The singer has gained a little age, a lot of rage, and the respect of a new label (Columbia)
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He’s not a young man anymore, but John Mellencamp sure is angry. Guys with ”suspenders and cigars” piss him off. No-smoking laws make him furious. And record-company execs, well, they make him absolutely apoplectic. ”Guys my age who run these record companies, they want to be hip,” says Mellencamp, 47, his voice increasing in pitch and intensity. ”What the f— are you trying to be hip for? You’re f—ing 50 years old, you c—sucker. You’re not hip. You don’t know about the street. You haven’t been in a f—ing bar in 20 years. I don’t get that. People who work at record companies should love music. People who make records should love music. People who write about music should love music. And if you don’t, get the f— out of here. You’re screwing up everything.”

Sheesh! Mellencamp — a genuinely likable guy, despite what you might think — spews so much crusty, curse-heavy invective, it’s a wonder that he can slow down long enough to write songs. But perhaps that passion is what keeps him going: It’s hard to think of many other musicians who, 25 years into their careers, still make such serious, heartfelt records.

Sitting in a Manhattan restaurant, dressed in rock-star cool (tight T-shirt, shades) for the warm day (”I never get these f—ers who wear fur hats in the summertime,” he says. ”Like, ‘I’m so wacky, I’m so wild”’), Mellencamp is discussing the just-released John Mellencamp, his first album for his new home, Columbia. He’s obviously proud of the record, and with good reason: It’s clearly the product of a musician who cares deeply about making music. Carefully constructed to both please old fans and challenge himself musically, the appealingly earnest new songs have none of the tossed-off quality of, say, the Rolling Stones’ Bridges to Babylon, and plenty of the Midwestern charm that continues to endear his fans to him long after most of his contemporaries have faded.

So what’s changed since 1996’s disappointing Mr. Happy Go Lucky? Mellencamp points to his new label, giving a lot of credit to Columbia’s enthusiasm. ”I have to die laughing at those guys,” he says. ”They’re so proud of what they’re doing. I haven’t seen that in years, people proud of their ability to get a record on the radio.”

The implication, of course, is that Mercury Records — with which Mellencamp ended a 22-year relationship last year — had been neglecting his career. A Mercury spokesperson declined to comment, saying only, ”John Mellencamp is a great artist, and we wish him well.” But Mellencamp is still fuming about the end of his Mercury tenure: ”Which would you rather sell, John Mellencamp or Hanson [another Mercury act]?” he says. ”You’ve got to give John Mellencamp a bunch of money to make a record. You don’t have to give Hanson a bunch of money to make a record. When you sell a Mellencamp record, you’ve got to give the guy a bunch of royalties. You don’t got to give Hanson a bunch of royalties. If I’m a ‘hip’ 46-year-old [record company exec], who do I want to deal with? Some guy who’s as smart as me who’s not gonna take my bulls— or a bunch of kids I can push around and make more money off of? There it is.”

There it is, indeed. Hey, John, if this music thing doesn’t work out maybe you should think about getting yourself some suspenders and a cigar and go into the music biz.

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