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John Mellencamp Ain’t Even Done

As Mellencamp turns 70, the Indiana icon reflects on a career that has transcended his "Pop Singer" beginnings and now represents what rock and roll was supposed to be all about: doing whatever he wants.
Illustration by Kyle Scott

John Mellencamp on the cusp of 70.Illustration by Kyle Scott

“ANTHONY, I’M NOT DROPPING NAMES or anything, but look at the people I’ve had the opportunity to work with over the years,” John Mellencamp says as we near the end of an hour-long telephone conversation. “Stephen King. Bruce Springsteen. Larry McMurtry. I mean, I’m a kid from a small town in Indiana. I’m the luckiest guy in the world.”

I’ve interviewed John many times over the past 37 years. Though I was born and live in New York—a definite danger sign in John’s eyes—the five years I spent in graduate school in Bloomington hold me in good stead with him. I was a New York hick before I moved to Indiana, and John has always trusted me for that reason. I first heard of him in 1978 when a student of mine, a young woman from French Lick, handed me a copy of an EP titled U.S. Male and asked if she could write about it for my class. John and I go back a long way.

It feels good to hear him taking genuine pleasure in the things life has brought him. It hasn’t always been that way. John has been a rarity in the world of rock stars—someone who has never been afraid to tell you exactly what’s on his mind. He has left some bruises because of that, and taken a hit or two himself. So if he tells you he’s proud of what he’s been able to accomplish, you can absolutely believe it.

I would add that what’s important is not just the quality of the names that John has worked with, but the range of artistic endeavors they represent. Mellencamp collaborated with Stephen King and T Bone Burnett on the musical Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, which premiered in 2012 and toured through the South and Midwest. A soundtrack from the play was released on which Mellencamp’s songs were performed by the likes of Elvis Costello (who also co-wrote with John), Rosanne Cash, Sheryl Crow, and Kris Kristofferson. King recently mentioned to John the possibility of a film adapted from the play. “You know that every project Steve does ends up being a movie,” Mellencamp says with a chuckle. Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Larry McMurtry, the author of The Last Picture Show and Terms of Endearment, among other modern classics, wrote the script for the 1992 film Falling From Grace, which Mellencamp starred in and directed. And Springsteen, to whom Mellencamp has often been unfavorably compared, has recently become his good friend. He came out to Bloomington this past spring to duet with Mellencamp and play guitar on John’s forthcoming album, Strictly a One-Eyed Jack.

Those collaborations represent one of Mellencamp’s most winning traits: his fearlessness. Rock stars don’t often win prizes for bolting out of their lane, but Mellencamp has, quite simply, never cared about that. As a self-professed “kid from a small town in Indiana,” he still carries a chip on his shoulder—one that has prevented him from getting credit for all the risks he has taken and all the distinguished and varied work he has done. He never played the game of flattering critics or industry power brokers; in fact, it took him a while to even realize that was a game he was supposed to play. Because he never sought their approval, he rarely received it. It was always easier for them to treat him as some kind of heartland-rock cliché. But his grounded sense of himself, that belief that if he was going to get anything he had to earn it, has convinced John that there’s nothing he can’t do—or, at the very least, doesn’t have the right to try to do. None of those artists he mentioned would have worked with him if they didn’t have the utmost respect for his talent, but characteristically, John doesn’t point that out.

I haven’t even mentioned his painting. His mother painted at home when he was a child, and he considered a career as a painter if his music didn’t pan out. He began painting seriously in the late 1980s, and he has frequently shown at the prestigious ACA Galleries in New York and other notable venues around the country. In the fall of 2019, he shared a two-man show, Binding Wires, at ACA with the late, groundbreaking painter Robert Rauschenberg. When I entered the crowded reception for that show, I noticed a white-haired man surrounded by admirers. I assumed it was a record company executive I would probably want to avoid. It was Bill Clinton. John’s date for the evening was Meg Ryan, his fiancée at the time. The highly regarded art publisher Rizzoli will soon publish a coffee table book featuring 150 of John’s paintings.

All that’s not bad for someone who is primarily known to the world as a rock star—a rock star who’s about to turn 70 at that.

 

A young John Mellencamp performs with his band on a street corner.

A young John Mellencamp performs with his band.Photo courtesy of John Mellencamp

MELLENCAMP, WHO WAS born in Seymour in 1951, came of age at a time when young people weren’t supposed to trust anyone over 30, let alone turn 70 themselves. “I hope I die before I get old,” The Who famously declared in their 1965 anthem “My Generation” when they were barely in their 20s. Nor was Mellencamp himself immune to considerations of age. He once described to me how naïve he felt growing up in the Midwest when he signed his first record contract. Here’s how he viewed the world: “I figured if a guy made a record, it was on the radio,” he said. “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 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 that’s what I worked for my whole life: to be able to tell people I don’t give a fuck. That’s what rock and roll was supposed to be.”
John Mellencamp

He got his break when he dropped off a tape and photograph at the New York office of Tony Defries, the manager who had helped guide the early success of David Bowie. Happily, the receptionist Mellencamp spoke to was an Indiana girl who made sure Defries gave him a good look. Bowie had started off as David Jones, and Defries determined that if a dramatic name change had worked once, it would surely work again. In any event, he regarded Mellencamp as a highly unsuitable name for a budding rock star. So John Mellencamp became John Cougar, a source of embarrassment to him to this day. “I didn’t plan on Johnny Cougar,” he says, exasperated. “For years, I carried around the idea that I didn’t like [Defries] for doing that. But now that I’m an older gentleman, I kind of appreciate it, because without that noose around my neck, I don’t know that I would have tried so hard.”

Indeed, John claims that his approach to life as a kid, an actual point of pride, was, “I don’t try too hard, but I get by.” But with his identity—and his dignity—at stake, he tried extremely hard. After four albums that didn’t do much, he finally broke through in 1982 with American Fool—you can hear the self-contempt in the title. More importantly, the hit singles “Jack and Diane” and “Hurts So Good” made him a star and guaranteed him a career. As he made his way through smash albums like Uh-Huh (1983), Scarecrow (1985), and The Lonesome Jubilee (1987), he began to perform as John Cougar Mellencamp. Eventually, with Whenever We Wanted (1991), the “Cougar” dropped away completely and he was, at long last, simply John Mellencamp. However, he never forgot the compromise he had made, and, as many record executives have learned, anyone who tried to convince him to make another one quickly discovered it was never going to happen.

“That’s the reason we all got into rock and roll anyway, to be our own boss,” Mellencamp explains. “That’s the reason I did it—and, of course, the girls. Let’s face it, we all did it for the girls, for sure. But that’s what I worked for my whole life: to be able to tell people I don’t give a fuck. That’s what rock and roll was supposed to be. I’m very grateful that it’s provided me with this lifestyle, because, Anthony, I don’t do anything that I don’t want to do. It’s worked out a lot better than I expected.”

 

John Mellencamp playing guitar at Madison Square Garden

“I was talking to Pete Seeger when I played the show at Madison Square Garden in his honor.” Mellencamp says. “And he said ‘John, if you want a long career, keep it small and keep it going.’ So I took that advice.”Photo courtesy John Mellencamp

ONE OF THE REASONS Mellencamp has achieved that vaunted state of freedom is the staying power of his music, songs that have earned him induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Once he hit his stride as a songwriter, he developed an ability to express complicated emotional truths in direct language that everyday people—the sort of people he grew up around—could understand and feel. And there’s a reason why he’s still capable of doing that. “The reason I stayed in Indiana was because all of my friends were here,” Mellencamp says. “When I was younger, people said, ‘You’ve got to move to New York. You’ve got to be seen.’ Even at 22, I said, ‘I’m not doing that. I’m not going to go to some club. This isn’t about being seen with a certain bunch of people. It’s about learning to write songs and how to make a decent record.’”

John learned those lessons, and to this day, he’s among the most severe critics of his own work. It sometimes feels as if he puts down his own music out of a fear that someone else might do it first. “Look, I grew up in public,” he says. “All of my records are uneven. My words are clumsy. I was always good at writing melodies, though. I wrote good melodies, but my lyrics are clumsy. But so are Dylan’s. Dylan had a lot of clumsy lyrics. Woody Guthrie had really clumsy lyrics. So I took my cue from them.” Plainspoken—a term that Mellencamp chose for one of his album titles in 2014—would be a more accurate term for his lyrics than “clumsy.” His words don’t strive in some self-conscious way for poetic effects. Instead, his poetry emerges from the honesty of his expression. His lyrics—and his vocals, for that matter—deliver, but don’t obscure, the truths he’s addressing. Lines like “There’s people and more people/What do they know?/Go to work in some high rise/And vacation down at the Gulf of Mexico” are simple and visual—stated exactly the way the characters whose lives are described in “Pink Houses” might speak them. They’re concise, cinematic, and resonant with feeling. It’s no accident that a songwriter who is also interested in theater, film, and painting—and who refused to move to New York or Los Angeles when urged to—wrote them.

Those qualities lend Mellencamp’s songs their sturdiness, their ability to survive hundreds of hearings and still deliver impact. “Don’t ask me why, because I couldn’t tell you, but ‘Jack and Diane’ makes more money today than it did when it was a hit,” he says. “I mean, I don’t play ‘Hurts So Good’ anymore—it’s too childish. It’s kind of odd to be a 69-year-old man singing, ‘Come on, baby, make it hurt so good!’ I’m just not comfortable doing that. But if I play ‘Jack and Diane’ with an acoustic guitar, it sounds like a folk song.

“And here’s the other piece of magic about that song that I didn’t even realize when I wrote it,” he continues. “If you listen to the chorus—‘Oh, yeah, life goes on/Long after the thrill of living is gone’—that’s not exactly a positive message. But people sing along with that song like it’s the national anthem.

“The best compliment I ever got on that song was from my daughter, Justice. She said, ‘Dad, I cry every time I hear that song.’ I said, ‘What? You’ve heard that song a million times. You must be crying all the time!’ And she said, ‘It’s that line, ‘Hold on to 16 as long as you can,’ because we were all 16 and we all know what it felt like to leave that portion of our lives.’ It’s bittersweet, and it surprises the shit out of me. Because I was a kid when I wrote that song.” 

 

John Mellencamp and Bruce Springsteen playing at Sting's Rainforest Fund benefit in New York.

In addition to recording together in Bloomington this past spring, Mellencamp and Bruce Springsteen playing at Sting’s Rainforest Fund benefit in New York.Photo by Kevin Mazur, courtesy Getty Images for the Rainforest Fund

NOW A MUCH older man, Mellencamp has plenty on his mind, including his personal life. “We’re getting awfully old to be dating, aren’t we, Anthony?” he asks, before launching into a tirade about the New York tabloids’ obsession with his romantic life. Divorced three times, John now jokes with his audiences on-stage about the carousel of lovelies that have followed his breakup with Meg Ryan in 2019. “Girls don’t like me,” he tells me, only half-ironically, about his failure to sustain a permanent relationship. Obviously, that’s hardly the case. Most recently, he was linked with Natasha Barrett, a 46-year-old L.A. Realtor to whom he was introduced by his daughter, Teddi Mellencamp Arroyave.

But since the mid ’80s, Mellencamp has learned to look beyond personal matters and has developed a sharp awareness of social issues, most notably through the Farm Aid organization that he founded in 1985 with Willie Nelson and Neil Young. His stances haven’t always pleased his more conservative fans. Asked how he made it through the COVID lockdown, he immediately notes that the pandemic is far from over, adding, with wry laughter, “But it’s good that we had good leadership in the beginning.” He mentions a song on his forthcoming album currently titled “Lie to Me, I’m Used to It.”

“I hate to break it to you, but we’re not living in the land of the free and the home of the brave,” he says. “We’re just not. That’s all bullshit. I hate all that rah-rah crap. Let’s just stand back and take a look at who we really are. But people really don’t want to do that. And I don’t think that was proven or said any better than during the last four years of our former government. And he’s still in the mix! It’s not a Republican Party any more, it’s the party of Trump. It just amazes me how people will say or do anything, lie or cheat, just to keep their position in the Senate or the House. And I think we’re fools to believe that it’s been any different all along—though maybe not to this magnitude.”

Depending on developments with the Delta variant, Mellencamp is planning to hit the road again early in 2022. He has taken his approach to touring in recent years from advice he received from the late folk legend Pete Seeger when he performed at a tribute for Seeger’s 90th birthday at Madison Square Garden in New York in 2009. “We’re just playing three nights everywhere in three- or four-thousand-seat theaters,” he explains of his tour plans, “because I don’t like playing outside and I don’t like playing in arenas. That means it’s more work and I make less money, but I’d rather have people see something that could turn into magic rather than something that’s a drunken brawl. In arenas, there’s always people drinking and fighting and all that bullshit.

“I mean, let’s treat this like it’s a musical event,” he continues. “Let’s be respectful toward each other. This was all brought home to me by Pete Seeger. I was talking to him when I played the show in his honor at Madison Square Garden, and I said, ‘How do you like this, Pete?’ And he said, ‘Ah, it’s pretty nice once in a while.’ So I said, ‘What do you mean?’ And he said, ‘John, if you want a long career, keep it small and keep it going.’ So I took that advice. Unless it’s Farm Aid or a special event, I’m not going to tour in arenas anymore. It’s not about the money. It’s about, Can we have a pleasant time?

“Ah, I’m an old man. My kids tell me that all of the time.”
John Mellencamp

In addition to his new album and tour, Mellencamp will release a documentary and album chronicling his Good Samaritan Tour, when he hit the road in 2000 with two support musicians and spontaneously showed up in various cities across the country to perform for free in public. The documentary is narrated by Matthew McConaughey, a longtime Mellencamp fan. And a play—based on “Jack and Diane” and written by Naomi Wallace—that had been in the works before the pandemic struck, will likely resume production soon.

For now, however, Mellencamp is enjoying completing work on his new album and savoring his newfound friendship with Springsteen, who calls John his “little brother.” Their connection is particularly satisfying for him—he has often been dismissed as, in his own words, the “poor man’s Springsteen.” While they had known each other for years, they began to get close when Springsteen invited Mellencamp to perform at Sting’s Rainforest Fund benefit at the Beacon Theatre in 2019. They performed “Pink Houses” and “Glory Days” together and forged a bond that has grown surprisingly strong. Or maybe it’s not so surprising after all.

“Listen, I’ll just flat-out say it: I love Bruce,” Mellencamp says. “I love him like a brother. I feel very fortunate to have found a colleague and a good friend in him. This should have happened years ago.” In addition to performing on Strictly a One-Eyed Jack, The Boss ventured even further into Mellencamp’s world when he stayed at his house in Bloomington. “Bruce and I have done two paintings together,” John declares with evident pleasure. “We have a painting that we worked on for two days straight. He painted one side and I painted the other. Bruce had never painted at all and he was really good, really into it. I was surprised at how hard he tried. He was like, ‘How do you do this, John? How do I make this work?’ We’re trying to figure out how to sell it and give the money to charity. But I was proud of him. He went after it.”

Clearly, Mellencamp’s strategy for dealing with age is to keep doing the things he loves as well as he can do them. But, like everyone else, John gets dealt a comeuppance from time to time. “Ah, I’m an old man,” he says, dismissively. “My kids tell me that all the time.” Then he stops for a second and asks me, “How old do you feel?” I answer and plan to turn the question on him, but we never get around to it. Turns out, there are way too many other things going on to talk about. 

Anthony DeCurtis is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone and a lecturer of creative writing at The University of Pennsylvania.
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