The True Art of John Mellencamp: “Grotesquely beautiful” and “never too far from the garage”

By David Masciotra - Salon

“I want, I want / I need, I need / To live and see it all / Laugh, and touch it all,” John Mellencamp sings on, “To Live,” a rollicking exhibition of what he called “gypsy rock” from one of his best records, “Big Daddy.” Even before its release in 1989, at the peak of his popularity, Mellencamp had stopped playing music publicly. It would be three years before he would step on stage again.

“Everyone thought I was a fucking lunatic,” Mellencamp told me during a recent phone conversation. “I could have made much more money and had many more hits if I kept going, but I didn’t want to do it anymore.”

He remembered that he played more than 130 arena shows in 1987, and excited promoters, practically making cash register sounds between the words of their sentences, presented him with a plan to play stadiums.

“I found myself in competition for who sold the most records, who could sell out the most shows, and the people around me were all talking about competition. And suddenly I thought, ‘competition with who? Competition for what?’ It was so far disconnected from the reason why I wrote songs,” Mellencamp said, “I just felt like I was being whored out, as a monkey on a string, for people to make money.”

He added with a laugh, “I have a big ego, but I don’t need the applause of twenty thousand people to know who I am.”

During his unannounced hiatus from recording music, Mellencamp returned to his primary artistic impulse. As a child, he watched his mother paint in her few free moments between working and raising children, and in adolescence, he picked up the brush himself. Immediately after his graduation from Vincennes University, he made a journey nearly universal to American artists and adventurers. On the streets of New York, pulsating with the hum of electric dreams, he submitted an application to the New York Student Art League and also dropped off demo tapes to several record companies and music management agencies.

The New York Student Art League demanded more money than he could afford, and a music management agency offered to pay him more money than he had ever seen. He pursued the passion he developed with a cheap acoustic guitar over Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan records, while allowing another to rest.

He made the same trade, only in reverse, in 1988 — painting for hours on end every day. In the years that have passed, his paintings have adorned the walls of galleries, universities and museums. His current exhibition, "Life, Death, Love and Freedom," is at ACA Galleries in New York.

“Painting offers me solitude, which I prefer,” Mellencamp told me when I asked about his personal difference of experience between the creation of visual art and music.

“The similarity is that with painting you start with big, broad strokes and you have a slight idea of what you are making,” Mellencamp explained, “and that runs in unison with song, because songs begin with such simplicity, but then arranging parts for the band and going through the tedious process of record and mixing, it becomes something else.”

Mellencamp then offered a criterion for the evaluation of “true art”: “It should surprise everyone involved, most especially the creator. Art, if you can even call it that, that happens according to plan, where everyone is working off a blueprint, is corporate. It is a product.”

Few American artists have engineered the transformation of John Mellencamp, whose own aspiration to authenticity has the signposts of his previous stage names: From Johnny Cougar to John Mellencamp, he has managed to accomplish the rare reversal of fame’s effect. Rather than becoming a brand, he began as one, and immediately commenced a fight to become a man.

From that story emerges a metaphor for the power of creativity, and the committee marketing mentality that threatens to empty its energy into slick advertisement campaigns.

“It took me many years to discover that,” Mellencamp said, referring to the necessity of spontaneity and surrender when composing music or painting a canvas. “I worked on paintings for months, even years – the same with songs – because I would not get out of my own way. I was trying to make it into something I wanted instead of just letting it be what it is. Creation comes in many shapes, forms and colorations, and you have to just allow it to happen.”

The consistency that emerges in an artist’s work should function as the result of aesthetic priority and philosophy. Mellencamp bristled when I used the word “dark” to describe his paintings. Even after explaining that he avoids “bright colors” in his visual art, he prefers the same terms he would hope describes his music: “primitive,” “grotesquely beautiful” and “never too far from the garage.”

Mellencamp uses the color palette of Rembrandt, which includes only yellow ocher, burnt sienna, burnt umber, white, black and a brownish orange. “I see paintings with many colors, and I often find them beautiful, but it isn’t what I want to do,” he said.

“It is akin to my desire to write a song like Woody Guthrie instead of a pop song,” Mellencamp said. “The way Woody played his guitar was very rough. It was like strumming barbed wire.”

He then recalled when he performed “Oklahoma Hills” with Arlo Guthrie, who preferred playing the song with passing chords between the original chords of his father’s composition. They had a “fun argument” over how they should play the song that ended with Arlo’s concession.

“I would compare that to my refusal to have purple on my palette,” Mellencamp said. “So, if I want to paint something purple, I have to make a blend, which means what to your eye, you see as ‘dark,’ it is really just the consistency of all the colors coming together.”

While his colors are few, his tools are not always conventional. In order to retain as primitive a style and quality as possible, he will often use house paint and antiquated materials, such as corrugated tin and the surfaces painters once used to decorate barns with advertisements for chewing tobacco.

If there is an image more fit for depiction through song or visual art than “strumming barbed wire,” it is difficult to imagine. The phrase offers insight into the subtle subversion of Mellencamp’s creative approach — the fidelity to artistic savagery in an era of spectacle.

When I criticized the excessive production of contemporary entertainment, Mellencamp was quick to agree. “You see it in the mainstream movies that are being made, the mainstream music being made. Songs and films now are – I hate to be condescending and cynical – but it’s all, ‘Trix are for kids.’”

John Mellencamp, the writer and performer of lyrically complex and socially conscious folk-rock songs such as “Rain on the Scarecrow” and “Jackie Brown,” seems uniquely qualified to comment on why it is nearly impossible to imagine similar songs on the radio, or going viral, just a couple of decades after he scored major hits singing about the plight of the family farmer and the pain of poverty.

“I can answer real quick,” he said when I asked for his interpretation of cultural decline as visible in arts and entertainment: “The lowest common denominator brings in the most revenue.”

“When you are dealing with the general public,” he continued, “You have to keep it really simple, basic — that’s what I did with ‘Hurts So Good’ — and that, by the way, is why our president is popular with so many people. They can understand what he is saying.”

Mellencamp made the distinction between political rhetoric and policy as a means to further his analysis of the horrific appeal Trump holds with millions of Americans: “Just because they understand the words of the sentence, they think they understand what he is doing. What they do not see is the subtext, and how what he claims to promise is actually put into practice.”

The force and frailty of individual initiative is all that remains for Mellencamp to use as resistance. “I don’t like any of it,” he said. “But all I can do is just keep doing what I’m doing.”

His new exhibition of paintings includes some of his most political work, in song or visual art. One painting depicts a child nursing a gunshot wound over the words, “This is the second amendment.” Another shows a multiethnic variety of working class Americans, all of whom have empty eyes. Below them is the caption, “Used people.”

There are also several twisted and haunted takes on icons of Americana. James Dean, Ernest Hemingway and Elvis Presley appear on canvases, transmogrified into specters of a lost age, their eyes serving as looking-glass stations into not only an underside of American life but a spirit, perhaps, extinguished.

Reference to Elvis provokes Mellencamp to defend the rock and roll pioneer against accusations of “cultural appropriation” but also indict the hypocrisy and oddity of selective outrage in American culture.

“He certainly was inspired by black music, but I don’t get it. I don’t get why people are going after Elvis,” Mellencamp said. “If you are going to take the stick out on him, you better take it out on the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, everybody. If you are going to vilify Elvis, or anyone who maybe didn’t give black people the respect and credit they deserve, then why don’t you just tear down the whole f**king United States?”

As a solitary citizen executing the commitment of “creating something every day,” Mellencamp acts in defiance against a romance between greed and stupidity. He delineates his interpretation of that courtship, and all the mediocrity it conceives, when he argues that the “intellect of the general public” has not changed since earlier eras of greater artistic variety and integrity, but that corporate managers of product now focus all of their attention and investment on “tentpole films and records.” Satisfaction with moderate success is no longer permissible. Everything must shatter records.

The high stakes commercial achievement and cutthroat competition of American culture is the predictable result of the process that would have had Mellencamp simplifying his songs to make them fit for stadiums in the late ‘80s, or as he put with sarcasm bleeding through the phone, “I didn’t want my entire career to be about doing another rousing chorus of ‘Small Town.’”

Having made wise decisions, Mellencamp’s songs, and likely his paintings, will remain resonant, and maintain presence in the imagination and emotional terrain of many people for many years. “I never want one of my paintings to be a static image,” he said. “I never want my songs to become static.”

“Theo and Weird Henry” is such a song, like “To Live,” from the 1989 record, “Big Daddy.” One of the most beautiful songs of American rock and roll, it masterfully tells the story of two close friends who exist as happy outsiders in a small town. It is almost as if Larry McMurtry wrote the lyrics, but Mellencamp’s narrative style, turn of phrase and gravel voice are unmistakable.

When I first heard the song, it filled with me joy. “Theo” and “Weird Henry” were emblematic of my best friend and me. Our mischievous battle against boredom enjoyed spiritual alignment with Mellencamp’s song.

Now, the song breaks my heart. It is a reminder of what I’ve lost – a friendship failing to escape the inevitable damage of life.

I told Mellencamp about my visceral connection with “Theo and Weird Henry,” and he explained that his reaction to the song is the same. The two men who inspired it are now dead.

Art that transcends the trends of a time period, and elevates itself above the petty political disputes of the moment, must have the ability to shapeshift, and it seems that ability arises out of the element of surprise Mellencamp identified as essential to creativity.

I cannot help but wonder and worry if in a culture with the “lowest common denominator” as dictator, and an increasingly popular model of consumption reliant upon sophisticated digital curation, if there is still an audience prepared to accept the challenge of surprise.

“There's a very dangerous downside to what I do,” Mellencamp offered, “and it is that people hate to be surprised.”

“There are a lot of pretenders out there,” he said in another moment of our conversation. “People who present only the shadow sides of themselves. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that and I’m not even putting it down. But it’s not me.”

Most critics would likely call Mellencamp’s songs and paintings “representational art.” In song and on the canvas, he gives representation of working class triumph and trauma, small town inhabitance, America’s search for a soul, the interlocking of joy and melancholy in every life, and the political war for liberty and justice for all. It is also presentational. Great art not only represents its subject, but presents an alternative vision of the world and a means of living within the world.

At the end of “To Live,” Mellencamp sings, “I’d rather fight with you than lay down and die.”