John Mellencamp cuts back on smokes, ramps up songwriting after heart attack



By Steve Newton

John Mellencamp had the biggest-selling album of 1982 with American Fool, which boasted such huge radio hits as “Hurts So Good” and “Jack and Diane”. I interviewed him in advance of a show at the PNE Forum that year, and at the time Mellencamp—then known as John Cougar—came off like a young guy with the biggest-selling album in the world. He was carefree, full of piss and vinegar, joyfully punctuating his sentences with “fuck” this and “fuck” that.

But when he calls the Straight to promote his show at GM Place on Saturday (May 15), Mellencamp sounds like a different man—much more relaxed and thoughtful, almost meditative in comparison. I guess that’s what 17 years and a heart attack can do to you.

“They don’t feel good!” says the 47-year-old granddad, describing the mild heart attack that caused him to cancel a Vancouver show in the summer of ’94. The attack wasn’t one of those chest-clutching, knock-you-to-your-knees ordeals you see on TV; Mellencamp’s brush with death occurred without the histrionics. “I got really sick and I didn’t even know what had happened,” he recalls from a tour stop in Austin, Texas. “I thought I had, like, the flu or something, some real bad case of the flu. Then I started feelin’ better, and I went out and did a bunch more shows, and then I found out that I had had a heart attack. And when you first find out about that kinda stuff, it’s like ‘Whoa!’ You know, ‘Let’s stop and reassess what’s goin’ on around here.’ But I’m doin’ great now, and everything’s back to normal.”

The four-packs-a-day smoking habit Mellencamp had at the time of his illness has been cut back to “about a pack a day”, and he’s also toned down his touring schedule, which used to be quite rigorous. “During the ’70s and the ’80s, I did 150 shows every year,” he relates, “but I’ll probably do about 80 or so this year, and then won’t go out for a coupla years. I just feel very fortunate to be able to still go out on tour; so many bands are unable to do that.”

Mellencamp may have reduced his daily smoke consumption and yearly concert quota, but he has remained a prolific songwriter, penning more than 50 songs for possible inclusion on his latest, self-titled release.

“I always write a lotta songs when I’m makin’ a record,” he says. “It’s like havin’ your picture taken—you get thousands of pictures taken and end up with one good one. I’ve written lots and lots of songs, and most of them just aren’t very good, so you have to keep workin’ your way through the crummy songs and the uninspired songs to get to the good ones. Nobody sits down and writes 10 songs and they’re all great; it just doesn’t happen that way.”

In keeping with his switch to a calmer lifestyle, the tone on John Mellencamp—which was recorded in his hometown of Bloomington, Indiana—is more laid-back and streamlined than the jarring, raucous noise that typified ’80s tracks like “The Authority Song” and “Rain on the Scarecrow”. Also conspicuous by its absence is the drumming of Kenny Aronoff, whose trademark trash-can slam was nearly as recognizable as Mellencamp’s voice on all his big hits.

“The last time I had a conversation with Kenny, he was playin’ for Smashing Pumpkins,” says Mellencamp. “But you know, Kenny was in the band 22 years, and after a while you can’t operate a band the same way you did when you were a young guy in your early 20s. It’s a whole different scenario, so you have to find different ways of working. And I think that that’s pretty normal, in any line of business.”

As well as recording his 15th album last year, Mellencamp released an art book, Mellencamp: Paintings and Reflections, the proceeds from which support a charity developed by the VH1 music channel to help restore music education in public schools. The book showcases 75 of Mellencamp’s oil portraits, which have been compared to those of German expressionist Max Beckmann.

“I could always draw,” relates Mellencamp, “even as a little kid. And when I had art classes in high school I was okay at it, but it was nothing that I really pursued seriously until the late ’80s.

“But creating is creating,” he adds. “If you’re writing a song, you really are solving a problem, and when you stand in front of a canvas you solve a problem—how do you make this work, how do you make that work. It’s really just the same thing as writing songs.”

If Mellencamp is anywhere near as effective with the paintbrush as he is at crafting hits, he could be a visual artist worth hitting the gallery for. Over his 23-year recording career, he’s managed to score no fewer than 39 Top 40 singles, and when he plays GM Place he won’t forget those golden oldies.

“I’ve been very fortunate in having a lot of hit records,” he says, “and it’s important that you be mindful, when you put together a show, that people are paying money to see you, and of course their main interest is hearing songs like ‘Jack and Diane’ or ‘Pink Houses’. So you have to take into consideration what they want and what you want, and hopefully organize a show that makes everybody happy.”


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