1991 Houston Article


Mellencamp brushes up on his music

ROCK superstar John Mellencamp rambled through Houston Monday, not for a concert but for an old-fashioned routine of visiting radio stations to press the flesh and tout his upcoming album.

Dressed in blue jeans, black boots, a white T-shirt and black vest, the Indiana singer-songwriter visited the studios of KHMX (96.5-FM) in the morning and appeared on KLOL (101.1-FM) in the afternoon.

Smoking cigarettes, letting some on-air profanity slip and brushing back hair that's been cut much shorter since his last Houston visit, Mellencamp previewed his new album, Whenever We Wanted, which Mercury Records will release Oct. 8.

He aired several tracks from the album, including the first single, Get a Leg Up. Mellencamp also performed live acoustic versions of some of his older songs, including Pink Houses, Rain on the Scarecrow and Small Town.

For the last, he slowed down the tempo even more than on the song's acoustic version for the single's B-side.

But the upcoming album is anything but acoustic. On it, Mellencamp abandons the fiddle and accordion flourishes that characterized his previous two albums, Big Daddy and The Lonesome Jubilee. For Whenever We Wanted, he returns to a basic hard-rocking sound of drums, vocals and guitars.

"It's very rock 'n' roll," Mellencamp said of the album. "I just wanted to get back to the basics. That goes for the album as well as for this radio tour."

Established artists rarely take such promotional pains, especially those with credentials like Mellencamp's, who's sold 24 million albums and scored 18 Top 10 singles in the past decade.

But Mellencamp seems eager to re-establish himself in the rock forefront after dropping out of music for several years.

"I don't do that corporate sponsorship bull," he said. "So this is something I felt I needed to do -- kind of a grass-roots campaign."

Mellencamp's last performance in Houston was at The Summit on March 6, 1988, near the end of his Lonesome Jubilee tour.

For his next album, Big Daddy, he did not undertake a tour. Rather, he stayed home in Indiana to take up a new pursuit: painting.

Mellencamp said his girlfriend figures he's done about 380 paintings since then, mostly portraits. He said he's sold a few but gives many away. A few of the paintings have been reproduced as art for his new album.

"For me, idle time is the devil's workshop," Mellencamp said Monday. "So I started painting. I'd get up at 7 in the morning and paint until dark."

Mellencamp has mixed feelings about the business side of rock stardom, and at the time he took up painting he said it gave him more artistic satisfaction than his music.

"Painting is the most self-absorbing thing you do," he said Monday. "You don't have to have a lot of people around. I do paintings of people and feelings, and for me it's like rediscovering rock 'n' roll."

Mellencamp also has been branching out into another new medium: movies. He recently finished production of a film called Falling From Grace, whose screenplay was written by Texan Larry McMurtry.

Mellencamp not only stars in the movie with Mariel Hemingway, who plays his wife, but also directed it.

"Directing it wasn't that difficult for me," said Mellencamp, who's directed some of his own music videos, including Pop Singer. "I sort of direct my band, too.

"It's just a matter of problem-solving. But I'm not sure if I'd want to do it again because it takes so much time."

Getting the movie off the ground took time, too. Falling From Grace had been in development for eight years, waiting for funding and a studio's backing.

Mellencamp said it took so long because the film doesn't fit a high-concept Hollywood formula. He calls it an interpersonal story about a man "who's not a sympathetic character" and is searching for a sense of truth in his life.

"It's a movie without white hats and black hats," Mellencamp said. "If you liked Terminator 2 you probably won't like this movie. There aren't any car crashes or explosions."

The film's soundtrack will feature country songs by artists such as Dwight Yoakam. Mellencamp also sings "some pretty little songs that we put in the background. But I am not going country. I'm in a rock band."

The movie is due to be released in February by Columbia Pictures.

By that time, Mellencamp said, he'll be back on the concert trail. He expects to return to Houston in November for a round of interviews with the press, then begin performing again in January.

He expects to play in Houston sometime between January and March. But Mellencamp told fans not to worry about him getting here eventually.

"We'll be out playing until nobody wants to see us anymore," he said.

Mellencamp, who turns 40 next Monday, brought to Houston two members of his band: drummer Kenny Aronoff and guitarist Mike Wanchic. They form the core of a group that's stayed with him since he emerged as a rock star in the late 1970s.

At that time Mellencamp was given the name "Johnny Cougar" by his first manager, an early sell-out in his career that he's always regretted. In 1983 he started billing himself as John Cougar Mellencamp. But for the new album, for the first time, he's dropped the name Cougar entirely.

Mellencamp wrote nine of the album's 10 tracks and co-wrote one song with Randy Handley. The lyrics deal with his familiar themes of individuality, rebellion, rocky romance and populist politics.

The album begins with the energized, guitar-driven but despairing Love and Happiness, whose lyrics say, "Well, we're droppin' our bombs/In the southern hemisphere/And the people are starving/That live right here."

But the next track, Now More Than Ever, has the hopeful, helpful message that "If you believe/Won't you please raise your hands/Let's hear your voices/Let us know where you stand/Don't shout from the shadows/'Cause it won't mean a damn/Now more than ever."

Mellencamp produced and recorded the album last spring in Belmont, Ind., amid the kind of rural setting that's inspired his American heartland hits such as Small Town and Pink Houses.

"A lot of people think music comes from Los Angeles, because that's where the music business is," said Mellencamp, who lives in Bloomington, Ind., and also spends time in South Carolina. "But not much music really comes from LA. That's just where the music business is. The music comes from out here."


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