Honesty, integrity allow John Mellencamp to endure
|If you go|
John Mellencamp isn’t hiding from the reality.
‘Rock music is really folk music,’ he muses in a noontime conversation from his Indiana home. ‘We are really not part of the mainstream any more.’
The singer-songwriter only has to lean over and click on the radio for illustration.
‘With a lot of these songs I hear, I don’t know if there is any room for folk singers right now, if there is any place for us,’ he says.
He mentions one hit performer and notes, ‘She never wrote any of her own songs. We are back to that time in popular culture again.’
So, where does that leave the ‘folk singers,’ the people who, like Mellencamp, help us make sense of our world, who call us on our shortcomings, who point out our strengths and remind us not to take for granted the ‘little victories,’ the sweet moments of our lives?
Where does a John Mellencamp, who will headline a Pittsburgh concert Friday, fit in today?
He chuckles in response. ‘I don’t even know if I do. Hell, I’ve never really fit in; even when I was selling gazillions of albums, I didn’t really fit in there in the time of the funny haircuts.’
Nevertheless, this enduring artist forges ahead.
He is making final preparations for a new album, ‘Cuttin’ Heads,’ for Columbia Records, and also is collaborating on a project with author Stephen King, a longtime friend. It is based on an original concept by Mellencamp about an American family.
King is writing the book; Mellencamp is composing the music for the theatrical musical production, scheduled for 2002.
Earlier this year, Mellencamp was featured in the murder-mystery film ‘After Image,’ which premiered at the Cannes and Sundance film festivals. It’s just one of several acting projects he has been involved with.
And he continues to pursue an avocation in yet another medium – painting. In November 1999, HarperCollins published ‘Mellencamp: Paintings and Reflections,’ a book showcasing 75 of his works.
Reflecting on the interesting twists and turns of his career, Mellencamp says, ‘One of these days I’m going to put out a semi-live or live record and call it ‘Nothing Like We Planned.’ ‘
He says he is not the type of person to have a five-year or any other kind of career game plan. ‘Listen,’ he says, ‘it’s all good the way I look at it. It’s all been good. We feel very fortunate.’
Since his debut album, ‘John Cougar,’ in 1979, he has amassed 11 top-10 and 29 top-40 singles. He has been awarded 36 gold, platinum and multi-platinum records and won a Grammy while being nominated 11 times.
He also is the recipient of the prestigious Nordoff-Robbins Silver Clef award for his involvement with musical therapy for handicapped and autistic children.
Mellencamp says he keeps it all fresh by asking, ‘What hill haven’t I tried to climb?’
‘I kind of look at things, and I try to go in that direction if I possibly can,’ he adds. The musical with Stephen King is an example.
He says the creative process has evolved for him.
‘There is just so much to write about, so many paintings to paint, so many songs to write. In the late 1980s and early ’90s, I thought enough songs had been written. Now, I’ve kind of had a change of heart. I can write three or four songs a day. I can’t say they are any good or anything. I just say I could. I’m interested in a lot of things, and little things make it better to write about.’
Which brings the artist around to talk of a favorite subject – those ‘little victories’ in all of our lives. ‘I’m even more interested in that than I’ve ever been. When people lose interest in life, like that line in ‘Jack and Diane,’ when that creeps in, you are in trouble.’
As he turns 50, Mellencamp finds much zest in life.
‘That’s the thing. You can keep doing it. The only thing that makes me a little leery about it is the way this culture just dismisses people after a certain age, as if Bob Dylan can’t write a good song anymore.’
Mellencamp believes his writing is better than ever. ‘I still would like to write a really, really good song, one that is just undeniable, one that works on all levels.’
Now the creative process for him, whether in songwriting or painting, is about pursuing beauty, he says.
‘It’s just trying to make something beautiful. That’s all there is to it. That’s the question I ask myself: ÔIs this beautifulâ¢ Are the songs beautifulâ¢ Is the painting beautifulâ¢ Are people going to view it that wayâ¢ Will people leave a concert feeling I put on a great show?’
‘That’s really my only concern.’
Mellencamp says he does not sense any special urgency, because he is reaching the half-century mark, to finally take on projects that he may have promised himself he always would.
‘No, I’ve always felt that, that feeling of urgency,’ he says. ‘It’s kind of an uncomfortable part of my personality. I’m always in a hurry and tenacious. I don’t know why.’
On his current tour, Mellencamp is playing songs that he never has played live, he says. ‘I went through at least 20 albums and picked out some songs and included some songs I’m very familiar playing.’
The artist plans to offer Pittsburgh fans a generous sampling of his pending album.
To Mellencamp, rock remains a valid vehicle for social commentary. ‘I’m a folk singer. Folk singers got to have social commentary. That’s what distinguishes us from just a crooner.’
It was Mellencamp, together with Willie Nelson and Neil Young, who were instrumental in organizing the first Farm Aid concert in Illinois. Since 1985, there have been 15 annual Farm Aid concerts with all artists appearing and performing at their own expense.
Mellencamp was awarded the President’s Merit Award by the Recording Academy for his work on Farm Aid, the next edition of which will be staged in September.
Looking back on a full career, he says, ‘I have had more fun than any guy you are ever going to interview,’ he says.
What does he hope his kids learn from himâ¢ What advice does he hope they take from him?
‘Just be honest and never kiss (butt),’ he says. ‘Try to be as honest as you can to yourself. There is no reward to this life settling for something you don’t want.’