John Mellencamp, Part 2

Thursday, May 15, 2003

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

Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely.” I’m Ken Paulson. Today, we continue our conversation with the always-candid John Mellencamp. Here’s some of what he had to say last week.

[Video clip plays: John Mellencamp: "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. 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.'"]

Paulson: In a country in which the government can’t stop our speech, we end up doing it to ourselves.

Mellencamp: Well, hold on for a second. What do you mean, the government can’t stop our speech?

Paulson: Well, that’s the theory, isn’t it, under the First Amendment?

Mellencamp: It’s a theory. You know, it’s a theory. But they do stop our speech all the time. We’ve just seen people’s speech being stopped. I mean, the same — and don’t misread this. I have tried to stay neutral in Democrats and Republicans, because, you know what? I could be wrong. But when I see what happened to the Dixie Chicks and what little bit has happened to me, it’s like, “Wait a minute.” You know, “What?” But, I mean, you know, those girls had to apologize.

Paulson: So, help me with this. Where’s the government in that mix? You know, you hear a lot of people talking. You see articles. You read about Web sites. There’s — talk radio was all over it. But I really don’t see the government involvement in this backlash.

Mellencamp: Maybe I’m cynical. But, I put to you that, you know, when they couldn’t find something on the last president about Whitewater, 150 grand, spent millions to try to — they had to get him on something. So, of course, they got him on a sex scandal, which is mentioned in “To Washington.” Ah, but you know, you just can’t spend that kind of money and come up empty. And, of course, they came up empty. That same machine, I would have to think, is somewhere in this mix. You know, when the — when a guy in Ohio who’s a Republican does not support the tax budget that is being proposed right now, they ran ads against their own kind with him with a French flag, demonizing him as, you know, a French sissy. Wow.

Paulson: You know, in the wake of the Dixie Chicks controversy, Cumulus Broadcasting, a huge radio station company, told all their stations they couldn’t play any Dixie Chicks music until they heard an apology from Natalie Maines. Now, we’ve all seen examples where radio companies have said, “This song’s too hot to handle. Nobody play it.” But I’ve never seen exactly that situation, where a performer made a remark, a political remark, and then suddenly, all their music was off limits. Have you ever seen anything quite like that?

Mellencamp: Well, that’s my point. That’s why I said to you, “Wait a minute. Do we have free speech?” You know, if — if they are currently programming a record because it’s making them money and it’s doing well for them on their station, then all of a sudden, just because of a statement, saying, “OK, that’s it.” See, it’s very unfortunate. You know, let’s face it. That was just such bull that that even happened. Here is a girl, a woman, who is, you know, in her mid-20s, just tasting fame for the first time. She’s in a foreign country where the streets are full of people protesting what’s about to happen, and she is a mother, and she feels a certain way, and misdirectedly, maybe could have chosen better words — who knows? Who cares? I don’t. She makes a statement. And that little statement, from her house, her stage, where she should be able to do anything she wants to do, as long as it’s not indecent and she’s not hurting somebody, turned into that? That’s the same machinery — that’s not a bunch of little Web sites. That’s the same machinery who had — was trying to impeach Bill Clinton. I just don’t know how that happens any other way unless you got a big machine behind you doing it.

Paulson: Could we hear “To Washington,” John?

Mellencamp: Sure, I’ll be happy to do it. [Plays guitar and harmonica] That’s just the way Woody would have done it, I think. [Sings] “Eight years of peace and prosperity. / Scandal in the White House. / An election is what we need / from coast-to-coast to Washington. / So, America voted on a president, / and no one kept count on how the election went / from Florida to Washington. / ‘Well, goddamn,’ said one side, / and the other said the same. / Both looked pretty guilty, but no one took the blame / from coast to coast to Washington. / [Harmonica music] / So, a new man in the White House with a familiar name / said he had some fresh ideas, / but it’s worse now since he came / from Texas to Washington. / And he wants to fight with many, / and he says it’s not for oil. / He sent out the National Guard / to police the world from Baghdad to Washington. / What is the thought process to take a human’s life? / What would be the reason to think that this is right? / From Jesus Christ to Washington. / From heaven to Washington.” That’s it.

Paulson: You, ah, you tweaked just about everybody. You go after Republicans, Democrats.

Mellencamp: Whoa, wait a minute. I ain’t tweaking anybody.

Paulson: No, you don’t think anybody would be offended by that song? Clearly they have been.

Mellencamp: Ah, well, if they’re offended by this song, then they should — you know, I’m going to say, if people want a better world, it starts with one person. And if there’s a fence there, then, you know, I didn’t make any of this up. You know, I didn’t — you know, I see myself as kind of an old-fashioned troubadour, and if a songwriter decides to and has the mind to write about what he sees out his window and it is offensive or whatever it is, well, that’s the business I’m in. You know, that’s what I do. I didn’t invent this job. This job was invented by much more talented people and much more aggravated people than myself. I mean, you know, Woody Guthrie did not invent this job. You know, we only are part of a big picture. I don’t know. I mean, go through the lyrics. What is not true? What is not true in the song? I mean, I challenge anybody to, you know — what’s not true about it? “Eight years of peace and prosperity.” Ah, well, yeah, there were some — I don’t mean to diminish anybody’s life being taken in Kosovo — but there were some skirmishes. But there was never any talk about leaving the U.N., you know, I — we can go through the whole song if you’d like.

Paulson: Well, let’s play with that. “Scandal in the White House.” That’s what I meant: it’s even-handed. There are things that will make Democrats uncomfortable and things that will make Republicans uncomfortable.

Mellencamp: I actually played this for a bunch of Democrats, and they cheered like wild banshees, I can assure you.

Paulson: I’m not sure they want to be reminded of the scandal in the White House.

Mellencamp: Well, I think that — I think that anybody who would think for a moment would recognize the fact that, yes, there was a scandal in the White House. But it probably wasn’t the first time there was a scandal in the White House. You know, I know it’s a surprise to everybody, but men do do that. That doesn’t make it right. And it doesn’t make it, you know — but it’s not an impeachable offense. Because if that was the case, there wouldn’t be an unimpeachable guy in this room, at one time or another in our lives. Now was his judgment poor? Sure. But you know what? I’m sure that those Kennedy brothers left some marks in that room, too, so —

Paulson: So, this is a song that talks about the disputed election, talks about going to war for oil.

Mellencamp: Yeah, what is the dispute about the election? I mean, I say in the song, both sides look guilty here. Both sides did not do — but I have to say that, you know, there’s 50 states in this union, 50 states in this country. And it boils down to your brother’s state? I don’t know. Just in general, I don’t know nothing. I don’t know nothing. I’m just a guy in Indiana. I ain’t saying nothing. I ain’t making any accusations. But the observation is, out of all 50 states, this was the deciding state. That’s odd. The odds are 50 to 1 that happening. And I’ll be damned if it didn’t happen.

Paulson: Well, what’s unique about this song is what was once not at all unique about music. I mean, there were songs that were very topical. You point out about the role of the troubadour. From the 17th century on, they’ve been singing about current events.

Mellencamp: Yes.

Paulson: And that’s fallen out of fashion, because, as you point out, it can offend people. And yet, everything you’ve written in here is right out of the newspaper.

Mellencamp: Sure, I made up nothing. You know, my slant — I don’t even think I have a slant on it. When I wrote the verse that seems to be offending people, is “And he wants to fight with many, and he says it’s not for oil.” Ah, there was not really any — any — even any — when I wrote this, there was not even really much talk about them going to war. But it was being — they hadn’t left the U.N. There wasn’t any fighting going on in the U.N. None of that had happened yet. You know, but then once it happened, you know, of course, the story of oil and — I don’t know. I’m not saying nothing. I’m just saying, “Well, we ain’t getting nobody.” You know, it seemed to change why we were doing it anyway. It started out being this, and then it was that. And then it was Iraqi freedom, you know, so … And then the other verse is — is, “Said he had some fresh ideas, and it’s worse now since he came.” I wasn’t speaking about the war at all in that verse. The economy was worse. It doesn’t matter if the Democrats left him a shitty mess. The bottom line is — is that it is worse. Unemployment’s higher. Interest rates are, you know, down, and all kind of things happening trying to prop up something that’s not good. How can you argue with that? I didn’t make this up. It’s in the newspaper.

Paulson: So, here’s a song that is, you know, somewhat more topical than a lot of your records. But — but really, you know, you look at your body of work, and there have been a lot of songs in people’s faces, very direct, very topical. Why the strong reaction to this one?

Mellencamp: I think it was timing, the same reaction as anybody who would criticize — before this problem, before the Iraqi problem and we left the U.N., people really felt a love-it-or-leave-it — sensation, and it was an emotional decision. I — I don’t know what they’re going to think in a year’s time. Now, I hope I’m wrong. This is my personal opinion. You know, what are we going to do in a year’s time? So, we’ll see.

Paulson: When you began playing, you referred to Woody Guthrie, and — and you’ve been a part of — you did “Do-Re-Mi” for the tribute CD.

Mellencamp: Right.

Paulson: You’re clearly an admirer. And you even echoed his “This machine kills fascists” on your guitar, where Woody Guthrie carried that. Clearly music is an extraordinarily powerful vehicle for communicating ideas.

Mellencamp: Correct.

Paulson: Do we underestimate that?

Mellencamp: I think that we overestimate it and underestimate it. I think that, you know, when you come out of a time period where music is very light and then all of a sudden, something happens that changes the face of the country and things start to change, people are afraid. And I’m not really even angry at people who are angry at me. I understand, they’re afraid. And fear is a great motivator. Fear is a tremendous motivator, and fear can make people really act in an emotional way. I mean, that’s the way the Third Reich was formed, out of fear. Those people were in a terrible position, and, you know, it was easy for him to come in and have this fascist thing happen. And it was out of fear. People are afraid.

Paulson: In the few minutes we have left, I wanted to talk about the visual side. You became a painter, apparently, as a hobby, I think you’ve described it. I loved your book — which was a benefit publication for Save the Music —where you say, “Look, I know there are other people, hundreds of artists who deserve to have a book published before I do,” but because of your celebrity and your hobby. I thought, you know, “What a nice perspective and a nice thing to say on the book jacket.” And yet, you’ve had a lot of very positive response to your work. Where did the artistic bug — I mean, where did the visual gift come from?

Mellencamp: Well, quite honestly, I mean, there have been hundreds of times that I thought, “Why did I even start this damn guitar business? I should have just been a painter and forgot about it, you know.” I could have painted, you know. And painting is such a different experience than live performances and, you know. It’s just such a solitary life. Which is one of the reasons I still live here, is because I can sometimes achieve not being part of anything. You know, I’ve always said, “You know, man, I’m with myself. I’m not with anybody. You know, I’m not with the Democrats. I’m not with the Republicans. I’m not with anybody. I’m with me.” You know, and that gives me a lot of freedom to — to be that way, and painting gives you so much freedom. [Images of Mellencamp’s artwork shown] I mean, you know, I can adjust and correct and paint fast and make mistakes, and as long as I feel the painting is beautiful, that’s all that matters to me.

Paulson: I understand that one of the artists whose work you admired was Beckmann, who was among those suppressed by Hitler. Can you talk a little bit about that work and why it touched you?

Mellencamp: Hitler only wanted nice things to represent Germany, only nice things. The world that he talked about had no place for Jewish people, had no place for the black person, had no place for, really, you know, Italians. It was — it was a very small box you had to fit in. And if you painted those people or if you didn’t paint in a classic traditional style of women or men doing mundane, everyday-life things, then you were considered not — of the ilk of the Third Reich. So, I mean, you know, look. You can look at Beckmann’s paintings. They’re for everybody to see. I don’t know what they’re talking about. What is it about these paintings that was so offensive? You know? And you can say, “Well, it was the time.” I don’t care. Put it in the time. I still don’t see how he was thrown out — or had to escape Germany. But, you know, it had a lot to do with his race. You know, Hitler was a painter himself. You should see those paintings. Big, big buildings with little, teeny people. And the people in the paintings are so insignificant. They might as well just be, you know, muck under his feet, because the buildings that he painted, you know, in his paintings is what was important in the paintings. The people that he would stock — you know, stack around, walking around were almost comical. It was like, “Why did you even bother putting them in the painting?” You know, so you could just tell by one of his paintings where his, you know, mind-set was. He didn’t think much of people.

Paulson: You have kind of a maverick approach to much of your art, and I think this most recent CD is, it’s interesting in that it is not largely your music. It’s other people’s music, but it — I’ve heard some of it, and it still sounds like a personal statement.

Mellencamp: I had seen people be able to do that. And, of course, the challenge with Trouble No More was, “Well, can we take songs written by Son House and make them ours?” You know, because nobody expects John Mellencamp to sing a blues song, you know. But they don’t know that that was my strong suit as a kid in bar bands. I was — that was what I sang best. That was my best voice. Whenever we did a blues song, I always kind of felt like that’s what I did best. But, you know, I didn’t — my — my Trouble No More is picking material that we could make our own that sounded as if it was a personal statement from me and that it was my song. And it was so much fun, because I got to research all this history. I thought I knew a lot about music. But I didn’t really realize that, you know, Hank Williams — there’d be no Hank Williams if there wasn’t an Emmett Miller, you know. But Emmett Miller never got the credit that he deserved because Emmett was a minstrel. And minstrels were considered, you know, kind of second-rate entertainers. But Emmett Miller wrote Hank’s first song. And he sang it the exact same way Hank sang it, you know. I mean, there’s no — “Did Hank copy it?” Well, yeah, I’d say Hank copied it. I mean, he’s singing it exactly like Emmett Miller sang it 20 years before. [Sings] “I got the lovesick blues …” And I mean, it’s all right there. I mean, it’s like, wow. And I — for me, I thought it was wonderful, because it told me that it didn’t really matter who invented it. It’s who delivered it. You know, and the delivery was by Hank.

Paulson: It’s quite a mix. You’ve got some real old-timers. You also have Lucinda Williams represented on the —

Mellencamp: Now, see, that’s — that record was really a troublesome thing for me. Because when I found out that was Lucinda Williams, I thought, “Oh, I can’t put this on this record. It doesn’t work.” One of the ways I researched this record was putting a lot of CDs that I would receive from the record company and a lot of Smithsonian stuff, and I would just have it playing in my house. And it would play for days, you know. I’d get up and push “play,” and 20 CDs would play. And I kept hearing this “Lafayette” song. And it was on a Smithsonian record. I’d —I’d had no idea who was singing the song, but I loved the song. And then, of course, there was a challenge, “Can I sing the song?” And the record really needed the song, because it’s the only positive, fun — just on the surface, you know, fun song on the record that’s not so steeped in, you know, sadness or despair or, you know, whatever emotion might be evoked from the song.

Paulson: You talk about making a song your own. I was really eager to hear your version of Skeeter Davis’ “End of the World.” She had the hit record with it. And it is dramatically different. How did you approach that record?

Mellencamp: Well, I mean, first of all, that was a Tin Pan Alley song. And it was a — if you could mass-produce a song back then, that was mass-produced. Chet Atkins produced that record. And she sang it beautifully. And the song was obviously written for a woman, to be sung by a woman, you know. And the melody is very obtuse for a male, I found. Hell, you know, maybe somebody else could knock the shit out of it; I don’t know. But for me, it was a very hard song to sing because of the melody. It had a lot of different things that I would never write. You know, I would never write a melody — it was very flowery. So, how do you get around that? And so we, you know, when we started playing it, you know, we played it a couple times, and I said, “Forget it. We can’t do this song.” Because we were treating it so preciously. She played it very preciously. It was very precious when she did it. Her performance was precious. I said, “Forget that. Let’s just go the other way — let’s just go to the other side of it.” And Andy saved the day once again. He just started playing this great rhythm, [Sings] dum-da-da-da. As soon as he played that rhythm, it was like, [snaps fingers]. I can sing this song without sounding, you know — I don’t mean to sound weird, but, you know, the way we were doing it, I should have a dress on if I’m going to sing this song this way. Because this is a woman’s song, and, you know, I — I can’t deliver it. But the minute he quit playing that, I could put my pocketbook down and “bam” we had it, you know.

Paulson: After a quarter century, your first CD of covers — you know, you’ve done all kinds of things that I don’t think there was any formal training for. You became a video director. You directed your own movie. You were an actor, a well-received film. What haven’t you done? What’s up next?

Mellencamp: I — what I haven’t done I don’t think I can do. I don’t think that there is time in my life left. And I don’t — I think there’s too much resistance to who I am to achieve what I thought I would be able to. The interesting thing about — there’s a song on the new record about — song called “Baltimore Oriole” that was written, in my mind, here in Bloomington, Indiana, by a guy from Bloomington, Indiana, a guy named Hoagy Carmichael. I didn’t know this about Hoagy Carmichael, but he considered himself the poor man’s Johnny Mercer. Never could get over the fact that Johnny Mercer got all the accolades, even though, you know, that’s not really true. At the end of the day, you know, his songs stack up to Mercer’s easily. But Johnny Mercer was the guy. And Hoagy was, you know, kind of second string. I’ve always had that on my back. And so when I found out about Hoagy Carmichael, I was just like, “Well, yeah.” You know, I look — I know other artists who feel that way. And a lot of us live here. You know, we stayed true to something. We didn’t go somewhere else. And I’m thinking of a specific guy. And he finally just quit making records, he was so frustrated with it.

Paulson: Who’s your Johnny Mercer?

Mellencamp: Come on. It’s so obvious. I’m not going to answer that if you can’t answer it yourself.

Paulson: [Laughs] OK.

Mellencamp: So, ah, you know, I would never — I’m like Hoagy Carmichael. I’ll never be able to achieve what — I’ll never be able to — how would somebody who was eloquent say that? I will never be able to see my star rise the way that I always thought it should have. Not gonna happen. So I have to accept it.

Paulson: Thank you so much for joining us on “Speaking Freely.”

Mellencamp: OK.