“If a squirrel chews through the line, we’re in trouble,” John Mellencamp says by way of introduction.
He’s calling from “on top of the mountain” in Northern California – not literally, but in his home – and for a guy often pegged as prickly, he’s immediately disarming. Funny. Blunt. Unvarnished. Exactly the type who would make an ideal conversationalist over a few drinks. Or, as it turns out, on the other end of the phone for an hour.
Mellencamp’s is a rightfully celebrated career. From the early days of Johnny Cougar – a name he says “was forced on me... and I don’t like anybody telling me what to do” – through '80s MTV staples (“Pink Houses,” “Hurts So Good,” “Small Town”); rootsy zigzags (“Paper in Fire,” “Get a Leg Up,” “Wild Night”); a shadowy musical written with Stephen King (“Ghost Brothers of Darkland County”); and voluminous accolades (the Songwriters Hall of Fame, ASCAP Founders Award and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are but a few), his accomplishments overwhelm.
On Friday, Mellencamp unveils his first album in five years. “Strictly a One-Eyed Jack” features a dozen songs packed with themes of mortality and dense lyrics, guided by the album’s protagonist, “a dangerous old man” (i.e., the one-eyed Jack, which Mellencamp will further explain).
He also enlisted an old friend for a trio of songs, a kindred spirit in wistful storytelling: Bruce Springsteen. The album’s first single, “Wasted Days,” finds the pair in a reflective state (“Who’s counting now, these last remaining years / How many minutes do we have here?”). The duo romp a little more on the easy swinging “Did You Say Such a Thing,” but also warn “the forecast is severe” on the piano and accordion-laden “A Life Full of Rain.”
In his conversation with USA TODAY, Mellencamp, who recently canceled his tour because of COVID-19 obstacles (“for the third time,” he says with a sigh), delves into his long relationship with Springsteen, the portentous themes on the new album and the history of the everlasting “Jack & Diane.”
Question: There is being much made of you and Bruce singing together on a record for the first time, but you’ve known each other for decades. What took so long for this collaboration to happen?
Mellencamp: Bruce and I have known each other since we were kids, but I was always kind of considered the poor man’s Springsteen. That didn’t bother me. I thought it was just lazy journalism. But Bruce and I have grown to be almost brothers, and I love the guy. He’s been an inspiration and I told him, you made me work harder, I’ve gotta compete with that. Bruce was a blessing to me all along. Maybe I didn’t see it that way, but I do now.
Q: Where did you record these three songs?
Mellencamp: Bruce came to Indiana and stayed at my house. I have a studio (nearby). He stayed for four or five days. Bruce is a good guy. He’s a sweet guy, and I think the world of him. We come from very similar backgrounds – small towns. I think I had it a little easier than Bruce as a kid. I had a motorcycle, my dad was vice president of an electrical firm, I never wanted for money. I was singing in rock bands and playing in bars when I was 12. I was making money. I was the best-dressed kid in my class.
Q: “Wasted Days” obviously keys in on the passing of time, a theme that seems to run throughout the album. What prompted this rumination? Did the isolation of the first year of the pandemic play into your songwriting?
Mellencamp: That song was written before the pandemic. This record was made half before the pandemic and half during. I figure I’ve got about 10 summers left. I’m 70 years old. I’ve had 70 summers and it’s just a math problem. When you’re a kid, summers go on forever. But on the sliding ruler, you start pushing it toward time and you realize that 70 summers have come and gone, you don’t want to waste them. I’ll never perform in the summer again because I want to enjoy the summer. I don’t want to feel obligated to put on a show or travel. You’re talking to the luckiest guy in the world. I’ve been smoking since I was 14. I was born with spina bifida in 1951 and the other four kids they did surgery on (at the same time as me) died. Luck is nothing but thinking you’re lucky. I’ve always thought I was lucky.
Q: Tell me about the album name and title track.
Mellencamp: The most dangerous card in the deck is the one-eyed Jack. There’s only two of them, so generally if you get a one-eyed Jack, he has a sword behind his back and (the protagonist) tells you in the first song (“I Always Lie to Strangers”), don’t trust me, I’m gonna lie to you and I know you’re gonna lie to me. And the whole thing comes to a head in the last verse, “this world is run by men much more crooked than me.” He’s telling you I know I’m a scoundrel, but the people you pay attention to are bigger liars than me. Hopefully, what the record tells people when they realize this is one guy’s voice telling you his life story is that it’s good not to give a (expletive).
Q: Your son, Speck, painted the album cover. How much did you inspire his talent?
Mellencamp: Speck grew up watching me paint and he graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design. His paintings are so much better than mine!
Q: You mentioned you had to cancel your tour again, but when you are out there, do you still get any joy playing the old hits?
Mellencamp: I don’t placate my audience. I’ll do a few of those songs, but only because I want to do that. A couple of them I feel obligated to do. I used to really not like playing “Jack & Diane” until a few years ago I saw a whole football stadium of people singing that song – 80,000 singing it at football game. They aren’t John Mellencamp fans, they’re just singing it. What a surprise to me, because I was a kid when I wrote it, and really, “Oh yeah, life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone” is not a positive message and people sing it like it’s the national anthem.
Q: What’s the latest with the “Small Town" musical? This is not the story of your life, correct?
Mellencamp: It’s Jack and Diane’s story. All the music is songs I’ve written the past 40 years. I told them when they were putting this together, if you (people) can’t find the right songs between 250-plus to choose from… (laughs). But they did a wonderful job. In the original writing of “Jack & Diane,” Jack was Black and Diane was white and it was brought to my attention by the guys in the band that if you take out (the race element), this will be a huge record and we need a hit or we’re gonna get dropped by the label. In the play, Diane is Mexican-American and it’s a serious play about corporate America and using poor people and Hispanics as pawns in this little town they grew up in. We were all ready to go into off-Broadway and then COVID hit and then were gonna go to Birmingham (England) and the rules overseas were too prohibitive. So they came up with Louisville, Kentucky. It’s in the start-designing-sets-and-get-on-with-it phase.
Q: So without a tour looming, what does the rest of your year look like now?
Mellencamp: I’m going back to Indiana into my art studio and I’m gonna continue to paint. I have 55 paintings in a museum in Florida (the Museum of Art – DeLand). Though I might also make another record. The funny thing about songwriting is, when you’re open to suggestion from your muse, that’s when it happens. I have hundreds of songs that aren’t recorded, so we’ll see. I’ve never planned anything in my life.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: John Mellencamp's new album spotlights Springsteen, aging