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Author Topic: 2004 Washington Post Article and Funny Follow-up  (Read 37294 times)
walktall2010
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« on: March 23, 2011, 11:01:51 pm »

The Blue In Blue-Collar
Despite Backlash, John Mellencamp Continues to Fight Authority

By Sean Daly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 7, 2004



BLOOMINGTON, Ind.

Smoking is a major no-no in the Buskirk-Chumley Theater, a revered
old showplace just a few watering holes away from the sprawling
campus of Indiana University. John Mellencamp, however, doesn't
really care about the old joint's clean-air policy. Not when he's
rehearsing for a live national telecast and feedback is ruining an
otherwise rocking version of "Small Town."

"When the host is not onstage, turn his [bleepin'] microphone off!"
the rock icon snaps at technicians working for A&E, the cable channel
airing that night's "Live by Request" event. The host with the noisy
mike, David Adelson, flashes a here-we-go-again smile and raises a
hand in mock surrender.

Mellencamp, who figures he's been smoking strong since 1966, sparks
an American Spirit cigarette. He inhales deeply, wisps of white
obscuring his face but not his frustration. "It's not too [bleepin']
hard to remember, guys!"

Light 'em up and let 'er rip: The 53-year-old Mellencamp puffs where
he wants, and says whatever he darn well pleases. Really, who's got
the guts to tell this guy otherwise? He didn't earn the self-
administered nickname "Little Bastard," which is also the producer
credit he takes on his albums, by hiding his bad habits and holding
his tongue. Just about everyone -- band mates, loved ones, U.S.
presidents (oh, and he'll lay into those presidents soon enough) --
is due for a tongue-lashing if the bard of the heartland has a bone
to pick.

Never mind the heart attack that almost felled him 10 years ago.
Never mind that his family nags him to ditch the cigs. Never mind
that his brand-new double-disc career retrospective, "Words & Music,"
should be soul-soothing assurance that he's arguably the most
important chronicler of Middle America since Woody Guthrie.

Mellencamp remains one stubborn customer.

"Are you kidding me? He won't even let me sing in the shower," laughs
his wife, former Victoria's Secret model Elaine Irwin-Mellencamp,
when a reporter suggests that she take a turn at the
microphone. "He'll come in and bark, 'Sharp!' or 'Flat!' "

Elaine and the couple's two young sons, Hud, 10, and Speck, 9, are
milling about the theater on this Thursday last month, watching their
favorite restless spirit work his band through such populist anthems
as "Pink Houses," "Rain on the Scarecrow" and "Jack and Diane." His
tobacco-flavored voice is gruff but powerful, and although this is
just rehearsal, the performances are tight, forceful and moving.

Mellencamp -- shorter than you'd think, but stronger and more
handsome, too, with a leading-man mug and windswept, dark brown hair -
- is used to getting what he wants. This is why the presidential
election still bothers him like a blue-collar blister.

A lifelong Democrat -- "I've always been a liberal. I grew up in
the '60s. I like Jane Fonda," he says -- Mellencamp took part in the
Vote for Change tour, the recent gathering of music-biz heavyweights
hoping to retire George W. to Texas. The left-leaning collective of
rock stars failed in its main objective, of course, primarily because
so many of Mellencamp's fellow midwesterners opted for the status
quo. Indiana was about 60 percent pro-Bush. Mellencamp says he
was "disappointed" in the results. His new song "Walk Tall" ("The
simple-minded and the uninformed can be easily led astray")
says "disappointed" is an understatement.

Along with Larry Bird and David Letterman, Mellencamp will be forever
linked to Indiana. He was born here -- in Seymour, Ind., on Oct. 7,
1951 -- and, hey, he'll probably die here. There's even a building
named after him at the state university: the John Mellencamp
Pavilion, an athletic facility, for which he donated $1.5 million.

Everyone in Bloomington -- college kids, bartenders, bus drivers --
has a Mellencamp story: They saw him at an IU basketball game, at an
ice cream parlor, at a Target store smoking outside while his family
shopped. In this laid-back town, Mellencamp sightings are traded like
baseball cards.

Sen. Evan Bayh, a fellow Hoosier, a friend of Mellencamp's since 1988
and a buzzed-about possibility for the Democratic ticket in 2008,
says the keys to the singer's status as an Indiana favorite son are
his "authenticity" and his ability to "bring people together across
political divides."

"I think we both stand for the forgotten middle man," says Bayh. "We
don't put on airs, and I think the people like that about us."

Recently, though, Mellencamp has sensed a disconnect with many of the
people he represents.

"I didn't feel like a stranger in a strange land until this
election," Mellencamp will say once rehearsal is over and he's back
at his house, a 6,000-square-foot rococo vision of gables, arches and
columns overlooking Bloomington's Lake Monroe and crammed with
artwork, including his own.

The Hoosier Daddy is now trying to figure out a part of America that
he's been explaining to us for years.

Big Blue Houses

Little ditty 'bout John and Elaine: In the weeks leading up to the
election, the Mellencamps, who have been married for 12 years (she is
his third wife, and they often smooch and canoodle like newlyweds),
liked to play pranks on their Republican neighbors.

"Elaine and I would sneak out periodically and put a Kerry-Edwards
sign in their yard," says Mellencamp, relaxing in his snooker room.
(Yes, Mellencamp has a snooker room, but to be honest, when he
wanders through his palatial mansion, he looks a bit out of place,
like a plumber searching for the bathroom.) "We'd get up every
morning and they'd already have taken them down."

He laughs big at this tomfoolery -- a long, wheezy smoker's laugh,
the kind that fills the dive bars he used to play back in the '70s.
But soon enough he grows quiet, the room seems to grow darker, and
the man starts to brood about what went down Nov. 2.

"It's hard to explain any of it to me," he says. "If there's one
president that I've seen, other than Reagan and Nixon, who the
average American and poor people should not support, it's George
Bush."

Mellencamp runs a hand through his high hair -- a Fonzie coif,
actually, styled like the early rockers who still influence his
music. He reckons that his red-voting neighbors were seduced in much
the same way he's attracted millions of fans over the past 28 years.

"George Bush is a rock star," he says. "If he walked in this room and
talked to us, we'd both like him. We would! He'd be a charmer. He'd
be one of the guys. He's running this country like a college guy."

Mellencamp wasn't always so politically engaged (or enraged). He
settled in Bloomington in 1977, a year after the failure of his first
album, "Chestnut Street Incident," recorded in New York as Johnny
Cougar, a nom de rock his label slapped on him. After bolting the Big
Apple and heading home, he spent a lot of time at IU's local
hangouts, buddying with the troublemakers, the party stars, the
college girls looking for a rebel.

"When you're a young guy, and there are 40,000 kids coming here, and
20,000 of those people are young women wanting to get even with their
parents, where else would you go? Need to get even with your parents?

"I'm the guy!"

He was "John Cougar" on the cover of his 1982 breakout
album, "American Fool," the largest-selling album of that year thanks
to such last-call singalongs as "Jack and Diane" and "Hurts So Good."
A year later -- or right around the time Ronald Reagan really started
to tick him off -- he became John Cougar Mellencamp, a blend of the
real guy and the rock star, a dude in flux who wanted both to fight
authority for the greater good and to "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A."
1983's "Uh-huh" and 1985's "Scarecrow" are not only his best albums,
but they were the first real signs that he was more than just the
swaggering hunk with cool hair.

" 'Scarecrow' was the first record [for which] I had to become a
benevolent dictator," says the man who finally ditched the Cougar in
1991. "Because up until that time, we were just messing around. Young
guys, with the black leather jackets. I was the leader of the band,
and I was so unfocused. I was interested in anything but music. It
was during that record that I was starting to find my voice -- and
kind of not wanting to find it.

"I knew what I should be saying -- but I just couldn't let go of the
macho twit. 'Cause he's fun! It was fun being in bars. It was fun
coming home at 5 o'clock in the morning. It was fun not being
responsible. It was time for me to grow up, but I didn't want to."

And 1985 was also the year that Mellencamp, Willie Nelson and Neil
Young started Farm Aid, the annual benefit concert to assist the
small farmer against corporate farming.

"When Reagan was president, the way they treated the small family
farm, running them out of business," he says. "How in the hell can a
small family farm compete with the laws leaning toward corporate
farming? What's the little guy going to do?"

After "Scarecrow" came 1987's "The Lonesome Jubilee," a barn dance
with a message, which added violin and accordion to his music and
introduced more poetically sketched Everymen trying to make ends
meet. Mellencamp's worldview was getting bleaker, his mood surlier.

"This is how things have changed," he points out. "In 1989 I released
a record called 'Big Daddy.' That record sold 4 million copies in the
first year. On that record is a song called 'Country Gentleman,' a
scathing indictment on Ronald Reagan. The last verse is something
like" -- here Mellencamp breaks into song, a private-concert moment
that is both thrilling and a bit unnerving -- " 'Country gentleman,
there's a bird who flew / High above this nation and preyed upon its
weakness / Picked our bones and threw it in a stew / Thank God he
went back to California.' You know how much [stuff] I caught for that
song? None."

Fifteen years later, however, he rewrote a traditional protest ballad
called "To Washington" as a poetic hammering of President Bush.
Mellencamp clears his throat and starts singing again: "So America
voted on a president / No one kept count on how the election went /
From Florida to Washington / 'Goddamn,' said one side and the other
said the same / Both were pretty guilty but no one took the blame /
From Florida to Washington.' "

He leans forward, his voice a whisper: "I got so much [bleepin'
stuff] over that song. I was in the car going to the airport with my
boys and my wife, and they were playing the record on the radio. As
soon as the song was over, they took callers, like they were rating
the record on Dick Clark. The first call was some hillbilly going, 'I
don't know who I hate the worse now, John Mellencamp or Saddam
Hussein.' My kids heard that!"

Tony Buechler, webmaster at Mellencamp.com, says the artist's
official Web site received more than 5,000 e-mails after the release
of "To Washington" -- two-thirds of which were from people very, very
angry at the musician.

"There was an e-mail coming every minute," says the 29-year-old
Buechler. "People thought it was out of character for John to be
speaking against the country." Buechler adds that although Mellencamp
had always been about "meat-and-potatoes America," all of a
sudden "he was not Mr. America anymore."

It doesn't make a lick of sense to Mellencamp. These are his people,
for crying out loud. But lest anyone think he's going to tone down
the message songs, guess again. As his song "Minutes to Memories"
goes: "An honest man's pillow is his peace of mind."

Along with "Walk Tall" and the Vote for Change tour, Mellencamp
recently recorded a prickly but poignant duet with country rebel --
and outspoken Republican -- Travis Tritt called "What Say You." The
give-and-take song, on Tritt's new "My Honky Tonk History" CD, is
essentially two men on "opposite sides of the political spectrum,"
says the veteran Nashville star, "hoping to reach common ground."

Tritt says that, after bandying about rock stars to duet with,
Mellencamp was the ultimate choice because he believes in what he
stands for. "I've always respected John's integrity," Tritt
says. "He's taken a lot of flak for it, and so have I."

During a video shoot for "What Say You," Tritt remembers Mellencamp
being a bit shaken about how he was being treated for his stance
against Bush. "I told him, 'You kind of have to expect that, don't
you?' " Tritt says. "And he said, 'Not to this degree. That's not the
kind of country I want to live in.' And I agree with him."

"This is what I told a local paper," Mellencamp says. "You people
have known me for 30 years. . . . I always tried to put my best foot
forward for this community and try to represent midwesterners who are
sometimes looked at by East and West Coast as bumpkins, and tried to
represent us in a positive light.

"You loved 'Rain on the Scarecrow' and Farm Aid and 'The Authority
Song' -- that was all political. Now this guy comes from Texas and
all of a sudden I'm a no-good sonofabitch?"

After Mellencamp offers a final monologue on the state of the nation -
- "We all want the same thing. We all want to find a nice place for
our kids to grow up. We all want to be able to achieve our goals no
matter how lofty or how small. . . . But the problem comes down to
this: how you get it" -- you wonder if Mellencamp might have
political aspirations of his own.

"He has such strong beliefs and speaks his mind, I think his candor
would be refreshing," says Bayh about Mellencamp's potential chops as
a politico.

Imagine it: Little Bastard in '08!

"Nah," the rock star says, exhaling a plume of smoke. "My wife
wouldn't let us move to a smaller house."

From Musician to Critic

Mellencamp has been closing his shows with the same tune for twenty-
some years: "Pink Houses," which Rolling Stone recently named the
439th greatest rock-and-roll song of all time. From its subtly
gripping portrait of Middle American existence to its rousing finale,
the classic track from "Uh-huh" still has the power to generate goose
bumps.

Mellencamp, however, thinks the tune still needs work.

"All my songs aren't finished, they're just abandoned," he
says. "When I hear 'Pink Houses' -- on the radio and when I sing it --
I think damn, I should have taken 10 more minutes on that ending. I
don't like the lyric 'And the simple man pays for the bills, the
thrills, the pills that kill.' The song was so on the money until
that last verse."

Five selections on the 37-track "Words & Music" are from "Scarecrow,"
the most represented album on the collection. But Mellencamp being
Mellencamp, he won't allow too much praise to be slobbered
on "Scarecrow," either.

"Oh, there's lots of stuff wrong with that record," he
harrumphs. "Too many cartoon songs. 'Rumble Seat' is a cartoon, and
so is 'R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.' "

And there you have it: When it comes to being stubborn, he's hardest
on himself. Even though he's sold more than 30 million albums in the
United States alone. And even though he helped kick-start MTV with
videos for "Hurts So Good" (biker bar as utopia) and "Jack & Diane"
(Tastee-Freez as teen nirvana).

"Hey, I'm Johnny Cougar, man," he says. "The fact that I could even
get over that hurdle at all is more of a testament to any record I
could make. The fact that you're sitting here and you're talking to
Johnny Cougar in a serious manner about music? That's an astonishing
feat right there! I was hated by everyone when I started out. Nobody
liked Johnny Cougar. I didn't like Johnny Cougar."

Mellencamp is currently working on a stage musical with master of the
macabre Stephen King. "Mississippi Ghost Brothers" is about a
southern family vacationing in a haunted cabin. Mellencamp says the
plan is to finish it by the end of the year, then start shopping it
around to producers. Mellencamp will start touring the world early
next year -- including a headlining gig at the 2005 Leukemia Ball in
the District in March -- and he'll eventually get around to recording
a new album.

He's also trying hard to do the dad thing. "It's rough no matter how
you cut it," he says about balancing fame and family. Along with Hud
and Speck, Mellencamp has three daughters, the oldest of whom is 32.

"I'm tellin' ya," he says with a laugh, "young teenage girls are the
Devil's work."

When Elaine comes into the snooker room to tell her husband that
showtime is quickly approaching, he holds up a cigarette: "Let me
finish this and a story."

The final tale he tells is about smoking, growing up, growing old.
It's funny and it's sad and it's honest.

And it would make one heck of a song.

"The first time I was married, I was 18 years old. And the father of
the woman I was married to was in his early fifties. His name was
Chet. Lovely guy. Lovely guy. Big fat guy. His hair was all gray.
Chet would eat and he would sweat. Ever see anybody sweat when they
eat? That's bad. I was living in their house. I had no job. I was in
a band. I was married to this guy's daughter, had a kid with her.
Mooching off these people. And Chet treated me so good.

"Anyway, I used to see Chet get up in the night and smoke. Hack
around. And I told myself, 'I'll never do that. If ever do that, I'll
quit.' Now I get up in the night. No shirt on. Just a pair of
underwear on. And I'll sit on the couch and smoke and think, 'I'm
Chet, man. I'm [bleepin'] Chet.' "

_____________________________________________________________________________


Sean Daly's funny follow-up to this story from 2006:

John Mellencamp's Toilet

To Flush or Not to Flush: A Harrowing Story of Rock 'n' Roll Excess


I told this story on a podcast a few weeks ago, but here's the graphic version: A couple years back, when I was at the Washington Post, I was sent out to Bloomington, Indiana to interview John Mellencamp. This was right after Bush got re-elected, so we were hoping that ol' Johnny Cougar, a cantankerous liberal who took part in the "Vote for Change" concerts, would be all ticked off and rip on the prez. Here he was, a blue-state guy stuck in one of the reddest of states. Potential powderkeg.

That weekend, Mellencamp was also taping an A&E Live by Request show. I went to the rehearsal, and was told by a press liaison that John's time was limited and that the interview might not happen. My editors were gonna kill me. So I sat there stewing, watching Mellencamp light up American Spirit after American Spirit in a historic Midwestern theater that would have instantly burned to the ground with a wayward spark. John didn't care. Puff puff play repeat.

Anyway, that PR flak finally got in John's ear. Much smaller than I imagined -- like a high-school wrestler with smoker's cough-- Mellencamp soon sauntered up to me, squinting through a cloud of smoke, and in his gravelly voice grunted: "You wanna come back to the house and we can chat there? Hell, you flew all the way out here, we might as well talk."

So I went to his house: a massive Italian-style villa overlooking the shores of Lake Monroe. As his two blonde sons, Hud and Speck, and his Victoria's Secret-model wife, Elaine Irwin, played in their massive kitchen, John and I talked politics and music and general BS in his darkened "snooker" room. (John was perfectly backlit beneath a spotlight showing off his artwork.) If you want to check out the printed story -- it's a big hugger, but I like it -- here's the link. If you don't want to read the whole thing, at least check out the last couple graphs. Mellencamp spins a good yarn.

Finally, after a good hour, Elaine comes in and tells her husband it's time to go. She says there's also a car waiting to take me back to town. Well, about halfway thru the interview, I really had to use the bathroom. But Mellencamp was on a roll, so I held it.

So before leaving the manse, I asked to use the bathroom. The whole family leads me to a small room off the kitchen -- and then they remain right outside the door, waiting for me to finish. Well, I just have to go No. 1, but I can't find the fan to mask the noise. Plus this bathroom has a sky-high ceiling with walls covered in creepy crucifixes (crucifi?). I'll be honest: There's a little bit of stage-fright going on, but finally, success.

That's when things go awry: The wash sink was a highfalutin' Crate & Barrel basin -- deep, highly unpredictable -- and while scrubbing my hands, I immediately splashed water on my khakis, making it look like I have the worst aim since the Apple Dumpling Gang. Then I wipe my hands on a towel that looks way too nice to be soiled. But there's nothing else to use, so I guess that's the drill. I check myself in the mirror, untuck my shirt a bit to try and hide the wet spots, open the door, say goodbye to the Mellencamp family, and take off with the driver.

But as we were driving back up the long winding driveway, I had a horrible realization: I DIDN'T FLUSH THE TOILET. Or did I? Jesus, did I forget to flush John Mellencamp's toilet? This rock legend was nice enough to have me in his house -- a representative of one of the greatest papers in the world -- and this is how I reward him? I debated telling the driver to turn around. I could have told him I forgot something. Like, you know, a pint of urine.

We'll never know the truth, of course, but I'm pretty sure I forgot to push the handle. Oh well. Mellencamp's PR flaks recently sent me a link to his new artwork. I searched and searched, but I couldn't find any artistic representation of a doughy white guy whizzing all over his house. So that's good.
« Last Edit: March 23, 2011, 11:06:45 pm by walktall2010 » Logged
jakesmom204
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« Reply #1 on: March 24, 2011, 08:36:22 am »

Always loved this article and LOVE the follow up!!!!!!
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