John Mellencamp: Rock and Roll Is Not Coming Back

John Mellencamp with Carlene Carter, guests in the latest installment of McIntosh and Republic Records’ Direct Connection interview series. Photo by Meredith Truax.

Lit cigarette in hand, pop-rock icon John Mellencamp sauntered to the front of the room in McIntosh’s swanky Soho townhouse. He had a serious look on his face. No hint of a smile. Maybe he’s nervous, I thought to myself as he sat on a stool with a large ashtray at his side. Or is it just that he’s the personification of cool and really doesn’t give a rat’s ass about what people think…

Turns out, Mellencamp is quite the character and, as he’s quick to admit, opinionated. His appearance was the latest installment of the Direct Connection interview and storytelling series McIntosh and Republic Records launched in January. Before a small group of invited guests, Mellencamp spoke candidly about his storied career and musical influences, the state of rock and roll, and collaborating with Carlene Carter on his new album, Sad Clowns and Hillbillies, in a free-wheeling interview with journalist Elysa Gardner.

In a surprising exchange, Mellencamp said matter-of-factly that rock music as we know it has more or less run its course.

“We (boomers) grew up in a different time,”Mellencamp said. “Music was everything to us. I don’t think it is so much anymore with young people. I’ve got two boys, 22 and 21, and I don’t think they ever sat down and listened to a whole album in their whole life. They like songs. I read just the other day—I think it was Ray Davies—that rock and roll is going to come back. It’s not going to come back. We’ve seen it. It happened…It’s like we had a 50 year run of a particular type of music and history will tell us that…

“I’ll give you guys a good example: Before rock and roll there was big band music and it was as popular as rock and roll. People loved it. They were jitter-bugging in Harlem to it. Every kid, every adult knew Glenn Miller, this one, that one. Okay, here’s a little test for you: Name four of those bands and then, if you can, tell me one of those songs. Things have a lifespan and then it goes away. I’ve been saying for years, the further we get away from the original rock music—and I hate to sound like a cranky old man, but I am—the worse it gets. Now, I’m not saying there aren’t great songwriters out there. There are. But we’re never going to experience them the way we able to experience them in the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. We’re not set up for that anymore.

“When I first started making records, there was no MTV. Guys in rock bands were little pictures on albums and every now and then you’d hear them on the radio. Then MTV came along and catapulted them to the world and rock became so much bigger than it ever would have. MTV was a huge thing. I hated it myself because I didn’t want to make those videos…So rock has really morphed and changed and is so far away from what it started as that I don’t believe we can find our way back. Plus, there’s no business model to get it back. What, streaming? You really think that’s going to catapult a 22-year-old songwriter into the national spotlight. Look at me. I’m a fucking average songwriter, average singer but I was at the right place at the right time. And there were others guys like me…but because we had a look or were at the right place at the right time, we were catapulted into this huge arena. Where is that arena today? It doesn’t exist.”

In another exchange, Mellencamp reveals the back story to one of his most famous songs, “Jack and Diane,” still heard regularly on classic rock stations. “Originally, ‘Jack and Diane’ was about an interracial relationship,” Mellencamp said. “He wasn’t a football star—he was black, an African American. It said so in the song. I was a kid when I made that record in 1981 and the record company came down and said, ‘I don’t know about saying that.’ And so it was kind of an argument and then I relented and made him into a football star.

“I think I was the first guy to have [an interracial video] on MTV… I made a video called “Cherry Bomb” and it was a black guy dancing with a white girl, and boy, that pissed a lot of people off. I got letters from the [Ku-Klux] Klan. I was in Paris and I got a letter that said, ‘Mellencamp, we like you but if you keep having these ‘N-words’ in your videos you will see us in Atlanta. So I immediately shot off a letter back to them that said, ‘I guess I’ll see you in Atlanta, fucker.’ That was pretty much it but, guess what, we never saw them.”

When the conversation turned to Mellencamp’s collaboration with Carlene Carter, daughter of country legend June Carter, Mellencamp asked Carter to tell the audience what her famous mother told her when she said she couldn’t write a song.

“When I was young and just started playing guitar and singing, wanting to be like Linda Ronstadt…, mama said [adopts a deep Southern drawl], ‘Well, you look pretty good. You look kinda cute and you sound all right when you sing but what you really need to do, honey, is you need to learn how to write a song. You see, if you could just write one simple, little song…kinda like the one I wrote for Johnny Cash—Ring of Fire—it could change your life…

I tell the audience that every night because it was the most pivotal part of the direction I was going in my life—to just sit down and try to write a song. I was studying classical music so for the first song I ever wrote I took a chord progression from Tchaikovsky. Go figure, I’m a country girl from Hendersonville, Tennessee, y’all, and that’s how I started. And then I became obsessed with the craft of it. You know, there are no rules. That was the other thing my mom told me. There are no rules. It don’t have to rhyme. It don’t matter. Just way what you want to say. And I just thought, how cool is that.”

See and hear the entire conversation here.

For more on Mellencamp’s new album and upcoming tour, visit mellencamp.com.

COMMENTS
Todd Sauve's picture

I don't think rock 'n roll is dead by any means. The whole "music industry" is a shambles right now. So how do people who are writing and playing rock 'n roll go to get heard? No where, for the time being. Top 40 radio is more or less gone but Classic Rock FM is still alive and kicking. There just has to be someone to kick their door down and make them play the rock that is currently being produced. It seems to be a corporate problem where the suits are not allowing anything new, only the "classics."

All this Hip-hop, Rap and whatnot is never going to survive because it is simply not good enough. Young people are going to grow out of it because it is, generally speaking, so lousy and it makes you feel bad. Who will want to hear it when they are old enough to think and reason like an adult? Very few and then good old rock and the Blues as well will be making a big comeback. There just has to be a big shakeup of the "industry" so that it is not dominated by people who know little about music and care even less. We have to ditch these multi-national corporations and their clone execs and let people who love music back in.

utopianemo's picture

Rap has been around since the 70's. 40 years. I started listening to it in the mid-80's(along with rock and pop and everything else), and I'm still listening to it today. People of my generation still listen to it today. Granted, I'd be just as happy listening to U2 or Zepplin or Rachmaninov or Ryuichi Sakamoto. But there is a lot of very good rap, and I enjoy listening to it.

Speaking of music that is lousy and makes you feel bad.....to me, that sounds a lot like Ozzy and Kiss and a lot of the music from that era. That stuff is still going strong.....I respect your sentiment, but it sounds exactly what every generation says about the music that follows.

Todd Sauve's picture

Hi,

Yes, I just turned 59 today, so is that old to you? Not to me except that I hurt a lot more physically anymore! Ha, ha! And I am far more conservative on social issues than I used to be but that comes from growing mature and seeing what harm modern morals do to people and society as a whole.

Frankly, I haven't ever heard a piece of rap or hip-hop that I would like to hear twice.

Rock and the Blues? You bet I would love to hear lots of it many times indeed. I also like classical and jazz and some "world music" and flamenco and latin. I'm not pigeon-holed but I draw the line at hate filled rap and hip-hop that is so repetitive I want to scream. And shredding in Metal drives me equally up the wall and down the other side.

drny's picture

Classic Rock will remain somewhat viable for another twenty years or so, until we (baby boomers die out).
Main stream rock was part of pop music culture. As all pop music it is meant to be generational in nature.
The only two multi generational styles of music are Classical and Jazz.
Why, you ask. Simply because it requires great artistry, commitment and talent to master those musical forms.
Classical music (which includes Opera) puts the composer/arranger in center stage. Yet the musician and conductor of the orchestra also demonstrate their skill at the highest artistic level.
In Jazz the individual musician gets to shine.
Now don't get me wrong, neither genre will sell (download) much of anything. Yet two hundred years from now, we who appreciate the music arts, will plunk down big bucks for a live symphony concerto or go to great lengths to sit close to a Jazz Quartet to see geniuses at work.

prerich45's picture

You're correct! Jazz and classical will always be around. The poster before you mentioned rap and hip hop, however I can see classic rap (not the trap style of today) being listened to due to the same issue - complexity and mastery of the art form. As long as poetry exist - rap will hang around if only for lyrical content.
I listen to Jazz almost every night to wind down. I've been around the original rap game before during the golden era of the late 80's early 90's. Classic Pop, R&B, yep I listen to those as well, but hard core Rock is possibly the genre of music that I really don't listen to unless it's a balad...and then it basically becomes the precursor to pop. Country music is even morphing into Pop music. I have friends that are old time country band players - and they hear today's country and will state "that's not country...that's just pop music".
I think you hit the nail on the head Jazz and classical (even Hip hop finds its roots in jazz - and spoken word has been around for ages).

Mike Mettler's picture
I had the privilege of sitting down with John Mellencamp in NYC the day after this event, and will be posting our lively and informative exchange exclusively in the S&V Interview blog on May 17, so stay tuned...
Billy's picture

I agree with John. Growing up in the 60s and 70s, there was little entertainment out there, except our cars and our music. Two black and white TV channels, that Mom watched soap operas on all day. Neither the cars or music are that big of deal for the kids today, they have too many other distractions. Not saying that is bad, just different. When I grew up, all sorts of young people formed bands in the folks garages, when was the last time you saw that? When I got married, we had a live country/rock band play (until 2AM!). See that anymore? Not many amatuer bands left. I also agree with the MTV idea. The Bugles were correct, video DID kill the radio star. Came the mid 80s, a talent but homely guy (like me) couldn't get anywhere in the industry, had to be good looking. Lots of bands we grew up with would never had made it in those days. THEN, when MTV died down, the corporations decided we had to have cookie cuter over dubbed songs sang by pretty boys and cutsie 17 year old blondes. Singer song writers have an uphill battle. Would Simon and Garfunkel make it today? Maybe the internet will spring board some acts, but now we have too much to choose from, and thats a problem too.

Todd Sauve's picture

I think we all need a place to turn to hear the musical styles we love. For the Baby Boomers it was the radio and I still think it is the same today. FM Radio has everything we need for a medium it just needs to have access to it forced upon the suits who control it all. I don't desire to see a video for every song. I love live concerts and Blu-rays but those are exclusively for the bands that can play live what they do in the studio, otherwise no one wants to see that they are no-talents reliant upon studio trickery.

Country music today is MUCH different than what I grew up with in the 60s and 70s. Today it is more akin to country-rock than anything else. Which is all right--it all depends on your personal tastes.

Warrior24_7's picture

Rap is going on 50, and still going strong, all over the world! Different cultures have rap groups! Did rap kill rock, maybe? Or did rock die because it couldn't adapt. Right now is the best time to be "anything". If there is demand for it, it will sell! There is the Internet, streaming, smartphones, pads, dedicated music streaming services, YouTube! You can make your own video. There are more ways to be heard or seen now, than any time in human history. Yet Mellencamp admitted that he didn't want to make the videos while knowing what they could do for his career. The young rap artists of that time made them.

Also, rap is simple and ANYONE can do it! You don't need a big ass band with a bunch of instruments, or musical training. A microphone, DJ, something "relevant" to say, and that's about it. The music is digital and electronic so beats and sounds can be made, stored, and mixed in anyway a creative mind can imagine. Rap is also dance music and blends well with pop and R&B, rock didn't. Rap was music that wasn't played on the radio. It wasn't even sold in stores in the early days! There was virtually no distribution. It was transported from city to city in the trunks of people's cars. Most of it is still banned on the radio today! Yet it dominates, why? Because it's "people" and it has sometime to say whereas rock couldn't or refused to adapt, got away from its roots (blues, dance) and started singing about the devil. If there was a demand for rock music, someone would be making it. No demand, no rock!

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