In this extended interview transcript, conducted at his home and studio near Bloomington, Indiana, singer-songwriter John Mellencamp talks with "Sunday Morning" host (and fellow Hoosier) Jane Pauley about his rebellious adolescence; the creativity behind his music and art; why he continues to smoke; and how his grandmother spoiled him for other women.
JOHN MELLENCAMP: So this is like a vault where all of the tapes, all the records we've made, when everybody used to cut on tape.
JANE PAULEY: You're running out of room.
JOHN MELLENCAMP: Good. (laughs) That's good.
JANE PAULEY: There's "Small Town," "Jack & Diane," "Pink Houses."
JOHN MELLENCAMP: So even further back here we would find -- here's "Scarecrow," the album of "Scarecrow." "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A."
JANE PAULEY: What was the significance to you of "Scarecrow," to your career, to your life as an artist?
JOHN MELLENCAMP: Well, it was, you know, the reason we made that record was because we were noticing that the landscape of Indiana is changing. All the small towns were going out of business. Why? Why are all these small towns going out of business? Because everybody went to live in the city? No. It was because that corporate farming had moved in and run the small family farmer out of business. Which is why we started Farm Aid.
JANE PAULEY: Where was that in a transition from your pop rocker days?
JOHN MELLENCAMP: Well, I had no choice, Jane. I had to have hit records because, you know, the critics in the beginning hated me. Absolutely hated me in New York. There was no place for John Mellencamp in the music business. I had to create my own job and create my own genre, and consequently do what I think they now call Americana.
JANE PAULEY: And I think the critics finally came around.
JOHN MELLENCAMP: Yeah. Oh, yeah. They did. But by the time they came around it didn't matter. (laughs) It was too late. It was too late.
JANE PAULEY: That's the way it goes. But seriously, you're running out of room here. You feel like you've got a lot more artistic output to go?
JOHN MELLENCAMP: Oh, sure. There's a lot more to be said and a lot more to be written. Although I do believe there's enough songs written in the world right now for anybody to -- we couldn't listen, sing all of 'em anyway. But the joy of making music and the joy of writing the songs is reward enough for me.
JANE PAULEY: But alas, you can't just do it here from your own studio in Nashville, Indiana. You've gotta go hit the road.
JOHN MELLENCAMP: Well, if you wanna keep the songs alive you do. That's one way of keeping the songs alive, is playing them live. I don't really like repeating myself and playing the same thing over, and over, and over again. But to keep the songs rolling, to try to stay relevant without becoming an oldies act...
JANE PAULEY: But it's gotta be fun when you sing "Jack & Diane" and --
JOHN MELLENCAMP: I don't sing "Jack & Diane." They sing it.
JANE PAULEY: That's what I was getting to. You can stop singing and hundreds and hundreds of people sing it for you. That's gotta be a thrill.
JOHN MELLENCAMP: Well, it's really odd. It's an odd feeling that so many people know a song that you wrote when you were a kid.
JANE PAULEY: Yeah. "Ain't it America."
JOHN MELLENCAMP: Yeah, well, there's a lot of 'em. So I was very fortunate
JANE PAULEY: Well, you worked really hard.
JOHN MELLENCAMP: Is there a reward for that? Do I get a crown in Heaven? (laughs)
JANE PAULEY: I don't know why you're asking me! (laughs)
* * * *
JANE PAULEY: Where would you rather be than sitting here being interviewed by me, or by anybody else?
JOHN MELLENCAMP: Well, cards on the table, I don't really like being interviewed. I have talked about myself for 40 years, and I'm just not that interested. I just do certain things and I'm doing the same thing that I did when I was a young guy. I paint, and I write songs, go out and play 'em, and make records. And I've been playing in rock bands since I was 13.
JANE PAULEY: You're right. That's so boring. Not.
JOHN MELLENCAMP: No. It is.
JANE PAULEY: But, you know, I deliberately ask that in hopes that you might say that, 'cause you have said that sometimes before, "I'm not interesting." And I wonder if that is just a little bit of the Hoosier thing that you and I have in common. Because how could you possibly feel interesting? We're not raised to feel interesting here even if you were really interesting.
JOHN MELLENCAMP: Well, you're not encouraged to get outside of the box very much here. Particularly during the Reagan years. [For] a young person in Indiana, hopes and dreams were sort of dashed and the fact that you and I both, and a couple of other people that I could name, forged and soldiered on is really surprising to me.
JANE PAULEY: What happened in the Reagan years that was discouraging here?
JOHN MELLENCAMP: How about, like, the whole state went out of business? (laughs) I mean, all the small towns disappeared. Corporate America was taking over all the farming. "Get big or get out" was the motto of the Reagan years. And for a little guy trying to start out or a little girl trying to start out to do something it was not encouraging. I don't think it was very encouraging for young people our age. And if you look at your friends who you grew up with, I think what I just said will justify and solidify that statement.
JANE PAULEY: Never thought of that.
JOHN MELLENCAMP: I just noticed [your] watch and it was, like, "That's a Hermes watch. I know it is."
JANE PAULEY: There's nothing else to look at. This is flea market. (laughs) Okay. Now, see? What I just did was a totally me thing to do that I have come to regard as a Hoosier thing, that may not be blamed on the state of our birth at all. You remark on a nice watch I have. So what do I have to do? I immediately have to balance it by saying "Oh, I got this at a flea market."
JOHN MELLENCAMP: Yeah. Yeah.
JANE PAULEY: Maybe you don't have that problem.
JOHN MELLENCAMP: I don't know. I think that really what that says to me is, Jane doesn't take compliments well.
JANE PAULEY: No. (laughs) She doesn't.
JOHN MELLENCAMP: So you're covering up a compliment by going someplace else.
JANE PAULEY: But I try to be funny about it.
JOHN MELLENCAMP: Yeah, try to be.
JANE PAULEY: Do I get away with it?
JOHN MELLENCAMP: Yeah.
JANE PAULEY: Do you take compliments well?
JOHN MELLENCAMP: No. I don't even wanna hear 'em. I always say to people, "Don't talk to me about things that are going well. If they're going well you don't need me. I'm a problem solver. If there's a problem, talk to me about it. I can problem solve that problem. But if things are going well -- if you work for me and you don't hear anything from me, you're doing good."
You don't wanna hear, "John wants to see you in the dressing room." That's not a conversation that anybody wants to get. And everybody that works for me knows that. So if you don't hear from me it's good. So yeah. But I don't need to hear about how great that song was or how good the show was, or, you know, I have a Hermes watch on. (laughs) I don't need to hear it.
JANE PAULEY: It was a gift. I didn't do it for myself.
JOHN MELLENCAMP: Oh, there you go again. (laughs) "I would never buy myself something like this."
JANE PAULEY: Okay. But you really look pretty sharp. The covered bracelet thing you got going. Probably pretty quality boots. And the scarf thing around your neck.
JOHN MELLENCAMP: The scarf thing is, a friend of mine wears one all the time. And it was to keep his neck warm. And so I thought it was very unusual 'cause he always wears a suit and a tie, and then he had this scarf wrapped around there. And so I thought, "I wanna try that." And I tried it and I liked it.
When Doc wears it, he's always dressed up. But that scarf makes it look kind of casual. But for me the scarf makes it look more dressed up because normally I look like a bag of s*** in a T-shirt and jeans. (laughs) You know? Except when I go on stage. I'm respectful to the audience and I always wear a suit on stage.
JANE PAULEY: That's true? Didn't use to be.
JOHN MELLENCAMP: Didn't used to be when I was a kid, but as I got older, out of respect to the audience. They came to see a professional and they're gonna see a professional.
JANE PAULEY: This morning I was getting ready to come here, looking over my notes and coffee at Starbucks and unaware of the soundtrack until what would come up but "Jack & Diane." It was 2017 and they're still playing "Jack & Diane."
JOHN MELLENCAMP: Well, I don't really know how a 25-year-old guy would know that life would go on long after the thrill of living is gone. But I wrote those words. And I don't know why I wrote 'em 'cause I clearly wouldn't have understood that at that point in my life. And I was criticized for writing those words: "Mellencamp is writing songs discouraging people not to live life to the fullest."
I mean, you know, they were looking for anything to give me s*** about. Right? (laughs) But it turned out to be true. And for me it was very helpful because, I don't know about you, but I want to do something every day. I want to learn something every day. I want to make something every day. I have to make something every day. Every day. Whether it's a painting, whether it's a song. Even if it's just a couple sketches. I have to make something every day. And I also work out. And if I skip working out I feel guilty about it. If I go for a day and don't make anything I feel guilty about it. It's like, "You lazy bum. Get up there and get going."
JANE PAULEY: I love everything about that. You use the word "I have to." "I have to." What do you think is driving you to have to make something every day?
JOHN MELLENCAMP: I wrote in a song, "Life is short even in its longest days." I'm 65 years old and I can see the finish line from here. I only have so many summers left, and I intend not to waste them being old, and feeling sorry for myself, and sitting around and complaining about how bad I feel. Now, I may end up doing that, (laughs) but my plan, if I ever had a plan -- this is the first time in my life I've ever had a plan! But if I have a plan it's that I am going to make something every day, I'm going to try to learn something every day, and I'm going to try to make the most out of however many summers I have left.
JANE PAULEY: You have always had, even when you looked like a punk, you were a really hard-working punk. Right?
JOHN MELLENCAMP: Yeah, I have always been driven. I guess work is the wrong word. I think it's life. I am trying to live an artist's life, and I have always tried to live an artist's life. And by living an artist's life it means that you would have to create art of some sort. I'm using the term very loosely when it comes to me, but I try to live that life.
You know, I've never really had a straight job. In high school I poured concrete. And then I had a job for a little while climbing telephone poles. But that didn't last long.
JANE PAULEY: But you caused your career to happen. You are one of those persevering types who said, "I want it. I'm gonna go get it." And you go to New York. The part of your story I'm not entirely clear about is whether you left Indiana to go to New York to become a singer or to become an artist.
JOHN MELLENCAMP: I went to New York on a dual mission. I wanted to see how much it cost to go the New York Art Student League. And I was singing in local rock bands in, and I had a demo tape. You know, a real crappy demo tape. Yeah, I'm singing in fraternities, sororities since I was 13. And so I just went to New York with no intention of living there. Just going there to find out about this and find out about that. And I was 20, maybe 21. And it turned out that the New York Art Student League wanted money but the record company wanted to give me money. (laughs) Let me see… To a 21-year-old guy. Well, they're ready to give me money! Of course when I got my first record deal I didn't even have a guitar. I had hocked my guitar for painting goods.
JANE PAULEY: You're making that up.
JOHN MELLENCAMP: No. Well, painting goods and albums. So anyway, I had to borrow a kid's guitar when I went to New York, which I broke. Which is a funny story. So I ended up getting a record deal like that.
JANE PAULEY: I interviewed the head of a record company; he described the building where a new artist might walk in the door, and he said within minutes everybody knows when it's somebody, that that somebody who has walked in the door has something, almost before he hears it.
JOHN MELLENCAMP: Oh, yeah.
JANE PAULEY: You must've had that same thing.
JOHN MELLENCAMP: With the most humility I say that's what happened to me. They didn't even listen to the demo tape. They called me -- I was back here in Indiana – and I said, "I can't come down. I don't have any money." "Oh, well, we'll pay for it." "Well, if you're paying I'm coming. (laughs) You got the money honey. I got the time."
And so then, I didn't know what to expect or what was happening, or what to do. So I went there, and then all this craziness started happening. I was in New York and people would go, "You sound like a hillbilly." And I thought to myself, "You sound like a hopped-up Easterner." (laughs) I may have said that. But--
JANE PAULEY: Well, what were you saying that sounded like a hillbilly?
JOHN MELLENCAMP: Well, what I'm saying right now. (laughs)
JANE PAULEY: I don't hear it.
JOHN MELLENCAMP: You're from here -- I wonder why. (laughs!)
* * * *
JANE PAULEY: If I said, "Johnny Cougar," to somebody, I'd have to explain who I was talking about to most people. They remember the songs, "Hurts So Good," "Jack & Diane," and so on, but you have so outlived "John Cougar." You've outlived "John Cougar Mellencamp."
JOHN MELLENCAMP: Well, you know, it's funny. Sometimes I'll walk down the street and people will say, "Hey, Coug." But, you know, I think where this is going -- at least in my mind -- is your legacy. And it makes me laugh because when you're a kid you actually believe in legacy. "I've gotta leave a legacy." Now I understand there's no legacy. There's no legacy for any of us, for anybody. And I can make the point very simply: My daughter, who is 34 years old, has a couple kids. And she sent me a picture with her and her husband and their kids riding. She's a professional rider in Los Angeles. And I responded on the text, "Oh, it's Roy Rogers and Dale Evans with Trigger." And she wrote back, "Who's that?" Okay, now that sounds silly, but everybody our age knew who that was. Everybody. And here it is just two generations later. Not a clue. She had to look it up. She said, "I have to Google who those people were."
JANE PAULEY: So the young woman who sold me the coffee at the coffee shop where I'm hearing "Jack & Diane" this morning -- so I might've dropped your name a bit. She said, "You're going to the concert?" And I explained, "No. I wasn't. Are you?" And she actually said, "No." And I thought, because of [her] being 20? And no. The pause was she couldn't afford to see John Mellencamp in concert. She knew who you were. She's 20 years old.
JOHN MELLENCAMP: Well, she's in Indiana.
JANE PAULEY: And she knew. And she knew about "Jack & Diane." You might have a legacy. Why are you apologizing for that?
JOHN MELLENCAMP: Oh, I'm not -- no.
JANE PAULEY: What are you doing that for?
JOHN MELLENCAMP: No. I'm telling you there is no legacy for any of us. I'll make the point even better. Before us, before rock and roll, this country was jitterbugging to big bands everywhere from Harlem to San Diego. (sings swing tune)
JANE PAULEY: That's a legacy.
JOHN MELLENCAMP: Sure it is. Okay, who did that song?
JANE PAULEY: (laughs) Benny Goodman? I don't know.
JOHN MELLENCAMP: Okay, that's the point. You can't name four big bands. And if you can name four big bands you can't hum four songs that they did. That's my point. It's all just a fallacy.
JANE PAULEY: Jitterbug to my blood stir. The music you made, if I can't remember or my kids won't remember who made the song, we'll know the song.
JOHN MELLENCAMP: Maybe.
JANE PAULEY: They'll wanna hear it again.
JOHN MELLENCAMP: Yeah, maybe. You have the song, but the idea that a person is playing for their legacy just makes me laugh now.
JANE PAULEY: Okay, so going back. Why do you do it? You are 65 years old. You could kick back and just--
JOHN MELLENCAMP: Jane, I already told you that. It's my duty and job to not waste any more summers, and try to learn something every day, to try to create something every day, make something every day, and exercise every day. And that's what I have to do with my summers. Because Greg Allman just died. He's 69 years old. If we're on Greg's time schedule, you and I got three years left, baby!
JANE PAULEY: Do you know it does seem like a whole lot of big, big stars aren't making it out of their 60s. And I have noticed that. And I appreciate you're eating well. But, you know, you're looking for another cigarette. Can we talk about that?
JOHN MELLENCAMP: What? Cigarettes?
JANE PAULEY: Yes. I'd like you to have one or two more summers.
JOHN MELLENCAMP: Well, I -- okay. Look, don't forget. I had a heart attack when I was 42. But it was high cholesterol and cigarettes. Rightfully or wrongfully, I think I'm offsetting my cigarette consumption by exercising. That's why I've got to exercise. Rightfully or wrongfully, I believe that it's the combination of cigarettes and alcohol that gets people. The two of them combined. My grandfather did not drink but he smoked, and he lived to be 80. He never exercised, but he was a carpenter. I think it's the drinking, and the smoking, and the drugging that gets people. I've never taken drugs. You know, in the early '70s, you know, maybe smoked some pot. Other than that, nothing.
JANE PAULEY: And drinking?
JOHN MELLENCAMP: Yeah, I drank. I got beat up one night at college. I started a fight. I was in a bar and this guy beat the s*** out of me. I mean, I was unrecognizable to myself. And I woke up the next morning, and my face -- I looked like Quasimodo. And I just said, "You know, this drinking and drugging is not working for me." And I have not touched a drink or a drug since that morning other than cigarettes.
JANE PAULEY: So that's your theory? Do you know President Trump has a theory about exercise that you have a certain amount of energy, and if you waste it --
JOHN MELLENCAMP: Oh, he's, yeah, well, as with everything else, he's f****** wrong. (laughs) So I don't need to hear any of Trump's philosophies of life.
JANE PAULEY: But will you acknowledge that maybe your philosophy that's it's the combination that's gonna [kill you] –
JOHN MELLENCAMP: Hey, look, I know it's wacky, but I'm not President. (laughs) It's probably a wacky idea, but it comforts me. And I'm not President of the United States. And I'm not a role model. I did not sign up to be a role model. Nowhere on my record contract did it say, "You have to be this."
JANE PAULEY: But you sang. You have a voice to protect. Don't you? Or is it just getting better and better?
JOHN MELLENCAMP: Are you kidding me? Have you ever heard my voice, honey? (laughs) It's fantastic! I sound so much better. I sound like I've always wanted to sound. I sound like a black guy singing now.
JANE PAULEY: What? (laughs)
JOHN MELLENCAMP: I mean, that's what I wanted. I wanted to sound like Louis Armstrong. But I didn't. I sounded like a white guy. (laughs) People who sing soul music and sing the blues, you know, sing these folk songs had that growl in their voice. And now I got it. These are my babies. Come on. (laughs) Don't mess with my babies.
Now that I've said that, two weeks from now you're gonna read: "Mellencamp dies of heart attack." (laughs)
JANE PAULEY: Earlier in our conversation you kind of apologized, "I sort of call myself an artist."
JOHN MELLENCAMP: Well, I said use the word artist loosely.
JANE PAULEY: Do you have to be Rembrandt to actually be one?
JOHN MELLENCAMP: Pretty much.
JANE PAULEY: Everything about this studio of yours says, "An artist works here." When in your life did you discover the paint brush and canvas?
JOHN MELLENCAMP: I grew up with a mother who had five kids. And she was a painter and a drawer. And we lived in 714 W. 5th Street in Seymour, Indiana, and in a three little bedroom house that was this big with five kids. And down in the basement there was a ping pong table, our boys bedroom, and a little area where Mom painted.
So I grew up smelling turpentine, oil paint, and I thought paintings took forever because she'd only be able to paint maybe 20, 30 minutes then she had to attend to the kids. So these paintings would sit on the easel, and I'd go, "Why don't you finish this? You know, let's get on with it." And sometimes I'd go and paint on it. Oh, that'd make her so mad. (laughs) "John, quit messing with my paintings!" And so I guess that's where I got the bug.
And then musically my grandmother, who I speak about a lot, you could throw any instrument in front of her and she could play it. Piano, string instrument. You know, never even seen -- "What is this instrument?" -- and then she's playing.
JANE PAULEY: Maternal or paternal grandmother?
JOHN MELLENCAMP: My dad's mother.
JANE PAULEY: So on your father's side you've got music. On your mother's side--
JOHN MELLENCAMP: Mother's side I have art. And my grandmother on my father's side raised me because my parents were like, you know, I was born defected. So they were young and they just kind of went, "Here," to my grandmother. And so she raised me.
I was born with spina bifida and should've died in 1951. And they did an experimental surgery in Riley Children's Hospital on me. And they did it to four kids, and I was the only one that lived. And I've never had any trouble with it. But my grandmother who was raised she said every day, "Buddy, don't forget. You're the handsomest, luckiest, talented boy in the world." I was 40 years old and she would still call me, and we'd end our conversation and she's say, "Don't forget, you're the handsomest, luckiest, most talented boy in the world."
And she told me that every day of my life. Every day of my life she told me that. The flipside of that is it's really hard for girlfriends to compete with that. (laughs) And wives. It's, like, really hard! It's, like, I mean, you're not up to standard with grandma. Come on. (laughs) My Elaine used to say, "I can't compete with grandma. I just can't." You know?
* * * *
JANE PAULEY: You start smoking when you were 10.
JOHN MELLENCAMP: Yeah.
JANE PAULEY: And you didn't mind that your parents didn't approve.
JOHN MELLENCAMP: It never even dawned on me that they would approve, or disapprove, or that it would matter, if they cared or didn't care. I was always, "What do you got to do with it?" You know, that's always been my attitude. And that's why my parents and I didn't get along for a long time. Well, my dad and I buried the hatchet when I was 23. My dad was a great guy. Great guy. I talk to him every day. But I didn't talk to him for three years. And he did the greatest thing a father could ever do. 'Cause don't forget, there were hippies, and drugs, and rock music. And if you remember, our parents didn't really, like, savvy the lingo much. They didn't like it. And my dad did not like it. And he called me up one day -- I was already making records -- and he said, "Can we have lunch?" And I said, "Why? Why should we have lunch?" He goes, "I'd like to talk to you." I said, "So talk." I mean, that's the way I talked to him. He goes, "No. No. No. I wanna talk to you in person."
I said, "Dad, what the f***? Well, you know, why do we gotta talk in person? It's just gonna be an argument. You know, let's just save it." He goes, "No. No. It's not gonna be an argument." So he said, "I'll meet you in Nashville." And I drove over to Nashville, Indiana. That was halfway to Seymour. And we sat down. Dad had his suit on -- Dad always had a suit on. And we talked for a little bit. And then he did the most manly thing I ever saw a man do: He got out of his chair, and he got down on one knee in front of his son, which me who was an a******, (laughs) and he said, "Whatever I've done to set a bad example or you felt was improper or if you thought I was overly mean to you, I hope that you can forgive me now. And let's be friends for the rest of our lives."
And I haven't had a cross word with him since that day. Not one. I punched him in the face when I was 18 years old. And from that to I never have a cross word with him.
JANE PAULEY: How liberating. I mean, that's sort of the definition of unconditional. You're just free to live your life without having to explain or apologize to your parents.
JOHN MELLENCAMP: Well, no. My dad. Now, my mom on the other hand (laughs) gave me a spanking when I was 40.
JANE PAULEY: Whoa.
JOHN MELLENCAMP: Yeah. I was in my art studio painting. It was a Sunday. And I was divorced at the time. I was living there by myself, and I painted constantly. I I had quit the music business. I didn't tell anybody, but I quit for three years. And I wasn't playing anything. I wasn't making any records. I wouldn't take phone calls from the record companies. And it was just like, "I'm not doing this anymore. I'm not part of this." I was painting.
And all the sudden I hear. (stomping sound) And I thought, "Who is walking in the art studio on a Sunday afternoon?" And it's my mom. And she's got a switch in her hand. She goes, "When I call you," (laughs) and she's hitting me on the back of the legs with a switch. I'm 40 years old! "When I call you, you call me back." And I said, "Marilyn" (that was her name), I said, "What on Earth is wrong with you?" And I walked outside to get away from her smacking me with that little switch. Right? And my dad's standing out there. And I go, "What the f***?" And he goes, "I tried to stop her, but you know how she is. Well, what am I gonna do, John? What do you expect me to do?" She was gonna give you a spanking, and there was nothing I could do about it unless I wanted to get spanking myself. So there you go."
JANE PAULEY: Did she make her point?
JOHN MELLENCAMP: Yeah. It was my fault. 'Cause, you know, now I have kids that won't call me back, and I wanna get a switch and go call them, "When I call you …!" (laughs) I've got five kids. And it's like, when they don't call me back it's like, "Hey, I called you, like, two days ago. Why didn't you call me back?"
JANE PAULEY: You describe that period of your life when you were making art but you weren't making music – or making phone calls -- you're done with it, was a time in your life that was not really unusual. You have panic attacks.
JOHN MELLENCAMP: Yes.
JANE PAULEY: And anxiety is a thing. How much a presence is anxiety in your everyday life now?
JOHN MELLENCAMP: Now? A little bit. I wake up sometimes and feel anxious. But, as you well know, they have drugs that help people like me with that. But there was a time when I was totally paralyzed by it in my early 20s. And in the late '80s it jumped on me. I got my second divorce, and it just jumped all over me. I couldn't do anything. I didn't wanna do anything.
JANE PAULEY: That's a really good way to put it, by the way. "It jumped all over me." When you've got it, it is all over you.
JOHN MELLENCAMP: It's everywhere. And it's real. Yeah, it is real. You know, I was dying. I went to my doctor one day and I said, "You know, you're not following up very well with this medicine. You've got me on. I should've been called." And I was giving him s*** about it 'cause, you know, I thought he wasn't doing his job. And he looked at me and he pulled out my file. This is before computers. Right?
He goes, "You wanna see your file?" It was that tall. (laughs) He goes, "Really, John? At some point you've gotta, like, realize that all this stuff is in your head. Because I have file, after file, after file, after file, after file of, you know, you don't have sickle cell anemia, you don't have it. But you've come to me for having sickle cell.
JANE PAULEY: Are you a hypochondriac at this point?
JOHN MELLENCAMP: Oh, yeah. Sure. Yeah. I've had everything you can get. I go straight to cancer, Jane. Straight to cancer. There's no, like, "Oh, I've got a cold." I've got cancer.
JANE PAULEY: Doesn't everybody do that? Or is it just -- (laughs)
JOHN MELLENCAMP: It's just me and you. (laughs) No. I think there are a lot of people that do it. But I go straight to cancer. There's no, like, gray area. I'm either okay or I'm dying.
The bigger picture is that life is never what you think it is. What you perceive is going on around you may be a little bit, but in the global picture it's not what's happening at all. It's just not. And that's what I've learned.
JANE PAULEY: You know, you have many gifts, but I think the gift that underlies all of them is you have always understood how to tap your creativity. And the way to tape creativity is to do it every day; is to have the routine of go to work and be available.
JOHN MELLENCAMP: That's right. That is the key word right there. You know, songwriting used to be so painful for me when I was a kid because I hadn't done it. But as time goes on and time goes on I don't even wanna write songs and they'll go, "Hey, man. You better put down that paint brush and write these words down." I don't want to, but then I do. And there's a song on the new record called "Easy Targets" that is about black lives and about the working poor, and -- I wasn't even thinking about that stuff. And I wrote that song in, I don't know, five minutes. I couldn't even keep up with it. You know, it was just like, "Black lives matter. Who we tryin' to kid," and it's just boom. And I wrote it. And then I went back to painting. And then I found it a couple days later and go, "Wow. When did I write that?" (laughs) So songwriting has become, like, a real surprise to me and really exciting at my age. It's more exciting now than it ever was.
JANE PAULEY: Well, how do you explain that to yourself? Was that song just a gift from above? Or do you as an artist take ownership of, "I produced this song"?
JOHN MELLENCAMP: I am available. I am available to ideas. I am available to free thinking. I am available to thoughts. I am not in a box. Now, I used to be when I was a kid when I was writing songs like "Hurts So Good" and "Jack & Diane." "I have to write a song that's -- no. I can't go over that. That-- that song took a wrong turn." Now, nothing takes a wrong turn. There's no wrong turns to make. These paintings. There's no wrong turn.
I may walk up to a canvas and think, "I'm going to do one thing," and it turns out to be something else that surprises me. And I'm thrilled to death when that happens. When I'm not thrilled to death is when I labor over something and try to force it into being something that, you know, I think it has to be. But that's not art.
JANE PAULEY: So now creativity is about finding out what it wants to be.
JOHN MELLENCAMP: That's right. Letting creativity be creative as opposed to trying to control it.
JANE PAULEY: But to do it every day and to make it, "I can't sleep in today." What is your daily routine?
JOHN MELLENCAMP: A gentleman does not get up 'til 9:30. (laughs) I get up at 9:30 and I'll make a few phone calls, have a shake, and then I'll paint. They'll bring my lunch up to me, and then I'll paint till 6:00, 7:00. And then I'll go work out. And then have dinner. And then watch TCM or something and then go to bed. That's my life.
JANE PAULEY: It's a very disciplined routine.
JOHN MELLENCAMP: I went 46 days a few months ago without leaving the property. My dad called me up and said, "John, it's getting creepy." (laughs) I was doing these paintings. And I was writing songs. And, you know, was busy. I wasn't just sitting here.
JANE PAULEY: So you have to acknowledge a body of work. We don't call it legacy. But it is a major body of work that has earned a lot of respect. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
JOHN MELLENCAMP: No. I have three really good things I'm proud of: The John Steinbeck Award, the Woody Guthrie Award, and Bob Dylan singling me out as writing one of the best songs he'd heard in the last decade. Those three things mean more to me than Grammys or any adulation from any stupid f****** magazine or any 26-year-old kid reviewing my records. You know, don't even bother reviewing 'em. You don't even know what you're talking about. And I don't need your input in what I'm doing. I know what I wanna do.
JANE PAULEY: But the reviews for "Sad Clowns & Hillbillies" have been really, really, really good.
JOHN MELLENCAMP: Yeah. I don't care.
JANE PAULEY: Do you read 'em?
JOHN MELLENCAMP: Nope. I'm finding this out from you.
JANE PAULEY: They've been really, really good.
JOHN MELLENCAMP: I don't care. It doesn't matter to me. If you care about the good ones, then you gotta care about the bad ones.
JANE PAULEY: What's the worst thing that was ever written about you that you did learn of?
JOHN MELLENCAMP: A guy named Bill Flanagan, who I'm friends with. He had a magazine called Musician Magazine that was popular in the '80s. And I was talking to Flanagan one day and he said, "You know, John, the problem is that I like what you do but I don't love it. And there's a difference." And he said, "That's just me. I like it but I don't love it." And when he first said that I thought -- but then after I thought about it, I thought, "Yeah. He's right. He's right. Because I'm the same way."
There's things that I love and things that I like. And he just likes me. And that's okay. That's fine with me. Because the guy said, "I just like 'em. I don't love 'em like I love Steinbeck or like I love Tennessee Williams, or like I love Dylan or Woody Guthrie, but I like some of these other guys."
JANE PAULEY: Who did you love?
JOHN MELLENCAMP: Well, I always loved Bob Dylan. My parents were young. They're only 20 years older than me, so I grew up in a house where my parents would play Odetta, you know, who was a black folk singer. And my great grandmother was black. So there was no racism talk in our house. And they listened to Woody Guthrie. They also listened to Julie London.
JANE PAULEY: How many people in Seymour were listening to Odetta and Woody Guthrie and Julie London? (laughs)
JOHN MELLENCAMP: Well, my parents thought they were cool, I guess. 'Cause my dad would have bongo parties. I guess they saw Brando bongoing and they thought they needed to bongo.
JANE PAULEY: This would've been in the '50s.
JOHN MELLENCAMP: Yeah. And I'd be a little kid trying to go to sleep at night. And Dad with his buddies would have the stereo playing real loud.
JANE PAULEY: These are interesting people you're describing.
JOHN MELLENCAMP: My mom was Miss Indiana University. She was, like, really pretty. Really pretty. And everything with Mom was about appearance. I mean, if you and I hypothetically dated in high school and you came to my house, here's the conversation: "So, Jane, do you play piano?"
JANE PAULEY: My mother is an organist.
JOHN MELLENCAMP: My mom: "Oh, too bad. John does. My son John plays piano. Do you play guitar, Jane? Oh, no? Oh, well, John and Joe both play. You speak Latin, Jane?" "No. I don't." "Oh, well, my son Joe does. Joe, would you like to speak some Latin?" So it got to the point where I just quit bringing people, girls over to my house because it was like I was dating a girl that you just interviewed.
JANE PAULEY: You talked earlier about writing "Jack & Diane," you're 25 years old, and what did you know about "long after the thrill is gone"? A lot of your stuff from early on is really resonating in a new bullseye sort of way. Am I right?
JOHN MELLENCAMP: Well, I've written songs that are more relevant now than they were when I wrote 'em 20 years ago. I wrote a song called "Love and Happiness" that says, "Well, we're dropping our bombs in the southern hemisphere. People are dying that live right here. I mean we're killing each other in the Middle East. I mean, you know and we somehow have forgot about love and happiness."
I wrote a song called "Rodeo Clown" that, you know, "If you wanna find the devil you can find him on freedom's road."
Quite honestly, that's one of my biggest disappointments. You would think with all the goddamn people in the world that somebody would've taken the time to sat down and listen to my lyrics to my songs one time.
JANE PAULEY: But you know what? I know you rather strongly identify with your fans. But your fans are probably way, way, way on the spectrum to the right of you.
JOHN MELLENCAMP: Oh, I've been booed. When the Iraq War started I was so against that. I was playing at Farm Aid and the President just walked and he said, "Okay, this will take about three weeks. And we're gonna need this much money." And I was so against it that I walked out at Farm Aid. Don't forget. Farm Aid. I helped start Farm Aid. Right?
And I said, "The President has just asked for this much money to attack Iraq." And I got booed. And I remember Neil Young walked up to me after it was over and he goes, "Whatever you said keep saying it." (laughs)
I did a favor for a friend who owns the Colts. You know, he wanted me to come and play at halftime. And so I went and I got booed. Shortly thereafter I played "Pink Houses" and as I'm walking off I'm getting booed because of my political beliefs.
JANE PAULEY: Well by your own description, "Pink Houses" is an anti-American song.
JOHN MELLENCAMP: Okay. If you wanna get into government I can get into it with you real quick. You probably don't wanna have this conversation with me, but here's the deal: I don't trust the government. I don't trust the Democrats. I don't trust the Republicans. I'm a little bit more Democratic than I am Republican, but really I'm a socialist. And that's where it's at. We have been lied and cheated to our entire lives, Jane, forever. How about a little duck and cover, baby?
JANE PAULEY: Okay, but it's--
JOHN MELLENCAMP: That our government. (laughs) What happened to "serve and protect"? Duck and cover? That's what they gave us. And that's just the joke line of all of our government. I'm Marlon Brando in "The Wild One." "What are you rebelling against, John?" "Whatever you got."
JANE PAULEY: You talked about love and happiness. People feeling shoved around, about political correctness, the very things that your fans would be wearing red hats, "Make America great again." That's what they're mad about, the alienation, the feeling of being shoved around. And yet you come out the other end.
JOHN MELLENCAMP: Here's the problem: Hollywood has wimped out so much. They don't make any movies anymore; they make these things where they have, what, superheroes. So that's why this guy gets elected. Because he presents himself -- "Only I [can fix it]." And the general public is used to seeing movies that are like, "Go, Batman, go!" It's bull s***. It's just total bull.
JANE PAULEY: Indiana is big for Trump. And they would feel exactly like you do about being shoved around and the political correctness. And yet you split off to the left and your neighbors go to the right.
JOHN MELLENCAMP: I can't help it that they're wrong. (laughs) They're just wrong. I'm sorry. You're wrong. You cannot vote for someone who is not going to represent you. The Congress should be -- here's what it should be: An honorary position that lasts a couple years and you represent your district. And then you're done. Finished. You might have a couple years. You might have enough time to get corrupt by somebody feeding you some money somewhere.
But if you know that you're only gonna do it for two years then it would seem to be that the dignity of a human being would be, "I'm going to be the best that I can be for my constituents for these two years, and I'm gonna do a hell of a good job." I think the President should be able to be elected like Roosevelt for, like, three terms so he can learn what the f*** he's doing. And then that's it. And that's my solution. You can't be a permanent senator. You can't be a permanent state representative.
JANE PAULEY: By the way, you wore black armbands, anti-war, when you were in high school in Seymour.
JOHN MELLENCAMP: Yes.
JANE PAULEY: How many of you were there wearing black armbands?
JOHN MELLENCAMP: Me and a couple of other guys. (laughs) But I have to tell you in all honesty that in 1970 I went to march in Washington, D.C. But I missed the march.
JANE PAULEY: You missed the march?
JOHN MELLENCAMP: I was by the Washington Monument, but I ran into this little girl. (laughs) And her and I -- we missed the march.
JANE PAULEY: Missed the march. And you didn't vote.
JOHN MELLENCAMP: No. I didn't see any point in voting.
JANE PAULEY: You never voted.
JOHN MELLENCAMP: No. I vote now. I do now. But I didn't then. Because I didn't see any point in it. I just don't trust the government. But I'm not so crazy that I'm putting up with an armed camp.
JANE PAULEY: You're not joining a militia?
JOHN MELLENCAMP: No. No. No. I feel like I'm outgunned. (laughs)
* * *
JANE PAULEY: The story behind your partnership with Carlene Carter on this album. You could've worked with anybody. Why Carlene?
JOHN MELLENCAMP: I met Carlene, she sang a couple of songs on a Meg Ryan film called "Ithaca." And I did the soundtrack for that film. And we got along very well. And then Stephen King and I were doing a musical together. And we had a little part in that. And then she and I on a soundstage, I think it was in New York, I started playing guitar, and she started singing, and we sounded good together. It went from that to, "How would you like to open up for me?" And she said, "Yes." I walked offstage after 130 shows like it's show 60 and she was in the wings ready to come on 'cause we do a duet. And I said, "You know, we should make a record together." And she said "Okay." And I said, "How about a religious record where we just do hymns but we'll write our own hymns?" And this is all -- you know, the band's playing, the audience is there, we're having this conversation. And she said, "Okay." And so of course, you know, it didn't work out that way. She wrote some religious songs but I didn't. So the record turned out what it was. So that was the idea. But then the creativity went that way. So we had to follow the creativity.
JANE PAULEY: Why you think that she and you are a particularly good creative partnership?
JOHN MELLENCAMP: You know, when you meet somebody and you just get along with 'em, it's easy. Conversations are light, and stuff gets done, and she's agreeable, but she also has a point of view that I listen to, and she listens to my point of view. But it's done in a very respectful, golly-gee kind of way. And it just works.
JANE PAULEY: Do you like Johnny Cash?
JOHN MELLENCAMP: I am going to toot my Indiana horn. Johnny Cash said that I was one of the 10 best songwriters ever. So when Cash said that about me it was like, "Oh, okay." Yeah, I like John. I have a really funny story about John Cash, but it's too long for this show. But if you don't mind, I'll just tell it because it's funny.
They were totally trying to raise money for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. They paired people up with likeminded people. So I was with John Cash. And soundchecks were awful because, you know, Don Henley was there with the Eagles and they just took forever and ever. And John Cash was getting pissed. And John had a temper. And June was there. Finally, the Eagles got down, like, an hour and a half late. Right?
And so John goes out, and he soundchecks, and he looks at me. He goes, "Okay, come on. Let's run on down our song." And I went, "Nah." 'Cause I was trying to be nice to him. I said, "I got it. I got this. Don't worry about it." He said, "You sure?" I said, "Yeah, I know you're wanting to get outta here and I'm wanting to outta here. We'll just wing it. We'll be all right. I got it."
So here we are broadcast all of the world, right? John brings me out. We're gonna do "Ring of Fire." And I can sing "Ring of Fire" in the key that it's on the record. (laughs) But as he got older, he lowered the key. So it was way down (laughs) here for me. So nobody told me there was a f****** key change. So I go out and it's like, "I fell, fell, fell … where the f*** is that note? Fell."
And it was right in the middle of my range, and I look over and I see Chuck Berry, and I see Tom Petty, and I see Springsteen, and I see all these guys going …. (laughs) And I'm going, "I don't f****** know." So anyway, I'm totally humiliated. So we get in with the song. Thank God. And Cash gives me a look like, "Well, you f***** that up." So I run back to my trailer, and I'm sitting in there, and I'm talking to my wife, and I'm like, "Goddamn it. you know, that's what I get -- you know, no good deed goes unpunished."
JANE PAULEY: You are a perfectionist, and you wing it for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
JOHN MELLENCAMP: I wing it all the time, babe.
JANE PAULEY: You do?
JOHN MELLENCAMP: Yeah. (laughs)
JANE PAULEY: But you are a perfectionist.
JOHN MELLENCAMP: Yeah. But I wing it all the time. I have great confidence.
JANE PAULEY: How do you feel about being 65?
JOHN MELLENCAMP: It bothers me. I was always old. I was always old.
JANE PAULEY: You were always too young for whatever it was. You had a child at, what, 18. You were a grandfather at 37.
JOHN MELLENCAMP: Younger than that actually. I think I was 32.
JANE PAULEY: Whoa.
JOHN MELLENCAMP: Yeah. I've always been old in my mind. But now, you know, you start looking at how many summers you have left, which I touched on earlier. Don't have that many summers left.
JANE PAULEY: Why do you say "summers"? There are some other seasons, you know?
JOHN MELLENCAMP: Yeah, but summer's always the fun season. You know, it's, like, new everything. New leaves …
JANE PAULEY: You were the guy come from a small town. That was summer. It was always summer when you were a kid.
JOHN MELLENCAMP: Yeah. And it didn't take much to entertain me. All I had to do was stand uptown, lean on a parking meter, and watch girls drive by, and talk to other guys, and hang out, and look to get in trouble, I guess.
JANE PAULEY: I think that to be in the '50s to grow up in that small town and to be a guy with your attitude and your looks was the best you could possibly be.
JOHN MELLENCAMP: Well, I don't know about the looks part, but I'll tell you how much fun it was. There was a place that we used to hang out called Steinkamp's right downtown Seymour. It was a malt shop. And after school we'd go up there, after we all got kicked off sport for smoking and being in trouble. And Robert Kennedy was making a train thing, where he was stopping and speaking.
And my parents were big Democrats. Big Democrats. You know, drummed in our heads about being a Democrat and what that meant. And I was sitting in Steinkamp's, and Kennedy was gonna be there. It was a half a block away. I just couldn't make it down there. (laughs)
JANE PAULEY: 'Cause it was too much fun?
JOHN MELLENCAMP: It was too much fun sitting around the -- "Yeah, Kennedy's up there talking. And maybe we should … nah." (laughs)
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