By PAUL ZOLLO
He loves to paint. When he’s not writing songs and making records, he’s usually busy painting. But not because he has any great regard for his work.
“When I finish a painting,” he says, “I turn it against the wall.” He’s much the same about his songwriting-he likes to write songs, but he doesn’t particularly enjoy talking about them. Regardless, he made an exception for us and spoke at length about the creation of his words and music. His is a career that is exceptional. Starting as a singer singing other people’s music, he evolved into an ingeniously poignant and exultant songwriter, selling more than 40 million albums and receiving 11 Grammy nominations.
He was born on October 7, 1951 in Seymour, Indiana. Like many of America’s great songwriters (Lennon, Prine, Simon, Springsteen, Berry, Nyro and many others) he’s a Libra, born with an innate gift for balancing two disparate elements. In his case, and that of the other songwriters, these happen to be the delicate elements of words and music.
As a teenager he played in several rock bands. “Some people go to a bar one night a week, maybe two,” he says during our recent interview. “I was in a bar every night playing with a band.” He was the singer, and sing he did, even without playing guitar. “I was a Bob Dylan jukebox,” he says. “I could play every Bob Dylan song.”
In 1975, he moved to New York with the aim of making a living as a musician. By the next year, he had landed a record deal, but his managers decided they had to mold him into a different form and renamed him “Johnny Cougar.” The album that was released was called Chestnut Street Incident, and it consisted of other people’s songs. His second album, The Kid Inside, also consisted of covers but was never released. He was dropped from the label and soon signed with another, which released an album called A Biography. It did little to introduce Johnny Cougar to the world.
But it all shifted when his next album was released, at which time he started writing his own songs. His first hit, which was also a hit for Pat Benatar, was “I Need A Lover.” Following that, he worked with the legendary musician Steve Cropper, who produced Mellencamp’s next album, Nothin’ Matters And What If It Did-which began to prove to the world that this man was more than a pop singer. He was a bona-fide singer/songwriter. He then went out on tour with a host of bands, including KISS and the Kinks.
By 1982, he was writing the record that would put him over the top in terms of authentic popularity. The album was called American Fool, and it included two massive hits, “Jack and Diane” and “Hurts So Good,” both of which are discussed in the following interview.
In 1983 came Uh-Huh, which contained huge hits such as “Pink Houses.” By this time he was no longer Johnny Cougar, as he re-embraced his true identity and became John Cougar Mellencamp. In 1985, painfully aware of the plight of American farmers, he not only founded Farm Aid with Willie Nelson, but he put their dilemma into art and conceived the seminal album Scarecrow. He considered himself an American troubadour, as he says in the following, but with folk songs that could be translated into pop-rock songs with the addition of rock instruments. He called it “folk music with a rock drum beat.”
A succession of powerful albums followed, including The Lonesome Jubilee (1987), which soared to the top of the charts, galvanized by gritty songs such as “Paper In Fire”-featuring some of the most burning violin playing ever to be captured on a pop record. Big Daddy, containing the classic heartrending cut “Jackie Brown,” came in 1989-and then his first album in 1991 as John Mellencamp, Whenever We Wanted-energized by the hit single “Get A Leg Up.” Two years later he returned with the masterful Human Wheels, which was inspired by his life with new wife Elaine. And in 1994, he recorded a wonderful duet with the eminently soulful MeShell NdegeOcello for his Dance Naked album. NdegeOcello sang and played bass on the Van Morrison gem “Wild Night,” which became an immense hit and one of VH-1′s most played videos.
Mellencamp took a break from the madness of the music world to retreat into a happy Midwest life with his wife-a hiatus that was reflected in his next album, Mr. Happy Go Lucky (released in 1996, featuring “Key West Intermezzo (I Saw You First)” and other great songs). Mercury released two more albums, The Best That I Could Do (1978-1988), a partial career retrospective, and Rough Harvest, an accumulation of unreleased songs.
Moving to Columbia Records, he delivered his first self-titled album in 1998, John Mellencamp, followed by Cuttin’ Heads in 2001, which included the powerfully beautiful “Peaceful World.”Trouble No More followed in 2003.
My Mellencamp interview was delayed a few hours because, according to his publicist, he was “stuck on line.” But he wasn’t on his computer, rather, he was physically waiting in line to vote-as this was election day. Only days earlier, he was out playing and campaigning for what he believed in: “to make this a more tolerant country than the one we are living in now.”
But now he’s home in Bloomington, Ohio, the same small town he’s sung and written about and where he still lives with his family. He was busy writing a musical with Stephen King, having completed about half a dozen songs for it. Called The Mississippi Ghost Brothers, he told me it takes place both in the 40s and present day, and is about a family that goes back to its haunted summer home. So home seemed like a good place to start.
BLUERAILROAD: Did you grow up in a musical home?
JOHN MELLENCAMP: Yes. My grandmother could play piano, string instruments and she could sing. It was all Appalachian type stuff. And I had an older brother who played guitar and was in the choir. I was exposed to a lot of music. My dad is only 20 years older than me. When I was a kid, he was into folk music. We had Odetta records around the house. I loved folk music-from Peter, Paul & Mary to Woody Guthrie.
When you started writing songs, you already had a record deal?
Yeah. Isn’t that wild? That’s why my first songs are so crummy. [Laughter]
You were John Cougar then?
That was put on me by some manager. I went to New York and everybody said, “You sound like a hillbilly.” And I said, “Well, I am.” So that’s where he came up with that name. I was totally unaware of it until it showed up on the album jacket. When I objected it to it, he said, “Well, either you’re going to go for it, or we’re not going to put the record out.” So that was what I had to do…but I thought the name was pretty silly.
When you started writing your own songs, were your managers okay with that idea?
Yeah, I think so. There were always managers wanting to put their two cents in. But after that Johnny Cougar debacle, I pretty much rejected about everything they ever said. You know, I’ve always been an outsider. I’ve never really been part of any New York-hip or L.A.-cool scene. I’ve always been from the Midwest. I’ve stayed here and done things the way I’ve wanted to do them. I listened to people when I had to sometimes, but generally I just did things the way I wanted to do them. I wrote a song called “Minutes to Memories” a few years ago that says, “I do things my way and I pay an awfully high price.” And I still feel that way.
When you started writing songs, did it come easily to you?
No. Listen to my earlier records. You know, it takes a person a long time to find his voice. I always marvel at guys whose first records are so well-written and so well done. Take Elvis Costello’s first record. How did he do that?
Yes. Or John Prine.
Yeah, John Prine’s first record. How did that happen? So, for me, I was singing in bars. I was 14-years old, playing at college fraternities. I was singing Sam & Dave. I was the singer in the band.
Once you started writing songs, did you write a lot?
I had to, because I had a record deal. I was in a band and playing in bars when I first got a record deal, so my experience of the world in my mid-20s was being in bars all the time. We played 365 days a year.
Did you learn a lot about songwriting from playing all those covers?
I didn’t at the time. But looking back at it, I see that I did.
How did you learn to write? Was it trial and error?
Trial by fire. [Laughs] Once I started writing songs, and once I found my voice, I knew what I had to do. I saw myself as an American songwriter in the troubadour fashion; it’s just that I happened to have a rock band behind me. But if you’d heard my songs when they were originally written, they were just fragile folk songs.
Do you write words and music together?
Yes. Generally. I write the melody and the lyrics and the rhythm all at the same time. It just happens. And then sometimes I’ll go back and rewrite. Sometimes I don’t.
So often you will get an entire song all at once?
Sure. Not often. Most of the time.
Are those the best songs-the ones that come all at once?
Generally-speaking. But there are holes in those songs. I’ll hear a song I wrote many years ago called “Pink Houses” on the radio, and I’ll think, “Man, I wish I would have spent a little more time on the last verse.” I never really view my songs as done. I just think they’re abandoned. You think, ‘Okay, well, I’m in the studio now, and now it’s time to think about what the guitar player is going to do, and what the bass player is going to do, and what the drummer’s going to do.’ So once you get to that point, the song is pretty much abandoned. You’ve got to be able to roll with what these musicians try to do with the song.
Nowadays, do you write songs all the time?
Once you start writing songs, you write all the time. Everything’s a song now. It’s just a matter of looking out my window. I won’t even want to write, but I’ll think of a good idea, and I better get that down. And all of a sudden, I’ll have two or three verses in my head, and I’ll think I have to put these down on paper…because if I don’t, I’ll forget them pretty soon. I have to say that I have to write ten songs to get one good one. I’ll write ten, fifteen songs, and there won’t be a good one in the bunch.
Do you finish those, even if you don’t think they’re good ones?
I get to a point where I can see if they’re going to work or not.
How much do you have to write to make that judgment?
A verse and a chorus. The first verse and the first chorus always come easy to me. But then it’s where the song goes that I always start to make missteps. I take it in the wrong direction or get too literal about something. So it’s hard to write in a vague manner, but still be poignant. It’s very hard to do.
I’ve never really enjoyed getting too specific about topics. I always feel you have to be a really great songwriter to get specific and captivate the imagination of the listener. That’s an impossible task. There’s only a couple of guys who can do that. It’s important for me to keep it vague, so that when people hear it, they are able to put themselves inside the song. I try to make my songs not about me as much as possible.
You’ve written some powerfully specific, narrative story songs like “Jack and Diane.”
Well, they’re not story songs as much as vignette songs. I’ll go from vignette to vignette in a song and then tie it together with a chorus. But a lot of times my songs come out on the angry side, or the pessimistic side, or the craggly side, until you get to the end of them…and then I’ll try to write something, in the end, that gives hope to the situation. Never try to answer any questions-only ask questions.
In “Jack and Diane” you sing, “Here’s a little ditty…” But it’s more than a ditty.
From the perspective of a young man in his late-20s, when I wrote that song, it was such a small story. It wasn’t as much about the song. It was the characters. They were just so average. So the word “ditty” just seemed appropriate. Even as you said it, it still does to me.
That song became a big hit, as have so many of your songs. Does it change your feeling about a song if it becomes a hit?
No, not really. Sometimes I’m disappointed that some songs [that I thought were better than hits], people weren’t able to lock on to. But I don’t really have feelings about songs the way some people do. You know, I paint. And I do the same things with the paintings. I enjoy creating them, and I enjoy working on them, and I enjoy the problems that they create for me to solve. But once I’ve done that, and abandoned it, then I’m done with it. It’s on to the next painting. Or it’s on to the next song. It’s on to the next thing to try to create. It makes things bearable…doing that. Hanging on to a song like “Jack and Diane,” I really don’t take a smidgen of pride in that I’ve written that. I don’t take pride in the fact that one song was able to climb the charts and one song wasn’t. I take pride in the fact that I was able to create these songs. That seems to be more important than the fact that this song was a hit or that song was a hit.
Do you think of a title before writing a song?
Very rarely. Generally, the title comes after the song has been written, and sometimes even after the song has been recorded. I don’t hang much importance in a name.
It seems that sometimes a song is based around the title, such as “Paper In Fire.”
A song like “Paper In Fire”…I didn’t really have to title the song, it titled itself. That was the only logical, creative choice. There’s nothing else to call that song.
When you say that a song titles itself, is songwriting more a method of following a song than leading it?
Oh yeah. I never try to lead a song in a specific direction. Because then you start editing yourself. And I do do that, and I think every songwriter probably does that. But, that makes life a lot harder…when you start editing yourself. The best creation is when you’re free with it and it becomes what it becomes. I know in my paintings, if I labor over it too much, it gets ugly.
But with painting, you can create it without any literal ideas. Is that a different process than creating songs, where you have to deal with verbal thoughts?
You’re still dealing with reality. There are certain things that have to happen in a painting. It’s like a language. If you don’t use that language on the canvas, it won’t work…it won’t look right. Then you realize you tried to sidestep that part of the painting process and tried to take a short-cut that didn’t work. And you have to deal with it.
Does music come easily to you?
Melodies are very simple for me. I, for some reason, have an unlimited amount of melodies in my head. I very rarely feel that I am repeating myself. A lot of the instrumental lines on my records are lines I’ve given the musicians to play. Making up melodies is the simplest thing for me to do.
Do you come up with melodies in your head, or on a guitar?
In my head. Then, I have musicians figure them out. That’s when I throw the guitar away. I don’t like being confined to an instrument. I’ll sing a melody-and the violinist or the guitar player or the piano player, or all of them-will figure out that line and help each other.
Many songwriters write melodies generated by chord progressions they play on guitar or piano…
Well you have to follow a melody inside the chord progression, so the chord progression can dictate which direction the melody goes. But there are so many notes that can go into a D-chord. It’s limitless how many notes will work inside that chord. I never think about that. I never think of the math of it.
Yes, the math. Music is math. There are so many beats in a measure. It’s all math when you get right down to it. Music is a mathematical problem. And I never, never try to look at the math of a song until the song is over. And then I decide if the math is correct. In many of my songs, I have crammed so many lyrics into a melody and into a measure that mathematically it doesn’t work. Ah, but it does work if the next line doesn’t follow that cadence. There are so many things you can do. And I try to do it more from feel than from the mathematical point.
What kind of feel are you going for?
That depends on each song. Each song has a different cadence and a different rhyme and a different message, so each song dictates that feel. If you take a song like “Walk Tall” (the new single), when I play it acoustically, it’s a folk song-in the tradition of Woody Guthrie. But I knew right away that I wanted to have an r&b feel for that song. I played it for Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds, who’s a real r&b guy. I said, “Listen to this song, and see what kind of r&b feel you can put to it.” I think I played one verse and one chorus and he had already come up with the feel. And that happened within, no exaggeration, thirty seconds of him hearing the song. He hadn’t even heard me play the song once, and he was already playing that rhythm against my folk rhythm. So I looked at him at that point and said, “I’ll see you in Indiana in a few weeks.”
Where do you think your ideas for songs come from?
I just look out the window and they come to me. I see myself in the old tradition of the troubadour. I read the papers. I watch the news. I talk to people. I’m inspired by those things. There are so many things to write about. Anyone could be a songwriter. I could start writing today, and write two or three songs a day for the rest of my life, and still never run out of material.
Can a song contain any content?
Sure. If it’s any good is questionable. That’s the problem most people have when they start writing songs. They expect to write at the level of songs that they’ve heard on the radio. But that’s all magic. When I started writing, I didn’t know how magical “Highway 61″ was. How do you compete with that when you’re 22-years old and trying to write songs? You can’t. There’s just so much that you can’t even compete with. It’s like putting a grade-school football team against the NFL champions. It’s not going to work. There’s no level playing field for the songwriter.
How does a songwriter reach that magic?
He has to find his own voice. And that takes a long time. I admire guys like Elvis Costello, who found his own voice [early in his career]. Some songwriters stop at a certain point and don’t keep going forward. Elvis Costello was able to keep moving forward. He might be the best songwriter of all of us guys who started out in the 70s. But when you put someone up against Bob Dylan, he is the only singer/songwriter. With Bob, it’s God’s mind to Bob’s fingers. There’s just nobody else. You know, I asked Bob how he did it. And he just looked at me and said, “I write the same four songs every time I write.” [Laughs]
I love your song “Human Wheels.”
That song was co-written with George Green. That was the eulogy from his grandfather’s funeral. He didn’t intend for me to use those lyrics as a song. He read them to me, and I said, “George, send those over to me…I’m going to put music to those…those are so beautiful.” I wrote that song without a guitar or anything. I just sang that melody. I figured out the cadence in my head, and then I went to my guitar to figure out the chords.
Where do good melodies come from?
With me, and I don’t mean to appear smug, it’s innate. I’m just able to do it. It’s something I’ve never struggled with. The whole point is writing simple melodies that people can sing along with. That’s what Lennon and McCartney were able to do. That’s what Hank Williams was able to do. That’s what John Fogerty was able to do. That’s what Bob Dylan was able to do. I mean, “Stuck inside of Mobile”…how hard is that to sing? It’s not. It has just enough movement that it creates this beautiful melody. Or “Knocking On Heaven’s Door.” His melodies are so beautiful.
Is the melody more important than the words?
I would say probably…to the general public…it is. It’s not to me. I think to your casual music listener, they have to relate to the melody or they’re never going to get the words.
You’ve talked about writing vague songs, yet you’re written many specific songs, such as “Jackie Brown.”
When I’m writing songs like that, the melody really has to be beautiful. I think that is a specific story. But if you get into the details of it, you’re back into the song being vague again. It paints a picture, but you intend on the listener to fill in. I’m proud of that song.
“Small Town” is specific.
I disagree. That’s a vague song. “I was born in a small town.” How many small towns can you apply to that situation? Is that LaCrosse, Wisconsin, or is that Bloomington, Indiana, or is that Collins, Texas? “I had myself a ball in a small town.” I mean, doing what?
It’s so open-ended…it’s so vague. But I think that’s what made the song work. And plus, I think I use the words “small town” 975 times in the song.
Do you remember writing it?
I wrote that song in the laundry room of my old house. [Laughs] We had company, and I had to go write the song. And the people upstairs could hear me writing and they were all laughing when I came up. They said, “You’ve got to be kidding.” What else can you say about it?
Do you remember writing “Hurts So Good?”
George Green and I wrote that together. We exchanged lines back and forth between each other and laughed about it at the time. Then I went and picked up the guitar, and within seconds, I had those chords.
What is your favorite song that you’ve written?
I haven’t written that song yet.