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Author Topic: Bloom Magazine Ghost Brothers Feature  (Read 4613 times)
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« on: October 11, 2013, 02:55:26 pm »

Sunday Morning with Mellencamp

With the premiere tour looming for
Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, his
theatrical collaboration with Stephen King
and T Bone Burnett, the rock and roll hall
of famer sat down at his lakeside home
with Bloom’s Mike Leonard to talk
about his life-changing experience.

By Mike Leonard

It’s a steamy Sunday morning on Labor Day
weekend and pickup trucks towing boats are
lumbering to and from Lake Monroe on the
winding stretch of road near John Mellencamp’s
hillside home.

I pull up to the intercom outside the
imposing iron gate at the entrance to the
Mellencamp compound, announce myself, and
a pulley system grinds and grumbles as it pulls
the gate back to allow me inside. It’s a pleasant,
verdant drive through woods to his home meandering
past the remodeled old house Mellencamp now uses
as a painting studio and around a corner to where a
wooden gazebo sits and Adirondack chairs are neatly
arranged on a grassy patch offering a panoramic view of
Indiana’s largest lake.

A house attendant opens the castle-like doors
and I step inside and hear Mellencamp shout a
hello. His 18-year-old son Speck passes shirtless
through the kitchen off to the left, fixing himself
a bowl of cereal; he’ll soon be headed out to the
Rhode Island School of Design where he was
accepted for his painting acumen. Son Hud, 19,
a sophomore, is already off at Duke University
and a member of the football squad. He recently
phoned his father to report that even though a
walk-on, he hopes to soon be playing on special

With girlfriend Meg Ryan out of town and
just father and son in residence, the Mediterranean-style
home feels vast and peaceful. Dressed
casually in a navy blue T-shirt and grey full-leg
athletic pants, Mellencamp is relaxed and

We step out onto the patio above the pool
that overlooks Lake Monroe, but Mellencamp
decides that the sound of frequently passing
motorboats might drown out parts of the
interview I’ll be recording. He directs me
instead to the billiards room where the table is
neatly set with a rack of red snooker balls. He
closes the sturdy, glass-pocket doors behind us.

The Play’s The Thing

The familiarity formed from numerous past
interviews makes “How’s it goin’?” a natural
place to start. He asks me if I’m going to keep
my “Boomers versus Seniors charity basketball
game going since there is no longer much
distinction between the two age groups. I
complain that I can’t reliably make a layup
anymore. He responds by recalling that he set
the school record in the 100-yard dash at
Seymour High School. Now, he says, he asks his
trainer to stand in one place so he can be sure
that he’s moving when he runs sprints as part of
his workout regimen. “My mind’s doing all the
shit that makes me think I’m running fast, but
now it’s like, that’s terrible. You can’t do shit,” he
says with a grimace.

The purpose of my being here is to talk
about Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, the
“play with music” that begins a 20-show regional
tour October 10 at the Indiana University
Auditorium and passes back through for a
second night on October 23. I chuckle and
recall an interview we did years ago at his
Belmont Mall recording studio when I watched
him excitedly pull out lyric sheets for this same
project and call out to band leader, Mike
Wanchic, to play a couple of audio demos
they’d recorded. “How long ago?”

“I think we’ve got thirteen years on it,”
Mellencamp says. “The reason it’s taken so long
is because we still view it as a work in progress.
We’ve had one offer to make it into a movie
already. We turned it down because we don’t
think it’s ready.” He’s also received an offer for a
limited Broadway run this winter. Same
response. “Not ready,” he says. Still evolving.
“You know,” he adds with a matter-of-fact
tone, “Art is never done. It’s only abandoned.”

The quote originates with Leonardo da
Vinci and accurately describes the 13-year
process of taking an idea to writer Stephen King,
envisioned as a theatrical piece, and then
moving the concept along through wholly
unfamiliar territory. Mellencamp has compared
it in the past to Sisyphus pushing that boulder
up the hill—but without the “deserved punishment”
component of the Greek he continues. “Very complicated,
a lot of characters, mythological tale.

Tough Guys Don’t Dance

Laid-back morning aside, Mellencamp seems
genuinely excited by the prospect of launching
the latest incarnation of Ghost Brothers at the IU
Auditorium in his adopted hometown. “What
you’re going to see in Bloomington, it’s 180
degrees different than what we put on in
Atlanta,” he says. The theatrical production
opened there to mixed but predominantly
positive reviews in a month-long run at Atlanta’s
Alliance Theatre in the spring of 2012.

“We put on a traditional Broadway show-ish
thing in Atlanta,” he says. “We found out from
Atlanta that having people act out the story is
not necessary. What’s necessary is for the
audience to hear the story. So we’ve turned it
into the equivalent of a modern-day radio show.
So there’ll be actors on stage, obviously, and
they’ll be in costume, and they’ll be saying that
they’re going to be telling the audience a story.

“It’s a very complicated Stephen King story,”
he continues. “Very complicated, a lot of characters,
and, you know, we had to take so much out
in Atlanta. People had to physically walk from
here to there, and that took time. So all this
physical movement was just, come on, get on
with it.”

While Mellencamp has acting experience,
including having starred in and directed Falling
From Grace
, a 1992 film written by Larry
McMurtry, he does not plan to perform in any
incarnation of Ghost Brothers. It is not an acting
vehicle for him.

At various points in our rambling conversa-
tion he emphasizes, lowering his voice for a
deadpan delivery, “There’s no dancing.”

A Terrifying Tale

This particular melding of story and song has
been a bit of a horse of a different color from the

It started with Mellencamp being enthralled
by a chilling story he was told after he bought an
old country house—colloquially, a cabin—near
what once was a small lake in the area dammed
and flooded to create Lake Monroe. After the
sale, he says, the seller casually mentioned that
the place was believed to be haunted by a
tragedy a generation earlier, involving rival
brothers and the woman both wanted. One
brother accidently killed the other, then he and
the girl died in an accident while driving toward
town to report what had happened.

A genuine Greek tragedy in the Hoosier

King was intrigued by the eerie story and the
opportunity to develop a plotline about relatives
of the brothers possibly destined to re-enact the
same fate with a sibling feud and a femme
fatale. The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and
the literary world’s master of the macabre met
up several times and threw songs and scripts
back and forth as they continued on with their
own albums, tours, books, and screen adapta-
tions that mostly define their respective careers.
“It’s kind of like a hobby-job for us,”
Mellencamp says. “I wouldn’t trade the
experience because Steve and I have become
like brothers. We have great admiration for each
other. I’m not a collaborator and Steve’s not a
collaborator, and we’ve been able to work
together for thirteen years and never have a
harsh word with each other. We both think it’s

Mellencamp smiles and chuckles as he talks
about the process. He still smokes, despite a
1994 heart attack. “You know,” he says at one
point, “Johnny Carson said cigarettes never hurt
his health, either, until they killed him.”
Whether it was just this particular lazy
Sunday morning or an indication of true
change, Mellencamp smoked fewer American
Spirit cigarettes than I’ve ever seen him do in
the past. Over our 90 minutes together, he even
had to relight a few times. Years ago, it wasn’t
uncommon to see him smoke a cigarette down
to the end and light a new one off the butt.

“At first I really felt funny telling the greatest,
or at least the best-selling, author, maybe ever,
‘Hey, your story’s not working here. I’m not
seeing it,’” he says about his collaboration with
King. “And he’d go, ‘Yeah, it is.’ And he’d tell
me why it’s working, and I’d watch it and go,
‘You’re right. It works.’ And vice versa, he’d go,
‘John, I don’t know about that song.’ And my
response was always the same: ‘So fuck that, I’ll
write another one. I’m not married to that song.’
That’s kind of both of our attitudes. ‘Okay, I’m
not married to that. Let’s change it.’”

For two accomplished artists not accustomed
to collaborations, the give-and-take has been

T Bone Comes Aboard

Still, Mellencamp and King both have said in
interviews that bringing on musician and
producer T Bone Burnett was what really pulled
the music and story together. “T Bone’s been
great for Ghost Brothers because he’s been able
to take, you know, what he does with my songs
and my records and he’s been able to do that
with Ghost Brothers. He’s been able to kind of
round them up and put them all together so
they make sense together.”

Mellencamp explains that he never really
had a producer with whom he could communi-
cate musician-to-musician until he teamed with
Burnett for his 2008 album, Life, Death, Love
and Freedom
. Long admired both for his own
music and production skills, Burnett’s produc-
tion resume has steadily grown in stature. His
film credits include “musical archivist” for the
1998 film The Big Lebowski and musical
director and producer for Crazy Heart, Walk the
, and O Brother, Where Art Thou?—all giant
hits notable for their music. His work on albums
includes the Robert Plant and Alison Krauss
collaboration on Raising Sand and the
platinum-selling Tony Bennett and k.d. lang
duet album, A Wonderful World. Twelve
Grammy Awards are ample evidence the guy
knows what he’s doing.

The Ghost Brothers CD released in June not
only demonstrates Mellencamp’s ability to write
songs that don’t sound like Mellencamp songs
but showcase a “who’s who” of artists who give
each song their own signature stamp. Elvis
Costello was a natural choice for the devilish
character The Shape, Neko Case is the brassy
character Anna, and Sheryl Crow surprises with
the sweetness with which she sings as Jenna.
Artists including Kris Kristofferson, Rosanne Cash,
Taj Mahal, and Ryan Bingham also contribute to the
singular sound of the album.

Mellencamp performs only one song on the
soundtrack and sings with his most gravelly, sage
tone on “Truth,” which serves as a kind of
epilogue to the play. It is enhanced by the
unadorned harmonies of Lily and Madeleine
Jurkiewicz, sisters from Indianapolis.

The best line regarding the making of the
soundtrack album comes from Dave Alvin,
however, who was chosen for inclusion in the
musical mix with his brother, Phil, in part
because of the legendary feuds they had as
leaders of the roots rock band, The Blasters.
“I get to kill my brother and Sheryl Crow is my
girlfriend? Sign me up!” he told Los Angeles
in June.

The Plot

Ghost Brothers of Darkland County is set in tiny,
fictional Lake Belle Reve, Mississippi, a place
with more natural Gothic overtones than
college-town Bloomington. Mellencamp’s songs
do not move the plot along, per se, as often
occurs in operas and plays. They are more like
character studies—sidebars, in a way—that give
insight into the contentious and prideful
McCandless brothers, who perished 40 years
ago, and their living relatives, who could be
headed down the same path. In Ghost Brothers,
the surviving sibling, Joe McCandless, gathers
his family to tell them the backstory of what
really happened in 1967 with the hope that,
with knowledge, they can avoid the same, awful

The ghosts and the living occupy the same
stage and engage in dialogue and song
throughout the play. The ghosts are clearly
defined by the focused stage lighting—a blue
glow surrounds them in the stage directions in
the libretto. Enlivening the drama are two
additional characters: a boisterous radio
announcer called The Zydeco Cowboy, and the
crude and irreverent The Shape, who functions
like mischievous Puck in Shakespeare and
English mythology and wisecracks like the devil
directly to the audience.

With ghosts, a feuding family, otherworldly
characters, and macabre plot twists, it seems safe
to say that Stephen King is in his element even
if musical theater isn’t his usual art form. His
characters are well drawn and their dialogue is
feisty, realistic, and to-the-point. That’s no
surprise, given that the prolific writer has
penned a passel of bestsellers and sold more
than 350 million books, with many of his stories
adapted for movies and television.

Mellencamp likens himself and King to a
couple of old bulls in a slightly raunchy old
joke. The moral of the story is that with age
comes patience and wisdom. To illustrate the
point, Mellencamp tells me that King first wrote
a version of the novel on which the hugely
successful TV drama Under the Dome is based
in 1972. He revised it a decade later, went after
it again in the latter part of the last decade and
finally saw it published as a novel in 2009.
“Now, it’s the most successful show on
television,” Mellencamp says with a back-and-
forth nod suggesting, “go figure.”

“Steve just knows that the world does not
turn on our time schedule,” Mellencamp says.
“How could he have ever dreamt that four years,
five years ago, it would be the number one show
in the country, maybe the world?”

King, 66, has told interviewers how much he
enjoys the collaboration and spirit behind Ghost
Brothers. Like Mellencamp, who turned 62 on
October 7, he is a firm believer that new
challenges keep his mind and skills sharp. “John
can make rock and roll records and I can write
books for the rest of our lives,” he notes in the
preface to the Ghost Brothers libretto. “But that’s
the safe way to do it. You dig yourself a rut and
then you furnish it, and that’s no way to live—
not if you want to stay creative.”

Mellencamp insists that people who know
his work, including me, and others who might
have preconceived notions of what they will see,
should just throw those notions out the window
before coming to the theater. “I can assure you,
you are wrong,” he says. “Because we couldn’t
even imagine where we’re at now. We couldn’t
have made this thirteen years ago. Just couldn’t
have done it. It’s like me writing something off
Life, Death, Love and Freedom. I couldn’t have
written those songs when I was 23 years old. Just
couldn’t have done it. I didn’t have the

“My first half dozen records, I was just trying
to entertain people. It took me time to find my
voice. So Ghost Brothers is the same way,” he
goes on. “It’s started to find its voice and it’s
unique and it’s different and it’s something we
won’t give up on. It’s not art abandoned. We will
not abandon it until every avenue is closed
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