he was right.” Look at all these guys who do the exact same fucking thing. Me, Petty, Seger, a whole bunch of us who are American singer/songwriters. We’re all the same age, we all listened to the same music. What do people expect?
When you were getting off the tour bus the other day, you shouted, “Look out, Binghamton, here we come, the second-best rock band in the world!” How much of that is really self-doubt, not just kidding around?
I know I can do better than I’m doing.
Talent! Some people are born with it. Some people have to work at it. In school, I had to work my ass off just to get C’s. I flunked sophomore English in high school three times. I’m not a poet.
Take “Jack and Diane.” I was so disgusted with people thinking the line “Hold on to sixteen as long as you can” meant to stay a teenager forever. What I meant was keep doing whatever makes you feel alive. I could have put any number in there: “Hold on to ninety-nine.” Then I realized I shouldn’t be disgusted with those people because that’s the signal I was sending out. That song taught me a lesson, that you can connect with a line – “Life goes on/Long after the thrill of living is gone” – and, in the same song, lose it with “Hold on to sixteen” because I didn’t write what I was thinking.
What were you thinking when you wrote “Pink Houses”?
I was just a reporter. A black guy was sitting in front of a pink house, and that’s all there was to it. It was at a highway interchange in Indianapolis. We were on an overpass. I looked down and saw this old man, early in the morning, sitting on the porch of his pink shack with a cat in his arms. He waved, and I waved back. That’s how the song started.
I wasn’t that happy with the ending of “Pink Houses”: “And there’s winners and there’s losers/But they ain’t no big deal/Because the simple man, baby, pays for the thrills, the bills, the pills that kill.” Kind of negative, isn’t it? I could have put more thought into it. But I wrote that song in about as much time as it takes to play it. I sat down with a tape machine, described the black man and never stopped.
Do you write all your songs that quickly?
I used to write a lot of songs like that. We had an exercise in speech class in school, impromptu speaking, that I was always real good at. And I used to sit around with hippies – we were all stoned – and make up funny songs about anybody who might be in the room: “Look at David/He’s falling off his chair/He’s got slobber in his hair.” I’d just go on like Dylan. I used to be good at doing that.
But with Scarecrow, I typed out the lyrics. I never used a typewriter before. I used to just write them down on a piece of paper and never change them. I thought, this is the spirit of the song, that’s the way it’s going to stay. But with this record, I typed and rewrote, typed and rewrote.
In 1982, you described your own songs as “real insignificant bullshit.” Did you honestly believe that?
A few years ago, it was hard for me to accept the responsiblity that I had to all these people buying my records. I couldn’t believe it when people said, “You’ve got kids copying you.” Now I understand that it’s true. When I say kids, I don’t mean fourteen-year-olds. I’m talking about nineteen- and twenty-year-old guys who see me as some sort of role model. They know I’ve come from the dregs of rock & roll to where I am now.
“Jack and Diane” was a significant step. I was arguing until I was blue in the face that I didn’t mean any-thing by that song, that I didn’t take my songs seriously, and every night I’d have 10,000 kids tell me the opposite by the looks on their faces and the way they reacted. They were sending the message loud and clear.
On Scarecrow, you have made a serious attempt to write about significant issues, like the farm crisis in “Rain on the Scarecrow.” Why did you hold back for so long?
I’ve always been issue oriented. In the Sixties, I wore a black armband in high school, and I was at the Vietnam War moratoriums in Washington D.C. I was there cheering. But I never wrote songs like that because I felt, until recently, that it was too pretentious. When I think of the Sixties songs that I liked, they were never politically or socially oriented. For a long time I thought, as far as my career goes, it would have been ridiculous for me to make a record and talk about anything other than “Hurts So Good.” People just didn’t see me that way. I didn’t think anybody would take it seriously.
Now you seem to be sending out mixed signals. Songs like “The Face of the Nation” on Scarecrow and “Pink Houses’ are antinational anthems describing the erosion of the American Dream. Yet at your show in Binghamton the other night, two girls in the audience unfurled an American flag and waved it back and forth during the “Ain’t that America” in “Pink Houses.”
I’ve had people throw American flags onstage. But I don’t need that false rah-rah. The reason the audience does it is because they want to relate to me. And they think this is one thing we have in common.
President Reagan also reportedly expressed interest In using “Pink Houses” as a campaign theme.
That got blown out of proportion. One of his aides knew my West Coast attorney. He asked if we would be interested in having Reagan hear “Pink Houses,” and we just said no. He asked why, and we said, “None of your business.” It was a one-day conversation and a fifteen-minute laugh.
How would you describe your political position?
My politics are pretty much what they taught us in fifth-grade history, the old values, the very nuggets of this society. When a guy comes on my TV and tells me he’s going to do something for me if I vote for him, he better fucking do it. Because if he doesn’t, he’s a liar and a manipulator.
When was the last time you voted?
I’ve never voted. I’ve never registered to vote. But I will this time.
Why didn’t you vote?
Same thing most Americans say: I don’t make a difference. I don’t matter. I realize now that I do. Until now, who would I vote for? Mondale or Reagan? But I never thought about this local legislator who’s going to make a difference in Bloomington, Indiana.
You were very active in Farm Aid, even though you don’t come from a farming family. How did you become so concerned about the farm problem?
My grandfather was a carpenter. His father was a farmer. See, farming is not really in my family, but my younger sister married into a big farming family in Dudleytown. Let’s take Mark, her husband. He works eighteen hours a day. Last year, he mathematically figured out how much money he made. His wage was $1.15 an hour. And he’s got hundreds of hogs. Here’s a twenty-eight-year-old kid who has a very heavy debt hanging over his head. I know he’s scared to death of that. He doesn’t sleep at night worrying about it. That’s my understanding of farming, my friends, the guys I went to high school with. There was one kid whose parents had a huge chicken farm. He works in a grocery store now. He’s not the same guy he was after his family went out of business.
That song “Rain on the Scarecrow” came from months of table talk about the farm problems and seeing it on television. All George Green [Mellencamp’s frequent lyricist] and I did was act as reporters on that song. The “ninety-seven crosses” was straight out of the news. Every time a farm foreclosure would take place in a certain state, they planted a cross in the courthouse yard.
What did you say to Willie Nelson when he asked you to help plan and promote the Farm Aid concert?
I talked about no corporate sponsorship. I talked about low ticket prices for the concert. I talked about not making this a concert for the rich. I said, upfront, my education on this is limited. I’ll help because I know a lot of people in rock bands. But I didn’t want to get into a situation where people would be asking me about what happened to the money for Farm Aid. I told Willie, “I don’t want to know about this money. It’s not why I’m doing it.”
Probably the biggest problem with Farm Aid – besides coming so soon after the spectacular success of Live Aid – was the confusion over exactly what people were being asked for. Was it money? Political action? Or simple understanding?
Live Aid appealed to people’s emotions. Farm Aid tried to appeal to logic. What were we going to show? We couldn’t show our problem as vividly as Bob Geldof could. He was talking about starving individuals. It was easy to show a baby with flies all over its face. We couldn’t appeal to people emotionally. It’s such a logical business transaction that’s going on with these people. You goddamn near need a legal pad and a computer to figure it out.
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.
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.
Have you been offered other movie roles?
You name it – from the silliest to ones so serious. Like, “Hey, John, why don’t you come and be a singer in this movie?” You know the cliché. This guy’s in a band, and he’s a rebel.
What about the serious ones?
Real dark roles. I get knifed in the neck with a fork in one of them. Finally, I told people, you want me to be in a movie? I’ll write my own.
The reality is I’d probably make a better actor than anything else because I am so emotional. But right now I’m a singer. I’m just starting to catch on to doing that.
If you weren’t in the music business, what do you think you would be doing now in Indiana?
I’d be a construction worker. Other than this, that’s all I know. I also know how to saw wood and nail it together because Grandpa taught me. He always let me work for him in the summer. He’d pay me ten dollars a day. I did that until damn near when I got married. Even though I was a lazy, lousy worker, he’d still let me work for him.
With all the money you’ve made in rock & roll, you could live anywhere in the world. Why do you choose to stay In Indiana?
The reality is I’m not interested in any place else. All my friends are there.
What do you do when you’re home?
I see a few people that I know, family, friends. I never go out. George Green and I sit in my kitchen, drink tea, smoke cigarettes and talk about the world.
Whenever I go to another city, I’m there to work. I’m not there to shop or see the sights or go to bars. I’m there to play a concert. My world is in Indiana and this, here, is what I do for a living. I wish I could do it better sometimes than I do. That’s the same as anybody that cares about their job. Imagine, if all of a sudden I said, “Thank you very much. ‘Pink Houses’ is the best song I can write. I’m just gonna write a whole bunch of songs like ‘Pink Houses.”‘ What if I said that about “Hurts So Good”? You writers would have lost your minds reviewing those songs. You would have run out of shit to say about me.
Even people that don’t like me realize that I could be safe. I could do just what I know how to do and rake in the money. They have to say, “God, he did it without us, he did it without record-company support, and he did it on a minimum amount of talent. You gotta hand it to the guy.”