After nearly twenty years in the business, the musician's new album could put him back on top

By EW Staff
Updated July 15, 1994 at 04:00 AM EDT

John Mellencamp is already barking out orders. No matter that on this sweltering afternoon it’s only sound-check time at Tipitina’s, the New Orleans nightclub. Stalking the stage in black Levi’s and a plain white T-shirt, he points out the spotlights he wants doused. He halts his band after a shaky start on ”Crumblin’ Down,” fires up a Marlboro, and calls for take 2. He vetoes the idea of setting up chairs on the dance floor for tonight’s gig, a cable-TV industry bash hosted by MTV Networks. And when he spots talk-show host Jon Stewart adjusting the MTV and VH-1 banners on the balcony, Mellencamp rasps jokingly, ”Make sure you get those logos looking right. Why don’t you just put a picture of your face right over [the band] while we’re playing?”

Leaning against the bar later that night, before the doors are opened, Mellencamp is more understanding. ”Look, if it was my show, none of those banners would be up there,” explains the man who has spent a good part of his 18-year career fighting the corporatization of rock & roll. ”But I’m doing a favor for a guy [friend and former manager John Sykes, who runs VH-1]. It’s his show.”

Actually, it’s not a bad idea for Mellencamp to ingratiate himself with MTV. In the early ’80s, high visibility on the burgeoning channel helped make him a superstar. But musical times have changed, and Mellencamp, 42, no longer dominates the airwaves or automatically sells millions of copies of each release (although both MTV and VH-1 have put his version of Van Morrison’s ”Wild Night,” a duet with Madonna protegee Me’Shell NdegeOcello, into heavy rotation, which is bound to boost sales of his new album, Dance Naked). Then again, Mellencamp himself has changed, even matured. Cantankerous as ever, he knows he’s had a good run and is genuinely thankful for it.

”I always figured I’d make one or two albums,” he says. ”But I didn’t have any intention of doing it this long. When you’re 21 years old, your vision isn’t that long. F—, you don’t know what you’ll be doing at the end of the day.”

The next day, Mellencamp is settling into his oceanfront house on South Carolina’s Hilton Head Island. His third wife, supermodel Elaine Irwin Mellencamp, 24 (who met him when she was hired to appear in the 1991 video for ”Get a Leg Up”), is grilling fresh swordfish on the rear deck that overlooks the Atlantic, while the couple’s month-old son, Hud (named after the title character of Paul Newman’s 1963 antihero movie), exercises his healthy young lungs. Although this placid resort town seems an unlikely spot for Mellencamp, he’s been coming here for 10 years to escape the constantly ringing phones at his primary home and recording studio on the outskirts of Bloomington, Ind.

His compact 5’7” frame trim and toned, Mellencamp now sports a goatee, lending his boyish face a more menacing, devilish mien. Dressed as simply as always — black Converse low-tops, blue jeans, black T-shirt — he leads the way to the garret-like workroom where he writes songs on a black acoustic guitar with skull-and-crossbone inlays and creates his dark, moving Expressionistic oil paintings.

Mellencamp’s success has afforded him luxuries like this beachside sanctuary. That success is more a result of gritty determination than dumb luck, and his need to control his own destiny is in part a reaction to a time early in his career when he ceded that control. The son of an electrical contractor and the 1946 Miss Indiana runner-up, Mellencamp was born and raised in Seymour, Ind., a small agricultural town near Bloomington. When he was fired as a telephone installer in 1975, he used his unemployment checks to finance the demo tape that hooked him up with manager Tony DeFries.

That association proved to be a false start — DeFries branded the 24-year-old songwriter ”Johnny Cougar” and devised a ludicrous image of singer as surly young rebel. But starting with 1982’s American Fool and its top 10 hits, ”Jack & Diane” and ”Hurts So Good,” his career kicked in. He sold more than 30 million albums worldwide and became almost as wealthy as many of the corporations he railed against. Along the way, Mellencamp (who reverted to his real name in 1983) became a champion of the common man, helping to launch Farm Aid, organizing charity concerts for Midwestern flood victims, and giving voice in his songs to the ordeals of blue-collar Americans.

By the late ’80s, though, Mellencamp had peaked commercially. After four consecutive multiplatinum releases, 1989’s Big Daddy sold less than 2 million copies, and his next two albums, Whenever We Wanted and Human Wheels, sold even less. Perhaps he’d left some fans behind when, on 1987’s The Lonesome Jubilee, he augmented his sentiments — ”hard times for an honest man,” as one song put it — with such traditional instruments as Dobro, fiddle, and mandolin. Or perhaps Big Daddy, recorded during Mellencamp’s devastating second divorce, was too somber a work to top the charts.

But more than likely the record-buying audience picked up on Mellencamp’s attitude, which he clearly expressed in his Big Daddy single ”Pop Singer”: ”Never wanted to be no pop singer/Never wanted to write no pop songs.” ”I committed public suicide with that song,” he says proudly. ”It pissed everybody off, and was probably intended to piss people off. We had just played like 160 shows, and it just made me literally sick to walk into an arena. At that point, I figured anything was better than that.”

Anything, it turns out, included trying his hand at moviemaking: He directed and costarred in Falling From Grace, a 1992 feature film that didn’t even recoup its $3 million budget. Recalls Mellencamp, ”You make a bad movie or you make a bad record? So what? Big f—in’ deal. They don’t take away your birthday for it.”

Mellencamp claims to have no regrets about putting the brakes on his celebrity. ”I don’t want to be famous,” he says. ”I already don’t like having to sign the autographs I gotta sign. Hey, I’d be happy selling half a million albums.” Along the way, he has butted heads with record executives, producers, managers, band members, and wives, leaving several of each trampled in his wake. He’ll be the first to take the blame for temper tantrums, selfishness, and philandering — this is, after all, a man who only half-jokingly nicknamed himself Little Bastard — yet many of those who have been on the receiving end of his wrath maintain that his admission of guilt doesn’t exonerate him.

”He’s the kind of artist who doesn’t appreciate anything,” recalls an ex-employee of Mercury, his label since 1979. ”He’s really difficult, really demanding, and just not a nice person.” But, says another former company executive, ”he’s a really good person deep down inside — he just doesn’t realize when he’s being an a–hole.”

To this day, Mellencamp continues to operate without interference from Mercury. (”When I gotta start making demo tapes and telling people what I’m gonna do — and I’m sure it’s gonna happen sooner or later — it’ll be a sad day for old John,” he says.) In fact, he shocked the label when he delivered Dance Naked a mere five months after the release of Human Wheels last September. An even bigger surprise was ”Wild Night,” Mellencamp’s first-ever duet. NdegeOcello, a surprisingly avid Mellencamp fan given her urban-gay-woman image, was particularly impressed with the down-home nature of the recording session. ”We’ve all been at photo shoots that are catered and there’s all this food you can’t even pronounce,” she says. ”When you go to Indiana to hang out with John, it’s like, ‘Make your own damn peanut butter sandwich.”’

And Mellencamp’s cockiness is now tempered with self-deprecating humor. He can joke about kicking musicians out of his band, especially since the dismissals rarely last more than a few days (”It’s part of being in the family”). And lately he’s shown a new respect for their other commitments. Last winter he fired Kenny Aronoff, his drummer of 14 years, when the much-in-demand studio musician couldn’t make three days of a recording session. But a few weeks later, Aronoff recalls, ”John called and said, ‘Why don’t you come on over? I want to take a look at your schedule.’ That was the first time he’d ever said anything like that to me. He’s still got an aggressive edge, and at any moment that s— can come back. But he’s mellowed a bit.”

Most significantly, Mellencamp may have curbed the compulsive womanizing that has been both the creative spark and the dynamite in his life. At 18, he eloped with his high school sweetheart, Priscilla Esterline, who was pregnant at the time (their daughter, Michelle, was born in December 1970). But Mellencamp’s wicked on-the-road ways were hard on the marriage, and 10 years later, by the time Mellencamp met his second wife, Vicky Granucci, at a Hollywood party, Esterline was willing to grant him a friendly divorce.

Mellencamp considers adultery an occupational hazard. ”How many guys you know in rock bands that have been divorced?” he asks defensively. ”There’s a reason for that. I don’t care who you are or who you think you are, you’re gonna fall into the pitfalls of that sooner or later. It’s rock & roll. I mean, what other reason would a guy ever pick up a guitar as a teenager?”

When he starts his Dance Naked tour July 29 in St John’s, Newfoundland, things will be different, he says. ”It’s just like anything: Once you make enough mistakes, you understand what the penalties are,” he says, referring to the departure of Granucci and their two daughters, Teddi Jo, 13, and Justice, 8, in 1989. ”Back then I had the best of both worlds. I’d come home to Indiana, had two beautiful kids, a nice wife, the whole bit. Out on the road I was still 19. And (Vicky) just got sick of it. Can’t blame her. So I lost my kids. I thought, man, what have I done?” (These days he spends as much time as possible with the kids. They and Granucci live a few houses down the beach on Hilton Head.)