John Mellencamp wants to go back and start again. He doesn't want to become Johnny Cougar again -- God, no. He has nothing but contempt for his own early work as a late-'70s/early-'80s, floppy-haired heartland poster boy. When he speaks of his first eight albums of pandering pop-rock -- full of Top 40 hits, mind you, like "I Need a Lover," "Hurts So Good," and signature songs like "Jack & Diane" and "Pink Houses" -- it's with a scoff and a sneer.
He's tried to reboot several times. The name change, for one -- Johnny Cougar, then John Cougar Mellencamp, cat-free since '91. The turning point came when Mellencamp, a native of Seymour, Ind., released 1985's "Scarecrow," a transitional album that gave us "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A." but also rootsy, populist tracks like "Small Town," "The Face of the Nation," "Justice and Independence" and "You've Gotta Stand for Somethin'." It was a bid for critical respect, and it worked. (That same year, he helped found Farm Aid with Neil Young and Willie Nelson.) Each album since -- an admirable catalog of a dozen more records with a thoroughly Midwestern blend of Friday-night fun and corner-diner speeches -- has received various and consistent acclaim.
But people at the shows still expect him to do the splits.
"I talked to my next-door neighbor this morning," Mellencamp, 59, said during our recent interview from his Indiana home. "She was at the show in Bloomington [Ind.]. She said, 'Really, I like the old John better.' And I said, 'Well, Cathy, that guy doesn't exist anymore.' It'd be foolish of me to try and do at my age now what I was doing at 32. It's not dignified. Jumping off an amp at my age would be stupid. Singing 'Hurts So Good'? Please. If people are coming to see 'The Coug,' they should stay home."
6:30 p.m. Nov. 26 and 27
Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State
Tickets: $42.50-$125, (800) 745-3000, ticketmaster.com
If he could erase parts of the past and start over, he said he would. And this is what much of our conversation was about: looking to the past without being nostalgic, back-tracking through decades of "progress" to a point further back -- and taking a different route from there. Anything, he said, that might detour around, say, 1983's "The Kid Inside."
Q. You have pretty clear contempt for your early work.
A. I did what I had to do. I did what people told me. There was no way those folk songs were ever going to get anywhere unless I had hit records.
Q. By denouncing those early records, aren't you also insulting your fans?
A. Am I worrying about insulting people? Well, there's no winning that. No matter what you do, someone's going to be insulted. Playing "R.O.C.K." tomorrow night would certainly be insulting. To me.
Q. If you played it like you did in 1985, perhaps.
A. The only thing to do is to try and figure out a way to get to people who want to hear songs like "Easter Eve" [a new, nearly seven-minute song] and do a good job at it. I'll play "R.O.C.K." again, but not in a way you'll imagine. Last night during a show [at Nashville's storied Ryman Auditorium] during a slow, quiet section, someone yelled out, 'Jack and Diane!' I said, 'You're impatient.' I play it, but you don't know what it is till I start singing it. It's the first time I've enjoyed playing it in 20 years. It's a brand new song. It's the folk song it always meant to be. It doesn't sound anything like that version on radio. I always looked at that song like a graphic novel, and now it takes on a whole new seriousness I never realized existed in it.
Mellencamp's new album, "No Better Than This," showcases his desire to rewind and replay. Released in August on revered folk label Rounder Records, its 13 new songs were recorded at three historic locations, and in mono. Much of the album was captured in single takes at Sun Studios, the Memphis storefront where Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash made landmark debuts. Other songs were taped at the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Ga. (the first stop on the Underground Railroad during the Civil War), and Room 414 of the Gunter Hotel in downtown San Antonio, where a young Robert Johnson sat and recorded 16 now-legendary blues songs (including "Sweet Home Chicago") this week in November 1936.
"The only song written especially for one of the locations was 'Right Behind Me,'" Mellencamp said. "I looked at the songs I'd written and realized I hadn't written a song about the devil. How do you walk into Robert Johnson's house without a song about the devil? So I wrote 'Right Behind Me' real quick." The song's narrator is off to see his baby ("She in Chicago"), and the devil's over his shoulder. "He thinks he's got me / but he ain't got me," he sings -- either victorious or overconfident, it's never clear.
Mellencamp sees demons all around him, mostly technological ones. CDs? "A con," he said. MP3s? "A terrible way to listen to music." This lead into a lengthy rant that peaked with his favorite declaration: "The Internet is the most dangerous invention since the atomic bomb." Before this, he had some choice things to say about the recent election, such as: "I love it when the right starts talking about all they've done -- referring back to World War II and what their grandparents did. You weren't even born, what the f--- do you have to do with it?"
The world has progressed, he says, but in the wrong direction. So for "No Better Than This," he wanted to go back -- sort of, not to relive and re-create, but to start anew from back there. Or at the very least steer back to the path that could have been. As he talked about the new record and his choices of location (interest first, ability to reach them while on tour with Willie Nelson second), Mellencamp insisted he "wasn't trying to go back" by using the old methods and sites. He "looked at this as a forward move."
"Calling something progress doesn't make it better," he said. "That's what the song 'The West End' is about. Things are worse now than they've ever been. There's a line that says, 'Look what progress did / Someone lined their pockets / I don't know who that is.' This is not some old guy hanging on to the idea that things were better when he was a kid. F--- that! I'm not nostalgic at all. I just think we went the wrong way with progress back when we had the chance."
Still, he describes his new tour as "a modern-day vaudeville show." Each concert begins with the showing of a documentary by photographer Kurt Marcus about the making of "No Better Than This." Mellencamp and his band play on "a wild variety" of acoustic instruments, then Mellencamp plays solo for about 40 minutes. The concert closes with a full electric band, all-out rock 'n' roll.
Q. So you still give a little of the old John, rocking out some hits in the end?
A. I'm playing the songs I want to play. At this age, to be doing anything else would be a waste of time.
Q. "Pink Houses," I'll bet.
A. All I've gotta do is start playing that song in the show, and I don't have to sing a note. People know every word to that song. Of course, that song was totally misunderstood when it came out and wound up related to some kind of community, or having pride, pride in ourselves, which is not what it's about but is what people took from it. That can't be bad.
Q. You won the Woody Guthrie Award back in 2003. His songs have been misunderstood more than a few times. Ever thought about writing new music to some of his old lyrics the way others have done?
A. Nora [Guthrie, Woody's daughter and keeper of the Woody Guthrie Archives] has sent me hundreds of lyrics. The fact that so many people have done that is exactly why I won't do it. I wouldn't even pretend I would know what to do with his words. But Wilco and -- what's his name? the British guy? -- Billy Bragg, they did a hell of a job. ... The world sure needs more music like that now.
Q. Because of hard times?
A. When times are good, you end up with stuff like the Charleston, that kind of music, light stuff, "How Much Is That Doggy in the Window?" When times are tough, you turn to what is stable, what makes the backbone of this country. Music from the land.
Q. The "heartland"? Do you claim that kind of identity?
A. Years ago, I was fussing around, worrying about what to wear on stage. My wife looked at me and said, "John, put on a pair of blue jeans and get out there. You're a blue jeans man. Don't mess with that." That's what people come back to. People don't need smoke and mirrors. I'm an old pair of brown shoes -- worn out, but comfortable. Things like that, you just sometimes don't appreciate till later on.