John Mellencamp says he has rarely gotten along with executives in the music industry.
“The worst thing a record company ever asked me to do was change my name to Johnny Cougar," Mellencamp said during an appearance at 92nd Street Y Monday night. "And I was too young [to say no]. I was in New York for only the second time in my life, and my choice was to either go with that or go home. But I didn’t like it.”
During a conversation with Rolling Stone writer David Fricke, Mellencamp talked about the decline of the record industry, the impact of the Internet on album sales, and the state of popular music today.
He hinted that pressure to create hit records usually results in lower-quality songs.
“There’s nothing wrong with hit records. I’ve had a lot of them. But when you’re reaching that many people, it really is the lowest common denominator -- generally not the guy’s best work,” he said.
Fricke asked Mellencamp what advice he had to young singers trying to break into the music business.
“I’d say probably put on a stretchy dress and wear your hair real funny,” he said. “And cuss a lot.”
Despite his various criticisms, Mellencamp said he was thankful for his success in the industry.
“Sometimes you can write a song that becomes the fabric of somebody’s life, and has some kind of meaning other than just entertainment,” he said. “That’s about as good as you can get, you know?”
“I’ve made 23 or 25 albums — that’s like 300 songs,” he added. “Can you imagine how fortunate I must feel to have written that many songs and hang around for as long as I did?”
Fricke asked Mellencamp which of his songs he considered to be closest to “lyrically perfect.”
“I haven’t written that song yet, though there are some that come pretty close to the standard that I set for myself,” he said.
As an example, he began playing the song “Save Some Time to Dream,” which appears on his most recent album, last year’s “No Better Than This.”
Throughout the evening, Mellencamp performed excerpts from other songs as well, including “I Need a Lover” and “The West End.”
He also played a few bars of “Jack and Diane” — but only after a woman in the audience yelled out a request for it.
“Why do women always want to hear that song?” he asked, before launching into the familiar opening.