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John Mellencamp: What I Know Now

The roots rocker, 65, meditates on songwriting, aging, and his good and not-so-good habits

John Mellencamp

Myrna Suarez

The rock great reflects on his career, art and relationships.

Untortured artist

At this point, songwriting is the easiest thing. I wrote "Easy Target," a song on my new album, while I was painting. It took eight minutes. The melody came right along with the words. I didn't even have a guitar. I just sang it into my phone.

The granny boost

Growing up, my grandmother took care of me. I was very fragile because I was born with spina bifida. She told me over and over: "Buddy, you are the luckiest, handsomest, most talented boy in the world." She's the reason I'm here. A lot of guys do what I do because they have a poor self-image. They need the applause. I don't need that.

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Freedom X, 2017, Mixed Media on Aluminum, by John Mellencamp

Kevin Montague

Freedom X, 2017, Mixed Media on Aluminum, by John Mellencamp


Small-town boy in the city

I was some hillbilly kid from Indiana. I went to New York to study painting and happened to get a record deal. When MTV happened, we all became movie stars. I couldn't leave the house. It went on for 10 or 12 years.

That famous little ditty

I was young, but I knew what I was doing the night I wrote "Jack & Diane." Everyone knows that song. Everybody — city, country, gravel road, igloo — it's their song. That's magic. I play it every night.

His day job

Painting is harder on me than being onstage. I stand 8 or 10 hours a day. I used to consider it a hobby, but now I don't. It's hard to be taken seriously because I'll always be considered a celebrity painter. Being a rock star has been a pain in the ass all around.

Used People, 2015, Mixed Media on Canvas, by John Mellencamp

Kevin Montague

Used People, 2015, Mixed Media on Canvas, by John Mellencamp


Angry young men

Here's what I told my son Speck, who's always fighting everybody and fighting himself. I said, "I know you consider yourself a dangerous young man, but I'm a dangerous old man." A dangerous old man can use anger to his advantage. He's cagier and smarter. He knows what he's doing. A young man just has outbursts.

Good and bad habits

I lift weights, and I run, but my exercise is not about vanity. I work out because I smoke. If I'm going to afford myself the luxury of smoking, I'd better do something to offset it.

Men will be boys

Girls, never trust a man under 40 because he's still a boy. I've met thousands of tough guys, thousands of nice guys; they're all the same.

Brando, 2017 Mixed Media on Masonite, by John Mellencamp

Kevin Montague

Brando, 2017 Mixed Media on Masonite, by John Mellencamp

The myth of happiness

Happiness is a fleeting moment of a day. It's not a state of being. If you're happy all the time, something's wrong with you. We are put on this earth to toil and to make things. Making the world a better place is not a happy job.

What's left

I intend to make my ending good. I'm hoping it's one of those long, lingering deathbed conversions. A lot of people go, "Oh, I hope I just die quick." Not me. I need time to put things right.

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