John Mellencamp reflects on a world estranged on new album 'Strictly a One-Eyed Jack'

John Mellencamp reflects on a world estranged on new album 'Strictly a One-Eyed Jack'

9:03am Jan 21, 2022
John Mellencamp performs during the Farm Aid 2021 music festival at the Xfinity Theatre on Sept. 25, 2021 in Hartford, Conn.
John Mellencamp performs during the Farm Aid 2021 music festival at the Xfinity Theatre on Sept. 25, 2021 in Hartford, Conn.
Suzanne Cordeiro / AFP via Getty Images

John Mellencamp's music has captured the moods of several eras — and at the start of 2022, his new album dwells on loneliness and lying.

The songs on Strictly a One-eyed Jack are narrated by a character whose soul seems as battered as Mellencamp's cigarette-darkened voice. When we spoke this week, he said the lyrics distill something he's learned across 70 years of life. "What I've discovered at my ancient age is that we are all in solitary confinement inside our own skins, and we don't really get to know anybody."

He was paraphrasing a line from a play by Tennessee Williams, another student of American tragedy and longing. But having borrowed the words, the singer made the thought his own. Three divorces and decades of fame have led him to the conclusion that all of us hide our true selves from other people — that each of us is alone. The first line of the first song on the album is: "I always lie to strangers."

"I don't see it as dark at all," he said. "I just see it as looking for the truth of life." If you disagree, that's all right with him: "I'm not for everybody."

There was a time when it seemed that he was for everybody, or at least that everybody knew his name. I rarely bought a Mellencamp album when I was growing up in his native Indiana, but I didn't have to. He was on the radio constantly in the 1980's, and I mean constantly — replays only partly driven by state pride. His concert tours filled football stadiums across the country. He'd started out with a stage name, John Cougar, but before long had the power to drop the name and become himself.

His early hits drew listeners into stories. "Ain't Even Done With the Night" is the tale of a young man who doesn't know how to behave on a date. "Jack and Diane" tells of a young couple's teenage romance — but the narrator knows where the story is headed. "Life goes on / long after the thrill of living is gone."

Like his contemporary Bruce Springsteen, his observations could be political. "Rain on the Scarecrow" describes the 1980's economy that drove small farmers off their land. "Pink Houses" comments on twentieth-century urban renewal: a Black man has an "interstate running through his front yard." Many cities routed highways through Black neighborhoods without much regard for the people in them. "Pink Houses" is also just an awesome song, filled with such exuberance that you can almost miss the outrage.

His later songs also captured something of their times. In the boom years of the 1990's, he urged people to seize the day — "Your Life is Now." In the hard times of the Great Recession he advised listeners to "save some time to dream, 'cause your dreams can save us all."

Yet on that 2010 album, one character fallen on hard times declares "I'm sick of life," and adds, "It's not a graceful fall from dreams to the truth." Strictly a One-eyed Jack continues that fall toward one particular truth — Mellencamp's awareness of lies.

"They lied to us in the churches. They lied to us in the schools. The government's always lying to us," he said, speaking from his home in Bloomington, Ind. He said people lie to those they love, too.

"During those moments of crisis in a relationship, the person that you're involved with, who you thought you knew, always surprises you. It's been that way with everything that I've done. The people at the record company would always surprise me. The audience would always surprise me. I was always surprised. I thought I knew what was going on. But as I got older, I found out that I don't have a clue what the f***'s going on. And I think that none of us do ... We don't really get to know anybody in the world except ourselves, and we don't even know ourselves."

On the album he sings that he is "a man that worries" and "a man of low degree," but adds that "the world is run by men much more crooked than me."

Mellencamp sings in a raspy voice altered by decades of smoking, which he insists he prefers. "I wrote a song once a long, long, long, long time ago called 'I Just Want to Be Black.' I grew up singing in soul bands," he said. He'd like to sound like Louis Armstrong, and here and there perhaps he does. He has no plan to quit smoking even though "it will surely kill me." His breathing was audible in our interview.

He's probably right that the album is "not for everybody." But the tight musicianship and sharply cut lyrics do reflect these disillusioned and distrustful times. He may also send listeners back along the arc of his story, to the music of past times, when his darkness was always present but the optimism lived too. And he wasn't even done with the night.


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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Listen to the songs of John Mellencamp, and you feel the passage of time. There's a narrative arc as the singer matures. In 1980, Mellencamp was in his 20s and sang of not knowing what to do on a date.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T EVEN DONE WITH THE NIGHT")

JOHN MELLENCAMP: (Singing) You say, that's all right. Hold tight. Well, I don't even know if I'm doing this right. Well, all right.

INSKEEP: In a hit from 1982, the main characters, Jack and Diane, are young and innocent. But the narrator seems wiser and peers ahead.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JACK AND DIANE")

MELLENCAMP: (Singing) Oh yeah, life goes on, long after the thrill of livin' is gone. Now walk on.

INSKEEP: In 1998, the singer, now middle-aged, seemed to offer encouragement to young people.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOUR LIFE IS NOW")

MELLENCAMP: (Singing) Your life is now. Your life is now.

INSKEEP: In 2022, John Mellencamp is 70, his voice altered by a lifetime of smoking. The narrator of his newest songs has seen far too much and is on guard against the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I ALWAYS LIE TO STRANGERS")

MELLENCAMP: (Singing) I always lie to strangers. I always lie to people I may know.

INSKEEP: He calls the album "Strictly A One-Eyed Jack." In a deck of cards, the one-eyed jack is facing sideways, half his face hidden. And he's holding a sword to defend himself.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I ALWAYS LIE TO STRANGERS")

MELLENCAMP: (Singing) I am a man of low degree. This world is run by men much more crooked than me.

INSKEEP: Mellencamp came on the line from his house in Bloomington in my home state of Indiana. And as we talked, he paraphrased a line from a Tennessee Williams play.

MELLENCAMP: What I've discovered at my ancient age is that we are all in solitary confinement inside our own skins. And we don't really get to know anybody.

INSKEEP: He has lived through three divorces and several chapters of fame. And his latest lyrics portray a man who's not only on guard but also alone.

MELLENCAMP: During those moments of crisis in a relationship, the person (laughter) that you're involved with, who you thought you knew, always surprises you. And then I started thinking, you know, it's been that way with everything that I've done. The people at the record company would always surprise me. The audience would always surprise - I was always surprised. I thought I knew what was going on. But as I got older, I found out that I don't have a clue what the [expletive] is going on. And I think that none of us do.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I AM A MAN THAT WORRIES")

MELLENCAMP: (Singing) I am a man that worries. Step aside when I come your way 'cause I'm a man that worries. You better get out of my way, boy.

We try to protect ourselves from people - at least I do and people I know - will try to protect their friends or their so-called friends or people from the worst side of themselves.

INSKEEP: Which is why people lie - about themselves, about their feelings, about human nature.

MELLENCAMP: I don't know how old you are, but...

INSKEEP: I'm in my 50s.

MELLENCAMP: Well, you've been lied to your whole life, I mean, just like me. I think they lied to us at the churches. They lied to us at schools. The government's always lied to us. You know, once you make that discovery, the discovery that I personally have made, I don't even hold people to their word anymore. It's not even fair to them.

INSKEEP: In saying that, do you feel disappointed, disillusioned compared to whatever you thought about the world 30 or 40 years ago?

MELLENCAMP: Well, you know, when you're young, you're very optimistic about things, I think foolishly optimistic sometimes. My grandfather used to say to me, John, what did you expect (laughter)? What did you think was going to happen?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SIMPLY A ONE-EYED JACK")

MELLENCAMP: (Singing) Some are telling stories that are just impossible to believe.

We don't get to know anybody in this world except ourselves. We don't even know ourselves.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SIMPLY A ONE-EYED JACK")

MELLENCAMP: (Singing) The long day's journey is turning into night. Salome looks crazy, and she's higher than a kite. No one is favor of the one-eyed jack.

I don't see it as dark. I don't see it as dark at all. I just see it as looking for the truth of life.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SIMPLY A ONE-EYED JACK")

MELLENCAMP: (Singing) Money and power is the name of the game.

INSKEEP: You've been asked about this before, and I don't want to make you go over it again. But you have said in the past that you wanted your voice to change and that you liked it. But (laughter) we're talking about lying to strangers, so I guess I'll ask again. Did you really mean that? Is this how you want to sound?

MELLENCAMP: Yeah. I wrote a song once a long, long time ago called "I Just Want To Be Black." I grew up singing in soul bands.

INSKEEP: Smoking gives his voice a raspiness that he associates with Black singers he says he always admired. And he keeps smoking, even though he says it'll kill him.

MELLENCAMP: When we were making this record, we were laughing. And I don't remember what song it was, but my engineer goes, John, could you sound any more like Louis Armstrong? And I - if I could, I would.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHASING RAINBOWS")

MELLENCAMP: (Singing) While others are still looking for that easy pot of gold at the end of the rainbow...

INSKEEP: But when he's not singing, he's painting expressionistic portraits of people looking back at him. And not long ago, a visitor came to paint with him. Bruce Springsteen, Mellencamp's nearest contemporary, is a particular kind of American artist.

You mentioned how we are all in solitary confinement in a way. When you're with Springsteen, do you feel you're a little bit out of that confinement because you're with someone who shares some of your experiences?

MELLENCAMP: I don't know if I'd put it that way. I would put it that I'm with a kindred spirit. He's a sweet, sweet guy who also understands what it's like. But does he or anyone else free me from myself? No.

INSKEEP: But when Mellencamp sings a duet with Springsteen on this album, their voices make you feel a human connection. Their art provides the very thing that John Mellencamp says we all lack in our lives.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WASTED DAYS")

JOHN MELLENCAMP AND BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) We watch our lives just fade away to more wasted days.

INSKEEP: John Mellencamp, it's been a real pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.

MELLENCAMP: Thank you for having me.

INSKEEP: His album is "Strictly A One-Eyed Jack." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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