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Author Topic: 1997 LA Times Article  (Read 4492 times)
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« on: August 19, 2011, 09:31:29 am »

Life Goes On : Doing the Best He Can, John Mellencamp Holds On, From 'American Fool' to 'Mr. Happy Go Lucky'

May 31, 1997

"American Fool" was the album that vaulted John Mellencamp to rock stardom 15 years ago. Now, at 45, he has been acting like the American rock star with his head screwed on closest to straight.

Mellencamp recently finished doing exactly what you'd figure every fabulously wealthy, super-famous rock star would do, but somehow never does. He turned his winter-spring tour into a pleasant working vacation by shunning one-night stands in vast arenas in favor of three- to five-night runs in theaters.

Instead of the numbing, time-consuming one-nighters, set up, do a sound check-- and, as Mellencamp puts it, "spend all day in a locker room"--he could do preparatory chores on the first day in a city, then have fun for the stay.

"It was great," the Indiana-based singer said last week over the phone from a vacation home in South Carolina, where he was resting up for a month of traditional one-nighters, including tonight's show at Irvine Meadows.

"I would show up at 9 o'clock if I had to be on stage at 9:15. I had the day to go around and enjoy Boston, for example. I'd been there a million times and never gotten to enjoy the city. I'd been to the arena and the Four Seasons, and that's it."

Mellencamp thus struck a rare blow against rock's ethos of profit-maximization uber alles. He played more shows to accommodate fans, and he acknowledges catching flak for charging premium ticket prices of up to $100. (Profits may not have been maximized, but they certainly were part of the plan. Mellencamp says corporate sponsorship would have lowered prices, but he has a rule against being a marketing tool.)

In return, Mellencamp gave fans good acoustics and a more intimate and comfortable experience, while avoiding the empty hours and zombification factor of arena one-nighters--a departure quite understandable for a rocker who, after a heart attack three years ago, probably learned to count his hours more dearly.

When he released his current album, "Mr. Happy Go Lucky," in September, Mellencamp was sure he wouldn't tour. "There was no way you could make me," he said. "But before Christmas some friends said, 'What do you mean you're not going to play? It's what you do best.' So I said, 'If you can figure out a way I don't have to play in arenas, I'll do it.' "

Mellencamp says that the theater tour made money and that his manager and booking agent have fielded calls from handlers of other artists eager to learn the ins and outs of escaping the arena grind.

Mellencamp's forthcoming month of gigs in big amphitheaters brings him back to business as usual. But he says at least outdoor "sheds" allow him to enjoy sunlight and fresh air.

While making his touring life bearable (for the first time, he has made a rule of bringing along wife Elaine and their two toddler sons), Mellencamp has kept his artistry fresh on "Mr. Happy Go Lucky," his 14th album. It's distinguished by a successful, subtly interwoven, organic-sounding linkage of his folk- and blues-based songwriting to rhythmic accents culled from the world of hip-hop.

Mellencamp, who has long enjoyed the sound, if not the content, of rap, tried to incorporate hip-hop beats in a very limited way on two albums, "Human Wheels" and "Dance Naked." With the help of Junior Vasquez, a New York City DJ and dance mix specialist, he got the combination to click on his new album.

But creativity had its casualties: Kenny Aronoff, the respected drummer who had been with Mellencamp since 1977, didn't warm to the new style.

"I think there were some hurt emotions during the making of this record," Mellencamp said; he and Aronoff split on friendly terms after it was finished. His new tour drummer is Dane Clark; the tour band also features keyboards player Moe 2 MD, a Long Beach musician with a rap background; violinist Miriam Sturm; lead guitarist Andy York, and a trio of Mellencamp veterans: guitarist Mike Wanchic, bassist Toby Myers and backing singer Pat Peterson.

In concert, Mellencamp is taking a play-the-hits approach, with a few songs from the new album. "If it was up to me, and we weren't going to charge people, I could play the whole new record. But I know when I would go see a band, and they wouldn't play the songs I wanted them to play, I was pissed off.

"I think it's very selfish of an artist like [David] Bowie to say, 'I'm not going to play the old stuff.' He can play Madison Square Garden to a half house, because people want to hear [expletive] 'Suffragette City.' I don't want to play a half house."

Mellencamp does get reactions, though, when "Jack and Diane" branches into a rap segment.

"I can look at the older audience and they're going, 'What the [expletive] are you doing? Have you lost your mind?' By the time it's over, they get it, they enjoy it, but at the start, it's, 'What have you done with this song?' "

Like many over-40 stars who peaked in the 1980s, when his reported sales routinely topped 4 million, Mellencamp's chart standing fell in the '90s. "Mr. Happy Go Lucky" was recently certified as platinum, meaning a million copies have been shipped to retailers, though not necessarily sold.

He began the decade with "Whenever We Wanted," an album he dismisses as "terrible," made halfheartedly when he had grown disillusioned with rock, his second marriage was failing, and his energy gravitated toward painting.

"Whenever We Wanted" was Mellencamp's farewell to the straight, Stones-influenced rock style that had made him a star; three releases since have explored different sounds and arrangements without breaking from his familiar songwriting approaches.

"I was talking to Bob Dylan one time, and he said it best. 'You write the same five songs 5,000 times.' My songs are little teeny folk songs."

On "Mr. Happy Go Lucky," Mellencamp ranges, as usual, between close-in portraits of everyday people and the big, philosophical statements that have--sometimes--worked for him.

This time, they work well, perhaps because Mellencamp had extra grist for his philosophizing: He had come through what had been described in the media as a mild heart attack, suffered on tour in 1994.

"There's no mild heart attack. They're all serious. It was about a year and a half before I could leave the house."

Now he pays more attention to his health and writes songs such as "Circling Around the Moon" and "Large World Turning," reflections on death and impermanence, and "Life Is Hard," in which he embraces the inevitable pain of life.

"I tried not to write any songs that really dealt specifically with any health issues I have. Of course, you can't help [expressing] feelings you have inside you. Once you hit 40, your vision becomes much clearer in your personal life.

"I think you spend your 30s running around trying to figure out what you want, and I hit 40 and realized I'd already done it. When I was in my 30s, I'd say, 'Goddamn, there's got to be more to life than this.' Having that heart attack, I woke up and realized, 'There's not. This is all there is.' I realized, 'I've been doing this, and I can do it good.' When I realized there was no hidden meaning, it was much simpler."
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