Running a hand through his rooster comb of a pompadour, John Mellencamp lets out a raspy laugh. “I have always been at the wrong place at the wrong time,” he says in a Hoosier twang. We are sitting in the rehearsal space at his Belmont Mall recording studio, near Bloomington, Indiana, and the singer-songwriter has just rewound the master tape of his life back to the mid-70s, when he recorded under the whiz-bang name of Johnny Cougar, given to him by his first manager, Tony DeFries. With his smoldering Brando stare, Mellencamp may have looked like star material, but at 25 he was nowhere near ready for his close-up, and after DeFries pumped up his client with a preposterous load of hype, the critics shot him down. Johnny Cougar was dismissed as a bush-league Bruce Springsteen, along with his 1976 debut album, Chestnut Street Incident. When the record tanked, his label shelved the follow-up and, in 1977, dropped Mellencamp altogether. So the Seymour, Indiana, native dusted himself off and headed to England, aiming to redeem himself with a new record for a new label. But when he got there, he found that, once again, he was sadly out of step with the times.
“I moved to London to make a record in 1977, when all of London was ablaze with [the Sex Pistols’] ‘God Save the Queen,’ and I’m bringing out an acoustic guitar, playing ‘Taxi Dancer,’” he says, referring to an early, torchy ballad he wrote about a failed Broadway hoofer. As part of his cultural awakening, Mellencamp was also introduced to that uniquely British form of audience participation known as gobbing. After being repeatedly pelted with spit during a performance at the University of Birmingham, Mellencamp says, he stopped the show and told the perpetrators, “You guys got to knock that shit off.” When they ignored him, “I just jumped off stage and the fight was on. The fight was fuckin’ on.”
He taps the ash off the cigarette he is smoking. At 55, the juvenile-delinquent looks have given way to Marlboro Man cragginess (even if Natural American Spirit is the brand he smokes). But when he laughs at the memory of his London misadventure, flashing a gap-toothed smile, it’s evident that middle age has not quite claimed him, though the crowd in Birmingham surely would have if his burly road manager at the time, Billy Francis, had not jumped into the fracas and pulled him out.
At the end of the 70s, Mellencamp brought the fight back to the U.S. He eventually took the wheel of his career and began to co-produce his albums while honing an almost startlingly plainspoken writing style that, starting in 1982, yielded a string of Top 10 singles, including “Jack & Diane” and the heartland anthem “Pink Houses.” By mid-decade, Johnny Cougar had become John Cougar Mellencamp, and with his next two albums, he left no doubt that he had finally come into his own. On his breakthrough 1985 LP, Scarecrow, Mellencamp established himself as an empathic voice of America’s vast and vastly misunderstood midsection by throwing a spotlight on the plight of American farmers. (He also co-founded Farm Aid that year with Neil Young and Willie Nelson.) And while revisiting the subject on his acclaimed 1987 follow-up, The Lonesome Jubilee, Mellencamp staked out the boundaries of his now signature sound: a rousing, crystalline mix of acoustic and electric guitars, Appalachian fiddle, and gospel-style backing vocals, anchored by a crisp, bare-knuckle drumbeat and completed by his own velveteen rasp. Though the album covers wouldn’t reflect this for a few more years, the last vestiges of Johnny Cougar were dead. John Mellencamp was here to stay.
Yet, for someone who has recorded 17 albums of original material in 31 years and sold close to 30 million of them, Mellencamp has been accorded comparatively little respect from industry gatekeepers. He has won only a single Grammy—and for his first Top 10 single, “Hurts So Good,” which was named best male rock vocal performance in 1982. And though the 500 music-industry insiders who determine the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s roll call have inducted Petty, Seger, and Springsteen, Mellencamp has yet to be called. When I ask him if he feels slighted by this, Mellencamp smiles and rephrases the question: “Am I upset about it? Not as upset as the people around me. Because when it comes to that type of boys’ club thing, I always kind of expect the worst.”
But, as they like to say in the Midwest, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. And this month’s release of Freedom’s Road, his first new album of original material in five years, will make it a lot harder to ignore Mellencamp’s contribution to the Great American Songbook, or to pigeonhole him as simply a heartland rocker. His best album since The Lonesome Jubilee, Freedom’s Road harnesses the infectious reverb-heavy surf guitar and psychedelic rock that came out of California in the 1960s—think the Byrds and Dick Dale—as a healing, unifying force for a country laid low by the war in Iraq and the vicious political gamesmanship of the last six years. Because he makes his home in a state that, at least until the last election, was pro-war and fiercely Republican, Mellencamp has paid a price for speaking out against the Bush administration’s adventurism in the Middle East, but Freedom’s Road sounds like the album of an artist emboldened rather than embittered by that experience. Its songs’ central themes are tolerance and forgiveness, as well as a frank appraisal of the political machinations that led to this depressing moment in U.S. history. As Mellencamp sings on the title track: “Freedom’s Road is a promise to the people / You’ll never fool us now.”
If Mellencamp has become inured to the chilly treatment that he sometimes gets from the music industry, he and his family were caught off guard by the undercurrent of hostility that rolled their way in Bloomington when he began to voice his anti-war feelings in 2003. Not long before the official start of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Mellencamp wrote new lyrics for “Baltimore to Washington,” Woody Guthrie’s version of a traditional tune first popularized by the Carter family, and renamed it “To Washington.” Using pretty much the same plainspoken language found on Freedom’s Road, he sang about the tainted 2000 election and the roll-up to the war, including this verse:
And he wants to fight with many
And he says it’s not for oil
He sent out the National Guard
To police the world
From Baghdad to Washington.
The song, which was included on Mellencamp’s May 2003 album of reworked blues and folk standards, Trouble No More, made news even before it was released. In the fall Mellencamp and his wife, the supermodel and photographer Elaine Irwin-Mellencamp, landed in the headlines again when they posted an open letter on his Web site, mellencamp.com, titled, in part, “It’s Time to Take Back Our Country.” The Mellencamps called for an end to what they described as the “political ‘hijacking’ of Iraq” and the chilling effect on free speech that had crept into the national discourse. Though they were spared the kind of public thrashing that the Dixie Chicks got that March when lead singer Natalie Maines told a London concert audience that she was “ashamed the president of the United States” is from Texas, the Mellencamp family’s politics did not go unnoticed on their home turf. Elaine Irwin-Mellencamp recalls the time that she, her husband, and their sons, Hud, 12, and Speck, 11, were driving in town when a local radio station played “To Washington” and invited listeners to comment, prompting one man to call up and say, “I don’t know who I hate worse, John Mellencamp or Saddam Hussein.” Mostly, the criticism was implied in the cold stares and whispers of some of the locals whom the Mellencamps encountered on a regular basis.
A few times, the rocker’s clan found themselves on the wrong end of some drive-by mudslinging. Because their 60-acre compound, with its stucco mansion, sits on the serene Lake Monroe, Irwin-Mellencamp says a number of boaters floated near their banks and shouted obscenity-laced tirades at the house. Irwin-Mellencamp won’t forget the time that a boat carrying a profanity-spewing topless woman pulled close to the house while she and her family were having dinner. Irwin-Mellencamp tried to confront the group, but they eluded her. She did the same when someone slipped a nasty anonymous note into her car while her sons were working off excess energy at the local rock-climbing center. Irwin-Mellencamp says she went back into the facility and urged whoever had planted the note to come down off the wall and debate the matter face-to-face. No one descended.
Mellencamp says his neighbors have long known that he is “a liberal,” but admits he was shocked by some of the “emotional” reactions that he encountered locally after word spread about “To Washington”: “I thought, Wait a minute—you guys have known me for 30 years. You don’t know who George Bush is. This guy just showed up. You’re going to take his word over mine?”
Mellencamp considered a form of silence after Trouble No More. He had tired of the music-career grind, and, free and clear of any record-label obligations after leaving first Mercury and then Columbia, he says, “I had pretty much decided I didn’t want to make any more records.” He considered turning full-time to painting, a passion of his, but then, he says, he had a conversation with the old-school record executive Doug Morris, chairman of Universal Music Group, which owns the Republic label. The artist says Morris asked him, “Why don’t you go make a great record?”
Mellencamp took the bait, on his own terms. He says Freedom’s Road is his only obligation to Universal, and he is hell-bent on having it heard. Well aware that commercial radio doesn’t play the music of middle-aged rockers anymore, he made the controversial decision to license the album’s first single, the rousing “Our Country,” for a Chevy-truck ad campaign. (He had established a relationship with the automaker in 2005 when Chevy briefly licensed a fragment of his song “Now More than Ever” for another campaign.) In a world where the latest Rolling Stones tour seems to have more sponsors than some NASCAR drivers, Mellencamp’s decision to lend his voice and image to a series of Chevy ads hardly seems cataclysmic—until you consider that in previous decades he was one of the most strenuously anti-commercial rock artists out there. In 1991, he’d even chided fellow midwesterner Bob Seger in print for licensing his song “Like a Rock” for—that’s right—a Chevy-truck campaign. “I guess he needed the money,” Mellencamp told the Los Angeles Times.
When I mention this to Mellencamp, he doesn’t flinch. “It was a whole different scenario back then,” he tells me. “Of course, I was  years younger than I am now. But there were many avenues at the time for people to get their music on the radio, and MTV was big. There were a lot of ways to get your music played then, as opposed to now.”
That defense hasn’t stopped the press from taking shots at Mellencamp and Chevy. Last October, The New York Times accused Mellencamp of having “elastic” political values. “He and his spouse once wrote a jeremiad against the Bush administration that said, in part: ‘It is time to take back our country. Take it back from political agendas, corporate greed and overall manipulation,’” the paper noted. “That was in 2003. Now he’s sitting on the fender of a Chevy truck, strumming a guitar and singing, ‘Well, I can stand beside ideals I think are right, and I can stand beside the idea to stand and fight.’ He can also stand beside a nice shiny truck, if the fee is right.”
Mellencamp looks at it another way. When Chevy handed him the creative freedom that he’s often fought for at his labels, he took it. “Pretty much, Chevrolet has been a better record company than Columbia Records ever was to me,” he says.
On my last day with Mellencamp, I see a man determined to make a great record. I meet him in the control room at Belmont Mall. For the last day and a half, he, members of his band, and veteran sound engineer Don Smith (the Rolling Stones, U2) have been huddled around a mixing board obsessing over the sound of “My Aeroplane,” one of the last tracks to be completed for the album. It’s got a guitar sound that can raise gooseflesh, and hopeful lyrics in which Mellencamp sings of escaping the bonds of the earth so that he can write the “perfect” song. “It’d be a song for the people / It’d be a song that everybody could sing along.” The men listen to the track dozens of times while Mellencamp, in jeans, sits in his inviolable space on the left side of the mixing room’s couch, his legs up on an ottoman, looking like James Dean’s Jett Rink in Giant. After suggesting a number of tweaks, Mellencamp finally yells, “Print it,” and a CD copy of “My Aeroplane” is handed to him.
Next comes a crucial test for the song. Mellencamp and Mike Wanchic, a Kentucky boy who has been his guitarist for close to 30 years, exit to Belmont Mall’s parking lot, past the space reserved for Elvis Presley, and head for a cream-colored Audi convertible—Elaine Irwin-Mellencamp’s car—which Mellencamp has driven to his studio for a purpose. The two men squeeze their middle-aged frames into the sporty car, insert the CD, crank up the volume, and once more “My Aeroplane” fills the air. After all the sweat and rhetoric, that’s what it boils down to: good friends, good music, and a pretty woman’s car. The two men sit there bopping their heads and tapping their knees, a little more creakily than they did 25 years ago, but looking like all they ever wanted they got from rock ’n’ roll.
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