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The Blue In Blue-Collar

Despite Backlash, John Mellencamp Continues to Fight Authority

By Sean Daly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 7, 2004; Page C01


Smoking is a major no-no in the Buskirk-Chumley Theater, a revered old showplace just a few watering holes away from the sprawling campus of Indiana University. John Mellencamp, however, doesn't really care about the old joint's clean-air policy. Not when he's rehearsing for a live national telecast and feedback is ruining an otherwise rocking version of "Small Town."

"When the host is not onstage, turn his [bleepin'] microphone off!" the rock icon snaps at technicians working for A&E, the cable channel airing that night's "Live by Request" event. The host with the noisy mike, David Adelson, flashes a here-we-go-again smile and raises a hand in mock surrender.

Mellencamp built his common-man image with politically charged songs and his involvement in the Farm Aid benefits. But when he took on President Bush in song and concerts, listeners rebelled. (Tom Strickland - For The Post)

Mellencamp, who figures he's been smoking strong since 1966, sparks an American Spirit cigarette. He inhales deeply, wisps of white obscuring his face but not his frustration. "It's not too [bleepin'] hard to remember, guys!"

Light 'em up and let 'er rip: The 53-year-old Mellencamp puffs where he wants, and says whatever he darn well pleases. Really, who's got the guts to tell this guy otherwise? He didn't earn the self-administered nickname "Little Bastard," which is also the producer credit he takes on his albums, by hiding his bad habits and holding his tongue. Just about everyone -- band mates, loved ones, U.S. presidents (oh, and he'll lay into those presidents soon enough) -- is due for a tongue-lashing if the bard of the heartland has a bone to pick.

Never mind the heart attack that almost felled him 10 years ago. Never mind that his family nags him to ditch the cigs. Never mind that his brand-new double-disc career retrospective, "Words & Music," should be soul-soothing assurance that he's arguably the most important chronicler of Middle America since Woody Guthrie.

Mellencamp remains one stubborn customer.

"Are you kidding me? He won't even let me sing in the shower," laughs his wife, former Victoria's Secret model Elaine Irwin-Mellencamp, when a reporter suggests that she take a turn at the microphone. "He'll come in and bark, 'Sharp!' or 'Flat!' "

Elaine and the couple's two young sons, Hud, 10, and Speck, 9, are milling about the theater on this Thursday last month, watching their favorite restless spirit work his band through such populist anthems as "Pink Houses," "Rain on the Scarecrow" and "Jack and Diane." His tobacco-flavored voice is gruff but powerful, and although this is just rehearsal, the performances are tight, forceful and moving.

Mellencamp -- shorter than you'd think, but stronger and more handsome, too, with a leading-man mug and windswept, dark brown hair -- is used to getting what he wants. This is why the presidential election still bothers him like a blue-collar blister.

A lifelong Democrat -- "I've always been a liberal. I grew up in the '60s. I like Jane Fonda," he says -- Mellencamp took part in the Vote for Change tour, the recent gathering of music-biz heavyweights hoping to retire George W. to Texas. The left-leaning collective of rock stars failed in its main objective, of course, primarily because so many of Mellencamp's fellow midwesterners opted for the status quo. Indiana was about 60 percent pro-Bush. Mellencamp says he was "disappointed" in the results. His new song "Walk Tall" ("The simple-minded and the uninformed can be easily led astray") says "disappointed" is an understatement.

Along with Larry Bird and David Letterman, Mellencamp will be forever linked to Indiana. He was born here -- in Seymour, Ind., on Oct. 7, 1951 -- and, hey, he'll probably die here. There's even a building named after him at the state university: the John Mellencamp Pavilion, an athletic facility, for which he donated $1.5 million.

Everyone in Bloomington -- college kids, bartenders, bus drivers -- has a Mellencamp story: They saw him at an IU basketball game, at an ice cream parlor, at a Target store smoking outside while his family shopped. In this laid-back town, Mellencamp sightings are traded like baseball cards.

Sen. Evan Bayh, a fellow Hoosier, a friend of Mellencamp's since 1988 and a buzzed-about possibility for the Democratic ticket in 2008, says the keys to the singer's status as an Indiana favorite son are his "authenticity" and his ability to "bring people together across political divides."

"I think we both stand for the forgotten middle man," says Bayh. "We don't put on airs, and I think the people like that about us."

Recently, though, Mellencamp has sensed a disconnect with many of the people he represents.

"I didn't feel like a stranger in a strange land until this election," Mellencamp will say once rehearsal is over and he's back at his house, a 6,000-square-foot rococo vision of gables, arches and columns overlooking Bloomington's Lake Monroe and crammed with artwork, including his own.

The Hoosier Daddy is now trying to figure out a part of America that he's been explaining to us for years.

Big Blue Houses

Little ditty 'bout John and Elaine: In the weeks leading up to the election, the Mellencamps, who have been married for 12 years (she is his third wife, and they often smooch and canoodle like newlyweds), liked to play pranks on their Republican neighbors.

"Elaine and I would sneak out periodically and put a Kerry-Edwards sign in their yard," says Mellencamp, relaxing in his snooker room. (Yes, Mellencamp has a snooker room, but to be honest, when he wanders through his palatial mansion, he looks a bit out of place, like a plumber searching for the bathroom.) "We'd get up every morning and they'd already have taken them down."

He laughs big at this tomfoolery -- a long, wheezy smoker's laugh, the kind that fills the dive bars he used to play back in the '70s. But soon enough he grows quiet, the room seems to grow darker, and the man starts to brood about what went down Nov. 2.

"It's hard to explain any of it to me," he says. "If there's one president that I've seen, other than Reagan and Nixon, who the average American and poor people should not support, it's George Bush."

Mellencamp runs a hand through his high hair -- a Fonzie coif, actually, styled like the early rockers who still influence his music. He reckons that his red-voting neighbors were seduced in much the same way he's attracted millions of fans over the past 28 years.

"George Bush is a rock star," he says. "If he walked in this room and talked to us, we'd both like him. We would! He'd be a charmer. He'd be one of the guys. He's running this country like a college guy."

Mellencamp wasn't always so politically engaged (or enraged). He settled in Bloomington in 1977, a year after the failure of his first album, "Chestnut Street Incident," recorded in New York as Johnny Cougar, a nom de rock his label slapped on him. After bolting the Big Apple and heading home, he spent a lot of time at IU's local hangouts, buddying with the troublemakers, the party stars, the college girls looking for a rebel.

"When you're a young guy, and there are 40,000 kids coming here, and 20,000 of those people are young women wanting to get even with their parents, where else would you go? Need to get even with your parents?

"I'm the guy!"

He was "John Cougar" on the cover of his 1982 breakout album, "American Fool," the largest-selling album of that year thanks to such last-call singalongs as "Jack and Diane" and "Hurts So Good." A year later -- or right around the time Ronald Reagan really started to tick him off -- he became John Cougar Mellencamp, a blend of the real guy and the rock star, a dude in flux who wanted both to fight authority for the greater good and to "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A." 1983's "Uh-huh" and 1985's "Scarecrow" are not only his best albums, but they were the first real signs that he was more than just the swaggering hunk with cool hair.

" 'Scarecrow' was the first record [for which] I had to become a benevolent dictator," says the man who finally ditched the Cougar in 1991. "Because up until that time, we were just messing around. Young guys, with the black leather jackets. I was the leader of the band, and I was so unfocused. I was interested in anything but music. It was during that record that I was starting to find my voice -- and kind of not wanting to find it.

"I knew what I should be saying -- but I just couldn't let go of the macho twit. 'Cause he's fun! It was fun being in bars. It was fun coming home at 5 o'clock in the morning. It was fun not being responsible. It was time for me to grow up, but I didn't want to."

And 1985 was also the year that Mellencamp, Willie Nelson and Neil Young started Farm Aid, the annual benefit concert to assist the small farmer against corporate farming.

"When Reagan was president, the way they treated the small family farm, running them out of business," he says. "How in the hell can a small family farm compete with the laws leaning toward corporate farming? What's the little guy going to do?"

After "Scarecrow" came 1987's "The Lonesome Jubilee," a barn dance with a message, which added violin and accordion to his music and introduced more poetically sketched Everymen trying to make ends meet. Mellencamp's worldview was getting bleaker, his mood surlier.

"This is how things have changed," he points out. "In 1989 I released a record called 'Big Daddy.' That record sold 4 million copies in the first year. On that record is a song called 'Country Gentleman,' a scathing indictment on Ronald Reagan. The last verse is something like" -- here Mellencamp breaks into song, a private-concert moment that is both thrilling and a bit unnerving -- " 'Country gentleman, there's a bird who flew / High above this nation and preyed upon its weakness / Picked our bones and threw it in a stew / Thank God he went back to California.' You know how much [stuff] I caught for that song? None."

Fifteen years later, however, he rewrote a traditional protest ballad called "To Washington" as a poetic hammering of President Bush. Mellencamp clears his throat and starts singing again: "So America voted on a president / No one kept count on how the election went / From Florida to Washington / 'Goddamn,' said one side and the other said the same / Both were pretty guilty but no one took the blame / From Florida to Washington.' "

He leans forward, his voice a whisper: "I got so much [bleepin' stuff] over that song. I was in the car going to the airport with my boys and my wife, and they were playing the record on the radio. As soon as the song was over, they took callers, like they were rating the record on Dick Clark. The first call was some hillbilly going, 'I don't know who I hate the worse now, John Mellencamp or Saddam Hussein.' My kids heard that!"

Tony Buechler, webmaster at Mellencamp.com, says the artist's official Web site received more than 5,000 e-mails after the release of "To Washington" -- two-thirds of which were from people very, very angry at the musician.

"There was an e-mail coming every minute," says the 29-year-old Buechler. "People thought it was out of character for John to be speaking against the country." Buechler adds that although Mellencamp had always been about "meat-and-potatoes America," all of a sudden "he was not Mr. America anymore."

It doesn't make a lick of sense to Mellencamp. These are his people, for crying out loud. But lest anyone think he's going to tone down the message songs, guess again. As his song "Minutes to Memories" goes: "An honest man's pillow is his peace of mind."

Along with "Walk Tall" and the Vote for Change tour, Mellencamp recently recorded a prickly but poignant duet with country rebel -- and outspoken Republican -- Travis Tritt called "What Say You." The give-and-take song, on Tritt's new "My Honky Tonk History" CD, is essentially two men on "opposite sides of the political spectrum," says the veteran Nashville star, "hoping to reach common ground."

Tritt says that, after bandying about rock stars to duet with, Mellencamp was the ultimate choice because he believes in what he stands for. "I've always respected John's integrity," Tritt says. "He's taken a lot of flak for it, and so have I."

During a video shoot for "What Say You," Tritt remembers Mellencamp being a bit shaken about how he was being treated for his stance against Bush. "I told him, 'You kind of have to expect that, don't you?' " Tritt says. "And he said, 'Not to this degree. That's not the kind of country I want to live in.' And I agree with him."

"This is what I told a local paper," Mellencamp says. "You people have known me for 30 years. . . . I always tried to put my best foot forward for this community and try to represent midwesterners who are sometimes looked at by East and West Coast as bumpkins, and tried to represent us in a positive light.

"You loved 'Rain on the Scarecrow' and Farm Aid and 'The Authority Song' -- that was all political. Now this guy comes from Texas and all of a sudden I'm a no-good sonofabitch?"

After Mellencamp offers a final monologue on the state of the nation -- "We all want the same thing. We all want to find a nice place for our kids to grow up. We all want to be able to achieve our goals no matter how lofty or how small. . . . But the problem comes down to this: how you get it" -- you wonder if Mellencamp might have political aspirations of his own.

"He has such strong beliefs and speaks his mind, I think his candor would be refreshing," says Bayh about Mellencamp's potential chops as a politico.

Imagine it: Little Bastard in '08!

"Nah," the rock star says, exhaling a plume of smoke. "My wife wouldn't let us move to a smaller house."

From Musician to Critic

Mellencamp has been closing his shows with the same tune for twenty-some years: "Pink Houses," which Rolling Stone recently named the 439th greatest rock-and-roll song of all time. From its subtly gripping portrait of Middle American existence to its rousing finale, the classic track from "Uh-huh" still has the power to generate goose bumps.

Mellencamp, however, thinks the tune still needs work.

"All my songs aren't finished, they're just abandoned," he says. "When I hear 'Pink Houses' -- on the radio and when I sing it -- I think damn, I should have taken 10 more minutes on that ending. I don't like the lyric 'And the simple man pays for the bills, the thrills, the pills that kill.' The song was so on the money until that last verse."

Five selections on the 37-track "Words & Music" are from "Scarecrow," the most represented album on the collection. But Mellencamp being Mellencamp, he won't allow too much praise to be slobbered on "Scarecrow," either.

"Oh, there's lots of stuff wrong with that record," he harrumphs. "Too many cartoon songs. 'Rumble Seat' is a cartoon, and so is 'R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.' "

And there you have it: When it comes to being stubborn, he's hardest on himself. Even though he's sold more than 30 million albums in the United States alone. And even though he helped kick-start MTV with videos for "Hurts So Good" (biker bar as utopia) and "Jack & Diane" (Tastee-Freez as teen nirvana).

"Hey, I'm Johnny Cougar, man," he says. "The fact that I could even get over that hurdle at all is more of a testament to any record I could make. The fact that you're sitting here and you're talking to Johnny Cougar in a serious manner about music? That's an astonishing feat right there! I was hated by everyone when I started out. Nobody liked Johnny Cougar. I didn't like Johnny Cougar."

Mellencamp is currently working on a stage musical with master of the macabre Stephen King. "Mississippi Ghost Brothers" is about a southern family vacationing in a haunted cabin. Mellencamp says the plan is to finish it by the end of the year, then start shopping it around to producers. Mellencamp will start touring the world early next year -- including a headlining gig at the 2005 Leukemia Ball in the District in March -- and he'll eventually get around to recording a new album.

He's also trying hard to do the dad thing. "It's rough no matter how you cut it," he says about balancing fame and family. Along with Hud and Speck, Mellencamp has three daughters, the oldest of whom is 32.

"I'm tellin' ya," he says with a laugh, "young teenage girls are the Devil's work."

When Elaine comes into the snooker room to tell her husband that showtime is quickly approaching, he holds up a cigarette: "Let me finish this and a story."

The final tale he tells is about smoking, growing up, growing old. It's funny and it's sad and it's honest.

And it would make one heck of a song.

"The first time I was married, I was 18 years old. And the father of the woman I was married to was in his early fifties. His name was Chet. Lovely guy. Lovely guy. Big fat guy. His hair was all gray. Chet would eat and he would sweat. Ever see anybody sweat when they eat? That's bad. I was living in their house. I had no job. I was in a band. I was married to this guy's daughter, had a kid with her. Mooching off these people. And Chet treated me so good.

"Anyway, I used to see Chet get up in the night and smoke. Hack around. And I told myself, 'I'll never do that. If ever do that, I'll quit.' Now I get up in the night. No shirt on. Just a pair of underwear on. And I'll sit on the couch and smoke and think, 'I'm Chet, man. I'm [bleepin'] Chet.' "

© 2004 The Washington Post Company