John Mellencamp: Bad to the Bone - Rolling Stone
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John Mellencamp: Bad to the Bone

The rocker strips down to fighting trim on ‘Naked Dance’

John Mellencamp

John Mellencamp, January 24th, 1995.

Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic/Getty

It’s raining, it’s nighttime, and it’s December in southern Indiana. Under the big, black, wet sky, Lisa Germano, master of all stringed instruments, and her then boyfriend, producer Malcolm Burn, are driving out of Bloomington down the road to John Mellencamp’s studio, in Belmont. Right now, what Mellencamp thinks he’s doing is recording six or eight new songs for a three-disc career anthology to be called Nothing Like We Planned. Little does he know how apt that title would prove.

A true daughter of Italy, Germano had whipped up a pasta and red-wine dinner at her house on a 90-minute meal break from one of the sessions that would lead not to a backward-looking retrospective but to Mellencamp’s latest album, the very in-the-present Dance Naked.

Our post-dinner dreaminess takes on an otherworldly air as the rain pours, fog curtains the landscape, and Pink Floyd’s “Interstellar Overdrive” floats out of the car speakers. Syd Barrett has been one of Burn’s obsessions of late, and we’re in complete emotional union with the song’s spooky ebbs and surges, hoping we don’t arrive at the studio before the musical trip ends. We don’t.

Back on earth, the mood in the studio when we do get there is tense. The day’s work has not gone well — at least by Mellencamp’s rigorous and highly personal standards. That morning he’d brought in a tape he had made of a song tentatively called “Don’t Want to Live Scared”; it would eventually become the ironically titled “Another Sunny Day 12/25” on Dance Naked. It was the first time the band had heard it.

“This is played at a lot slower tempo than we’re going to record it at,” Mellencamp says before letting the tape spin. “I’m going to have to learn how to play this song again, because I wrote it so long ago, I don’t remember.” The performance on the tape — Mellencamp singing in a kind of slurred folk croon over his own rudimentary acoustic-guitar strumming — is stark, chilling in the manner of songs like “The Ballad of Hollis Brown,” early Dylan at his grimmest. It is so blunt and concise an expression of stoic faith — or is that despair? — that it’s hard to imagine how it could be successfully embellished.

By evening, though, the song has strangely transformed into something of a gospel rave-up with layers of background vocals and percussion (some played on a tin Charles Chips can), a modified hip-hop drumbeat, keyboards, an electronic zither and an extended feedback-laden guitar solo. It is an exciting evolution to witness, but with each additional element, Mellencamp seems to lose his vision of where the song should be heading, what it really is about.

At one point the proceedings get so confused that a take of the chorus that Mellencamp wants to keep gets erased. He bets Germano and guitarist Jimmy Ryser (who was sitting in to replace David Grissom after he left the band to pursue a solo career) $50 each that the part could be found. When Germano walks in after dinner, Mellencamp takes out a $100 bill, rips it in two and hands half to her and half to Ryser. Everyone laughs, but the message is clear that Mellencamp, who doesn’t like to lose or be proven wrong, isn’t happy with the way things are going. “Fuck my ass, I can’t believe it,” he says, exasperated. “There was nobody driving this goddamn boat.”

In search of perspective earlier that afternoon, Mellencamp had asked Germano to call Burn, who had co-produced Mellencamp’s 1993 album Human Wheels, to see if he felt like dropping by the session. As Germano held the phone to her ear, waiting for Burn to pick up, Mellencamp shook his head sadly and looked at her with a sly grin, saying, “Just back in town and Malcolm’s already out fuckin’ around. Can you believe that?” Germano rolled her eyes, and when Burn finally answered, Mellencamp grabbed the phone.

“Malcolm, what are you doin’, man?” Mellencamp said. “We’re making a fuckin’ record out here. Come on out — we need some free help. What’s the name of the song? It doesn’t have a name. Get your ass out here — we need your vibe. We need somebody to pick on.”

“Malcolm, they’ve got me tied up!” Germano screamed in the background. “She made me do it,” Mellencamp said. “Get your ass out here. OK. See you later on.”

So after dinner, Burn, a tall, lean, quiet sort who seems alternately dazed and amused by Mellencamp’s characteristic bluster, slumps on a couch as Mellencamp and the band try to pull the track together. Suddenly, Mellencamp turns to him during a playback and asks, “Is this beginning to sound too produced?”

Burn shrugs and starts to frame a suitably noncommittal reply, but Mellencamp senses what’s up. “You think it is, you cocksucker, you just won’t say so,” he says, joking but edgy in the way people get when their own dark suspicions have been confirmed. “I feel like Peter Gabriel or something.” In Mellencamp’s world, art-rock references are invariably negative, the epitome of self-conscious artiness, of everything rock & roll should not be. After he learns that we’d been listening to Pink Floyd on the way to the studio, he repeatedly expresses his dissatisfaction with the track he’s working on by saying how much it reminds him of “Another Brick in the Wall.”

And since no one escapes the lash, Mellencamp marks one especially frustrating moment by sighing philosophically and saying, “Well, as long as it falls into that Firefall category.” He pauses, draws on one of his ever-present cigarettes and looks over at me. “Firefall — wasn’t that Rolling Stone‘s Band of the Year a few years back?”

Five months later, a far more relaxed John Mellencamp kicks back in his sumptuous beach house, in the posh resort town of Hilton Head, S.C. Beyond the patio area and the pool are a short stretch of soft sand and the Atlantic Ocean. Further contributing to the serenity of the scene is Mellencamp’s wife, his third, 24-year-old model Elaine Irwin. Irwin’s extraordinary beauty is not so much stunning as calming: Looking at her face, you can’t help but feel better about the world. Not as serene but an equally powerful presence is Mellencamp and Irwin’s newborn son, Hud — guess which parent picked the name — the 42-year-old singer’s fourth child and first boy.

“It’s gonna be a boy,” Mellencamp had announced proudly back in December, having just returned from a visit to the doctor with the pregnant Irwin. “I saw his dick. I said, “I recognize that part.'” Happy will probably never be a word that leaps to one’s lips to describe Mellencamp, but in this setting he seems as close to contentment as he is likely to let himself get.

And nobody — not even the singer at his most acerbic — is drawing comparisons between Dance Naked and the songs of Firefall. As lean an album as you will encounter in the digital age, its nine songs — recorded in two weeks, clocking in at a shade over 30 minutes — are all but unfinished. The mixes are essentially nonexistent; some tunes don’t even include bass parts; and the emotions the songs capture are fleeting evocations of passion, not attempts at grand, eternal statements.

“Another Sunny Day 12/25” is back to being a virtual folk song, with subtle guitars and percussion the only adornments to the arrangement on Mellencamp’s original homemade tape. “When you were there, you saw guys beating their heads against the wall, trying to get an arrangement on a song that really didn’t need one,” Mellencamp says while seated behind a desk in an upstairs study at the beach house. “We spent two days on that song, and I went back and listened to it a week later and thought, ‘What the fuck is this?’ The song could stand on its own. That was it.”

If the title Dance Naked captures the freedom Mellencamp felt while stripping his music down to its essence, the album’s cover art — a nude male body wrapped in barbed wire and struggling to free itself — suggests that the process was not as easy as the album’s effortless swing might make it seem. Central to the genesis of Dance Naked — and the temporary abandonment of Nothing Like We Planned — was Mellencamp’s reconciliation with drummer Kenny Aronoff, who had fallen out with Mellencamp and left the band last fall after playing with him for 15 years.

At the time, Mellencamp did not take the break with equanimity. “The truth of the matter is that the reason Kenny’s not here is that he’s doing a Hank Williams Jr. session,” he said in December with barely concealed condescension. “I don’t really understand that. It would be easy for me to go get a session drummer, but I don’t want one of those — and I guess in the case of Kenny, I don’t want one in the band. I wouldn’t think it would be that challenging for him, but Kenny really has a desire to be a big sessionman. And I think that desire is more important to him than being in this band. That’s what it boils down to.”

As if to make a point about his expendability, Mellencamp replaced Aronoff — widely recognized as one of the greatest drummers of the rock era — with Michael Dupke, a 19-year-old undergraduate from the Indiana University School of Music who earned academic credit for his work with the band. Talented as Dupke is, he was no substitute for Aronoff.

By January, however, Mellencamp and Aronoff had made up. “What finally happened was Kenny called me up and said, ‘What time’s rehearsal?'” Mellencamp recalls with a smile of huge delight. “I said, “There’s no fuckin’ rehearsal, quit calling me, man!’ Then it was like ‘Oh, fuck it, we can make this work — we have for years. Why am I being so demanding? And, Kenny, why are you being so reckless?'”

The band got pared back to its core: Mellencamp; Aronoff; guitarist Mike Wanchic, who co-produced Dance Naked; and bassist Toby Myers. Guitarist Andy York came on board as a permanent replacement for Grissom. (For his tour band, Mellencamp has also brought in Mindy Jostyn to sit in for Germano, who is on hiatus promoting her solo album Happiness. “Lisa is still part of this band,” Mellencamp says.) Mellencamp wrote a bunch of new songs. There was the feeling of a new beginning. Nothing Like We Planned went out the window. “We said, ‘Let’s just make a different record,'” Mellencamp says. “‘Let’s become a rock & roll band again.'”

Assisting in that effort on Dance Naked is Me’Shell NdegéOcello, the singer and multi-instrumentalist whose Plantation Lullabies album was one of the most provocative debuts of 1993. Mellencamp and NdegéOcello’s spirited duet on Van Morrison’s “Wild Night” — a song with which NdegéOcello was unfamiliar before Mellencamp played it for her — has become a Top 10 hit.

At first glance the fortysomething rocker and the twentysomething R&B poet might seem like an odd pairing, but “she was great, she just fit right in, everybody loved her,” Mellencamp says. And there was another surprise.

“After she’d been in Bloomington about a day and a half, she asked, ‘John, who won that pink house?'” Mellencamp says. NdegéOcello was referring to an MTV promotion Mellencamp did in 1984 for his song “Pink Houses.” “I said, ‘I don’t remember, some girl from Seattle.’ Then Me’Shell says, ‘You know, I entered that about 14 or 15 times.’ I couldn’t believe it. She was about 13 years old when that song came out. I didn’t know she knew who the hell I was. As it turns out, she knew all my records.”

For now, with Dance Naked behind them, Mellencamp and his band are in the midst of a 35-city North American tour that will run through Oct. 1. Nothing Like We Planned will be completed sometime, possibly as early as next year, but it is not on the singer’s schedule.

“I’d rather have the feeling and be playing shit than be playing presentable stuff and not be into it,” Mellencamp says about the journey that led to Dance Naked and his streamlined touring band. “I remember — whether you like the song or not — playing ‘Hurts So Good’ in a club and thinking, ‘Man, this is kicking ass!’ Whether it was or wasn’t is not the fucking point — the point is, I thought it was. I was livin’ it.

“With Dance Naked, we were livin’ it,” Mellencamp says in conclusion. “There weren’t any long, heady discussions about what needed to happen — everybody just went in and played. Which is what I think this is about. It’s about the feeling.” 

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