(Author’s note: John Mellencamp lives in a mansion built in south-central Indiana’s beautiful rural woods. It’s off a two-lane county road near Bloomington, Ind., and Indiana University. His stardom skyrocketed during my four years at Indiana. I left copies of my articles about him, including one where my roommate and I found his isolated Belmont studio – then were chased by a neighbor’s furious dog — at his home’s gate.
I always asked for an interview with each article. One afternoon, his manager called and told me John would be available for an interview the next day. When I arrived, Mellencamp shouted, “So, you’re the one who keeps leaving articles at my door!” He shook my hand. “C’mon, sit down, let’s talk.” )
BELMONT, Ind. – He slides off his sunglasses, then uses two fingers to roll back the waves of his hair. Dressed casually in jeans and plain navy blue T-shirt, John Cougar Mellencamp lights an ever-present cigarette, giving the studio’s control room an even more ghostly feel.
Through the glass behind him, in a dorm-sized room, Mellencamp reached his personal and musical maturity. It was there that the cocky 35-year-old Bloomington resident transformed from a Midwestern rocker with a chip on his shoulder to a Midwestern rocker with a gift for describing middle America deftly and touchingly. And the chip on his shoulder remains.
At the deeply rural Belmont Mall, Mellencamp spoke Tuesday afternoon about his success – the new hit album, “The Lonesome Jubilee”; an upcoming worldwide tour; and his likely starring role in a movie.
His passion now is on “Jubilee.”
“It’s probably the best record that I’ve ever made,” he said. “If you took all my best songs on my previous albums, I don’t think they match this record.”
Many of “The Lonesome Jubilee’s” songs were written shortly after the conclusion of last spring’s “Scarecrow” tour. But the Seymour, Ind., native said the album’s theme of a common man’s despair and hope was conceived well in advance.
“Instead of talking about what bar they went to last night, we spent a lot of time talking about the record (during the ‘Scarecrow’ tour),” Mellencamp said. “We visualized, talked about and intellectualized what we wanted this record to sound like. I’ve never done that before.”
He called “Down and Out in Paradise” the most fun song he’s ever recorded – “One take,” he said – and “Check It Out” as his favorite song on the album.
“I’m finally at the point where I can listen to this album as a listener. I sit and listen to the record and think, ‘That kind of sounds like an old Band record.’ Or I’ll get another feeling three measures later.”
Filming in Savannah, Ga., the band used a background of rural poverty for the “Paper in Fire” video. That experience left its mark on Mellencamp, as he sat amidst sheds that cost $30 a month to live in.
“That’s a real street right in the middle of town. It’s a pitiful lifestyle. It’s so awful that it looks like a movie set. But we just walked in and set up.”
Mellencamp will perform in Farm Aid III later this month, but he knows the event’s results are minimal. The politicians, he feels, aren’t listening to the message.
“I’m not defeated,” he said. “I’m just disgusted.”
After appearing before a Senate subcommittee with Farm Aid organizer Willie Nelson last year, Mellencamp realized big business and its corporate farming idea may squash the family farmer. The senators seemed uncaring to this development.
“Fourteen senators were suppose to be there and only six showed up,” Mellencamp said. “This one guy (a corporate farm supporter) came in, saw Willie and me and said, ‘If you’re not going to do some pickin’ and singin,’ I’m just going to leave.’”
Mellencamp’s distaste for big business may stem from his own record company troubles early in his career. Now, he won’t allow any of his music to be used for anything but projects he believes in.
“There was this horrible, horrible movie with one of these ‘Brat Pack’ kids in it and they wanted one of my songs for it. They offered me all kinds of things – cars, money. But I still almost had to physically fistfight to stop it.”
Commercials are out, too, for him.
“I didn’t write my songs to have someone breakdance in front of a Coke can.”
What caused Mellencamp to become a thinking person’s songwriter? The reaction to “Pink Houses,” he said.
“I was inundated with people who acted like that song meant so much to them. To me, when I wrote it, it was just another song,” he said. “Sometimes, I’ll write a song and say this is not even honest, and I won’t put it on the record – like ‘Jack and Diane.’ My only No. 1 record, and I didn’t want to put it on the album, because I didn’t think it was honest.”
Mellencamp, the father of three daughters, has also mellowed in the last few years, coinciding with upcoming middle age and the responsibility of a family.
“I don’t drink. I don’t take drugs. Going to a bar and seeing a bunch of drunk people is not that enjoyable. I like staying at home.”
Mellencamp talked at length about his oldest daughter, Michelle, 16, and her free-spirited manner, causing her dad some hairy moments.
“I was 18 years old when she was born, and she didn’t have much parenting at that time. Ol’ John didn’t have a job. I can understand her irresponsible nature, because her father was pretty irresponsible in his formative years, too.
After touring this fall and winter, Mellencamp will return to Bloomington where he might be starring in the film, “Riding the Cage.”
“We’re 95 percent certain on the movie going to production, but that five percent is a big percent. I’m not learning any script yet.
“I’d play a country singer who comes back to his hometown and falls in love with his brother’s wife. If you’ve seen ‘Terms of Endearment,’ it follows along that type of human drama.”
(Author’s note: The movie was made and enjoyed rave reviews. It’s called “Falling from Grace” and was released in 1992.)
Living in Bloomington has been kind to Mellencamp. Residents respect his privacy, he said, and very few try to jump his home’s fence. Fame, though, is more difficult to deal with.
“I never really connect personally with the number of records sold and if they really like the album.
“There was a great review in the Village Voice. The guy just loved ‘Scarecrow.’ It was funny for me to read the guy write, ‘If I’ve ever had a religious experience, it was when I drove Highway 69 in Indiana, listening to ‘Scarecrow.’
“I thought that was weird that someone would think that. I’ve had those experiences with rock and roll, but I never really think people are having them with my record.”