Speaking the Plain Truth
At 63 John Mellencamp looks and sounds like he’s missed more than a few scheduled maintenance appointments. During a recent appearance on Late Night With David Letterman, Mellencamp displayed the lines etched around his eyes and across his high forehead, and the gravel he carries around in his throat. Put him in a pair of overalls and he could easily be mistaken for a sun-baked farmer fresh from the plow, a perpetual cigarette clenched in his lips. In this case it was Mellencamp’s right hand clutching the smoke, which Letterman eyed warily each time his guest reached for the desk to flick an ash. It was an odd and funny scene. Mellencamp brought up the fact that both of them had had heart attacks. Letterman, possibly confusing Mellencamp’s mild heart attack with one that killed Morphine’s Mark Sandman onstage in Italy in 1999, suggested Mellencamp’s occurred onstage in Japan when, in fact, it happened sometime during his 1994 Dance Naked tour, maybe in New York. Mellencamp didn’t know for sure. “You don’t know when you have those things,” he said. Flick. Scoffing at his doctors. Lighting up wherever. Fighting authority. It was classic Mellencamp. Mellencamp was in New York with his band as part of a tour that visits the Embassy Theatre in Fort Wayne on Saturday, June 6. The Bloomington, Indiana resident will perform some songs from Plain Spoken, his 22nd release, as well as many of the hits that defined a decade. He still likes to rock, but these days there’s more roll involved. Plain Spoken is the third record Mellencamp has made with T Bone Burnett who, according to Mellencamp, gave him the best advice he’s had in recent years: be age appropriate. On the record Mellencamp stays with the themes that have served him so well over the past 30 years. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. His songs focus on the struggles of daily existence in whatever form those struggles take. In his case he is working to be the best John Mellencamp he can be. Many artists his age find that their creative well is drying up year by year. This is not the case with Mellencamp. But he no longer claims responsibility for the songs he writes. They just come to him from someplace and he merely jots them down. When he’s not writing songs, he’s painting, a talent he may have pursued earlier if things had worked out differently. In the mid 1970s Mellencamp left his hometown of Seymour, Indiana to move to New York. He had played in several bands around Seymour and wanted to see if he could make it in the big city. At the same time he was trying to save money to go to art school. Music won. He got a record deal, and a new name. He was happy about the first and not so happy about the second. By the time he found out that he was going to be known as Johnny Cougar, his manager had already plastered the name on posters and on the first album. His manager, Tony DeFries (who also managed David Bowie) told him no one would buy a record by John Mellencamp. Turns out no one would buy a record by Johnny Cougar either. In an interview Mellencamp did with Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner, he mentioned the review of Chestnut Street Incident that ran in the magazine. Then Wenner read it: “Johnny Cougar is a comically inept singer who unfortunately takes himself seriously. His debut album is full of ridiculous posturing with virtually nothing to back it up. Cougar’s talent is all in his face – nice haircut, nice stylized James Dean headshot on the cover – and that makes him just another ready-made pop throwaway.” Ouch. Some guys might have cashed it in at that point. His label dropped him. People thought he was a joke. But he kept at. He had left Seymour because he was running out of options. He was married and had a daughter and he’d tried a bunch of blue-collar jobs that he either quit or got fired from. Going back to Seymour was not going to satisfy him. Mellencamp had been a fighter since birth. (He was born with spina bifida, and when he was days old underwent an experimental and life-saving operation.) So he found a new label and released two more records, the second of which, Johnny Cougar, struck a chord with the song “I Need a Lover.” In 1982 his fifth record, American Fool, went to No.1. With his sudden yet hard-won success, Mellencamp slowly began to regain and discover his identity simultaneously. His next record, 1983’s Uh Huh, was by John Cougar Mellencamp. It took another eight years before the Cougar part of his name would wander off for good. His success earned him the freedom to pursue his obsession with perfection. Always determined to have things his own way, he now had the weight of his fame to make people respond to his worldview. Mellencamp would wander through an auditorium before a show and tweak the stage setup or the sound. He worked tirelessly on his writing to create songs that would get on the radio. He wanted his music to be heard. Otherwise what good was it? He told Wenner he knew early on that he wasn’t going to have the support of the rock world or the critics. So he would neutralize them with success. It was never cool to like Johnny Cougar or John Mellencamp, he said. But all that has changed. Mellencamp, by sheer force of his will and talent, is cool. And sold-out shows on the current 80-city tour prove it. He long ago abandoned vast and impersonal stadium shows for more intimate venues like the Embassy. The move mirrors the shift in his writing and fits well with his tight band, most of whom have been playing with him for decades. He showcased that band and the songs on Plain Spoken with a show on iHeart Radio last September in his studio in Belmont, Indiana. All of the records he has made since 1984 were made in that studio. The small crowd in attendance leaned against the walls, sat on plastic chairs or on the floor in the shadows of the darkened studio and listened as Mellencamp told stories and, with his band, rolled through age-appropriate versions of his expanding catalog. It was classic Mellencamp, in his element and in full control of his vast talent.