What adventure changed your life?
I was born with Spina bifida. That’s where you have a hole in your spine and your nerve endings come out. I was born in 1951, and that’s back when they did operating with pinking shears and screwdrivers and what they would do is let the kids lay there, and they would die, that’s just what they would do. But there was a young doctor at the Riley Hospital in Indianapolis, Indiana said we can’t do this anymore, “I’m just going to experiment with this kid.” They asked my parents, “Here are your choices: the kid’s going to die or else let me do this experimental operation and it might work.” So I was the guinea pig. They had to cut my head off basically, I have scar from ear to ear. That was my first experience. You think circumcision’s bad? Wait till they cut your fucking head off! But my grandmother told me for my entire life — everyday, “John, you’re the luckiest boy in the world.” And when you hear that everyday from somebody you actually start to believe it, which made me adventurous, which made me not afraid to try things, which made me not care about stopping myself from doing things that people said you shouldn’t be doing. I mean, who from Seymour, Indiana goes and makes records? I’m the luckiest guy that you will ever talk to.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
Well, you’re not going to like this, and it sounds awful and terrible, but my grandfather was rough as a cob. The advice he gave me all the time was — “If you’re going to hit a cocksucker, kill ‘em.” It means stop beating your mouth around, quit talking about what you’re going to do or what you’re not going to do, don’t go in there, you know, half-assing it. Just go in there and do it. And Grandpa lived like that. He was an angry man. You didn’t cross him. He was 6’4 and weighed 235 when he died. He lived that motto. If you’re going to hit a cocksucker, kill him. And when he committed to something he was in 120 percent. The part he left out is sometime you do hit a cocksucker and they hit back. Hey Grandpa! You forgot to tell me about this part! The world hits back! I wasn’t ready for them to hit back.
How should a man handle regret?
Regret should be handled swiftly and you shouldn’t hold onto it. People spend their entire lives regretting what they didn’t do and what they should’ve done. Hey man, you did what you did. At my age, I meet people and they talk about their parents and I always scratch my head. At some point you got to go, okay, I had freewill here. I have the ability to get in rhythm. That’s the only thing man, to get new rhythm with yourself. I’ve been in rhythm and I’ve been out of rhythm — and being in rhythm is great. When you’re out of rhythm, it’s a drag.
How should a man handle success?
I learned very early, and it was a real blessing, that the world doesn’t turn on John Mellencamp’s timetable. I want it to. We all want to world to turn on our timetable but it just doesn’t. Once you get that in your head, then success becomes less important and failure becomes not important. So be prepared to be disappointed, but also be prepared to be gracious when it does happen. I’ve been to the top of the hill, and there’s nothing up there. You might smile while you’re up there for a second but I always found that if I laughed out loud somebody was there to knock my face up. You know?
How do you know when you’ve written a hit??
Well, you know, for a guy 62 years old I’m not going to write any more hits. Those days are over. Now, I make records more or less as calling cards. Music was so important to the culture when I was growing up in the sixties and seventies. We just expected that Bob Dylan was going to make a great record and it was normal. It was like okay here’s another great record by Bob Dylan, here’s another great record by Led Zeppelin. It’s not like that today, because nobody gives a shit. Nobody cares about the music. Music does not speak the way it used to for my generation.
What should a man know about money?
Nobody gives a shit how much money you made. Nobody cares how you climbed up the ladder. The only person that cares about that is you. You’re the one that’s making it important. I know Once you’ve got your money, you know, then that’s it. And that’s how I feel. I’ve had people say to me, “What do you need more money for, John?” Well, I don’t. Did you ever see the movie Key Largo? Remember when Bogart was talking to Edward G Robinson and he says, “Johnny Rocco, what is it you want?” And Johnny Rocco goes “I want more.” And then Bogart goes, “Well, will you ever get enough?” And Rocco goes, “Haven’t yet.” That shows the folly of it all. Do I like you? Are you a good guy? Can I count on you? That’s all I give a shit about. What do I care? At the same time, I hope you do.
When should a man take a stand politically?
When you actually believe it yourself. When you actually believe it yourself. We have done something like thirty Farm Aids, and you know, that’s a commitment. Me, Willie and Neil are committed to Farm Aid. I was a kid when I started this thing. Willie was a kid when we started all this. I am more proud of Neil Young than I am of myself. I am more proud of Willie Nelson than I am of myself for Farm Aid because I know what these guys have done. You don’t know, but I know. I’m so proud of them that if I think about them enough my eyes tear up. And that’s when a man should be involved politically. Even in success or failure you’re proud of the outcome.
What’s the key to happiness?
Problem solving. The sooner everybody realizes happiness is not like a god given gift, but problems are, the more you’re going to enjoy life. Don’t be afraid to try and solve problems. Even if you fail, who cares? You tried to solve the problem. Do you know how many songs I’ve written that’ve sucked? It must be a million. How many paintings have I done that’ve sucked? Like maybe a million. But every now and then…I’ll get a good one.
What have you learned about addiction?
I was very lucky. I haven’t been drunk since 1972, and I haven’t done any drugs since 1973. Other than tobacco, which is a big other. But I have to say one of the reasons I think you and I are talking. Do you know what the average life expectancy for a guy in a rock band is? 48. People think if they’re successful and they sell a bunch of records they’re going to be happy. But of course they’re not happy, they’re not going to fill that void, so they have the luxury and people allow them to do drugs and alcohol freely and they provide it with them. And they die. It’s not a good plan. And you’re a sucker if you buy into it. It’s for suckers.
What role does vanity play in a man’s life?
Well, you have to be careful with that, don’t you? I’m taking old age like a man. If I get a little belly on me, goddammit that’s the way a man’s supposed to look. That’s what happens when you get to be a certain age. And yeah, okay yeah, I’ll put a little ink my hair every now and again. But you have to be careful, because after a certain time you start believing it yourself and you just look foolish. You’re a certain age. Act it. I learned that from Robert Plant of all people. I went down to Louisville, Kentucky, to see him live a few years ago and I didn’t really know what to expect because all his posing with his shirt unbuttoned in the Led Zeppelin days. But today he just stands there and sings his ass off, and he doesn’t count on all that posturing to get him over. He knows that with his talent and his voice and his charisma that he doesn’t have to show it off as an older gentleman. He’s fantastic. Watching him just walk up there and deliver these songs with his voice. That’s the way you’re supposed to do it, man. Robert Plant taught me a shitpile and he didn’t know it.
How should a man handle a divorce?
I have to say when a man lives for himself, it’s hard to live with him. That’s pretty much the story of all my divorces. I’ve been making records since I was 22 and done things my way and it’s hard for me to compromise. And of course, to have a successful relationship one has to compromise. Sometimes I’m not good at it. I used to say, nobody’s the boss of me, not even me. But I’m learning. I’m learning how to be a partner and it’s kind of fun actually to learn something new at my age.
Mellencamp recently released a 19-disc box set, John Mellencamp 1978–2012, and is now recording his first new album in five years.