The heartland bard isn’t happy
JOHN MELLENCAMP captured something about himself three decades ago when he penned the words, “I need a lover that won’t drive me crazy.” Someone who knows the meaning of “hey hit the highway.”
These days, he could say the same for most of America’s politicians.
Sure, Mellencamp is from the red state of Indiana, and he wrote all of those patriotic-sounding tunes like “R.O.C.K. in the USA” and “Small Town.” But when it comes to matters of the country, Mellencamp is far from nationalistic. To say the least, he’s fed up.
He thinks Barack Obama is too conservative, and every time John McCain plays his songs at a rally, the Republican nominee gets a call from a Mellencamp rep: Play the music if you want, but you better know what the lyrics mean.
According to Mellencamp, the words mean this: The government is corrupt, the war is unjust, the middle class is sunk, people are starving, racism is rampant, and those little pink houses? Couldn’t we do better for the working poor?
And if pols still don’t get it, Mellencamp’s wish for America is spelled out in his anthem-like “Our Country”: “That poverty could be just another ugly thing / And bigotry would be seen only as obscene / And the ones that run this land help the poor and common man / This is our country.”
The message seems to have gotten through; McCain has all but stopped playing Mellencamp’s songs, except for a few instances when the sound-booth guy accidentally cues the wrong track.
They’re still featured at some of Obama’s events, and that’s OK with Mellencamp, even though he was strongly behind former Sen. John Edwards’ presidential run. (“He was much more liberal than any candidate that we have now, and he really had an interest in the poor people,” Mellencamp said recently. He joked: “And I guess we found out he had an interest in girls too.”)
The singer’s unedited candor comes through in his music and in his casual conversation. The morning after playing a charity show for a local crowd at the small Crump Theater in nearby Columbus, Ind., Mellencamp sat for an interview in the vast art studio on his lakeside property outside this college town.
The space is light and bright, with high ceilings, white slip-covered furniture and bookcases (filled with art books and family photos -- among them snapshots of Mellencamp’s model wife, Elaine, and their two teenage sons). A long bank of windows frames the wooded hillside. A large easel is set up in the corner, where Mellencamp paints on oversized canvases (with a style reminiscent of Basquiat mixed with a bit of Robert Indiana).
Mellencamp, dressed in a black T-shirt and jeans, took a seat at a long pine table that he uses as a desk and glanced sideways at a reporter waiting there for him. He is notoriously leery of the press. He opened a pack of American Spirit cigarettes and lighted up a smoke. “Cigarettes are not our friends,” said the 57-year-old singer. He tried to quit once. “It was too hard. Too hard. I have accepted that these cigarettes will kill me.”
He leaned back into the chair and sighed. His ears ring constantly. (“Like this: sssssss,” he said, making the sound of a train whistle.) His bones ache. He’s disgusted with the record industry, which he believes cares only about teenage girls making pop music. It’s part of the reason he signed recently with Hear Music, a small label that focuses on and promotes core American artists.
Mellencamp’s latest album, “Life Death Love and Freedom,” certainly captures his mood. It takes a dark look at mortality and the effects of a broken government.
“I grew up in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s, during Vietnam, and so my liberal views were pretty much cast during that time period through the music that I was listening to,” he said. (His parents were also liberals, who encouraged him to speak his mind.) He has a single coming out this month: “Troubled Land.” It was officially unveiled during Mellencamp’s set at the Farm Aid concert last month. In the wake of the Wall Street woes, the song was eerily foreboding. It also underlines how Mellencamp secured his reputation as the heartland bard: “I’ve got many screaming children / Ten million rows to hoe / Bring peace to this troubled land / Deader than a hammer/ But I can’t let go / Bring peace to this troubled land.”
Mellencamp explains the song this way: “I have felt that the government has betrayed most people in turning their back on the working class.” He said, “Deregulation has destroyed so many things that worked so well, destroyed the airlines, destroyed trucking, destroyed, as we see now, Wall Street. . . .
“We’ve got to have guidelines, and strict guidelines, that are enforced by the government. That’s the government’s job. Now, their idea of making law is ‘We’re allowed to tap your phone, we’re allowed to enter your house without a search and seizure.’ That’s wrong.”
Mellencamp was one of the first musicians to oppose the war in Iraq, a position that made him unpopular in his hometown. Neighbors would row up alongside his lakefront house and shake their fists. Mellencamp’s wife was heckled in the grocery store.
The singer stayed firm in his beliefs.
“If you just step back and take all the particulars: We’re going to invade a country on the other side of the world, and we’re going to kill people and we’re going to have our people killed, and our information is tainted?” he said.
He blames the strong nationalism that clenched the country after Sept. 11.
“When people are for the country right or wrong, America right or wrong, it’s a lot like Germany. Nationalism is a bad thing. And when you have a mob mentality over a country, over a swastika, over the Fuhrer, over the Iraq war, the outcome is not going to be good.”
He said he played a show in Boston two days after Sept. 11 that “frightened” him.
“I write a lot of songs that could be interpreted as big patriotic songs, but in reality they’re questioning the direction the country is going,” he said. “After every song in Boston, 20,000 people were going, ‘USA, USA.’ I thought, man. I almost asked them to stop, stop doing that. I don’t like it. I don’t like hearing that chant.”
He decided not to and kept on singing.
“I know why they were doing it,” he said. “There’s a part, a small part of me that understands that we all need to rally together after a tremendous disaster. As a matter of fact, it seems to me that that’s the only time this country rallies together.”
But not so day-to-day.
“If you’re sick, you’re on your own. If you lose your home, you’re on your own. If you’re out of a job, you’re on your own.”
Mellencamp lights another cigarette and takes a drag.
“Somehow the Golden Rule has been shuffled to the bottom of the deck,” he said. “I don’t always live by the Golden Rule, but I am always trying to be mindful of that. And respect and manners have been shuffled even lower. I guess just in that we all need to be mindful of how we want to be treated, and what goes around comes around.”