John Mellencamp: 'We Just Don't Say the N-word in Public Anymore.'
These days, Mellencamp uses the phrase "ex-rock star" to describe his place: "I am trying to make the transition from rock star to songwriter in public," he said.
An odd statement, perhaps, since Mellencamp pens most of his music, including some of his biggest hits, from "Jack & Diane" to "Our Country." But while those songs had Top 40 appeal, he readily admits that the songs off his new album, "Life Death Love and Freedom," produced by Grammy-winning producer T Bone Burnett, are designed more for personal introspection than heavy radio spins.
He'll still trot out classics like "Jack & Diane" on tour, but you won't hear all of the old favorites (Mellencamp admits to recently disappointing one of his wife's friends by telling her "Cherry Bomb" won't be on his set list this time around). Mellencamp says he's more interested in being an artist, not a jukebox.
The veteran talked with The Associated Press via phone from his tour about his new music, America's woes and navigating today's tricky musical landscape.
AP: What made you go to T Bone?
Mellencamp: Well, this is the first time that I've really had a musical outside producer in my career. Most producers that I worked with were from the technical point of view, but I had been knowing T Bone for about ten years, socially. ... So when I saw the nature of these songs, it just made perfect sense that he was the correct guy to work with these songs.
AP: It's being described as a dark album.
Mellencamp: It reflects perfectly the mood of this country, economically, socially, racially, in every aspect. There are enough songs on this record that reflect each one of those topics that I spoke about.
AP: Are you hopeful things can turn around?
Mellencamp: I don't believe they'll ever go back to the way they were. I think we're too far past that. I think that (Barack) Obama is definitely a hopeful light on the horizon, but will we ever enjoy the place that we once enjoyed? I don't think it's going to happen, simply because everything is changing so rapidly: Technologically it's changing, the way that we do our stock market is crumbling, the two-party system doesn't really work anymore ... But you know what (chuckles)? I'm just a (expletive) guy in a rock band.
AP: One of the songs "Jena," is inspired by the Jena Six case. Can you explain it?
Mellencamp: The best way I can say it is when I was 14 years old, I was in a band ... and this was 1967 and I was a 14-year-old kid and I was singing dual lead vocals (with) -- I don't mean to identify him like this, but he was a black kid -- and he and I would sing songs by James Brown or the Righteous Brothers, and we would harmonize and we would dance together, and people just loved that kid onstage. It's when we got offstage there was trouble. And that made a big impact on a 14-year-old John Mellencamp, and it has haunted me and perplexed me my entire life -- how people cannot show any more understanding, any more unity.
AP: Do you see the racial climate changing, especially with Obama's success?
Mellencamp: We create the illusion that we are a nation of compassion and understanding and I'm in Philadelphia right now, walking down the street and I don't see it. I have a house in Savannah, Ga., I don't see it. We just don't say the N-word in public anymore. Big deal. And of course you know there's all that subculture that uses it to make money, so you have all of that. So, it's not nice, it's not correct, white or black, red green, we don't know how to deal with it. We haven't dealt with it.
AP: You got so much criticism for using "Our Country" in the Chevrolet commercials. Do you regret it?
Mellencamp: The reason why I got so much criticism is because I had been such a large opponent. I had been against it and spoke out against it in the '80s and '90s, and then to turn around and do it made me look like a hypocrite. I am a walking hypocrite. I have to roll with the punches. In a perfect world, I don't think we should have to do that but this isn't the record business that I once knew. So, I rolled with the punches and I caught criticism, but, at the end of the day, everybody remembered the song.
AP: Is harder now to write a song now?
Mellencamp: It's never old hat. I just think that there is this illusion that as people get older, that their work isn't as good. I don't think you see that in Picasso, I don't think you saw that in Hemingway, I don't think that you saw that in Stephen King. It's just changes, and it changes generally ... away from the general public. It becomes more personal, it becomes more insightful, and therefore not for the general public. I mean, when you write a song called "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.," that is for the general public to consume. When you write a song called "Ain't Gonna Need This Body," ("Don't Need This Body") that is for people who are halfway through their lives.