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Author Topic: 1987 Creem Magazine Feature  (Read 5943 times)
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« on: August 13, 2010, 11:13:57 pm »

John Cougar Mellencamp: Growing Up In Public

Bill Holdship, Creem, December 1987

You'd think that John Cougar Mellencamp would be living a rock 'n'
roll version of the proverbial life of Riley.

Two years ago, Scarecrow took him to heights even he probably thought
were unreachable. And now there's The Lonesome Jubilee, the second
smash album in a row that has not only the public raving about him,
but the critics as well some of those same critics who blasted him
relentlessly after he first began pursuing his rock 'n' roll muse well
over a decade ago. He's set to begin another of his mammoth tours (the
missing link between James Brown and Bobby Fuller) right around the
time you'll be reading this. There's a very strong possibility that
the film he and Pulitzer Prize winner Larry McMurty have been trying
to make for years will begin production sometime next year, with John
making his dramatic debut as a country & western singer. He's a friend
to farmers and small town "hicks" throughout this country. He's a role
model. He's an American hero. A lot of rock 'n' rollers adore him. His
dreams would appear to have come true. He should be on top of the
world, right?

"Everything in my secure little world has changed during the last
year," he says with a trace of regret in his voice, "and it's just
crazy. It seems everybody I know is getting divorced. I'm sick of
people dying around me. I mean, c'mon! I had a nice little secure
world going here for a few years! Now my best friend's getting
divorced, and I gotta deal with that. Some of the guys in the band
have been married for like 10 years, and now they're not getting along
with their wives. So they're talking about divorce, lawyers. And it's
like, what's going on here? My Uncle Joe just died. My grandpa died.
(Guitarist) Larry (Crane)'s grandma, who I really liked, just died.
And it's like, wait a minute! This was not in the game plan. It's
really upsetting. I never realized how painful all this could be. You
figure, well, people die, people get divorced that's part of living.
But when it's your relatives and your friends...Things are changing in
my life around me, and I just don't like it."

Well, The Lonesome Jubilee is really good. At least that's something
to be happy about.

"Well, probably the reason the record's so good if it really is that
good is because of those things. It's horrible to think you've gotta
be a miserable son of a bitch to write a good song," he laughs, "but I
guess that's kind of the way it works sometimes. I don't think it's
bad luck so much as it's part of the maturing process that happens to
everyone, whether we like it or not. We all get married somewhere in
our 20s or so, and we have these hopes and dreams. Or like my Uncle
Joe I figured he's only 56 years old, he's going to live to be at
least 80. I'm going to know this guy forever. You make all these
assumptions about the future, and then it's like, 'What?!?! Uncle
Joe's dying of cancer? I was with him two days ago. He weighed 220
pounds and could lift a tree. And now he's in bed, dying? Man, that's
not supposed to be happening yet.' I guess every human being has to
reach this level of maturity but it's like you get to be 35 years
old, and people's ideas of what they were and what they wanted when
they were 25 and first married have changed. So it's like 'Things
aren't what I thought they were going to be, so I'm bailing out.' And
I hate seeing that happen. I hate to see people bailing out. It's like
'What do you mean you're quitting?' So it's been hard to deal with,
but I guess it's also been a bit f a learning process."

This is the standard place where I should probably give you a
"refresher" course on the life and career of John Cougar Mellencamp.
But let's be brief here, because: 1) You don't really need it if
you've been reading this magazine over the years; 2) You probably
already know all the pertinent details if you're even bothering to
read this article, and 3) You'd virtually have to be a media hermit
today not to know about Mellencamp's background and the type of rock
'n' roll he represents.

Of course, John Mellencamp is the archetype of the small town kid who
became a superstar against incredible odds, the incredible odds in
this case being an unscrupulous manager who tried to manufacture him
as something he really wasn't ("Johnny Cougar"), leaving a sour taste
for the artist that would linger for years within the music industry.
It's been done to lesser talents, and lesser talents have never
recovered. But and here are the pertinent details in this story
Mellencamp picked up the pieces and persevered. He wrote and recorded
some excellent songs on some fine LPs, beginning with 1979's not quite
eponymous John Cougar. He continued to gain momentum, reaching a
zenith with 1985's Scarecrow, one of the truly great rock 'n' roll LPs
of the decade. And he puts on one of the most incredible shows in rock
'n' roll; if you don't believe that, then you've never seen him live.

The Lonesome Jubilee continues the Mellencamp evolution in excellent
form. Most critics are calling it his best record yet, a fact with
which even the artist concurs. "The critics weren't wrong in the
beginning," he says. "They were right. I wasn't any f good in the
beginning. But I've had the opportunity to evolve and to grow and to
become something. I've had the opportunity to become the type of
writer I always hoped to be. And, man, that's the greatest thing in
the world to begin to realize your potential, which is where I think
I'm at now. I feel that I'm just now starting with Scarecrow and
this one beginning to realize what kind of songs I can write."

Many people Mellencamp himself included have already said that The
Lonesome Jubilee sounds unlike any other rock album they've ever
heard. That isn't to say that like his previous material the LP
doesn't conjure up images of rock's rich past, from the Yardbirds
(that is, if the Yardbirds had a fiddle) approach of the great 'We Are
The People' to the summer pop of 'Hard Times For An Honest Man', the
Del Shannon-esque musical interlude that runs throughout 'Check It
Out' (John emphatically points out that those "pings" in the song
aren't a piano, but a hammer dulcimer played by super drummer and
former college music student Kenny Aronoff), the allusion to the
Young Rascals on 'Cherry Bomb', or the Stones-like feel of 'Rooty Toot
Toot'. The fact of the matter is, though, The Lonesome Jubilee may
include more diverse elements and influences on one rock record than
any album since the heyday of the Band. And quite often this multitude
of musical styles will all appear in the same song. We're talking a
gamut here that includes hard rock, soul, '60s pop, country,
Appalachian mountain music and even something that often resembles
Cajun or zydeco, thanks to the combined efforts of accordionist John
Cascella and Lisa Germano on fiddle.

"We didn't really listen to any of that before we recorded," says John
in reference to the possible New Orleans influence, "but it just
worked out that way. Larry is very astute with that stuff. He always
has been. I mean, that guy can play Cajun guitar like you wouldn't
believe. We just never utilized it.

"I'm real proud of this record, man. It's the first record of which I
can say I'm very, very proud. I'm just to the point now where I can
listen to it as a listener would and I'm always going, 'Well, that
sounds like this old record.' But then two seconds later, it doesn't
sound like that anymore. So it becomes its own thing. Like I'll say,
'Well that sounds a little bit Cajun' and then, all of a sudden, it
doesn't sound that way anymore. It comes and goes within each song.

"We were on the road for a long time after Scarecrow, so we were
together a lot as a band. For the first time ever, we talked about the
record before we started. We had a very distinct vision of what should
be happening here. At one point, The Lonesome Jubilee was supposed to
be a double album, but at least 10 of the songs I'd written just
didn't stick together with the idea and the sound we had in mind. So I
just put those songs on a shelf, and cut it back down to a single
record. Now, in the past, it was always 'Let's make it up as we go
along' and we did make some of The Lonesome Jubilee up as we went
along. But we had a very clear idea of what we wanted it to sound
like, even before it was written, right through to the day it was

Perhaps all these diverse elements in Mellencamp's music add up to the
reason it's always been impossible to put a label on, or a prefix in
front of, his music. When one thinks of "college bands," names like
R.E.M., the Cure or the Replacements come immediately to mind. And yet
Mellencamp was voted "College Act Of The Year" by the College Media
Journal two years ago. Check out one of his concerts: the T-shirts on
display range from heavy metal to new wave. It all equals the same
thing to him.

"You also see a lot of people my age at the shows," he says. "I'm real
proud of that, and I think the greatest thing that ever happened to me
is the fact that my audience is so widely spread. When I was voted
'College Act Of The Year,' I didn't even know I was in the running.
They called me up to tell me, and I wondered, 'Gosh, how did that
happen?' I always thought my audience was older than that. But I think
it's great. A lot of it probably just has to do with the fact that
I've been around for so long. I mean, this has been a lot of years for
a guy to stay in the rock 'n' roll business."

Of course, after the phenomenal success of Scarecrow, Mellencamp
could've chosen to rest on his laurels and just gone through the
motions, releasing a lesser product, which is what many other acts
have done upon reaching his level. But over the past 10 years a
period during which many new rock faves have ended up letting me down
in the end John Cougar Mellencamp has been one of the few (perhaps
the only one) who has continued to grow while refusing to sell out,
and personifying that often overused word "integrity."

"See, the thing of it is, if I let my fans down, I let myself down,"
he explains. "There's a few people in this world who rock 'n' roll
means something to and I guess I'm one of them. For me, the music is
the most important thing. Now, whether people like it or not or say
I'm mainstream or not that's their decision and their taste. But I
have to believe in the songs when I'm singing them for it to be real
to me. And the most crucial thing for me is that I want it to be real."

And real is probably the best adjective to describe John Mellencamp as
"rock star." Despite what the misguided Tony DeFries attempted to do
to him many years ago, Mellencamp has never been a manufactured pop
star. To paraphrase Popeye, he is what he is and that's all that he
is. Most importantly, his concerns and the things his music reflects
are very real. Although his physical appearance has changed slightly
he currently has much longer hair than he's had in years, ("I got a
Beatle cut again," he laughs. "I've always called long hair a Beatle
cut.") he could almost be the same (basically) rock 'n' roll nobody
I first met eight years ago. There's still that ambivalent mix of
humility and cockiness (which has often been the yin and yang of some
great rock 'n' roll) on display but the attitude is generally more
refreshing than you'll find in some younger, less experienced "rock
stars" (or even some older ones suffering ego problems). There has
been a maturing process at work here.

"I now realize that you can't go through life and expect that you're
going to beat it up," he says, graciously making no mention of Sean
Penn, "because you re not. I've met guys in younger bands sometimes
and I'll have no attitude towards them but they'll have an attitude.
But I have to think it's because it's theirs, and they're very
protective of that. I think a lot of musicians start out feeling that
they've got to prove something. I know I did. I had a real attitude
when I was first starting out, that I had to beat my way through
things. But after awhile, you realize that the only person you're
kidding is yourself."

In fact, a maturing process is what John seems to think The Lonesome
Jubilee might be all about. And just as the Ecclesiastes quote inside
the album explains (the same quote, by the way, that Hemingway used
for the title of his first novel), it's a maturing process that
everyone must eventually face. Adult rock 'n' roll is a concept I once
thought should be a contradiction in terms. And yet, during the past
several years, a few artists have produced just that...pure rock 'n'
roll that is basically written for grown-ups. That doesn't mean that a
grown-up can't listen to, say, 'Something Else' and continue to get a
lot out of it. After all, most of us still haven't obtained that
perfect dream Eddie Cochran was symbolizing underneath it all but,
for many of us, that dream has changed from what it once was. Lou Reed
is an artist who produces adult rock 'n' roll. John Cougar Mellencamp
is now another. And that isn't to say that a kid can't get into his
music based solely on the music alone. You don't even have to listen
to the lyrics. But if you do...

"I think you have to be 35 to understand these songs," he laughs.
"When I sing about Jackson Jackson (in 'The Real Life') unless you
know what it's like to spend your whole life or the majority of your
young adulthood doing what you're supposed to do, then you can't
relate to it. Because some of these young guys are thinking, 'Well,
I'm doing what I want to do' but that's not true. They're doing what
they're supposed to do. Jackson Jackson is based on my Uncle Jay. He
said those exact words to me one time at the Red Lobster here in
Bloomington. He and his wife got a divorce. She was 14 and he was 17
when they got married and he said, 'Man, I have done exactly what
I'm supposed to my whole life. I married this girl when she was 14 I
didn't love her. We had kids. We raised the kids. I stayed there. I
worked every f day pouring concrete. Now I'm in my 40s, and I want
to do something for myself.' And I asked, 'Well, what do you have in
mind?' He said, 'I don't know.' You can't be 21, though, and relate to
that. I mean, I look back on my life now and you look back on your
life and you realize that we hardly ever really get to do what we
wnated to do. Suddenly, it's 17 turns 35 and how can someone 21
understand that?"

But isn't 'The Real Life' also about holding onto the rebellious
because spirit at middle age?
"Well, it's about holding onto wanting to be alive. So many people,
they just quit. It's like, 'I'm done. Stick a fork in my ass because
I'm finished.' But I don't think anyone really wants to be that way. I
think people just get tired. And it's easier. See, young people won't
understand that. I would've never understood that 10 years ago. 'Man,
what are you talking about, you're tired? I've got energy to burn, and
you're tired?' But now I'm 35, and I know what it's like to be tired.
It's sometimes like 'What am I doing in this rat race?' And you can't
even understand the rat race unless you've been in it for 20 years."

The Lonesome Jubilee isn't just about middle-aged disillusionment,
although there is plenty of that, from Jackson Jackson to the sad
Sister (in 'Hard Times For An Honest Man'), who put the walls around
her heart after years of emotional abuse. On the other hand, "this
album is full of hope," says John and there's plenty here on how to
best deal with bad situations through compassion, acceptance and hope
for the future.

And speaking of future generations, 'Rooty Toot Toot', the LP's
final track includes an inside joke in that the song's main
character is named after Mellencamp's middle daughter, Teddi Jo.

"That song was a nursery rhyme that I wrote for her," he explains.
"Teddi Jo said, 'Dad, how come you never use my name in one of your
songs?' My youngest daughter's name is Justice, so she said 'You used
Justice, and you used Michelle' because Michelle's middle name is
Suzanne 'so I want you to write me a special song.' So I wrote
'Rooty Toot Toot' as a nursery rhyme. It didn't even have music. I
showed it to Larry, and he said, 'That's a good little, uplifting
story' so we arranged it into a song and put it on the record."

Finally, like Scarecrow, the album reflects John's social concerns.
One of the issues that seems to be on his mind these days, if the
album is any indication, is the idea of racism in America, a subject
that's reflected in the two videos he and the band recently produced
for the LP in Savannah, Georgia.

"We drove around Savannah for a day looking for different locations.
People in the South are real poor, and I wanted to show that. Like in
'Paper In Fire' where it says 'The dream burnt up,' I wanted to try to
show the most burnt-up dream in the world. So we found that street,
and it just turned out that it was also the oldest street in Savannah.
The oldest street in Savannah, and still, in 1987, it is not paved. No
concrete. It's a dirt street in downtown Savannah.

"And for the next video, we shot 'Hard Times For An Honest Man' on the
steps of where they auctioned off the slaves when they would come up
off the boat from Africa. It was gruesome. Scary and gruesome."

They actually publicize that they auctioned slaves there?

"Yeah. But now they've turned the slave headquarters into designer
boutiques." He laughs. "Ain't that America?"

Before we end our conversation, I tell John about the Sons Of
Mellencamp the acoustic duo comprised of Gregg Turner and "Metal"
Mike Saunders, two rock critics who also front the Angry Samoans (see
this month's Newbeats section). "I've heard about them," says John. "I
thought it was pretty funny." I explain that the act is funny but
respectful; these guys are big Mellencamp fans. The Samoans are
probably closer to the punk element than most people would associate
with Mellencamp, although earlier in the interview he said in
reference to critics Chuck Eddy and Chuck Young: "A lot of kids don't
like music unless it clears the room. I think that's good. lt's like
'This is your music.' I did the same thing when I was a kid." But
since they're such big fans, John graciously consented to answer a few
questions the Sons Of Mellencamp sent along to ask "Dad," the best of
which included...

How and where would a person hear the Stooges in Indiana in 1971?
"Well, you'd read about them in CREEM that's where I discovered
them. And then you'd go to this record store down in Kentucky, and
you'd browse the records that had dust on them."

What kind of guitars and amps do (Mike) Wanchic and Crane use onstage
to get the standard John Cougar Mellencamp sound?
"Well, Fender Telecasters. They'll switch their amps around, but
usually it's the old tube Ampeg amps. Every now and then, when we wrap
a headband around our heads, we'll use a Marshall. But a small
Marshall, a studio Marshall. Sometimes Larry says 'C'mon, let's plug
in this 150-watter and see what it'll do,' but it never works out for
our sound."

On Rhino's Bobby Fuller Four albums, there's a credit with your name
on it. Why?
"Because I mentioned his name in 'R.O.C.K. In The U.S.A.' When I
played in Albuquerque, I think it was, his mom and some of his family
came down to see me play. They acted like I gave them 60 million
dollars just for mentioning his name. They gave me his belt that he
died in."

Did the stand-up bass that Toby Myers uses come from hillbilly or jazz
"I think both. But if you really know Toby Myers, and you talk to him,
I'd have to say that he's a hillbilly."

Why'd you decide to use fiddle and mandolins so prominently?
"I just enjoy the sound of them. When they're played well, they sound
great. When they're played with heart, you can't beat them."

Did the keyboard player cry when you took away his synthesizer and
gave him a Vox, which is a superior instrument?
"No, I tell you, John Cascella's been playing with me for a long time,
and I don't think that guy's ever complained about one single,
solitary thing. His personality is 'I'm a team player, and whatever
you want to do, let's do it.' You know, he was embarrassed to tell us
on the Scarecrow record that he was an accordion player and he was
like the state accordion-playing champion of New Jersey in 1964 or
'65. He's from this big Italian family, and a third generation player.
So he's definitely going to be playing electric accordion on this tour."

What's your favorite Velvet Underground song?
"Well, I've got two. 'Sister Ray' and 'Sweet Jane'. I'd have to say
'Sweet Jane', though, because if I had to list my Top 10 rock 'n' roll
songs ever written, 'Sweet Jane' would be one of them."

What's your favorite Stooges song?
"Well, I'm almost embarrassed to say my favorite Stooges song is
'Search & Destroy'. I think my second favorite is '1969'."

What's your favorite Bobby Fuller song?
"Well, I'd have to say the hit. 'I Fought The Law'."

And if you were on the Grand Ole Opry in 1956, and they told you the
electric bass was the new thing, and to get rid of your acoustic bass,
mandolin and fiddle, what would you say?
"I'd say 'Forget it, man.' I'd say 'If I don't play this instrument,
then do I not go on? Because if I have to play this instrument, I
probably won't be there, bye.' "

These Sons Of Mellencamp are pretty funny guys.
"The first time I saw it, I just thought it was hilarious. You know
me. I'm always up for a joke. I haven't transcended out of that
college prankster stage yet."

Even as a grown-up...

And so, the final appropriate question for John Cougar Mellencamp
seemed to be: does he feel vindicated now that he's finally totally
accepted after all these years?
"That stuff doesn't matter anymore," he says without hesitation. "I
don't really think about that. The bottom line is I'm really too old
to concern myself with it. I mean, I like it. I'm glad that these
people all like the record. But the reality is: I'm 35 years old. I've
got a wife. I've got three kids. I've got a life of my own. I've
somehow transcended all that. I don't mean to sound arrogant or
anything like that but that's just the way it is."

Seventeen turns 35. It's not what a lot of people might have expected.
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