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John Mellencamp: Little Bastard vs The World

From self-proclaimed Little Bastard to ornery elder statesman of American rock’n’roll, John Mellencamp hasn’t let anyone beat him – not the press, heart attacks or his own fist-swinging sons.

The canvas on which John Mellencamp is at work on this glorious late-summer morning stands two feet taller than he does and is the width of his outstretched arms. Evolving on it is a representation of a young woman, rendered in bold black strokes, limbs and features exaggerated so she appears to be not quite human. Bedraggled on a chair, she clutches in one hand the outline of an empty bottle and in the other that of a broken violin, frozen in this ruined state. This striking but bleak tableau is consistent with Mellencamp’s stock-in-trade as an artist – one noted American art critic wrote of his propensity for “handsomely grotesque portraits in oil that are solemn and stirring”.

Mellencamp has been painting seriously for more than 40 years and his work is both acclaimed and prized in his home country. Since last year an exhibition, baldly titled The Paintings Of John Mellencamp, has been touring US museums and galleries. Today the man who once gave himself the nickname Little Bastard looks the part of the studious artist, standing among his oils and brushes in paint-splattered overalls, a pair of reading glasses perched on the tip of his nose.

There are subtle clues to his other, and still main, profession: the pompadour of ink-black hair that crowns his head, the faded tattoo on an upper arm as thick as a slab of meat; Brown Sugar by the Rolling Stones booms out from a set of expensive speakers, and an acoustic guitar and vintage amp are tucked away in a corner.

More obvious is the immediate visible evidence of what can be acquired from selling more than 40 million records. Not least this very art studio, gleaming from the outside like a space-age barn with its arched roof of dazzling corrugated metal. Set within acres of South Indiana forest, its floor-to-ceiling windows afford an unbroken vista of walnut, sycamore and witch hazel trees, their leaves turning to autumnal gold; sunlight dances and dapples across an interior furnished in dark wood and chrome.

Located a mile or so down a rough woodland track, Mellencamp’s home is an even more imposing ranch house made of brick and stone, looking out on to the picturesque expanse of Lake Monroe. A few years back when he released a splenetic song savaging the American invasion of Iraq, titled To Washington, outraged good old boys lined up in paddle boats to hurl abuse at him from the water. The only interlopers circling today are squadrons of hawks high in the clear blue sky. Mellencamp has just returned from playing the annual Farm Aid concert in Raleigh, North Carolina. He co-founded this charitable organisation in 1985 with Neil Young and Willie Nelson to aid America’s embattled family farmers and it has since raised more than $45 million.

“My eldest son, Hud, came out,” he says, smiling. “And I’d never seen him do this before, ever, but he got down in the photographers’ pit and was dancing and singing along to my songs. I didn’t even know he knew any of the words. He once told me he turned my records off when they came on the radio. Said he was sure that sooner or later a song was gonna go: ‘Goddammit, Hud!’”

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