John Mellencamp, The Modern Mortal Long a standout purveyor of rootsy, direct "heartland" rock, Mellencamp is in the midst of a folksy, pessimistic streak on his new album. He speaks to host Terry Gross about the spare sound and dark themes of Life, Death, Love and Freedom.
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John Mellencamp, The Modern Mortal

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John Mellencamp, The Modern Mortal


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. You probably know my guest, John Mellencamp, for his hits from the '80s like "Jack and Diane" and "Small Town," and of course for his song, "This is Our Country," that first became famous when it was used in a Chevrolet ad.

Democratic and Republican candidates have used his songs in their campaigns. At the Obama 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.

Mellencamp has a new CD called "Life, Death, Love and Freedom," which has some great songs about mortality. New York Times music critic John Pareles wrote: It's an album present like a deathbed testament, bleak, solitary, bluesy and unbowed.

Mellencamp is going to perform some old and new songs for us, but let's start with the opening track of his new CD. The song is called "Longest Days."

(Soundbite of song, "Longest Days")

Mr. JOHN MELLENCAMP (Singer/Songwriter): (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. Your 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.

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.

Mr. MELLENCAMP: Thank you. The song - the song actually was that line. My grandmother lived to be 100 years old, and it's a funny - 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 100-year-old grandmother, but she called me Buddy, and she'd go Buddy, come and lay down with me. And I'd go okay.

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 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 okay. 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. Grandma.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MELLENCAMP: 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: You know, it's funny that, you know, your grandmother would've said life is short in its longest days, because one of the things I like so much about the song is that hook, and it's so - although this isn't a country song, per se, there are so many country songs that have that kind of contradictory language in its title.

Like Roger Miller has a song called "More and More I Miss You Less and Less," you know, that kind of, like, contradiction. And so you just got that from her.

Mr. MELLENCAMP: Well you know, I don't really see it as a contradiction itself. I just think it's a true statement. I mean, I look at my kids, and I look at myself, and I go wow, what happened? Where did this all go?

And of course, my parents were very explicit with me about you know, John, time goes by real quick, and you know, you better enjoy, try to enjoy every moment.

My dad has been retired from his job since he was 49 years old, and he's 79 now, and every day, he says the same thing to me. He says, did you do anything fun for yourself today? And I'll go no, dad, I'm working. He goes, you've got to do something for yourself, have fun every day, because if you don't, then life is going to pass you by, and you'll just - you know, what good is it?

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.

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?

Mr. MELLENCAMP: Well you know, as I've matured as a songwriter, I realize 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 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 anyplace, anywhere, anytime, 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 of the two, sometimes in hell, and they just kind of come to me all in a thought.

Sometimes it's like "The 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've 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 if you could sing another song pertaining to mortality from the new CD, and this is called "A Ride Back Home."

(Soundbite of song, "A Ride Back Home")

Mr. MELLENCAMP: (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?

Mr. 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, and I don't even worry about it because before she died, she said listen, Buddy, when you die, I'll be waiting on you, and you're in. So I figure, you know, I don't - I got nothing to do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MELLENCAMP: She's taken care of it for me. So if there is a heaven, I'm in. So I don't even think about. Although she did say, Buddy, you're going to have to stop that cussing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MELLENCAMP: 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, and that's where I went to church, and then finally about 17 or 18, I just kind of quit going.

GROSS: And now?

Mr. MELLENCAMP: And now? Oh, the church would fall down if I walked in.

(Soundbite of laughter)

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

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 1990s, right? A heart attack?

Mr. MELLENCAMP: No, no, no, no, no. Yeah. I had a mild heart attack because I smoke and because I have high cholesterol, and for 10 years before that, doctors were telling me, John, you need to get on cholesterol medicine, and my answer was always the same.

Am I all right now? And they go yeah, you're all right now, but you're heading for disaster. Okay, 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 is more than 10 years ago.

Mr. MELLENCAMP: Actually, it was 1994.

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

Mr. MELLENCAMP: Yes, I was.

GROSS: You were?

Mr. MELLENCAMP: Yeah. See, the problem is that music is so - you know, during the '80s and the '70s, 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. It 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MELLENCAMP: I've got the same four songs, and I just rewrite them, you know, 50 times, but I've 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've only got a few things I write about.

But if you listen to songs that I've written.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MELLENCAMP: (Singing) Some people ain't no damn good.

Mr. MELLENCAMP: 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-Reaganomics. People love the 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've 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," 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 the chorus.

Mr. MELLENCAMP: The chorus, right.

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

(Soundbite of song, "This is Our Country")

Mr. MELLENCAMP: (Singing) Well, there's room enough here.

Mr. MELLENCAMP: Let me see if I can do it.

Mr. MELLENCAMP: (Singing) Well, there's room enough here for…

Mr. MELLENCAMP: I've got a cigarette in my mouth. Let me take it out.

GROSS: Take it out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MELLENCAMP: Hold on. All right, here we go.

(Soundbite of song, "This is Our Country")

Mr. MELLENCAMP: (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 how the people love this land. This is our country.

Mr. MELLENCAMP: Yeah, I think that, you know, simply because it was my one and only television commercial, that outraged a lot of people, and what the song is really about was missed. But you know, 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.


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

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

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MELLENCAMP: I mean, because how 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." 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?

Mr. MELLENCAMP: Oh listen, I had spoken out against it. I was the same 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.

GROSS: And what did you learn from the experience?

Mr. 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Because they got your song out there?

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

GROSS: Which was?

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

GROSS: My guest is John Mellencamp. His new CD is called "Life, Death, Love and Freedom." We'll talk more, and he'll sing more, after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of song, "Small Town")

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is John Mellencamp, and he has a new CD, which is called "Life, Death, Love and Freedom."

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MELLENCAMP: Sorry, honey.

(Soundbite of laughter)

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.

Mr. MELLENCAMP: Let me see how that goes.

(Soundbite of song, "Pink Houses")

Mr. MELLENCAMP: (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? 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?

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

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

Mr. MELLENCAMP: I'm very liberal, yes. I'm very liberal.

GROSS: Got it.

Mr. MELLENCAMP: Well, what happened was that I called up my publicity guy, a guy named Bob Merlis. I said - Bob said, you know, McCain's using your song. 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?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MELLENCAMP: No, not really, because if you hear me play these songs, like you just heard me - they're not anthems at all. They're folks songs.

GROSS: That's true.

Mr. 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, I'm going to go out on tour, and I'm going to play just me and acoustic guitar, and all 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. There just songs. So I'll give you a good example. Hold on, listen.

(Soundbite of song, "I Need a Lover")

Mr. MELLENCAMP: (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.

Mr. MELLENCAMP: It's a whole different song.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. 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, and you know, I'm 57 years old. I'm still out playing shows, and people still know my songs, and so you know, I feel very fortunate about all that. So I'm not complaining.

I'm just saying that, you know, trying to be an artist inside the music business has always been challenging for me.

GROSS: John Mellencamp will be back in the second half of the show. His new CD is called "Life, Death, Love and Freedom." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR…

(Soundbite of song, "Young Without Lovers")

Mr. 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, young without lovers - old without friends. Life is an abstraction and it tries to fool us all…

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with John Mellencamp. He has a new CD called "Life, Death, Love and Freedom." His hits from the '80s include "Jack & Diane" and "Small Town." His song "This is Our Country" became famous when it was used in the Chevy ad. At the Obama Inaugural Celebration at the Lincoln Memorial, Mellencamp sang his song "Pink Houses." He grew up in a small town in Indiana, I asked him to tell us about the first records he bought.

Mr. MELLENCAMP: The first record I ever bought was "The Twist" - with my own money, I bought that by Chubby Checker and I was like, maybe you know, seven or six years old. And this girl who lived next door to us, her and I entered the twist contest in the window of the dime store in Seymour, Indiana and we won…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MELLENCAMP: …the twist contest. But we didn't really have any twist music, so, I had to go and buy Chubby Checker. But I grew up in a household where my dad is only 20 years older than me. So, my dad had, you know, I had access to a lot of music and my dad thought - at the time I think he was - you know, him and his buddy had bongo parties where they'd bongo. So, you know, I was exposed to Woody Guthrie, Odetta, you know, all kind of music through my father's record collection. So - and I had an older brother who is four years older than me, who also played guitar and was really a much better singer than me.

GROSS: Could you maybe play an excerpt of a song that you feel was 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?


(Soundbite of song, "The Times They Are A-Changin'")

Mr. MELLENCAMP: (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.

Mr. MELLENCAMP: 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 fellow.

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

Mr. MELLENCAMP: Well, I mean he was the ultimate song writer. You know, I never even considered writing songs until I was much older, because I was the singer in a rock band. You know, I was in a bar - you'd remember, you know, 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, you know, we would - in one hand, you know, I had Bob Dylan and on the other I had Iggy Pop. You know, and we would go from - from a Dylan song to a Stooges' song, all in one set.

So, you know there was no reason for me to write songs. So - but Bob Dylan was always the - the ultimate song writer and nobody could ever write a song as good as him and nobody ever has written a song as good as him. And you know, so, you know, when I thought it…

GROSS: So, what made you think about writing songs, not just singing them?

Mr. MELLENCAMP: I got a record deal.

GROSS: And you had to write because of that?

(Soundbite of laughter)


GROSS: Really, so you hadn't written songs before that?

Mr. MELLENCAMP: Oh, you know, I had written songs, you know, to get girls to come over the house or something, but other than that, you know, I was never really serious about song writing until probably 19, I don't know, '80 something or another. I don't know exactly…

GROSS: Oh, let me stop you - let me stop you. So when you'd write a song to get a girl to come over the house…


GROSS: …would you stare into her eyes in a dreamy way as you played the song?

Mr. MELLENCAMP: No, I never have to do that.


(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MELLENCAMP: I never had to do that, and I just - they just - they just dropped everything.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MELLENCAMP: I don't think I was just…

GROSS: If you say so.

Mr. MELLENCAMP: Well, I - I don't think, I was the only one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MELLENCAMP: That's my point, you know.

GROSS: Oh, oh. Okay.

Mr. MELLENCAMP: You know, I'm not saying they dropped everything for me. They just, you know, girls at that time, if you had a guitar, they liked you. And I wasn't the only one. I mean, there was a long line of guys walking around my town with a guitar case. So, yeah, I mean, you know, if I wrote a song, it was only for the entertainment of female company or a little story that I might write about something that happened around a house, but I never really was...

GROSS: Do you remember any of those early songs? Could I impose on you to play a few bars of one of them?

Mr. MELLENCAMP: I don't know if I can really remember any of them. I remember the first song that I learned on guitar.

GROSS: Okay.

Mr. MELLENCAMP: I was nine years old.

(Soundbite of song, "Railroad Bill")

Mr. MELLENCAMP: (Singing) Railroad Bill, Railroad Bill, lived way up on Railroad Hill. Ride, ride, ride… Railroad Bill, Railroad Bill, well he never worked and he never will. Ride, ride, ride…

That's the first song I learned on guitar.

GROSS: I also kind of know that. Whose - whose is that?

Mr. MELLENCAMP: That was just old folk song. I'm a folk singer, you know, and that's- that's what I always did. You know, I'd always been in bands, but I was always, you know, always had an acoustic guitar and I always sang those old American folk songs, you know…

GROSS: And - and yet - and yet I read that in one of your bar bands, you did a lot of James Brown covers.

Mr. MELLENCAMP: Oh yeah, well this one, sure. Yeah, I mean, you know, James Brown was, you know, he was the Bob Dylan of soul. I mean, you know, sure, I was in a band called the Crepe Soul and that's all we did. It was me and - and a, I hate to identify him in this fashion, but a black kid - me and a black kid were the lead singers. I was 14, he was 18 and everybody else in the band was 21. Now you can imagine letting a 14-year-old kid get in a car today with a bunch of 21-year-old guys, going to the bar every weekend and playing? But my parents let me do it, and that what I did and, you know, bring home $25-$35 every weekend and they were happy about it.

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

Mr. MELLENCAMP: That's not true.

GROSS. No. Okay, go ahead.

Mr. MELLENCAMP: No, I moved from Indiana to London.


Mr. MELLENCAMP: And I lived in London in 1977 and '78. And the only reason I moved to London that I - I had a record deal when I - I actually, here's what happened. If you - 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 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 'cause I had no money. And I went there and it wasn't this simple, but I got a record deal pretty rapidly.

And then it was - 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 - just didn't work and him and I fought all the time. And that's where Johnny Cougar came from and all…

GROSS: Is that his idea?

Mr. MELLENCAMP: Yeah, that was a terrible idea. I told him at that 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 could 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, Indiana to London England and be living on, you know, right in Chelsea and the whole punk rock thing was just starting to explode and there I was with the acoustic guitar.

GROSS: Well, all right. So it was really hard for you to get rid of the Cougar thing, wasn't it?

Mr. MELLENCAMP: Oh, it's still - it's never go - it will never leave. I still walk down the street and people would say, hey John Cougar, you know, I hear it all time. Or John Cougar Mellencamp - I'll be introduced that way. But as you know, that's what it's - that's what it was, you know. I mean that's - 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 is a great line in that, life goes on even after the thrill of living is gone.

Mr. MELLENCAMP: So, there you go. Now we're talking about mortality again.

GROSS: Yes, exactly, you know, that occurred to me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That definitely occurred to me. Can you talk about how that line came to you?

Mr. MELLENCAMP: Well actually, they are putting together a boxed set of my songs. And the guy was just here yesterday who's producing it, was working on it and they - this guy is leaving no stone unturned. So, he found a song that I had written before "Jack & Diane" called "Ginny(ph) at 16" that had some of the same lines from "Jack & Diane" in it - that I had abandoned in that song "Ginny 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 rather had abandoned that idea. So "Jack & Diane" was originally about an interracial couple. But I guess in 1981, I think may be I decided, may be 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?"

Mr. MELLENCAMP: Yeah, hold on.

(Soundbite of song, "Jack & Diane")

Mr. MELLENCAMP: (Singing) Little ditty about Jack and Diane, two American kids growin' up in the heartland, Jackie gonna be a football star, Diane's debutante backseat of Jackie's car. Suckin' on chilli dog outside the Tastee-Freez, Diane's sittin' on Jackie's lap, he's got his hands between her knees. Jackie say, hey Diane lets run off, behind a shady trees, dribble off those Bobby Brooks, let me do what I please and Jackie say a, oh yeah life goes on, long after the thrill of livin' is gone, oh yeah life goes on, long after the thrill of livin' is gone they walk on, oh yeah life goes on, long after the thrill of livin' is gone, oh yeah life goes on, long after the thrill of livin' is gone they walk on.

That's it.

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

Mr. 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 - 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 Ol' Night" came from. Music was a sideline for me at that time. You know, all my songs were written below my belt. And then, as I got older, they, kind of, raised up to my head and became more, you know, you should pay attention to what you're writing because people are actually listening.

GROSS: My guest is John Mellencamp. His new CD is called "Life, Death, Love and Freedom." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of song, "Pink Houses")

GROSS: My guest is John Mellencamp and his new CD is called "Life, Death, Love and Freedom." I wanted to ask you something, and this gets back to what we were talking about early on, about mortality. And this question might strike you as kind of odd and a real stretch, and may be it is, but I know that you're born with a tumor on your spine.

Mr. MELLENCAMP: I was born with Spina Bifida.

GROSS: That's like an opening in your spine, isn't it?

Mr. MELLENCAMP: Yes, that's what it is.

GROSS: That's really dangerous.

Mr. MELLENCAMP: Well, in 1951 it was deadly. In 1951, you know, they would operate on people with, you know, with pinking shears and screwdrivers.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MELLENCAMP: And, you know, they were still giving people lobotomies in 1951, you know. So the medical world was pretty not developed, not like today. And I was born with Spina Bifida, and it used to be practice to let the baby lay there for two or three weeks, and if the baby survives, then they would operate on the baby. Thank God for me, that there was a young doctor named Dr. Heimberger at Riley's Children Hospital in Indianapolis. He said we've got to stop just letting these kids die and letting them lay there because they won't survive. So let's - the minute we see it, let's operate on them.

And that's what he did with me. And generally, if you are born with that disease wherever they operate on you from, you are crippled from that point down. My hole in my spine was right below my ears, so I should have been crippled from the neck down.

GROSS: Do you think, and this is the part that's really the stretch - because you were born so vulnerable and that you had a condition that nearly killed you, that could have killed you, do you think that you have some like retention of that and that there's something like deep inside that has always been in touch with mortality and vulnerability because of that? I mean then even if you weren't aware of that, your parents would have been.

Mr. MELLENCAMP: Well my parents didn't even tell me until I was, until some kid at school said to me when I was about in sixth, seventh - fifth or sixth grade, I'm sure. I was sitting in class and some kid goes, man, what's that big scar across the back of your neck? And I said - what scar? I didn't know there was a scar on the back of my neck. Apparently my parents told my brothers not to say anything to me and they never said anything to me, and so I remember going home and going, what's the scar on my neck? And then I got the whole nine yards. And at, you know, nine or ten years old, I didn't much care.

GROSS: You didn't?

Mr. MELLENCAMP: No at that time I didn't care because I figured, well, you know, I've been a normal kid thus far, I have no reason to believe that I won't be anything but a normal kid. And I played football and I ran track, and played baseball and, you know, I did everything everybody else did. But, you know, I don't that see that scar on the back of my neck but, you know, I've been married to Elaine for 17 years and she said the first time she kissed me and she put her hand on the back of my neck, she thought, what the - world is that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

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.

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

GROSS: Oh great, okay.

Mr. MELLENCAMP: That - this is my party song, you know, when they hand me a guitar and say John play something.

(Soundbite of song, "Earlybird Cafe")

Mr. MELLENCAMP: (Singing) Everybody Everybody's laughin' at the Earlybird Cafe. I've been headed there since yesterday, I believe I've lost my way. Charlotte's there in organdy, Billy's there in suede. Y'know there's money's in their pockets, and all their dues are paid. There's wine on every table, and 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 was gettin' wrinkled, and my socks was fallin' down, but I could not stop to pull them up, for fear that I'd be late so I kept on runnin' down the road until I saw the gate - of the Earlybird Cafe, glowin' golden like the sun, everybody kept on singing: Come on in, we've just begun.

So I went on in, and I set right down, and I ordered me up some wine, my talk was fast and clever and the women all were fine. Charlotte asked me where I'd been with my jade and ivory eyes, 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, please tell me something about the song.

Mr. MELLENCAMP: It's old folk song and it was originally recorded by, might 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. But that's my party song. I have been playing this since, I have been playing that song since I was 17 years old.

GROSS: To really cheer up the party.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MELLENCAMP: Yeah. I think it's a beautiful song.

GROSS: It is. It is. It has been really great to talk with you. I really appreciate you're doing this and thank you for playing for us. I think it's just really generous of you. I really appreciate it.

Mr. MELLENCAMP: It's my pleasure.

GROSS: John Mellencamp's new CD is called "Life, Death, Love and Freedom". Here's another song from it, this is - "Don't need this body".

(Soundbite of song, "Don't need this body")

Mr. MELLENCAMP: (Singing) Ain't a gonna need this body much longer, ain't a gonna need this body much more, I put in a ten million hours, washed up and worn out for sure. Well all my friends are sick or dying, and I'm here all by myself, all I got left is a head full of memories, and a thought of my upcoming death.

GROSS: You can hear more songs from John Mellencamp's new CD "Life, Death, Love and Freedom" and hear our interview too on our Web site This is FRESH AIR.

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