John Mellencamp: American Son

Liza Lentini
·30 min read

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“Hello, Liza. This is John Mellencamp. What do you want to talk about?” It’s a cold, cloudy East Coast afternoon, and, for so many reasons, including John’s 69th birthday on Oct. 7, it’s been tough for us to connect.

“I want to talk about you,” I say.

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“Boy, that’s a boring topic,” he states.

I don’t believe him, but I like him already. He’s direct. He’s salty. He’s moody and sharp. He speaks with a gravely Southern lilt, even though born and raised above the Mason-Dixon line. Seymour, Indiana, as we all know from his 1985 hit “Small Town”, is a humble place, under 20,000 people, known, interestingly, for its downtown railroad which intersects the north/south, east/west lines. He currently calls hour-away Bloomington home, though he’s calling today from his house on South Carolina’s Daufuskie Island, off the Georgia coast.

“You’re going to find out that I have a lot of fucking opinions and I just want to clarify right now that these are only my opinions,” he tells me. “They don’t make them true. They don’t make them real. It’s just what I think.”

“I know.”

“It’s just what I think,” he says again. “I’m not saying that I know it all because I don’t…I don’t know shit, but I have opinions.”

“That’s why I’m talking to you because I want to hear your opinions. I like your opinions. We align, we really do,” I say.

“Then you’re nuttier than a fruitcake,” he laughs.

“Maybe…but so, what? You’re nutty too,” I say.

“Yes,” he concedes. “I agree.”

John Mellencamp
John Mellencamp

Credit: Richard E. Aaron/Redferns

Quickly, we cover a lot of ground—the trouble with men (and women) and the faults in human nature. He’s actually not at all “nutty”, he stands strongly in his convictions and that’s how he’s had a nearly fifty-year music career generously balanced with giving back. His songs are about real people, real issues, deep feelings. Even the ones that are just for fun have so much heart.

Our conversation turns to this undeniably crazy year.

“Oh, don’t worry, Sister,” he says. “It’s going to get crazier.”

As with all performers, he’s had to readjust his 2020 goals. “Well, I’m halfway done with the [new] record then the virus hit and I haven’t been in the studio since the virus started,” he says. “I had planned to have the record out now but I haven’t finished. I have 17 more songs to record. I’ve recorded 10 and I have 17 more to do and I’ll pick 10 of the 27 songs.”

Much, much later, he’ll reveal that he’s had something like 700 songs published, and that’s clearly not counting those discarded through the years. His first studio album, 1976’s The Chestnut Street Incident, was released under the name Johnny Cougar, with 5 of the 11 tracks covers of hits from the 50s and 60s, including “Jailhouse Rock”. It wouldn’t be until 1991’s Whenever We Wanted when he could leave “Cougar” behind and finally sing under his birth name. Performing since he was 14, his Grammy (along with 12 nominations) and 2008 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction don’t define him, though some of his other awards just might: the Nordoff-Robbins Silver Clef Special Music Industry Humanitarian Award in 1991 honoring his commitment to social justice, the Woody Guthrie Prize in 2018 recognizing “artists across media who have used their talents to speak for those without a platform”, and the ASCAP Foundation Champion Award in 2007 for artists “‘making a difference’ through social action on behalf of worthwhile causes or who has demonstrated exceptional efforts in humanitarianism”. And we’re just getting started. In 2010 he won the John Steinbeck Award for according to presenter Dr. Paul Douglass: “His remarkable ability to give voice to the common man and to people on society’s margins…” In 2019 he was awarded the ASCAP Harry Chapin Award which, according to their site, “shines a spotlight on artists who have proven their commitment to striving for social justice and creating real change in combating hunger worldwide”.

Naturally, none of that ever comes up. He does tell me he’s a realist. And I learn, according to him, that most people are liars. Including him.

“I lie all the time,” he says. “I always lie when it could get me out of trouble. That’s when I do my biggest lying. I lie to people all the time. I have a record that I’m working on right now, one of the songs is called ‘I Always Lie to Strangers’. I always lie to strangers and I always lie to people I may know. People lie all the fucking time. My point is it’s not even fair for us to believe them. It’s not even fair because we know that they’re lying and we know that we lie. How are you supposed to get anything done with everybody lying to each other? The worst part about it is I think it’s innate in the human nature to do it. Japanese culture, ‘Yes, yes, yes.’ They don’t mean yes. They’re really fucking saying, ‘Fuck you.’”

“Is that true, you always lie to strangers?” I ask.

“Sure.”

“Are you lying to me?”

“Not intentionally,” he says.

John Cougar Mellencamp
John Cougar Mellencamp

Credit: Bob Sacha/Corbis via Getty Images

The Luckiest Guy in the Fucking World

“I’m the luckiest guy in the world because I had spina bifida on the top of my neck when I was born,” he tells me. “In 1951, they had no idea how to solve that problem. There were five kids at Riley Hospital who had the same thing that I did, but the hole in your spine was at different places. They operated on all five of us, the other four died, I’m still here.”

Unsure and overwhelmed, John’s parents handed him over to his grandmother Laura. “My parents were young, they were 20-years-old and they just went, ‘Here take him!’ to my grandmother and my grandmother raised me. She told me my whole life that I was the smartest, handsomest, toughest boy in the world and I’ll never forget it. She told me every day. I was 40-years-old, she was still calling me up reminding me of that. That’s how I grew up. I eventually moved back in with my parents, but for the first four or five years of my life my grandmother took care of me. I was a deformed baby and here I am at 69-years-old and I’m the luckiest guy in the fucking world.”

I’d asked him the question “what is your crown in heaven?”, having heard that he’d asked the question himself of an interviewer decades before. After a moment of low snickering, where I imagine him slowly, sentimentally shaking his head, his answer revolves around Laura. “When Grandma died I was with her and she said to me, she said, ‘Buddy, try to live the decent life, don’t worry about a thing because I’ll be in heaven and when you get there it’ll be set up for you, you’ll walk right in.’ I said, ‘Okay.’ So, the fix is in for me. If there is such a place as heaven, I’m in, because the one woman who loved me and I trusted was her. My ex-wife would go, ‘Boy, sometimes I hate your grandma.’ Because she’s spoilt me rotten.”

“You must miss her, your grandma,” I say.

“Yes, I do,” he says. “One time I had a motorcycle, I just got a brand-new motorcycle, and I was with Grandma and she goes, ‘Where are you going to take me for a ride?’ And she was an old woman. I thought, ‘You’re actually going to get on here and ride?’ and I figured out that she was 72 years old when she did that. So, she wasn’t that old.”

“I got 11 years left,’ he says, believing his time is up at 80. “Well, I’m a confirmed smoker, I’ve been smoking since I was 14 and if I make it to 80, that’s always been my goal, make it to 80, and then anything past that is borrowed time so I have 11 years.” He’s come to this belief because his grandfather who also raised him, a carpenter and a smoker, passed away at 80. “Easily, he lived to be 80 and he never exercised or did anything and he ate like shit.”

His song, “Longest Days (Life is Short)” is inspired by a conversation he had with his grandmother shortly before she died. “She said a lot of stuff the day before she died. She said that line to me, she goes, ‘Buddy, you’re going to find out real soon that life is short even in its longest days.’ Since she said that I thought, ‘Fuck, I got to write that down.’”

“Do you have a favorite song of yours or one that you just love to perform?” I ask.

“Probably that song,” he says. “Probably one of the better songs I’ve ever written.”

It’s tough to imagine, after a career totaling 23 studio albums, the 2008 Q Awards Classic Songwriter Award winner and 2018 Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee, would admit that he never intended to become a songwriter. “No, I never wanted to be a songwriter, never had any interest in it. Only started writing songs because the record company suggested it and I remember thinking, ‘Fuck, there’s so many songs already…why do you need more songs from me? Anything I say is going to be said before and probably said better.’” By the time he was 14 in the mid-60s, John was making his own money singing for whoever would pay him. “At 14, a song and dance kid at 14, playing fraternities and sororities and armories and race tracks and raceways, you name it, and even bars at 14,” he recalls. “I don’t know if today if a family would let their 14-year-old son go into the Chatterbox and play with a bunch of 25-year-old guys, which is what I was doing. There were five kids, they were glad to get rid of me. Somebody goes, ‘Where’s John?’ and go, ‘Fuck if I know.’ My dad used to joke and go, ‘Well, when he gets hungry, he’ll come home.’” Growing up middle class, John’s music made him enough money to feel independent by the time he was in his mid-teens. “I left early,” he says. “There were five kids in the house and dad was busy with his job and mom was busy trying to raise those kids. As long as we weren’t in jail, we were in good shape. Let me put it to the way I heard it: ‘As long as you don’t insult the Mellencamp name, you’ll be alright.’”

Not only didn’t he intend to write songs, but he never set out to be famous, either. “I never did it to be famous anyway,” he says, of making music. “See, I, unlike most people, I don’t have low self-esteem and so many people in the rock business have low self-esteem and they need to have that acceptance to tell them who they are. I’ve never needed that. I’ve never needed it, never wanted it. I never cared about what my fucking parents thought. I didn’t care.

I was lucky.

“I didn’t need the acceptance of my dad or my mom, I just didn’t. I don’t know why, but that’s the way I grew up. When you grow up needing that acceptance and looking for it, you’re never going to get it, to the extreme that you want, to the place that you think is, you’re never satisfied. It’s like ‘Well, you know what you want, right?’ ‘Yes, I do.’ ‘Well, what do you want?’ ‘I want more.’ ‘Will you ever get enough?’ ‘I haven’t yet.’ That’s the conversation that I found myself in. I was like, ‘This is bullshit.’

“I was making my own money by the time I was 14 anyway. I was in rock bands and we would play on the weekends and I’d make $40 on the weekends. $40 in 1966 was a lot of fucking money to a 14-year-old. I didn’t even want to write songs. No, I never cared about that.”

“What did you want then?” I ask.

“I wanted $40 for the fucking weekend and a girl to hug,” he says. “Listen, let’s put it in perspective, I’m 14-years-old. I’m making $40 a weekend. I’m being very blunt: I was fucking 19-year-old girls. Come on. What kid would not take that deal? I’ll take it.”

“Pretty good deal,” I say.

“It was a damn good deal,” he says.

John Mellencamp
John Mellencamp

Credit: Ebet Roberts/Redferns

The Farmer & The Scarecrow

“I grew up in a town of 18,000 people with a whole bunch of little towns around it,” he tells me. “As I got older, I saw that the little towns were turning to seed and going out of business. They all had grocery stores and had an active, sustainable little town, but then they all went out of business and they all got boarded up. I wondered why that was happening….”

Through speaking with locals, John discovered that the dying small farming communities were, consequently, killing the towns. “I didn’t understand they were losing their farms,” he says. “I saw these towns being abandoned and falling down. I’m thinking of a town called Freetown. I knew some girls there and I used to go there to see those girls. They had grocery stores and they had a gas station and they had a lunch counter. Then all of a sudden they didn’t have any of that shit. They all closed down.

“All these small towns were all small farming communities and all those small family farmers were being put out of business alongside the small, family-owned businesses that supported my town. If I go back to my town today, the town that I grew up in is all boarded up and the town has moved out by the interstate because that’s where all the corporate stores are. There’s no family-owned stores or small businesses in America anymore.”

In 1984 he sat down with his friend George Green and talked through some ideas for a new song, one that would serve as an anthem for a voiceless community. “Him and I wrote that song by having table talk in the kitchen and we just sat there,” he says, of Green, who passed away about 15 years ago. “He was a kid I went to high school with. We just bounced lines back and forth and then I wrote the music and the chorus for it.” The result was “Rain on the Scarecrow” which appeared on 1985’s Scarecrow, John’s eighth studio album. It reached Number Two in the U.S and earned him a 1985 Grammy nomination for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance. There were a lot of hits on that album, including “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.”, “Lonely Ol’ Night” and “Small Town”, but “Rain on the Scarecrow”—Rain on the scarecrow/Blood on the plow/This land fed a nation/This land made me proud—would forever serve as a call to action for the plight of America’s farmlands. 2007’s “Ghost Towns Along the Highway” (off of Freedom Road) completes the story, but is no means the end of it. Both songs and the stories that inspired them are tragically still more relevant than ever.

Shortly after “Rain on the Scarecrow” was finished, word got to Willie Nelson. “Willie was playing golf or something in Bloomington with some people I know and a friend of mine said, ‘John Mellencamp just made a record called Scarecrow that hasn’t been released yet.’ That sparked the conversation with Willie. Willie thought that we should try to do something for the small family farmers in the conversation they were having. Later on that night he called me up and he goes, ‘Hey, would you be interested?’ That’s how I got involved in Farm Aid. Then Neil [Young] called the next day, so there was three of us who started Farm Aid, but make no mistake about it, it was Willie’s idea. Willie is the president of Farm Aid.”

In 2020 Farm Aid turned 35. To date, it has raised nearly $60 million to help small farmers keep their businesses. For all the great work they’re doing, what is the big change that’s going to make the biggest impact for America’s farmers?

“I think that a lot of problems could be solved if we could get rid of corporate farming,” he says. “Corporate farming destroys the land. There is soil, which is what grows stuff, and then there’s dirt and dirt is dead soil. Corporate farming doesn’t give a fuck about soil. They care about dirt and they turn everything into dirt, and then dirt turns into sand and you can’t grow anything on it. It’s all about carbon. Carbon is in soil. If you stick your hand down into soil and you pull out a handful of soil, there are more living microbes, worms in your hand then there’s been people on this earth, in a handful of soil. That’s how alive the soil is. When you kill the soil, which is what Monsanto does, pesticides, all that stuff. Farming needs to change. All these farming bills that they passed really only help corporate farms. They don’t really help eco-friendly farming.”

So, what can be done?

“The farm bill is like this,” he explains. “If you grow corn or if you grow soybeans, the government pays you money. Those soybeans and corn that you’re growing are to feed livestock which are also corporately owned and they’re just kept in a big fucking pen, huge pens. Hundreds of them. They eat this food from corporate farming and then they slaughter the cattle which then we eat the food that they have put inside of this beef. We eat the same fucking shit that they put on the plants, the corn that the government paid them to grow, and we put it in our bodies and we get cancer. Anyway, the way to do it is the way it used to be done. I don’t mean to sound antiquated, but you have to take care of the soil. You do that by rotating. You got to have animals and you can’t just grow one crop. You’ve got to grow different types of crops and you’ve got to move your animals around. If you had 100 acres okay, ‘We’re going to keep the animals here, because they’ll shit here and then their shit will become fertilizer.’ It’s a whole act of nature in a circle. The way that we do it and the way it’s done now around the world, we just abuse the soil and turn it into dirt. When it’s dirt, it’s useless and then nobody refurbishes the dirt. We just move on to another place and take soil and make it dirt because it’s all about carbon. We’re carbon, the earth’s carbon, and when you steal the carbon from the soil, then you’re fucking with the circle of life. The government doesn’t care, so anyway….”

He warns against using the word “organic” too liberally. Many don’t realize that there are chemicals in organic food, too. “I don’t like the word organic because really it’s just a bullshit word,” he says. “When you say organic I always want to interrupt people and go, ‘You mean food?’ Not genetically engineered food. I don’t know, organic is just another word to entice people to feel like they’re doing something. That’s not what they are doing.” The chemicals, he warns, are going to kill us. “They already are,” he says.

So, what’s the solution?

“I think the future, what we can do is hope that the next generation, not my generation because we’ve already proven ourselves to be greedy and gluttonous, hopefully, there’ll be a younger generation will come along and go, ‘Hey guys, this does not work.’ Perhaps they’ll change the face of the agriculture. It’s nothing that’s going to happen in 10 days. Not going to be able to pass a law and it’s going to change. It took from the beginning of the industrial revolution to now to make this happen. You’re not going to be able to clean up the world in 10 minutes. Actually, there should be no deserts. There should be no any of that stuff. It should all be grasslands. Look at California, perfect example. Huge corporate farming in California. It’s kind of like the question a farmer would ask, “Well, why should I not plant soybeans when the government’s going to pay me…?’ They’re guaranteed. ‘Why would I want to plant carrots and then rotate next year and plant some other crop?’ Because they don’t know.”

Could America lose its farms? “We could lose all our small family farms, which is happening for sure, but we’ll never lose corporate farming because their job is to search and destroy. They’ll just cut down some more fucking trees and get rid of the carbon-seeking trees and leaves and grass and plant more soybeans, more corn…we all get cancer earlier and we won’t be able to use the phony word organic and a whole bunch of stuff.”

So America could lose all its small, family-owned farms?

“Yes,” he warns. “It’s happening right now.”

John Mellencamp
John Mellencamp

Credit: Ebet Roberts/Redferns

A Better America

“I’m not real big on nationalism,” he says. “We’re number one, USA. After the World Trade Centers got bombed, I think I was the first guy to play a show and I was playing in Boston. I did three nights in Boston outside and fucking everybody kept shouting, “USA!” Finally, at the third night, I got sick of it. ‘Look, if you guys are going to keep yelling that crap the show’s over.’” He believes hypocrisy is the real downfall of America, leading to a heads-down, don’t-get-involved culture. “Look at Germany, all these German people. Hitler was there. They all acted like, ‘Well, we don’t know what was going on.’ What the fuck are you talking about? These death camps are right in the middle of a neighborhood. You didn’t smell anything? They all pleaded ignorant.”

Farm Aid 2020 was unlike any other, persevering as a virtual experience with only a small crowd of attendees. John performed on a humble wooden stage in front of a retro camper, perfect for his four-song set, beautifully slowed down and intimate, which opened with “Longest Days”, continuing with “Jack & Diane”, then “Easy Target” and closing with “Rain on the Scarecrow”. His small, socially-distanced crowd was dressed in coordinating black clothing, many wearing “Black Lives Matter” T-shirts. “My whole fucking life I’ve watched bigotry and hatred throughout this country towards minorities and Blacks,” he says. “I’m sick of this trashy behavior that we’ve allowed to go on.” At the end of “Easy Target”, John stepped to the edge of the stage, took a knee and raised a fist in the air. “We’re just all these targets,” he explains. “You know, easy to be manipulated, easily fooled, easily gullible. Like I said, we all lie, but we all want to play like and we all want to believe that we know something and that we know the truth, but it’s an illusion. It’s a trick we play on ourselves. That’s the worst trick that we have. It’s one trick to say you can’t come to school because you have a headache, but it’s another trick when you lie to yourself. That’s the biggest trick we play.”

He has a solution: The good neighbor policy.

“You know what the Good Neighbor Policy is? You mind your business and I’ll mind mine and we’ll get along just fine. If you need a helping hand, I might help you out if I can. That rule applies all the way around. Like Vietnam. What the fuck are we sticking are nose in that one? Just like Iraq. What the fuck are we doing there? They had nothing to do with the World Trade Center. We got lied to. People think that Civil War was fought over slavery. It wasn’t. It was fought over the fucking ports. The Savannah Port was the biggest port in the world. Boston, New York was not getting the business that they wanted to get so they went down to Savannah and said, “Hey, how about you guys give us some of your fucking business so we can run our ports?” Savannah said, “Fuck you, we’re not giving you anything.” They said, “Well, then we’ll just take it from you.

“They went back up north and they thought, ‘How are we going to present this to the American people? We can’t tell them that we’re just going to go steal the fucking port.” We’ll make it about slavery. The North had slaves, the South had slaves. Nobody wanted to give up their slaves. They couldn’t really fight the war because they were going to steal business from the Savannah ports. I know that sounds like a crazy conspiracy theory.”

Does he think there’s still slavery in America?

“Oh, yes,” he says. “I keep quoting myself, but I just wrote a song along the lines and it’s from the fucking cotton fields to the playing fields.

“It’s kind of like working for wages,” he explains. “Once you start working for wages, all your dreams go away, and all of a sudden you’ve got to show up to work to make some money because you’ve got this bill. Then you’ve got to pay your bills, plus you got a couple kids now and where does your dream go? We’ve been talking about this for, I don’t know, my whole life.

“I live in two red states. This house that I’m in here, this is Trump Country. Indiana is a red state, but I’ve learned to live with it. I’ve learned to respect that people are nutty. Like I said, I don’t really believe them anyway. I don’t trust anybody. You have no control over what people are going to think. It’s ridiculous. I see a Trump sign and I just go, “Oh. Too bad for you.

“We think that we’re so evolved,” he says. “But we’re just not.”

John Mellencamp 1996
John Mellencamp 1996

Credit: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc

The Good Samaritan

“The Bible is full of shit stuff, but it does have a couple of really important things and one is…if you want a better world it starts with you,” John explains. “It starts with you and it’s free. You don’t have to pay to join, you don’t have to wear a certain uniform, you don’t have to do anything. You could be yourself, but if you want a better world it starts with you.”

Around 2000, John spoke with then-wife Elaine Irwin about a new initiative for bringing music to the public. “It was an idea that came about because of what Woody Guthrie had done in the ’30s,” he explains, referring to one of his greatest musical influences. “My wife at the time and I said, ‘If Guthrie was alive today where would he go play? He wouldn’t go play in the fields. Where are the workers?’ We decided that the workers are in big tall buildings in the middle of cities so we should go play for free there and that’s how the whole thing started.”

The result became the Good Samaritan Tour. The idea was that John would simply show up and play, no press, unannounced. Completely free. “To call it a tour is really not a true statement,” he says. “I guess that we were more or less vagabonds, just moving around.” The point wasn’t to draw a crowd, the point was to create a spontaneous experience for whoever was there. “We went to different towns and different cities and all the big office buildings and set up and played,” he says. “We didn’t charge anything and we did it over lunch hour. We loaded up—me and Elaine, my two young boys at the time, and a couple of young musicians—and we’d just head out with no plan of where we were going to go next. We’d pick the place and we’d play about noon so people would be on their lunch break and they could come down and have their lunch and see John Mellencamp play if they wanted to.” They started out in Boston. “We played somewhere at one of the meadows in Harvard and people just were filing in, ‘Is that John Mellencamp playing?’” This is just when the internet was just taking off and the idea of John Mellencamp offering free concerts spread fast. “Then radio stations got involved and started following. Find John Mellencamp. Where is he going to play? Is he going to be in our city? They’d start doing promotions and the record company got involved. By the time we got to Daley Plaza in Chicago, there were 30,000 people there. We were using little battery-powered amps about the size of your suitcase.”

John was able to play some of his favorite songs—on his own terms. “I have a lot of favorite songs, songs that I used to play in the bands, then when I became a hippie I used to pass a guitar around. I used to always play a song called ‘The Early Bird Café’ which was written by The Jerry Hahn Brotherhood, which is a little obscure San Francisco jam band, but I used to always play that song. That might be one of my favorite songs. I finally did record the darn record.”

What’s more, the restrictions that went with a paid event were lifted. “When I was very successful, I hated [performing live],” he says. “There was too much expected of me, I had to show up on time, shit like that. I’m always late. Even sometimes for a concert. I just like to take my time, I don’t want to be rushed, I don’t want to be told what to do. Okay, so we start at 8:00 and when you’re on tour the guys start at 8:00. You can’t start at fucking 9:00, guys started at 8:00. That’s the deal, people paid money. See, that’s the thing, the people were paying money and here you act like a monkey so you got to go put your monkey suit on and go be a monkey. It’s like being a monkey on a string. I didn’t like it but now…I like it. I like it a lot more now than I did then. [The Good Samaritan Tour] was fun. I could do what I wanted. I just did it for the love of music and the love of the audience and if I sucked, it didn’t matter because they didn’t pay anyway. ‘You guys, this is fucking free, what do you expect? What do you want? It’s free, you get it? Didn’t cost you anything, all it cost you was an hour of your time.’ I remember one guy goes, ‘Would you get started, it’s hot?’ I said, ‘You can fucking leave. If you’re too fucking hot, go home. If you don’t like it, fucking go home.’ I’m not asking anybody for anything.”

Reminder: He doesn’t need to play for free, he chooses to. And, truthfully, most famous rock stars don’t. This kind of initiative is purely for the sake of doing something good, understanding that his role in the world is bigger than just him alone. “Go stand out in your yard and imagine them taking a picture from outer space and they’re not going to see you…,” he tells me. “We’re only here for a moment and for people to take themselves so seriously and work so hard to fuck other people over really is an unnecessary act. That’s why I say a better world starts with you.

“If people were doing the best that they could we wouldn’t be in the mess that we’re in,” he says. “If you want a better world it starts with you. We can all be better people and that is something that everyone can participate in. It doesn’t cost any money, it doesn’t take up much time just to be a better person, to be more polite, more understanding, more giving, more humility, and all of those things. It’s all free and it’s all there for us to do. That’s what you could do. That’s what we all could do.”

John Mellencamp Art
John Mellencamp Art

Credit: John Mellencamp

For John he’ll simply never rest until he’s always doing his best. He may consider himself a realist, but only a true optimist would continue to invest so much, decade after decade, in human potential. When he’s not writing songs he’s painting—“that’s all I do is paint,” he says. His art, in case you don’t know, is as astounding and moving as his songwriting, influenced by his artist mother, and is a moody and meaningful reflection of his personality. He tells me he’s painted “literally millions” of paintings. “I’ve done more paintings than I’ve written songs and I’ve got over 700 songs published. I’ve made something like 40 albums.”

When he’s truly nowhere near talking, he announces we need to wrap things up. “All right, young lady…we’ve been talking for an hour 20 minutes, that’s my limit,” he tells me. “My old famous girlfriend used to say, ‘Once you talk over 45 minutes, you need to hang up.’ I said, ‘Why?’ ‘Because you can start shooting your fucking mouth off saying shit you don’t want to say.’”

“Oh, excellent,” I say.

He adds: “I said, ‘Shit happens.’”

To see our running list of the top 100 greatest guitarists of all time, click here.