PROFILE | John Mellencamp Singer continues to battle 'thieves'
An oh-so-private rocker talks about a musical, his legacy and playing old-fashioned rock music for the masses.
By SHERYL KRIEG and JAMES GRANT
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
With a new album, a concert tour and a musical in the works, John Mellencamp continues to walk tall.
"Words and Music: John Mellencamp's Greatest Hits," a compilation of 35 hits, plus two new songs, "Walk Tall" and "Thank You," is the focus of his new concert tour -- Mellencamp's first in nearly three years.
Maintaining his nontraditional role in the music business, Mellencamp, 53, has kept ticket prices down for concertgoers and, during the initial leg of the tour, is opening the show himself.
Early in the tour, special guest Donovan would him about an hour into the concert for a set and then plays a solo set before Mellencamp closes with another 41 minutes. Now, that guest is John Fogerty.
For the man who never minces words, Mellencamp offered his thoughts on aspects of the music industry and the direction of his career.
Q. Now that you have a two-CD retrospective of your greatest hits, do you see your current music spinning off in any new directions that you haven't previously pursued?
A. Well, I'm doing a drama [Broadway musical called "Mississippi Ghost Brothers"] with Stephen King. I've written 15 songs for the book [musical]. It's not the traditional John Mellencamp. Half the drama takes place in Mississippi in the '40s. No room for rock 'n' roll. It's drama with music. He [King] wrote the dialogue. The first reading was in March. We've been working on this three years.
Q. Would you ever consider doing a strictly country-flavored album?
A. No, not really. Country sure has changed in the last 10 years. It was one thing, then it was another. Country has slowly marched toward a rock beat and rock preservation. Country artists of today. Man! That's how I used to sound in the '80s.
Q. Would you ever consider doing an acoustic tour?
A. Actually, yeah, I have. Eddie Van Halen and I talked about it four years ago. He would play acoustic guitar and I would sing. We talked about it for three months. I went to MTV in the mid-'80s, and they'll verify the story, and said, "I want to do a concert in acoustic guitars." A couple years later they came up with acoustic -- or unplugged. That was me [my idea].
Q. Would you ever consider marketing your music strictly through your own Web site, cutting out major labels?
A. I don't like major labels, you got that right. I've been on major labels since age 22. An unpleasant experience at best. Major labels are, by their nature, thieves and bums.
Q. What are your feelings on downloading of music and the changes that has caused in the music industry?
A. Major labels missed the boat on that. They turned their heads the other way. A research company told me how much was downloaded off my Web site. Guess. $30 million of illegal downloads. Just of my music. Can you imagine what it is for the Beatles or Rolling Stones? This company was able to tell what city, what state, of every download. You know who I blame for that? These guys didn't look out for anybody else. Bums. I don't like them. That's why they're all in the s--ter. There were seven big record companies. There are three record companies today and no little ones.
Q. What are some of your favorite artists/influences?
A. Woody Guthrie, Donovan. Any kind of music.
Q. "Walk Tall" lyrics were changed from album to radio version. Why?
A. Why? The record company asked me to.
Q. Which version will you perform?
A. Whichever one comes out of my mouth. I've never planned nothing in my life.
Q. Are there any specific themes you're more drawn to when you write a song?
A. I seem to write about race in America a lot ... . I don't want to write songs that make people feel so bad about themselves. I say it in a poetic way.
Q. Are there any songs from your back catalog that you find you don't want to perform anymore?
A. Earlier songs. The first record. If you ever heard my first record, it was pretty bad. I was only 22.