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Author Topic: 1994 Bad to the Bone Rolling Stone Feature  (Read 6831 times)
walktall2010
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« on: August 11, 2010, 01:47:36 pm »

BAD TO THE BONE

by Anthony DeCurtis

Rolling Stone: 9/8/94

JOHN MELLENCAMP STRIPS DOWN TO FIGHTING TRIM ON "DANCE NAKED"

IT'S RAINING, it's nighttime, and it's December in southern Indiana.
Under the big black, wet sky, Lisa Germano, master of all stringed
instruments, and her then boyfriend, producer Malcolm Burn, are
driving out of Bloomington down the road to John Mellencamp's studio,
in Belmont. Right now, what Mellencamp thinks he's doing is recording
six or eight new songs for a three-disc career anthology to be called
Nothing Like We Planned. Little does he know how apt that title would
prove.

A true daughter of Italy, Germano had whipped up a pasta and red-wine
dinner at her house on a 90-minute meal break from one of the
sessions that would lead not to a backward-looking retrospective but
to Mellencamp's latest album, the very in-the-present Dance Naked.

Our post-dinner dreaminess takes on an other-worldly air as the rain
pours, fog curtains the landscape, and Pink Floyd's "Interstellar
Overdrive" floats out of the car speakers. Syd Barrett has been one
of Burn's obsessions of late, and we're in complete emotional union
with the song's spooky ebbs and surges, hoping we don't arrive at the
studio before the musical trip ends. We don't.

Back on earth, the mood in the studio when we do get there is tense.
The day's work has not gone well -- at least by Mellencamp's rigorous
and highly personal standards. That morning he'd brought in a tape he
had made of a song tentatively called "Don't Want to Live Scared"; it
would eventually become the ironically titled "Another Sunny Day
12/25" on Dance Naked. It was the first time the band had heard it.

"This is played at a lot slower tempo than we're going to record it
at," Mellencamp says before letting the tape spin. "I'm going to have
to learn how to play this song again, because I wrote it so long ago,
I don't remember." The performance on the tape -- Mellencamp singing
in a kind of slurred folk croon over his own rudimentary acoustic-
guitar strumming -- is stark, chilling in the manner of songs
like "The Ballad of Hollis Brown," early Dylan at his grimmest. It is
so blunt and concise an expression of stoic faith -- or is that
despair? -- that it's hard to imagine how it could be successfully
embellished.

By evening, though, the song has strangely transformed into something
of a gospel rave-up with layers of background vocals and percussion
(some played on a tin Charles Chips can), a modified hip-hop
drumbeat, keyboards, an electronic zither and an extended feed-back-
laden guitar solo. It is an exciting evolution to witness, but with
each additional element, Mellencamp seems to lose his vision of where
the song should be heading, what it really is about.

At one point the proceedings get so confused that a take of the
chorus that Mellencamp wants to keep gets erased. He bets Germano and
guitarist Jimmy Ryser (who was sitting in to replace David Grissom
after he left the band to pursue a solo career) $50 each that the
part could be found. When Germano walks in after dinner, Mellencamp
takes out a $100 bill, rips it in two and hands half to her and half
to Ryser. Everyone laughs, but the message is dear that Mellencamp,
who doesn't like to lose or be proven wrong, isn't happy with the way
things are going, "Fuck my ass, I can't believe it," he says,
exasperated. "There was nobody driving this goddamn boat."

In search of perspective earlier that afternoon, Mellencamp had asked
Germano to call Burn, who had co-produced Mellencamp's 1993 album
Human Wheels, to see if he felt like dropping by the session. As
Germano held the phone to her ear, waiting for Burn to pick up,
Mellencamp shook his head sadly and looked at her with a sly grin,
saying, "Just back in town and Malcolm's already out fuckin' around.
Can you believe that?" Germano rolled her eyes, and when Burn finally
answered, Mellencamp grabbed the phone.

"Malcolm, what are you doin', man?" Mellencamp said. "We're making a
fuckin' record out here. Come on out we need some free help. What's
the name of the song? It doesn't have a name. Get your ass out here --
we need your vibe. We need somebody to pick on."

"Malcolm, they've got me tied up!" Germano screamed in the
background.

"She made me do it," Mellencamp said. "Get your ass out here. OK. See
you later on."

So after dinner, Burn, a tall, lean, quiet sort who seems alternately
dazed and amused by Mellencamp's characteristic bluster, slumps on a
couch as Mellencamp and the band try to pull the track together.
Suddenly, Mellencamp turns to him during a playback and asks, "Is
this beginning to sound too produced?"

Burn shrugs and starts to frame a suitably noncommittal reply, but
Mellencamp senses what's up. "You think it is, you cocksucker, you
just won't say so," he says, joking but edgy in the way people get
when their own dark suspicions have been confirmed. "I feel like
Peter Gabriel or something," In Mellencamp's world, art-rock
references are invariably negative, the epitome of self-conscious
artiness, of everything rock & roll should not be. After he learns
that we'd been listening to Pink Floyd on the way to the studio, he
repeatedly expresses his dissatisfaction with the track he's working
on by saying how much it reminds him of "Another Brick in the Wall."

And since no one escapes the lash, Mellencamp marks one especially
frustrating moment by sighing philosophically and saying "Well, as
long as it falls into that Firefall category." He pauses, draws on
one of his ever-present cigarettes and looks over at me. "Firefall --
wasn't that ROLLING STONE'S Band of the Year a few years hack?"

FIVE MONTHS LATER, a far more relaxed John Mellencamp kicks back in
his sumptuous beach house, in the posh resort town of Hilton Head,
S.C. Beyond the patio area and the pool are a short stretch of soft
sand and the Atlantic Ocean. Further contributing to the serenity of
the scene is Mellencamp's wife, his third, 24-year-old model Elaine
Irwin. Irwin's extraordinary beauty is not so much stunning as
calming: Looking at her face, you can't help but feel better about
the world. Not as serene but an equally powerful presence is
Mellencamp and Irwin's newborn son, Hud -- guess which parent picked
the name -- the 42-year-old singer's fourth child and first boy.

"It's gonna be a boy," Mellencamp had announced proudly back in
December, having just returned from a visit to the doctor with the
pregnant Irwin. "I saw his dick. I said, 'I recognize that
part.' "Happy will probably never be a word that leaps to one's lips
to describe Mellencamp, but in this setting he seems as dose to
contentment as he is likely to let himself get.

And nobody -- not even the singer at his most acerbic -- is drawing
comparisons between Dance Naked and the songs of Firefall As lean an
album as you will encounter in the digital age, its nine songs --
recorded in two weeks, docking in at a shade over 30 minutes -- are
all but unfinished. The mixes are essentially nonexistent; some tunes
don't even include bass parts; and the emotions the songs capture are
fleeting evocations of passion, not attempts at grand, eternal
statements.

"Another Sunny Day 12/25" is back to being a virtual folk song with
subtle guitars and percussion the only adornments to the arrangement
on Mellencamp's original homemade tape. "When you were there, you saw
guys beating their heads against the wall, trying to get an
arrangement on a song that really didn't need one," Mellencamp says
while seated behind a desk in an upstairs study at the beach
house. "We spent two days on that song and I went back and listened
to it a week later and thought, 'What the flick is this?' The song
could stand on its own. That was it."

If the title Dance Naked captures the freedom Mellencamp felt while
stripping his music down to its essence, the album's cover art -- a
nude male body wrapped in barbed wire and struggling to free itself-
suggests that the process was not as easy as the album's effortless
swing might make it seem. Central to the genesis of Dance Naked --
and the temporary abandonment of Nothing Like We Planned -- was
Mellencamp's reconciliation with drummer Kenny Aronoff, who had
fallen out with Mellencamp and left the band last fall after playing
with him for 15 years.

At the time, Mellencamp did not take the break with equanimity. "The
truth of the matter is that the reason Kenny's not here is that he's
doing a Hank Williams Jr. session," he said in December with barely
concealed condescension. "I don't really understand that. It would be
easy for me to go get a session drummer, but I don't want one of
those -- and I guess in the case of Kenny, I don't want one in the
band. I wouldn't think it would be that challenging for him, but
Kenny really has a desire to be a big sessionman. And I think that
desire is more important to him than being in this band. That's what
it boils down to."

As if to make a point about his expendability, Mellencamp replaced
Aronoff- widely recognized as one of the greatest drummers of the
rock era -- with Michael Dupke, a 19-year-old undergraduate from the
Indiana University School of Music who earned academic credit for his
work with the band. Talented as Dupke is, he was no substitute for
Aronoff.

By January, however, Mellencamp and Aronoff had made up. "What
finally happened was Kenny called me up and said, 'What time's
rehearsal?' " Mellencamp recalls with a smile of huge delight. "I
said, There's no fuckin' rehearsal, quit calling me, man!' Then it
was like 'Oh, fuck it, we can make this work -- we have for years.
Why am I being so demanding? And, Kenny, why are you being so
reckless?' "

The band got pared back to its core: Mellencamp; Aronoff; guitarist
Mike Wanchic, who co-produced Dance Naked; and bassist Toby Myers.
Guitarist Andy York came on board as a permanent replacement for
Grissom. (For his tour band, Mellencamp has also brought in Mindy
Jostyn to sit in for Germano, who is on hiatus promoting her solo
album Happiness. "Lisa is still part of this band," Mellencamp says.)
Mellencamp wrote a bunch of new songs. There was the feeling of a new
beginning. Nothing Like We Planned went out the window. "We
said, 'Let's just make a different record,'" Mellencamp says, "'Let's
become a rock & roll band again.'"

Assisting in that effort on Dance Naked is Me'Shell NdegeOcello, the
singer and multi-instrumentalist whose Plantation Lullabies album was
one of the most provocative debuts of 1993. Mellencamp and
NdegeOcello's spirited duet on Van Morrison's "Wild Night" -- a song
with which NdegeOcello was unfamiliar before Mellencamp played it for
her -- has become a Top 10 hit.

At first glance the fortysomething rocker and the twentysomething R&B
poet might seem like an odd pairing, but "she was great, she just fit
right in, everybody loved her," Mellencamp says. And there was
another surprise.

"After she'd been in Bloomington about a day and a half she
asked, 'John, who won that pink house?'" Mellencamp says. NdegeOcello
was referring to an MTV promotion Mellencamp did in 1984 for his
song "Pink Houses." "I said, 'I don't remember, some girl from
Seattle Then Me'Shell says, 'You know, I entered that about 14 or 15
times.' I couldn't believe it. She was about 13 years old when that
song came out. I didn't know she knew who the hell I was. As it turns
out, she knew all my records."

For now, with Dance Naked behind them, Mellencamp and his band are in
the midst of a 35-city North American tour that will run through Oct.
1. Nothing Like We Planned will be completed some time, possibly as
early as next year, but it is not on the singers schedule.

"I'd rather have the feeling and be playing shit than be playing
presentable stuff and not be into it," Mellencamp says about the
journey that led to Dance Naked and his streamlined touring band, "I
remember -- whether you like the song or not -- playing 'Hurts So
Good' in a club and thinking, 'Man, this is kicking ass!' Whether it
was or wasn't is not the fucking point -- the point is, I thought it
was. I was livin' it.

"With Dance Naked, we were livin' it," Mellencamp says in
conclusion. "There weren't any long heady discussions about what
needed to happen -- everybody just went in and played. Which is what
I think this is about. It's about the feeling."
« Last Edit: September 29, 2012, 12:13:48 pm by walktall2010 » Logged
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