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John Mellencamp, Self-Confessed ‘Curmudgeon,’ on the Trials of Touring: ‘I’m Not a Jukebox’

Variety logo Variety 4/28/2017 Steve Baltin
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“Let’s face it, I am a curmudgeon,” John Mellencamp tells Variety. “I hate doing f—ing interviews ’cause I hate talking about myself. It’s like, ‘Interview? Oh God.’ I’m just not that interesting.”

We beg to differ. The artist whose catalog includes 23 studio albums and nearly just as many radio hits (among them: top 10 tunes “Jack & Diane,” “Hurts So Good,” “Small Town,” “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.,” and “Paper in Fire”) is nothing if not prolific, releasing his latest, the superb “Sad Clowns & Hillbillies,” on Friday, ahead of a 22-date AEG tour this summer (Mellencamp is booked by CAA) with Carlene Carter opening. The trek will mark the first time Mellencamp has played outdoor sheds in 15 years.

“I took myself off the beer and circus tour a long time ago,” he says. “It was not fun — people being drunk and acting like circus clowns. So we play for people who want to hear music and I don’t like to see guys get in fights, I’m not a jukebox, I don’t play all my hits. I got off that a long time ago.”

What else doesn’t he like about touring? Plenty, we discovered during an enlightening and entertaining conversation with Mellencamp, who says, “I wouldn’t want to be a young songwriter today trying to make a living with my songs.”

Ray Davies showed him the concert ropes: “I opened up for the Kinks in the mid- to late-1970s for 130 shows and I learned so much from watching Ray Davies work a crowd every night,” Mellencamp recalls. “We only played 35 or 40 minutes and the Kinks would come out. It was not an enjoyable tour. Ray was, particularly at that time, not the nicest guy, especially to his opening act. He and his brother were always fighting. But when he walked on stage, he turned it on.”

He’s an unapologetic isolationist: “I don’t get paid for being on stage; I get paid for leaving home, traveling on airplanes, and staying in hotels,” says Mellencamp matter-of-factly. “The part of being onstage, I’ll do that for free. My way of being on the road is probably a lot different than you would expect. I’m pretty much an isolationist and my routine is always the same. I very rarely see anybody except when I walk on stage. It’s not like I hang out with anybody. I don’t. I don’t even stay in the same hotel as the band.”

Opinions don’t matter: “We’ve been putting together shows for a long time, I think I know how to do it. I don’t need somebody to review my show. Save it, you’re not going to tell me something I don’t already know.”

Don’t expect — or even ask for — the hits: “‘Hurts So Good’ was a song that caught on at the time probably because they played the hell out of it on MTV,” Mellencamp downplays of his 1982 No. 2 hit. “So I don’t really give much credit to the song. If you compared ‘Easy Targets’ [from ‘Sad Clowns’] to ‘Hurts So Good,’ I don’t think there is any comparison. ‘Easy Targets’ is a much better song. But nobody will hear it the way they heard ‘Hurts So Good.’ It’s all upside down to me. … If I play a song that [the audience] doesn’t respond to, that doesn’t mean I’m going to take it out of the show. You can’t try and second-guess. I just don’t do that.”

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