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John Mellencamp releases his 25th album: 'Orpheus Descending'

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli. John Mellencamp has been performing and writing songs for 4 1/2 decades. His hits in the '80s include "Jack & Diane" and "Small Town." At Obama's inaugural celebration at the Lincoln Memorial, Mellencamp sang his song "Pink Houses," the one with the refrain, ain't that America for you and me. His song "This Is Our Country" first became famous when it was used in a Chevrolet ad. John Mellencamp is a member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, a Grammy winner and a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame. His new album, his 25th, is called "Orpheus Descending," and it reflects on many of the issues facing Americans today, like massive social inequality and gun violence in the song "Hey God."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEY GOD")

JOHN MELLENCAMP: (Singing) Weapons and guns - are they really my rights? Law was written a long time ago. No one could imagine the sight of so many dead on the floor. Hey, God. If you're still there, would you please come down? Hey, God. If you're still there, would you please come down?

BIANCULLI: Terry spoke with John Mellencamp in 2009, when his album called "Life, Death, Love And Freedom" was released. Here's the opening track from that album, a song called "Longest Day" (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LONGEST DAYS")

MELLENCAMP: (Singing) Seems like once upon a time ago, I was where I was supposed to be. My vision was true, and my heart was, too. There was no end to what I could dream. I walked like a hero into the setting sun. Everyone called out my name. Death, to me, was just a mystery. I was too busy raising up Cain. But nothing lasts forever. The best efforts don't always pay. Sometimes you get sick, and you don't get better. That's when life is short even in its longest days.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: John Mellencamp, welcome to FRESH AIR. I have to say, you know, I just wasn't prepared for this song that opens the new CD. It's just so much about mortality and things that aren't necessarily ever going to get better. When I first started listening to the song, I think I was kind of depressed. It was the middle of winter, and it really spoke to me. Sometimes you really need songs like this. So thank you for writing it.

MELLENCAMP: Well, thank you. The song actually was - that line - my grandmother lived to be a hundred years old. And it's a funny - it's not a funny ha-ha story, but this is how the line came about. I used to go see her in the afternoons, and sometimes she'd make me lay in bed with her. You know, I was, like, 45 years old or something. And my hundred-year-old grandmother - she called me Buddy. And she'd go, Buddy, come and lay down with me. And I'd go, OK. So I'd lay in bed with her, and we'd talk sometimes. And, you know, she was great up until about 99. And then she started getting kind of dementia and stuff like that. And one afternoon, I was laying in bed with her, and she said, let's pray. And I said, OK. And so she starts praying, and she says, God, you know, Buddy and I are ready to come home. And I went, whoa. Wait a minute.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MELLENCAMP: Grandma, you're ready to come home. Buddy's only 45. He's not ready. And then she turned to me and looked at me right in the face. And her face all of a sudden looked like a little girl. And she goes, Buddy, life is short in its longest days. And I always remembered that line. And I thought, well, surely someday I'll be able to work that line into a song. And that's how that song started.

GROSS: Now, I mean, you're obviously feeling that song that we just heard, "Longest Days," but it's also great songcraft. At the risk of kind of killing the lyric, let me just, like, read a few lines. (Reading) Nothing lasts forever. Your best efforts don't always pay. Sometimes you get sick, and you don't get better. That's why life is short even in its longest days.

Can you talk a little bit about your process of writing a song like this? You were telling us that the main hook, the life is short line, basically came from your grandmother, but what about the rest of it?

MELLENCAMP: Well, you know, as I've matured as a songwriter, I realized that if it's out there, it's mine. You know, everything I see and hear - I don't care if Shakespeare wrote it or if Tennessee Williams wrote it or if Bob Dylan wrote it or I see it on a sitcom. If I hear words, they're mine. And so I will take ideas from any place, anywhere, any time. And life has become a song to me. I'm always looking for a song. And then what happens is that I'll sit down, and if I have to labor over the song, generally the song is not very good.

My best songs are just given to me from someplace outside myself, and I think it's because I have thought about a particular topic for so long that eventually, it assembles itself in my head or in heaven, one or the two - sometimes in hell. And they just kind of come to me, all in a thought. Sometimes - like, with "Longest Days," I got up one morning, and the song came to me in a complete thought. All I had to do was get up and write it down. There was no laboring about rhymes or melody or any of that stuff. It just was - there it is. And when that happens, you know, you just kind of got to look up and go, thank you.

GROSS: Right. Well, my guest is John Mellencamp, and his new CD is called "Life, Death, Love And Freedom." John, you're in your studio, and you have your guitar with you. So I'm going to ask you if you could sing another song pertaining to mortality from the new CD. And this is called "A Ride Back Home."

MELLENCAMP: (Playing guitar, singing) Hey, Jesus. Can you give me a ride back home? I've been out here in this world too long on my own. I won't bother you no more if you can just get me in the door. Hey, Jesus. Can you give me a ride back home? When I started out, I was so young and so strong. I just let it roll off my back when things went wrong. Now it's starting to get to me, all of this inhumanity. Hey, Jesus. Can you give me a ride back home?

GROSS: Thank you. And that's John Mellencamp performing a song from his new CD, "Life, Death, Love And Freedom." Do you mind if I ask what kind of religion you were brought up with - like, what church was like when you were young?

MELLENCAMP: Well, my grandmother - back to my grandmother - made sure that I went to church every Sunday. And she'd come over and pick us boys up, and we would go to the Nazarene church. And back then, that was about as close to heaven as I ever got, because just the time to be able to spend with her - and she was very, very religious. But see; you know, I'm in. I don't even worry about it because before she died, she said, listen, buddy. When you when you die, I'll be waiting on you, and you're in. So I figure, you know, I don't...

GROSS: (Laughter).

MELLENCAMP: I got nothing to do. She's taking care of it for me. So if there is a heaven, I'm in, so I don't even think about it, although she did say, buddy, you're going to have to stop that cussing (laughter). But other than that, you know, if I can just clean up my language, I'm pretty sure I'm in the golden gates. So I trust her, and I believe her. And so, yeah, I grew up Nazarene. That's where I went to church. And then finally about 17 or 18, I just kind of quit going.

GROSS: And now?

MELLENCAMP: And now - oh, the church would fall down if I walked in.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MELLENCAMP: I'm not a big advocate of organized American religion.

BIANCULLI: John Mellencamp speaking with Terry Gross in 2009. More after a break - this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SMALL TOWN")

MELLENCAMP: (Singing) Ooh, na na na (ph), yeah. Ooh, na na, yeah.

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2009 interview with John Mellencamp. His new album, his 25th, is called "Orpheus Descending."

GROSS: Here's another mortality question, if you don't mind. You know, as I've been saying, there's a bunch of songs on the new CD that are about mortality. You had heart surgery in the...

MELLENCAMP: No, no, no, no, no, no, no.

GROSS: ...In the 1990s - right? - a heart attack.

MELLENCAMP: No, no, no. Yeah.

GROSS: A heart attack in the 1990s.

MELLENCAMP: I had a mild heart attack because I smoke and because I have high cholesterol. And for 10 years before that, the doctors were telling me, John, you need to get on cholesterol medicine. My answer was always the same. Am I all right now? And they'd go, yeah, you're all right now, but you're heading for disaster. OK, well, I'll deal with disaster when it gets here. Well, it got here. So I have no one to blame or anything like that about having a heart malfunction. But I did not have open heart surgery or anything like that.

GROSS: So this was more than 10 years ago, and...

MELLENCAMP: Actually, it was 1994.

GROSS: So you weren't writing songs like this then, were you?

MELLENCAMP: Yes, I was. I've been writing...

GROSS: You were?

MELLENCAMP: Yeah. Oh, yeah. See; the problem is, is that music is so - you know, during the '80s and the '70s and - you know, the songs and the arrangements of the songs had to be a certain way to get on the radio. And it really screwed up songs or really messed up - I've been writing about this stuff forever. I've been writing about mortality. I've been writing about - you know, I only write four songs. Come on. I got the...

GROSS: (Laughter).

MELLENCAMP: ...Same four songs. I just rewrite them, you know, 50 times. But I got four topics that I cover. You know, I cover race, and I cover what you're calling mortality. And then I, you know, sometimes write about girls, but I'm too old to write about that now. So, you know, I only got a few things I write about. But if you listen to songs that I've written - (singing) some people ain't no damn good - you know, that song is about mortality. When the walls come crumbling down - it was about the government. So because the music and the lightness and the arrangements of the music of that time were of a certain ilk and even got worse in the '90s, the songs, to be able to be on the radio, really had to take on a candy-coated appeal. "Pink Houses" was always anti-Reagan, Reaganomics. People love the (singing) ain't that America.

So, you know, people take from songs only what they want to hear. And, you know, I'm just like everybody else. So you kind of got to lift up the veil of a lot of songwriters' songs to really realize what's being said.

GROSS: Well, let's take, I think, an excellent example of what you're talking about, which is "This Is Our Country" (ph). And a lot of people know that song from the Chevrolet Silverado ad. And it sounds like, you know, an American anthem when you just hear...

MELLENCAMP: The chorus.

GROSS: ...The chorus.

MELLENCAMP: Right.

GROSS: But I'm going to ask you to sing a verse from it that gives a very different impression that one - what people might have walked away from from the ad. And this is - can you do the verse that goes, and there's room enough here for religion to forgive? And, room enough here for science to live.

MELLENCAMP: (Playing guitar, singing) Well, there's room enough here...

Let me see if I can do it. (Playing guitar, singing) Well, there's room enough here for...

I got a cigarette in my mouth. Let me take it out.

GROSS: Take it out (laughter).

MELLENCAMP: Hold on. All right, here we go. (Playing guitar, singing) Well, there's room enough here for science to live. And there's room enough here for religion to forgive. And try to understand, all the people of this land, this is our country.

Yeah, I think that, you know, simply because it was my one and only television commercial, that outraged a lot of people. And this - what the song is really about was missed. But, you know, that's - I knew that was going to happen. But I really had no idea how much that song was going to be played.

GROSS: "This Is Our Country" is kind of like a plea to end the culture wars, to be inclusive, to respect each other.

MELLENCAMP: Yes. Yes.

GROSS: Do you feel it became an anthem for something else in the minds of many people?

MELLENCAMP: Oh, I don't care. I mean, it became an anthem for Chevrolet, I think.

GROSS: (Laughter) Right.

MELLENCAMP: I mean, because that's how they discovered the song. Because they couldn't discover the song in the way that they discovered "Pink Houses" or the way that they discovered, you know, "I Need A Lover." They - it's impossible to, you know, to discover a song that way.

GROSS: But what went through your mind when Chevrolet asked you to use it? Did you think immediately this would be a good idea? Did you have reservations about it?

MELLENCAMP: Oh, listen. I had spoken out against - I was the same way that you are. And I still don't think that an artist should have to get involved with Wall Street on any level. That's not what I really do. I don't write songs for commercials. But I did this because I thought, well, perhaps they are right. I had so many people saying, John, you have turned down fortunes and fortunes of money, and now is the time. The music business has changed. Nobody is - your songs can't grow from the ground up anymore. So go from it from a different angle. So that's what we did. And...

GROSS: And what'd you learn from the experience?

MELLENCAMP: Oh, I learned that an artist shouldn't have to do this. This is not what my songs are about. But I also learned that Chevrolet was a better record company than Columbia.

GROSS: (Laughter) Because they got your song out there?

MELLENCAMP: Well, because - no, because they - yes, that, and - partially, and - but because they also - what they said they were going to do, they did. They kept their word.

GROSS: Which was?

MELLENCAMP: Well, record companies never keep their word. That's the point of the whole conversation. Record companies say, we're going to do this, this and this and this, and they never did any of it.

GROSS: Now, I also want to talk with you about "Pink Houses," which is the song that John McCain had briefly used in his campaign. And we'll talk about what happened with that. But play the hook from it so everybody knows the song.

MELLENCAMP: Let's see how that goes. (Playing guitar, singing) Ain't that America?

OK, here we go. (Playing guitar, singing) Ain't that America for you and me? Ain't that America - something to see, babe? Ain't that America? Home of the free, yeah. Little pink houses for you and me.

GROSS: So when you found out John McCain was using it in his campaign - and you are a lifelong Democrat - how did you decide to handle it?

MELLENCAMP: I wouldn't say I'm a lifelong Democrat. I'm very liberal.

GROSS: OK. Right.

MELLENCAMP: I'm very...

GROSS: You can vote whatever you want, but you're very liberal.

MELLENCAMP: I'm very liberal, yes.

GROSS: Got it. Yeah.

MELLENCAMP: I'm very liberal. Well, what happened was - is that I called up my publicity guy, a guy named Bob Merlis. I said - Bob said, you know, McCain's using your song. And I said, well, he can use it if he wants to, but you probably ought to write him a letter and say, you know, not only, you know, that you guys are using it, but so is Barack Obama, so is John Edwards, so is Hillary Clinton. And you should understand that Mellencamp is very liberal. And do you really think that it's pushing your agenda in the right direction? I mean, you're just really falling in line with all the other liberal candidates. Maybe you guys should rethink using the song. We didn't tell him not to use it. We just wrote a letter that said, you know, why don't you guys - you guys might want to rethink about using this song. And they quit using it.

GROSS: When you write songs like "Pink Houses" or "This Is Our Country" or "R.O.C.K. In The USA," do you think, I'm going to sit down and write an anthem?

MELLENCAMP: (Laughter) No, not really because if you hear me play these songs like you just heard me, they're not anthems at all. They're folk songs.

GROSS: That's true.

MELLENCAMP: I mean, you know, like, I just played the chorus of "Pink Houses." That's not an anthem. That's a folk song. But see; that's what I was talking about. And all the songs that you named were music from the '80s that had to be, you know, dressed up in a certain way or they weren't going to be on the radio. If I - like, you know, I'm going to go out on tour, and I'm going to play, just me and the acoustic guitar, and all of these songs take on a whole different feeling or meaning when you hear me playing by myself because they're not wrapped up in the music of the time. They're just songs. I'll give you a good example. Hold on. Listen. (Playing guitar, singing) I need a lover that won't drive me crazy. I need a lover that won't drive me mad. I need a lover that won't drive me crazy. I need a girl like one I ain't never had.

It's a whole different song.

GROSS: Yeah.

MELLENCAMP: It's a whole different song than the song that you grew up hearing and, you know, I grew up playing. But that's what the music of the time required. But don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining. I was very fortunate. I had a lot of hit records. I'm just saying that, you know, trying to be an artist inside the music business has always been challenging for me.

BIANCULLI: John Mellencamp speaking to Terry Gross in 2009. We'll hear more of Terry's conversation with Mellencamp in the second half of the show. And Justin Chang reviews the new Wes Anderson movie, "Asteroid City." And I'll review the new season of the Netflix anthology series "Black Mirror." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE EYES OF PORTLAND")

MELLENCAMP: (Singing) As I saw through the eyes of Portland one day, there were so many homeless. They'd all gone astray. They slept on the corners during the day, as not to be harmed when the sun went away. There were old ones and young ones, white ones and black. They were all shapes and sizes with rags on their backs. So many people mixed up in this stew with no place to go and nothing to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOUNG WITHOUT LOVERS")

MELLENCAMP: (Singing) Better take a look at my circle. Better take a look around. Tell all my friends. Better take a look at the colors of the people. Young without lovers, old without friends. Better say a prayer for the poor and unhealthy. Better sing a song for those who don't care. Let the people have the right to be different.

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, professor of TV studies at Rowan University, back with more of Terry's interview with John Mellencamp. His new album, "Orpheus Descending," comes out today. He recorded it with his Indiana band in his studio near Bloomington. Mellencamp grew up in Seymour, a small town in Indiana.

GROSS: Could you maybe play an excerpt of a song that you feel is, like, in your DNA because you heard it and loved it when you were young, either a song that you discovered on your own or a song from your father's collection that's just kind of in your blood?

MELLENCAMP: Let's see. (Playing guitar, singing) Come, gather 'round, people, wherever you roam and admit that the waters around you have grown. And soon, you'll sink like a stone.

Anyway, my brother had that - brought that record home in 1963, 1962, whatever year it came out. And it made a huge impression on me, that Bob Dylan fella.

GROSS: Yeah, what impact did Dylan have on you when you were young?

MELLENCAMP: Well, I mean, he was the ultimate songwriter, you know? I never even considered writing songs until I was much older, because I was a singer in a rock band. You know, I was in a bar. You remember the mid - early '70s, mid-'70s. There were so many rock bars, you know? And I was one of those guys, you know, playing and singing. And there was no reason for me to write a song because there were so many beautiful songs out. And, you know, we would - in one hand, you know, I had Bob Dylan. And in the other hand, I had Iggy Pop, you know? And we would go from a Dylan song to a Stooges song all in one set.

GROSS: So you moved from Indiana to New York to get close to the record industry.

MELLENCAMP: That's not true.

GROSS: No? OK. Go ahead.

MELLENCAMP: No. I moved from Indiana to London.

GROSS: Oh.

MELLENCAMP: And I lived in London in 1977 and '78. I mean, it's a boring story. It's the same old story you've heard a million times. Anyway, I go to New York. And I wanted to take a look at the New York Art Student League, or I wanted to get a record deal. I didn't really care which. I was either going to be a painter or a songwriter. Since the Art Student League cost a lot of money, that was out because I had no money. And I went there, and it wasn't as simple, but I got a record deal pretty rapidly. And then I made a couple of records that were terrible. I was managed by the same guy that managed Bowie. And he was - he tried to recreate me into an American David Bowie. It just didn't work. And him and I fought all the time. And that's where Johnny Cougar came from and all that.

GROSS: Was that his idea?

MELLENCAMP: Yeah. Yeah, it was a terrible idea. I told him at the time it was a terrible idea. And of course, he didn't like that. You know, he wasn't going to take that from snappy young brats such as myself, you know? He was the P.T. Barnum of the whole thing. He created David Bowie and reminded me of that all the time. But anyway, so I was with him for - you know, I made a couple of records with him that were terrible, terrible, not worth listening, not worth looking at.

And then I met a manager who was a shyster. And we - he said, you know, I can't get a record deal here in the United States for you. But if you come to London, I can get one in Europe. So we moved to London. And I lived in London for two years. And it was a great experience and eye-opening for - you know, to move from Seymour, Ind., to London, England, and be living right in Chelsea. And the whole punk rock thing was just starting to explode, and there I was with an acoustic guitar (laughter).

GROSS: Right. So it was really hard for you to get rid of the Cougar thing; wasn't it?

MELLENCAMP: Oh, it's still - it's never going. It'll never leave. I still walk down the street and people will say, hey, Johnny Cougar, you know? I hear it all the time. Or John Cougar Mellencamp - I'll be introduced that way. But, you know, that's what it was, you know? I mean, that's what people, you know, knew me as at that time. And that's - you know, that's just the fate. That's - you know, that's the way God handed it out to me. And that's the cards I'm dealt. And so I deal with it.

GROSS: Now, let me ask you about one of your early hits. And this is "Jack & Diane" from 1982. There's a great line in that. Life goes on even after the thrill of living is gone. Can you talk about how that line came to you?

MELLENCAMP: Well, actually, they're putting together a box set of my songs. And the guy producing it, this guy is leaving no stone unturned. So he found a song that I had written before "Jack & Diane" called "Jenny At 16" that had some of the same lines from "Jack & Diane" in it, that I had abandoned that song, "Jenny At 16," and turned it into "Jack & Diane." And in the original writing of "Jack & Diane," he discovered that Jack was Black. So even back then, I was talking about interracial things but for some reason or another had abandoned that idea. So "Jack & Diane" was originally about an interracial couple. But I guess in 1981, I think, maybe I decided maybe this is a little too - pushing it too far because, you know, this country is a pretty racist place, and so - particularly in '81.

GROSS: Can you do a few bars of "Jack & Diane?"

MELLENCAMP: Yeah. Hold on. (Playing guitar, singing) A little ditty about Jack and Diane, two American kids growing up in the heartland. Jacky going to be a football star. Diane's debutante backseat of Jacky's car. Sucking on a chili dog outside the Tastee-Freez, Diane's sitting on Jacky's lap, got his hands between her knees. Jacky said, hey, Diane. Let's run off behind the shady trees. Dribble off those Bobby Brooks, girl. Let me do what I please. Oh, yeah, life goes on long after the thrill of living is gone. Oh, yeah, see; life goes on long after the thrill of living is gone. They walk on.

That's it.

GROSS: Did you know when you were writing that that it would be really good to put in, like, details in the song, like the Tastee-Freez or the chili dogs? I mean, like, story writers think of details like that. Songwriters don't always.

MELLENCAMP: Well, I don't know, you know? I don't know. I can say this very crudely to you. A lot of those songs back then were not really written in my mind. They were written, you know, below my belt. They were songs that were only emotional. There was no - I wasn't sophisticated enough to think, oh, I should put a detail in here, you know? I was - it was - I was a guy in a band in a bar. And, you know, I saw what people did and partook and what people did in those bars. I was part of that scene in the Midwest. And it was a - you know, it was a rough-ass crowd some nights, and some nights it wasn't, you know? So that's where songs like "Lonely All Night" came from. Music was a sideline for me at that time, you know? All my songs were written below my belt. And then - and as I got older, they kind of raced up to my head and became more of, you know, you should pay attention to what you're writing because people are actually listening.

GROSS: Can I close by asking you to do a song that you did not write that you really love that's by somebody else?

MELLENCAMP: OK, I will play a song that I have played at every party.

GROSS: Oh, great. OK.

MELLENCAMP: That - this is my party song, you know, when they hand me a guitar and say, John, play something. (Playing guitar, singing) Everybody's laughing at the Early Bird Cafe. I've been heading there since yesterday, and I believe I've lost my way. Charlotte's there in organdy, and Billy's there in suede. There's money in their pockets. All the dues are paid. And there's wine on every table. And there's food on every plate. Well, I hope I get there pretty soon, before it gets too late.

Well, I ran on down the road awhile to the other side of town. My clothes were getting wrinkled, and my socks were falling down. But I could not stop to pull them up, in fear that I'd be late. So I kept on running down the road until I saw the gate of the Early Bird Cafe, glowing golden like a sun. Everybody kept on singing, come on in, we've just begun.

Well, I ran right in, and I sat right down. And I ordered up some wine. My talk was fast and clever, and the women all were fine. Charlotte asked me where I'd been with jade and ivory eyes. And I told her I'd been hung up with some beggar in disguise. Well, she laughed like temple bells. She kissed me on the cheek and said, you know, it's hard to be alive sometimes, but it's easy to be dead.

GROSS: You know, I feel like I should know that song and I don't. Tell me something about the song.

MELLENCAMP: It's an old folk song. And it was originally recorded by - might have even been written by - a band called Jerry Hahn Brotherhood, which was a band that I saw play probably in 1968, opening up for Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. And they played that song. And I went, wow.

GROSS: It's been great to talk with you. I really appreciate your doing this. And thank you for playing for us. I think it was just really generous of you. I really appreciate it.

MELLENCAMP: It was my pleasure.

BIANCULLI: John Mellencamp speaking with Terry Gross in 2009. Coming up, Justin Chang reviews the new Wes Anderson movie, "Asteroid City." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOB DYLAN SONG, "WIGWAM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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