Thursday, March 29, 2007

"Jack and Diane" / John Mellencamp

I'm a sucker for countdown shows, and last night VH1 Classic showed The 100 Greatest Songs of the 80s (though it was really more like 100 80s Songs with Good Videos Whose Stars Were Available For Where-Are-They-Now Interviews). Like most of the 1980s themselves, it was a strange experience, mixing New Wave, punk, hard-core funk, and hair bands, not to mention all those campy British groups like Culture Club and Flock of Seagulls. I still blame MTV for sidetracking music in the 1980s, making it all about synthesizers and glossy visuals instead of musicianship and meaning and heart.

In the midst of all the high-concept videos, however, the one that really stood out was a grainy home-movie of a couple of teenagers messing around in Seymour, Indiana: the video for John Mellencamp's poignant "Jack and Diane." Sure, it came early in the decade -- 1982, back when he was still recording under the goofy stage name John Cougar -- but the artlessness of that video was remarkable even then. And it was absolutely perfect for that song, a wistful "little ditty" about small-town high-school sweethearts. I was riveted, all over again.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I'm from Indiana myself, and I'm only a couple years younger than Mellencamp. Those images in the video look like MY home movies. But I still think it's a wonderful iconic American song, as good as anything Bruce Springsteen's ever done. By the time you get to the wailing chorus -- "Oh yeah, life goes on / Long after the thrill / Of living is gone" -- your heart's already breaking for these two dumb kids. You don't have to be told what happened after they got married and grew up (in that order); you just know it wasn't what they dreamed of. And is there anything more American than disappointed dreams?

It starts off with these big clanging guitar strums, underlaid with a hard-rocking hand-clap percussion (those claps may be the song's most irresistible hook), but for the verses things tone down to a tender acoustic arrangement. Enter our hero and heroine: "Two American kids growin' up in the heartland / Jacky's gonna be a football star / Diane's a debutante backseat of Jacky's car." The next verse is a scene out of Splendor in the Grass, absolutely dizzy with hormonal teenage lust:" "Suckin' on chili dog outside the Tastee-Freeze / Diane sittin' on Jacky's lap / He's got his hands between her knees." An incredibly sexy moment -- it's no surprise Diane takes up Jack's offer to slip off behind a shade tree. (That line "Dribble off those Bobby Brooks" is a vivid detail -- I visualize all the Bobby Brooks blouses in my old closet, circa 1970.)

The next verse is the pivotal moment when Jack -- doing "his best James Dean" (that Rebel Without A Cause reference, such a grabber) -- suggest they run off to the city. This is their moment to break free, the moment every small-town dreamer wants to seize. But Diane, the homebody, talks him out of it -- "Baby, you ain't missin' a thing," she murmurs. Doing her best Natalie Wood, no doubt.

Do you think Jack stayed with Diane? Or did he eventually get out of town? Johnny Mellencamp got out of town, even though he eventually moved back (with a supermodel wife and enough money to build his own recording studio in Seymour). Personally, I think Jack left -- he had to -- but a part of him still regrets losing that sweet and innocent happiness. Which he would have lost even if he'd stayed. Man, if Wordsworth had been a roots rocker, this is the song he would have written.

But I love the fact that you can write whatever ending you want. Mellencamp only tells us, in that anthemic a cappella bridge, with its gospel-like backing vocals, "Gonna let it rock / Let it roll / Let the bible belt come and save my soul / Hold on to sixteen as long as you can / Changes come around real soon, make us women and men." Whatever else, he's in love with the innocence of those kids, their unreflective passion. He's not going to judge them. He'll just immortalize them.

Jack and Diane will live forever now, still sucking on those chili dogs behind the Tastee-Freeze. In Indianapolis it was the Dairy Queen, but same difference. God, this song makes me want to go home again. As if any of us can.

Jack and Diane sample


Richard Sambrook said...

Great post to mark a great song!

Londinium said...

Always made me think, Mellencamp. Even when he was doing his gun-totin' swagger stuff in the 80s, there was always something darker going on too. Great blog!

Anonymous said...

John rocks...and always will, for ever!

Anonymous said...

...just returned from Seymour where the local lore says that Jack married some slut, and that Diane is still there in Seymour, sans Jack!

Le Scal said...


thanks for these details, I've always liked that song, but as I'm french, some lines have always been utterly cryptic for me.

Now I got it much better ;)


Anonymous said...

Thanks Holly for such a lovely post!
This song always moved me deeply at the time!
Now 30 years on I have discovered my voice and am rediscovering this song for karaoke then open mic.
Trying to throw my voice over the gospel bridge and loving all the detail and nuances!
Just awesome! (Dribble off those Bobby Brooke's!).
Also thanks to the USA for being there for the world, even when we throw it in their face like spoilt ungrateful children, for which apologies.
All my love, John