John Mellencamp does what he wants.
The 65-year-old Rock and Roll Hall of Famer had the “Nothing Matters and What If It Did” attitude back in 1980 and these days it has hardened into a simple fact of life.
“I don’t take direction well,” says Mellencamp, calling from a tour stop in Saratoga, California. “I really got sick of the music business in the late ’80s, early ’90s. I put out that song ‘Pop Singer’ and caught all sorts of [expletive] for it. The music business forgot what it was supposed to be doing. They were all worried about coming in at No. 1. That just didn’t do it for me. . . . I didn’t like the people I was around. I kept thinking, ‘Is this what this is supposed to be about?’ I was about Greenwich Village in the early ’60s, about musicians helping musicians.”
To straighten things out, Mellencamp took a break from the music business for three years, and then he had a heart attack in 1994. And when he returned, the music industry’s quest for maximizing profits had only intensified and Mellencamp wanted no part of it. “I’m not a good salesman,” he says. “And I’m not a jukebox.”
That’s when Mellencamp began making music only to please himself, a strategy that continued in April with his new “Sad Clowns & Hillbillies” (Republic) album and his summer tour, which includes a stop at Forest Hills Stadium on July 11.
The summer tour marks a change for Mellencamp, who hasn’t toured outdoor venues in 15 years. “I’m not a fan of playing outside,” he says. “But it’s more I don’t like playing in front of drunk people. . . . It’s harder, but it’s more interesting. You’re giving them a music show and that has to be better than them playing, I don’t know, volleyball in the back. I just can’t play rock festivals, though.”
So Bonnaroo isn’t in the cards? “I couldn’t think of a worse thing to do,” he says.
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Mellencamp says he’s interested in playing Forest Hills because of its tennis history, but “A stage is a stage.” “It’s one size fits all at this point,” he says. “They’re coming to see me. It’s not an experiment. They know they’re not coming to hear my hit records. They’re coming to hear what I’m going to play. I don’t try to win over an audience anymore and they go along with it.
“Nobody has sat down yet,” he adds, with a laugh. “Not even during the acoustic songs.”
As he did on “Sad Clowns & Hillbillies,” Mellencamp has teamed up with Carlene Carter for the summer tour, a rare collaboration in his career. “Carlene and I accidentally met,” he says of the country star who sings with Mellencamp on five new songs and also co-wrote a handful with him. “Then we accidentally got along.”
For Mellencamp, making music feels pretty accidental these days, too, since most of his focus is on his painting. “Songs feel more like postcards today,” he says. “I’m still writing songs and it’s very important to me, but it’s more like a hobby I really enjoy doing. . . . They kind of write themselves for me, which is really a gift.”
Mellencamp said he was in the middle of a painting when the new song “Easy Target” came to him. “There was a voice in my head saying, ‘Write these words down,’ ” he says. “I couldn’t even keep up with the thoughts. . . . I wasn’t even thinking about it. I don’t try to influence or rewrite them. True art is just honesty.”
And Mellencamp, it seems, still has plenty of both. He says he is flattered by the “Mellencamp” exhibit currently on display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, which may eventually tour the country, though its initial run has been extended from September through at least the end of the year. “I don’t need to see it, though,” he says. “I’m still doing it.”
Karen Herman, the Rock Hall’s vice president of collections and curatorial affairs, says the reaction doesn’t surprise her. “He is a complete artist,” she says. “He puts himself into the works themselves and then doesn’t need to look back. Whatever he puts his mind to, he does so well.”
Herman says that what surprised her most about Mellencamp’s work is how different his paintings are from his music. “His music always has a sense of place, but his paintings have no sense of place,” she says, adding that the Mellencamp paintings that currently hang in the exhibit reflect that. “The backdrops are usually plain so you don’t know where they are. It’s much more universal in its sense of place.”
Mellencamp says he wishes he would simply be considered a painter rather than a “celebrity painter,” but he understands why that can’t be. Like most things, he simply takes that issue in stride, more interested in doing the work rather than how others consider the work.
“I’m not one of those people who worry about their legacy,” he says. “There’s no worrying about yesterday. I’m not very nostalgic.”
WHO John Mellencamp
WHEN|WHERE 6:30 p.m. July 11, Forest Hills Stadium, Forest Hills
INFO $20-$149.50; 888-929-7849, axs.com
SMALL TOWN, BIG IDEAS
Sure, John Mellencamp is best known for little ditties about “Jack & Diane” and little “Pink Houses” for you and me. But his impressive 41-year musical career has had plenty of underappreciated songs that never topped the charts. Here’s a look at some of the best:
“PAPER IN FIRE” (1987, “The Lonesome Jubilee”): In 1987, there weren’t a lot of accordions on pop radio. Or fiddles. Or banjos. But Mellencamp put them there with this song that combined the rock swagger of his earlier work with Appalachian country arrangements and gospel-influenced harmonies.
“KEY WEST INTERMEZZO (I SAW YOU FIRST)” (1996, “Mr. Happy Go Lucky”): The first single after his heart attack in 1994 was this poetic remembrance of a wild night out, jam-packed with memorable images — from the “loud Cuban band is crucifying John Lennon” to the way “she stirs the ice in her glass with an elegant finger.”
“SAVE SOME TIME TO DREAM” (2010, “No Better Than This”): His poignant ode to the power of the individual and belief in possibility becomes even more potent as a folk-rock song, with flecks of Bob Dylan adding weight to a song that should be an Americana standard: “Save some time to dream because your dream may save us all.” — GLENN GAMBOA