Jack & Diane (1982)
John Cougar Mellencamp
The everyman-everywoman appeal of “Jack & Diane” represents a compelling development in Rock history. It is engaging because Jack and Diane are all of us, like it or not, and they exist in their semi-fictionalized, pre-narcissistic world like Adam and Eve before the big fall.
Then misguidedly calling himself “John Cougar,” Mellencamp is a guy sitting around a bar in East Bumfuck telling a tale of coming of age. “Once, it coulda turned out different,” the guy is saying over his fifth shot and beer. The bombastic lead-in of twanging, countrified, electrified lead guitar and the repeated hand-clapping give way to a meditative acoustic guitar played by Mellencamp.
From the heart, from the heartland
Little ditty about Jack and Diane
Two American kids growin’ up in the heartland
Jackie gonna be a football star
Diane’s debutante backseat of Jackie’s car
The heartland of the “ditty” lives deep in the American psyche. Everyone knows the images of forgotten towns, dying cities, fields and farms being emptied of their population as agriculture becomes ever more mechanized and corporatized. There are the small dreams, blips on an otherwise vacant radar screen. Football star. Debutante – of the backseat anyway. And there is sex painted with steam on car-windows. It emulsifies not just out of a normal teenage impulse to explore, but comes out of boredom.
Suckin’ on chili dogs outside the Tastee Freeze
Diane’s sittin’ on Jackie’s lap
He’s got his hand between her knees
Jackie say, hey, Diane
Let’s run off behind th’ shady trees
Dribble off those Bobby Brooks
Let me do what I please
We’ve all been there – in real life, in books, on the big and small screen or in our daydreams. Jack and Diane are as familiar as your face in the mirror. The musing acoustic teams up with Eric Rosser’s fiddling-around piano, sounding just like a guy with nothing better to do than plink-plink-plink. You can imagine him in the parlor of an old Indiana house on a Sunday afternoon working out his small but magical playing.
Mellencamp sings in a stop-and-go style, hesitating, munching on and stretching or clipping words as it suits him. He’s not directly regretful, but his bittersweet description of the growing-up days is heavier on the bitter, lighter on the sweet.
This mood is underscored by Mick Ronson’s screeching, cascading guitar work. Ronson is best remembered for his work with David Bowie on albums Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust. He brings a high level of professionalism and dynamism to Mellencamp’s efforts. Ronson is also partially responsible for the arrangement of the hesitations throughout the work, supreme hooks, and for the “baby rattles” that drop in and out of the production.
The chorus lyrics entered the American vernacular almost as soon as the song came to prominence:
Oh yeah, life goes on
Long after the thrill of living is gone
Mellencamp would explore the timeless themes of lost efforts, lost connections and the battle against ennui and entropy of everyday living in other works like “Pink Houses,” “Small Town” and the entire 1985 album Scarecrow. He later became known for his political positions delivered through the music. But there is something about Jack and Diane we can’t resist.
Jackie sits back
Collects his thoughts for the moment
Scratches his head
And does his best James Dean
Well then there, Diane
We oughta run off to the city
Diane says, baby
You ain’t missin’ nuth-in
Life goes on…
Apparently there is something Mellencamp can’t resist about them either. In 1998, he revisited their saga in the song “Eden Burning,” which opens with the line:
Diane and Jack went to the movies
An interesting aside: When James Dean is mentioned in the lyric, Mellencamp quotes a portion of a James Dean interview, a verbal tick that Dean used even in on-screen roles: “Well then there…” The entire passage reads:
I want to grow away from all this crap. You know, the pathetic little world we exist in. I want to leave it all behind, all the petty thoughts about the unimportant little things that’ll be forgotten a hundred years from now anyway. There’s a level somewhere where everything is solid and important. I’m going to try to reach up there and find a place I know is pretty close to perfect, a place where this whole messy world should be, could be, if it’d just take the time to learn. Well, then there, now. Anyway, now you know what a nut I am.
Audiences want to hear more and more about Jack and Diane the way audiences want to see more of Jesse and Celine in the mid-’90s-to-early-2000s’ film saga that begins with Before Sunrise and continues with two sequels.
Both couples stumble and grope and mumble through life, neither paradigms of greatness nor examples of the social wasting that seems to be encroaching further and further on American culture.
John Mellencamp has made this kind of simple, pained and beautiful world breathe.
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
- John Mellencamp nailed the truth in 2008: “As much as I am a little weary of those two, I don’t know any other two people in rock and roll who are more popular than Jack and Diane.”
- “Jack & Diane” was selected for the National Endowment For The Arts top 365 songs. It joins “Over The Rainbow,” “White Christmas,” “This Land Is Your Land” and “Take Me Out To The Ballgame.”