John Mellencamp: 'I've Never Gotten Along With Any Record Company Exec'

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"I fight authority and authority always wins."

That line from one of John Mellencamp's best known songs could well sum up the discussion with the Grammy-winning rocker at New York City’s 92Y Monday night. Talking about his life and career with Rolling Stone writer David Fricke, the famously contentious 59-year-old singer-songwriter, admitting that his feelings “range from angry to angrier,” took yet another opportunity to rail against the music industry.

He also thrilled the crowd by occasionally strapping on a guitar and performing snippets of songs both old and new. Responding to a shouted request from a female fan, he dutifully sang the opening bars of “Jack and Diane.” “Why do women always want that one?” he wondered.

“I have probably never gotten along with any record company executive ever, except maybe one,” declared the singer early in the evening. “And if they were such good businessmen, why aren’t they running Coca-Cola or other major corporations now?”

When asked about the worst thing he ever did to achieve success, he wincingly replied, “changing my name to Johnny Cougar.” But, he added, “I had to do what they asked me to do. They had me in a headlock.”

Despite the fact that he’s amassed 22 Top 40 hits over the course of his more than 35-year career, he was remarkably dismissive about his songwriting abilities. “All these songs to me are the same,” he said, illustrating his point by performing very similar sounding excerpts from “I Need a Lover” and “Pink Houses.”

He said that the closest he’s ever come to fulfilling his songwriting aspirations was with “Save Some Time to Dream,” from his recent album No Better Than This, released last year on Rounder Records.

That album, produced by T Bone Burnett and recorded on a decades-old mono tape recorder, was made in three historic locations: The First Baptist Church in Savannah, Sun Studio in Memhis and Room 414 of San Antonio’s Gunter Hotel, where blues legend Robert Johnson made some of his most famous recordings.

He said that he merely took advantage of the “opportunity” to record on such hallowed grounds. “I didn’t think that there was going to be any magic dust that would be sprinkled on the songs.”

He made several references to his advanced years, both prideful (“I’m almost 60 years old and I’m still doing it”) and self-deprecating (“Believe it or not, I used to be a handsome guy. Now I look like a stack of shit.”)

He certainly sounded his age, whether rhapsodizing about his idyllic Indiana childhood or railing against modern society, particularly the Internet. “Calling something progress doesn’t make it right,” he affirmed, adding that “these days it’s more important to make money than to be correct.” Identifying himself as a “total leftie,” he said that “when I met Obama I told him, you’re too conservative for me.”

He made no reference to his current, well-publicized relationship with actress Meg Ryan, except to jokingly say that “I got a girlfriend who likes to sleep all the time.” 

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