John Mellencamp: "I see the truth and the lie in everything"

A press shot of John Mellencamp

John Mellencamp seems to take pleasure in being grouchy. The musician and sometime painter – once dismissed as a pop-weight Boss, with hits such as Jack & Diane, more recently praised by Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan and cited by Billboard as “arguably the most important roots rocker of his generation” – doesn’t suffer foolish assessments of his life or work gladly. On the release of his new album Sad Clowns And Hillbillies, featuring Carlene Carter, the cig-smoking heartland rocker refutes suggestions that he is what he sings about, and (following high-profile relationships with Meg Ryan and Christie Brinkley) bemoans his status as a celebrity.

Who are the sad clowns and hillbillies?

Oh, I don’t think they’re anybody. The songs really aren’t about me, in the same way that Tennessee Williams wrote A Streetcar Named Desire and it wasn’t about him. This idea that all these songs are reflections of me has always been a fallacy.

Has the assumption that you are what you sing haunted your career?

Yeah, I think it’s an assumption that everybody made when I was younger.

If George W Bush was, in your words, “a rodeo clown”, what does that make Donald J Trump?

I’ve met this guy numerous times and I really don’t know quite what to make of him yet. I can tell you that it’s not “hooray”, though.

Are you afraid of what might happen with him at the helm?

Not particularly. Each generation seems to want to think that they’re growing up in the end times, but of course it’s not. Have you heard of the Holocaust? It doesn’t get any worse than that, and I don’t see any of that going on right now. I see countries not being very good neighbours to other people, but it’s always been this way. It’s just with the communications that we have today we know about everything before it happens.

Is that because you’ve had the luxury of being a celebrity – you can afford to dismiss it as worthless?

No. It’s worthless regardless of whether you’re a celebrity or not. Everybody who idolises a celebrity needs to take a look at themselves.

What would be the highlight of your career: the approbation of Bob Dylan, your involvement in Farm Aid, your (2008) induction into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame…?

[Chuckles] Who can have anticipated when I started making records at twenty-one that at sixty-five I’d still be making records? I just feel lucky that I can live life the way I want, write songs, paint, and don’t have to work for anybody. I’ve never worked for wages my entire life, and I never will have to now.

At one point your new album was going to be religious in theme. Do you believe in God?

I’m not a member of any denomination but I’m not an atheist, so I guess they’d call me an agnostic. I see the truth in everything. I also see the lie in everything.

Do you get hurt if people accuse you of hypocrisy – say, after the Chevy ad (despite being vehemently anti the use of his songs in commercials, he allowed Chevrolet to use Our Country in 2006) – or do you not care?

The fact that I did a Chevy ad means nothing. Once upon a time, a long time ago, music carried some sort of value. I’m not so sure I believe in that value the way I used to. Music is entertainment. I’m a song-and-dance man, that’s it.

What are the best and worst drugs you’ve ever taken?

I’m not a drug user.

Didn’t you used to smoke dope?

Well, obviously none of the drugs were good otherwise I’d still be doing them [laughs]. I smoke cigarettes [coughs], but other than that I don’t drink and I don’t take drugs. I think if you are a person who takes drugs and drinks for recreational purposes, you might want to take a look at yourself. Why do you need to alter your brain chemistry? Cos let’s face it, alcohol is poisonous – that’s why it kills people.

Are you still on eighty cigarettes a day?

No, no, no, no. I don’t know where that came from. [Pauses] Look, when you’re talking to me you’re talking to a hypocrite. Haven’t you ever seen a hypocrite before? I suggest if you’ve never seen a hypocrite before, you look in the mirror. Look, somebody asked me a question somewhere, and rather than count ’em up, I just said: “Eighty.” I don’t know if I’ve ever smoked eighty cigarettes a day. And furthermore, who gives a fuck?

Would you be happy with that on your tombstone?

Sure. What do I give a shit? I’m dead! Put anything you want on there.

Is that don’t-give-a-fuck attitude the secret of your success?

I wouldn’t advise it for everybody, but it’s worked for me.

Sad Clowns And Hillbillies is out now on Republic.

John Mellencamp featuring Carlene Carter - Sad Clowns & Hillbillies album review

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Paul Lester

Paul Lester is the editor of Record Collector. He began freelancing for Melody Maker in the late 80s, and was later made Features Editor. He was a member of the team that launched Uncut Magazine, where he became Deputy Editor. In 2006 he went freelance again and has written for The Guardian, The Times, the Sunday Times, the Telegraph, Classic Rock, Q and the Jewish Chronicle. He has also written books on Oasis, Blur, Pulp, Bjork, The Verve, Gang Of Four, Wire, Lady Gaga, Robbie Williams, the Spice Girls, and Pink.