John Mellencamp's guitarist for 40 years shares storiesMidwest rock 'n' roll hero to play Akron Civic Theatre on Wednesday
By Dan Kane Repository entertainment editor
No, I didn't get an interview with John Mellencamp.
But what I got is someone who's unquestionably the next best thing.
I had an insightful conversation with Mike Wanchic, Mellencamp's guitarist for 40 years, onstage at every concert and in the studio for every one of his 22 albums.
The occasion for our chat was Mellencamp's upcoming concert Wednesday at the Akron Civic Theatre, part of his career-spanning Plain Spoken Tour. For those needing a refresher, a 65-year-old Seymour, Ind., native, Mellencamp, previously known as John Cougar, has enjoyed a long and rich musical career with a string of hits that includes "Hurts So Good," "Jack and Diane," "Crumblin' Down," "Pink Houses," "The Authority Song," "Lonely Ol' Night," "Small Town," "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.," "Paper in Fire," "Cherry Bomb" and "Wild Night."Q. What can you tell me about the show you're bringing to Akron?
A. "What we're trying to do on this tour is play the records that people want to hear, but at the same time dip into our repository of 20-plus albums. We want to expand musically for both our sake and to honor the listeners that we have. The people that come to see us, they know our material. These are ardent fans, they're not curiosity seekers. And that allows us a lot of leeway to be more musical and diverse. It's a chance to give a really expansive look at our career and the music that we do. We're not living off our laurels. We're not the Beach Boys. We're still making records. Why not make this a musically satisfying evening? (Opening act Carlene Carter) is going to come out and do some songs. We're also going to present a couple of songs from the new record that haven't been heard before. And I guarantee we'll pound out some hits."Q. Are there any political elements to the show, this being election season and all?
A. "Not overtly. Most of our music is about the human condition, and it definitely speaks to the condition of things as we sit right now. But we're not proselytizing, no."Q. Aside from you and John, are any other longtime band members still on board?
A. "Toby (Myers, bassist) retired. He had his first kid when he was like 50 and he said, 'I've gotta get off the road.' Of course, I've had two kids after 50, but that's me. I'm a loyalist. I'll die in this band. Kenny (Aronoff, drummer) moved on after 20 years. Of the current cast that we have, Miriam Sturm, our violinist, has been in the band for 20-plus years; Andy York, our guitarist, has been in the band for 22 years; Dane Clark, our drummer, has been in the band 19 years. This is the second generation of this band. With that kind of long-term commitment, it becomes second nature. When everyone knows what everyone else is thinking musically, it becomes a living organism. You can't get that with mercenaries."Q. How have you seen John change musically over these many years?
A. "He's become more astute. At this point, in my opinion, he's the best songwriter that he's ever been, he's writing the best songs that he's ever written, which is a big tribute to a guy who's written all kinds of fabulous material. The songs are definitely reflective of his age and his experience. There's no 'Oh baby I miss you' songs or anything like that. It all has content, they're story-songs. There's beauty involved. There's definitely a political overtone to a lot of the material. I think a lot of it is just having a bigger worldview. When you're young, you're looking at what's right in front of your face and moving sort of blindly at 100 miles an hour."Q. How did you first meet up with this Mellencamp character?
A. "We were just out of college. John went to Vincennes University and I went to DePaul. We both moved into the Bloomington (Indiana) area and just met at a recording studio. I was doing an internship there to learn recording engineering. We just kinda clicked."Q. So you played on his very first album (1976's "Chestnut Street Incident")? I always found the David Bowie connection so bizarre.
A. "John went to New York and literally walked into Tony DeFries' office — who was David Bowie's manager — and said, 'You need me.' John had such balls. That's when Bowie was doing the Ziggy Stardust thing with the drag queens, and John was just this kid from the Midwest. Tony picked up on this James Dean thing, John being from Indiana. Tony said, (imitating his British accent) "This is never going to work. You've got to get a little flair, you know? Your name is now Johnny Cougar.' And John was like, 'What?!'"Q. "Hurt So Good" and "Jack and Diane" blew things wide open in the early '80s. I remember those videos were all over MTV. What was that time like?
A. "Remember, we had four stiff albums before that. The 'Nothing Matters' record had 'Ain't Even Done With the Night' on it, which was a top-40 hit, but before that we couldn't get arrested. We were still playing to empty rooms and opening in clubs for people. We were sure the next record would be our last record. We went into rehearsals for 'American Fool,' wrote a bunch of material and started making a record. It was just John, Kenny and myself, no bass player even. A record company guy came to the studio while we were working and made some really bad suggestions like, 'Put horns on it.' John pushed him out the side door and said, '(expletive) you. You either take the album the way it is or give it back to me.' The record company reluctantly released the album and BOOM it was the No. 1 album with two No. 1 singles on it. Things have never been the same. With that record, we bought our freedom."Q. Was it your fateful moment?
A. "Maybe. We were not so smart to come up with something new. We were just continually refining that simple Midwestern thing that we do. We were the same guys doing the same (expletive) a little better. Then contemporary culture crossed our path and BAM!"Q. You've played the biggest venues around and now you're playing theaters. Does it feel a lot different?
A. "I was very comfortable in arenas because we were an arena-rock band — two guitars, bass, drums and more swagger that you can stuff into a 50-gallon oil drum. We'd go out there and play it loud, and we were great at it. But over the course of years, the music has grown and become more sophisticated, we have grown older and wiser and what we are doing fits us perfectly right now. The theatrical environment allows the fans to have a better time. Our crowd is no longer 20 years old, standing up, getting drunk and whooping it up."Q. It's cool that John is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but I think he is underrated in rock 'n' roll history. I'm guessing you might agree.
A. "I think part of that is where we live (in Bloomington) and the fact that we never kowtowed to the Los Angeles and New York scenes. John has never kissed anyone's (expletive), and ultimately that hurts you in this business. But we're still here 40 years later. How many fashions and faces have come and gone in the L.A. music scene in that time? I think the reason we have endured is because we have lived outside the bubble."http://www.cantonrep.com/entertainmentlife/20161013/john-mellencamps-guitarist-for-40-years-shares-stories