Now basically I like Mellonhead, and I respect him for the tenacity to stick it out in the face of some poor early-career marking decisions made by his labels, himself, or a combination of the two (the transition from “Cougar” back to “Mellencamp” was long and painful). He has turned out to be one of the most solid American rockers of the last 30 years, but I am also bone-weary of the “woe-is-me, I was anti-war and ritualistically abused for it” routine. War is a super emotional issue – if you take the minority side, you will receive emotional disagreement from the majority, that’s all there is to it:
- “The whole thing was surreal to me,” says John Mellencamp. He’s remembering the three-month period during the winter and spring when America was wrestling with the notion of war against Iraq. The roots-rocker found himself caught in the public fray after he released an antiwar song at the height of the debate, with some radio listeners comparing him to Osama bin Laden.
It was a startling charge for the Hoosier recently dubbed “Mr. Middle America” by ABC News. After nearly 30 years on the public stage, Mellencamp and his lunch-bucket rock and populist tales have come to signify heartland values like faith, hard work and, yes, a healthy skepticism toward authority. But anti-Americanism? “Get the fuck out of here,” he scoffs.
His protest song “To Washington,” with its thinly veiled jabs at President Bush, struck a chord with listeners on the left and right alike. “Isn’t it funny?” he asks. “A 51-year-old guy who’s made as many records as I have can still piss off the right wing.”
….Wrapping his workmanlike rock in what he calls his “left-of-center” politics, in the ’80s Mellencamp teamed up with Willie Nelson to begin staging charity concerts and raise millions of dollars for Farm-Aid. In 1989, at the height of commercial appeal, he penned “Jackie Brown,” among the most stinging indictments of American poverty ever put to record. (“We shame ourselves to watch people like this live.”)
As the late Timothy White, his good friend and the longtime editor of Billboard, wrote in 2001, “Mellencamp’s best music is rock ‘n’ roll stripped of all escapism, and it looks directly at the messiness of life as it’s actually lived. This is rock music that tells the truth on both its composer and the culture he’s observing.”
More recently, Mellencamp has been tackling the topic of race relations. The title track to 2001’s “Cuttin’ Heads” featured Chuck D. rapping about the word “nigger”: “I connect the word with pain, now some smile when they scream the name?/ Die, N-word, die. I want to live.”
The album’s second song, the sweet-sounding single “Peaceful World,” was equally blunt: “Racism lives in the U.S. today.” Not exactly Top-40 fare. [Salon]
The praise that comes from these positions is just the other side of the coin from the condemnation that came from the anti-war position: you can’t be principled and not piss people off who don’t share those principles.
- Talk about people’s reaction to “To Washington.”
Initially I was surprised. My album wasn’t going to come out for a few months and I had the song recorded so I put it up on my Web site and asked for people’s comments. And there were some mean damn comments coming back.
How about today?
It’s changed. Now they’re almost totally in favor of the song. Because people are starting to realize, “Now wait a minute, what really happened in Iraq?” I see the climate changing tremendously. But when people hear those drums of war pounding, and Fox News is showing it on television, people got pretty riled up. People were afraid, and when people are afraid they make emotional decisions.
Did that include people in your hometown of Bloomington, Ind.?
When the song first came out I was in the car one day and we were driving to the airport and I had my kids with me and a radio station was playing “To Washington” and having callers call in. Some guy comes on and says, “I don’t know who I hate the most, John Mellencamp or Osama bin Laden.” My kids heard that and my 9-year-old said, “Dad, are they talking about you? Why are people mad at you?”
See above comment – this is unfortunate, but unaviodable: if you can speak freely, I can say you are full of shit.
The rest of the interview is just John being John, it’s cool enough, I like the guy – the real problem is with interviewer Eric Boehlert who seems more determined than most to lead his subject into controversy, virtually baiting him. It’s clear where the agenda lies.