John Mellencamp, Part 1

Thursday, May 15, 2003

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“Speaking Freely” show recorded May 15, 2003, in Belmont, Ind.

Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely,” a weekly conversation about free speech in America. I’m Ken Paulson. Today we’re joined by the artist, singer, songwriter and producer John Mellencamp. Great to have you with us. We are actually honored to be here in Belmont, Indiana, which is your home studio.

John Mellencamp: Right.

Paulson: And I’m a native Illinoisan. I understand the allure of the Midwest. But how can you run the kind of operations you do from the middle of Indiana? You’re not in L.A. or New York, and … ?

Mellencamp: Well, you know, as time goes on, it gets easier and easier, because, you know, when I first decided to stay here — you know, I was 22 years old when I got my first record deal, and I mean, it was mandatory to live in the city, and I just, I just couldn’t be there, you know. I — it just led to trouble for me. I was a young guy with, you know, a black leather jacket, and, you know, I would, I would get in the cities, and I would just blow up. I mean, just flat blow up. And I, I was making records back then, but the records were really secondary to the lifestyle. So, in essence, you know, I understood a lifestyle. So, when I came back here, I seemed to calm down a little bit and become more focused. And thank God I did, ‘cause if I’d have been in New York and Los Angeles all these years, we wouldn’t be having this conversation today.

Paulson: You know, a lot of people are talking about a song called “To Washington” and a new CD that contains a lot of classic folk and blues songs. Yet I’ve been surprised at some of the news coverage, which sort of suggests that John Mellencamp has just sort of, as I alluded, become a troublemaker. “He’s outspoken now.” But you’ve been speaking through your music for almost 25 years now.

Mellencamp: I’ve seen a little bit of that too, you know, not much. I think that people have listened to songs, and they pick out of songs what they want to get from it. And, you know, probably a song like “Pink Houses,” they heard [Sings], “Ain’t That America?” but they didn’t really listen to the verses. You know, the verses just kind of — they heard the drumbeat. And that’s fine because that’s what music is supposed to be. You know, people take from or give to whatever they want to. And this — I think that, you know, “To Washington” was just a — when I wrote the song — and when we recorded in here — we didn’t even discuss it as if it was going to be any kind of problem at all. It never even dawned on us that anybody would even remotely care or would give it a second thought. Because I’ve recorded a lot more socially scathing songs than that song, but the timing of it and, you know, once 9/11 happened, well, all things have changed.

Paulson: Well, you mentioned “Ain’t That America?” The refrain that President Reagan wanted to use in his — was it the reelection campaign?

Mellencamp: Yeah.

Paulson: And how did you feel about getting that call? Was there a formal inquiry saying, “Can we use this?”

Mellencamp: Well, there was — an aide called my management of the time and wanted to know if they — but nowadays, you know, they don’t even call you anymore. I understand there’s somebody who’s running for president, and they come onstage to “Small Town.” So, they don’t even ask anymore. Hell, they just do it. [Chuckles]

Paulson: You’ve had a remarkable career, and I’m sure you’ve received any number of plaques and awards, and we’ve been in your studio, and there are gold records everywhere. I would think that the Century Award you received from Billboard magazine would have been one of the more meaningful. It’s, it’s — in the first place, Timothy White, who was a friend, would’ve had a role in that. The first one was given to George Harrison. But what’s, to me, remarkable about getting that award is that it’s about a body of work. And, and I — your career began in as rocky a fashion as anyone could possibly have.

Mellencamp: Oh, yeah, it’s, it’s amazing. I mean, I was just talking to somebody about that yesterday. But the Century Award is an award for people who are, I would guess, as maybe Tim would have said, “under-recognized achievers.” You know, that, you know, like George Harrison was the perfect example of, you know, someone who contributed to such a great thing but never really got the attention that Lennon and McCartney got. And I think it was all relevant. It’s all relevant, you know, how that worked. I know that Billy Joel had received it. I know that Joni Mitchell had received it. So, I was very happy to, to go to Las Vegas and get that award.

Paulson: What’s intriguing is that when you began to write songs, you, from the beginning, wrote songs that said something. You know, yes, you had rock and roll. You had dance records. You had love records. But I mean, as early as ’83, you’ve got “Pink Houses” and “The Authority Song.” You — you’re drawing on a vein of influences that was something other than sort of glam rock of the ’70s. What, what was going on there?

Mellencamp: Well, I was fortunate enough to grow up in a house, you know, where I heard real music. You know, I was eight years old, and my dad used to have bongo parties, you know? And him and — you know, he’d have a little set of bongos. And another guy would have a big conga drum, and they would — there would be three or four guys, and they’d sit around and play, you know, to blues records and Odetta. And they would, you know, they’d put the kids to bed, and they’d bongo all night, man. [Chuckles]

Paulson: That, that’s a pretty good influence.

Mellencamp: Yeah, you know, so — and, you know, my dad is only 20 years older than me. So, when I was, you know, eight, Dad was 28. So, he was still a kid. And I didn’t realize it, but he was still a kid, and the guys he hung around with, and they liked music. It was the mid-’50s or late ’50s, and, so, I was exposed to a lot of music. But really, I had heard Woody Guthrie at the house, you know, and Odetta, and was really drawn to those records. And then, you know, once Bob Dylan happened, well, that was it. But see, that was what I did for my listening pleasure, ’cause when I became, you know, 13, 12, whatever the hell it was, and I started playing in bands, it was Sam and Dave. It was, you know, James Brown. And that’s what we sang. There was no real place for me to walk out in —

Paulson: Right.

Mellencamp: — Seymour, Indiana, and play, you know, “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “The Times, They are A-Changin’.”

Paulson: And there are a lot of comparisons of your music to Springsteen early on. And yet what was really going on, I think, was that you were both drawing from the same well. Both Springsteen and Mellencamp loved Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan and —

Mellencamp: Well, he’s, well, he’s older than me, and, you know, I was — I remember sitting in my apartment in Seymour, Indiana, when he was on the — I hadn’t got a record deal yet, but I was seeking a record deal when he was on the cover of Newsweek and Time the same week. And I thought, “Wow,” you know, “Who’s this guy?” You know? And that was the first I’d ever heard or seen of him. You know, so, it was — he was well on his way to his path of being in orbit long before I had even started. So, you know, I was very naive back then, very naive. And I just thought that if you made a record, you know, people would like it, because I was a music lover. And if I heard a record I didn’t like, it was just onto the next one. I had no idea what kind of hornet’s nest I was jumping into.

Paulson: But you’ve been a quick study. We had Dave Marsh on the show not long ago. And I’ve read a lot of Dave’s work, and, and he beat you up early on and then came around and said, “I was wrong. This guy’s, this guy’s amazing.” Was — did Dave have it right early?

Mellencamp: I don’t, I don’t know, you know, because Dave wrote for Creem magazine back then, and Creem was the magazine. And then — there was two magazines back then: Creem and Rolling Stone. And Creem was, at the time, the magazine that I read, because it dealt more with the – I don’t know – the underbelly of rock: MC5, Iggy and the Stooges. And it was a Midwestern magazine, which I liked. No, I think he probably had it right to a certain extent. You know, I was living a lifestyle, and the music, for me, at that time, was just something I had to do. I mean, how surprised was I, you know, after a few years, when the record company wanted me to come to New York, and I went there, and they said, “If you don’t start taking this more seriously, we’re going to drop you from the label.” And I went, “What? Drop me from the label?” “You know, you don’t take this seriously. You need to take this seriously.”

Paulson: Well, you took the plight of the farmer seriously.

Mellencamp: Right.

Paulson: And you, and you’ve been one of the most eloquent voices on behalf of American farmers. And I guess that first emerged maybe on Scarecrow. Would that have been the first public —

Mellencamp: Yes, uh-huh.

Paulson: Could you talk a little bit about your commitment to the American farmer and how that’s been channeled through your music?

Mellencamp: Well, what happened was, is that I had been making Scarecrow out here in this studio, and Willie had been hanging around Bloomington for whatever reason, ’cause there’s a golf course out here that, at that point in time, he liked to play. So, whenever he was in the Midwest, he would just, you know, stop by and play here, and he, he played so much that he developed some friends here who were friends of mine. So, on the golf course one day, he was talking to these guys who I knew and said that he was going to do this thing, and — this Farm Aid thing — and what did they think about it? And they said, “Oh, man, if you’re going to do that, you should call Mellencamp up because he’s just made a record about that.” And I think that afternoon, Willie called me up and said, “Hey, you know, I understand that you’ve just made a record about the American farmer.” And I said, “Yeah.” I said, “There’s a few songs on there that touch on that.” And he said, you know, “Do you want to help me organize this concert? I’ll take care of the country acts, and you call what people you know in the, in the rock field.” And, so, I said, “Yeah, okay.” And then Neil was asked, and then that’s how the whole thing started.

Paulson: Do you remember what inspired “Scarecrow”? Because that wasn’t a traditional rock and roll theme for the ’80s, you know?

Mellencamp: Well, yeah. That song was inspired by a conversation that a guy named George Green and I had around a table. It was about corporate America in the mid-’80s, and we had both came — had, you know, had come to the conclusion that this is not good. This is not a good thing that’s happening is that we would see — even back in the mid-’80s, the mom-and-pop stores were going away, and the small towns in Indiana were disappearing because they couldn’t keep their head above water. And, you know, and of course the, the farming community entered into that.

Paulson: “Small Town” may be your most loved song, certainly the most loved across middle America.

Mellencamp: Right.

Paulson: Why do you think it strikes such a chord?

Mellencamp: I don’t — I think every now and then, a songwriter can – If he’s lucky – can write a song that people emotionally attach themselves to, and it becomes more than a pop record. You know, nothing wrong with pop records, but they don’t last a lifetime with people. Other than, if you hear, you know, “Up on the Roof,” you know, then you might, you might or I might remember where we were the first time we heard it as, you know, young men, young teenage men, and it just kind of — but some songs are able to get into the fabric of a person’s soul, and I think that that song, for whatever reason, might have been able to do that with some people.

Paulson: You, you branched out from recording your own music. You’ve co-written with a lot of actually fascinating people. You’ve co-written with Barbra Streisand.

Mellencamp: [Chuckles] Yeah.

Paulson: How did that work?

Mellencamp: Actually, it was pretty fun. Of all the people I’ve written with, she made it fun. She wanted to — she wanted me to produce a rec — produce that album for her. And I just wasn’t up for the task of making, you know, an entire record. I was on tour. I had other things that I was doing. And then all of a sudden, you know, Barbra Streisand wanted me to produce this record, and it was like, “Wow, I don’t know if I can do that or not. I think you can probably find somebody better to do that than me.” So, then it turned into, “Well, will you sing with me on the record?” And I said, “Well, let’s see, you know, what song you want to do.” She says, “Well, let’s write a song together.” And I was in, I was in L.A. and, so, I went over to her house about — for maybe, I guess, a week, and we messed around with the song. And she was quite — you know, I got to say, of all the people I’ve ever written with, she was the most fun.

Paulson: Really?

Mellencamp: Yeah, she was fun. She was — you know, you don’t become Barbra Streisand and not be colorful and charming and witty and, you know, be able to get what you want from somebody. And she was — of all the people I’ve ever met, she was the most — I guess the word could be manipulative, too. But I didn’t mind, you know. I, I looked at her, and, you know, she was — the thing that I remember about her more than anything was she was so beautiful. I had no idea that she was so beautiful just in a exotic physicality — skin. You know, that nose was so — she was just so beautiful, and when she smiled. And then I walked out after the experience and go, “I know why she’s Barbra Streisand now.” Because she just had it. I mean, she was captivating for me sitting in a room just bullshittin’ with her. She was great.

Paulson: Is there anybody you’ve had a chance to, to, to write with that you just thought, “This is a fantasy come true or a dream come true”?

Mellencamp: The only experience like that I’ve ever had in my life was, I directed — I didn’t write with him, but I directed a video for Bob Dylan. And Bob came to Bloomington. [Chuckles] I should write a song about that: “When Bob Came to Bloomington.” He was a very fascinating guy. Biggest liar I’ve ever met in my life, not a — you know, you know, he’s one of these guys that just leaves no stone unturned. I reckon the reason Bob Dylan is Bob Dylan is because he, you know, he was just so interested in everything. I mean, everything. And then he’d tell you these great big stories, and I’d look at him, and I’d say, “You’re making this up.” And he’d go, “Yeah.” And, but, and he would just go off and start talking about stuff. But him and I talked a lot about painting ’cause he paints. And — but I think that was the — you know, as far as another person goes, of meeting another person, that was not dissatisfying, because most times, when I meet guys, it’s like, “Yikes.” You know, “What a weirdo that guy is.” But Bob lived up to the billing.

Paulson: You know, you talked about your affection for Creem because it was a Midwestern rock and roll magazine. I have to believe you, you probably enjoyed getting Mitch Ryder in the studio.

Mellencamp: We ended up making a nice record for him, and, and he went out, and I think, you know, I think it kind of bumped his career along a little bit, so.

Paulson: I think there’s a Prince cover on that, isn’t there?

Mellencamp: Yeah, “When You Were Mine.” Yeah, see, but I had to break his arm to do that. He didn’t want to do that. He just did not want to sing that song, didn’t like Prince, didn’t — you know, but we just went ahead and rec — see, I think that’s what it was. See, I’m pretty much a — “This is what we’re gonna do, and if you don’t want to do it, to hell with you.” And I’ve always been that way. You know, when I was a little kid, I was that way, so —

Paulson: And it’s worked for you.

Mellencamp: Well, you know, it’s worked for me in some aspects, and some people hate me because of it. You know, a lot of people have — you know, John Mellencamp, to record companies, is definitely a burden. I mean, it’s like, “Whoa, I don’t know about that guy, you know. He’s — he’ll yell at you.”

Paulson: We — a lot of people know all your hits, and yet there is this body of work that spans 25 years, a lot of well-received, critically acclaimed records. And end of the ’90s, probably more critical acclaim and fewer top 40 hits. Was that the music changing? Or was that the audience changing? What was going on?

Mellencamp: You haven’t hit on it yet.

Paulson: The business?

Mellencamp: The business changing. I would say, in the year 2003, the music business is as broke as I’ve ever seen it. I mean, it doesn’t work. It just doesn’t work. Corporate America has slaughtered the music business. They’re not interested in developing new artists. They’re not interested in, in songs. I mean, you know, they’re just not interested in music. They are not in the music business. And of course, radio is the same way. They would play anything they have to play to get advertisements. Because, you know — and it’s sad because I know all these guys, and most of these guys got in the music business because they loved music. But as time went on, you know, and you were on this path to go somewhere, that path just kind of kept shifting, and they — you know, we all shifted with it, and they shifted with it. And now it’s about their quarter. It’s not about the music. They would, you know — I don’t know that they, they would put anything out if, if it would help them make their quarter. That’s all they give a shit about.

Paulson: And you can’t live by the quarter and build a quarter-century career.

Mellencamp: No, you can’t. Oh, yeah, there’s, there’s not going to be any kid come up and be Johnny Cougar today. It’s not gonna happen. It is just not gonna happen. I made four albums, that the combination of those four albums, when they were initially released, didn’t sell a million copies. So, you know, that would be death. You know, you got one shot, man. I mean, and maybe one-and-a-half. But, you know, everybody wants that blockbuster. Everybody wants, you know, that blockbuster, and then they’re looking for the next blockbuster. They’re not thinking that that guy can, can reproduce a blockbuster. Now, some people who are treated in a — who breathe a different air than, than the rest of us, like maybe Madonna, Bruce, those type of people, they breathe a different air than most artists do. And they’re able to accomplish things just strictly because who they are that the rest of us could never accomplish. You know, it’s not, it’s not there for us.

Paulson: You, at one point, turned your back on major labels, and suddenly, you’re signed again to Columbia.

Mellencamp: Well, I’m not signed to Columbia. I left Columbia for, for that reason. I just could not — you know, I owed them a couple more records, and I just said, “I don’t want to be here. You know, this is, this is too much hanky-panky for me, too much — I don’t need to make records.” And Donnie, Donnie Ienner was, was the president of the label, and he just couldn’t believe that I left the label. He was like, “Is he really leaving? What’s he — what’s wrong? You know, we did great with his last record.” And — but it was just too hard, you know? I don’t want to fight for, you know, everything. I don’t want to fight for, you know, “Are you going to put a single out?” “No, I’m not putting a single out. “Guys your age don’t — ” Well, you know, I’ve been very successful with singles. So, it was always a fight. So, I just decided I didn’t want to — it wasn’t a battle I wanted to go through again. But then Donnie called me up with a great idea. You know, and he, you know, he just — he called me up, and he said, “Do you want to make a record of” — like, you know, I played “Stone–” Tim White died, and we did shows at Madison Square Garden and the Fleet Center. And apparently, a lot of people from Columbia saw me play “Stones in My Passway,” which was a Robert Johnson song, in the middle of my set. And I have to say, we killed the place with it. I mean, we, we — Andy was on. I was on. And the song was just — I mean, it was such a great feeling to be in Madison Square Garden in memory of one of my best friends and have that old blues song just — people just stopped. You know, it was like, “Wow, this is great,” and I could feel it onstage. I could see it, you know. And of course, the minute I walked offstage, everybody from Columbia that I knew — you know, I wasn’t mad at anybody. It wasn’t like I was pissed off or mad or, you know, “I’m taking my ball and going home.” It was a business decision. I don’t want to do this, you know? They said, “Man, you got to make a record like this for us, you know?” I said, “Well, you know, we’ll see; make me an offer.” And they did, and I looked at it as a real opportunity because my entire career, all of my contracts have always read, “You have to write so much original material on this record.” You know, record companies don’t want these cover records because they have to pay different publishers this and that, and they have to pay, you know, and it’s money out of their pocket in today’s world. So, it was like, “Wow, a cover record? Yeah, I’ll do it.”

Paulson: There’s been a lot of controversy about “To Washington,” but I was surprised you didn’t actually take more heat for a CD, an album called Cuttin’ Heads that takes on racial issues, takes on America. It’s a really outspoken record. What drove that?

Mellencamp: Well, I tell you, the answer to that question is that that record came out before 9/11. If that record would’ve come out a year later, yeah, I’d of, I’d of been demonized totally by those songs. But, you know, during times of prosperity and what appears to be prosperity, people are not so interested in, in songs of, of human condition and environment. Because, you know, all you have to do is look at what was happening musically on every level, and I’m talking pop, rock, country. The popular music of the late ’90s was very — almost the roaring ’20s, you know, very — I don’t want to say frivolous, but very light, strictly for entertainment value, that’s all.

Paulson: On Cuttin’ Heads, you’ve got this unlikely partner, Chuck D of Public Enemy. How did the two of you get together?

Mellencamp: Chuck is, is quite a bit different, I think, than people think he is. Chuck is a very soft-spoken guy and very thoughtful. I think most people know that he’s thoughtful. But he’s a very thoughtful guy. He’s very soft-spoken and has very, a very direct opinion and is not afraid to say what he thinks. And Chuck and I got along almost as if we had known each other our entire lives. Chuck came here, and, and he had a vague idea of what he was going to say, but actually sat in here and wrote down while listening to the song. And he has a guy that he writes with, and he had that guy with him. And I mean, it was two hours, and that, that part of the song was done.

Paulson: Cuttin’ Heads has these lyrics: “Heard the ‘n’ word promotes the bottom line.” and, “Die ‘n’ word. Die.” This song by you and Chuck D takes on the racial epithet when it’s used by rappers. You’re saying this is not altogether a positive thing.

Mellencamp: No, it’s very negative. If you choose to exploit yourself to that level, then you cannot expect to live in a better world. And that — I think that was pretty much Chuck’s opinion, and that’s definitely my opinion. You know, if you’re prepared to exploit yourself to the point where you want to go backwards and hurt what has already been said and make yourself Uncle Tom, well, that’s your decision. But don’t expect a better world to come from it. And I don’t, you know, listen, man, I don’t think that every record ever made should be promoting, you know, a better world. But I thought — and I think Chuck thought — and still do — that that is dangerous business. It’s too dangerous.

Paulson: Columbia was afraid of that song.

Mellencamp: Columbia did — Yeah, they didn’t like that song. They were afraid of it. They didn’t like Chuck on it. You know, and that’s the difference between Columbia Records now — and it’s not the individuals. It’s, like, company policy. They — no corporation wants to offend anybody. You know, the idea of offending someone is like, “Ooh.” You know, they’re not real happy with “To Washington” right now either. You know, it was kindly suggested to me that, you know, “John, why don’t you take that song off the record?” I was like, “I can’t do that, fellas, you know? That’s the same thing you asked me about, you know, a couple songs on the last record.” So, you know — and — but, you know, don’t misunderstand me. It’s not the individual people who are making these decisions. But it’s their job. And I said that in a song in the ’80s: “Callin’ it your job, ol’ hoss, don’t make it right.” You know, but that’s what it is, you know?

Paulson: Please join us again next week as we continue our conversation with John Mellencamp and hear his controversial new song, “To Washington.”

Mellencamp: [Plays and sings] “Eight years of peace and prosperity. / Scandal in the White House. / An election is what we need / from coast-to-coast to Washington.”