Monday, April 20, 2015

Jack and Diane

So I’m listening right now to a 1984 acoustic show performed by John Mellencamp. It’s after his first real popular album came out—which was something like his fifth or sixth album, but the first bunch pretty much tanked and if that doesn't just drive home how long ago this all was?—and it’s really surprisingly enjoyable. The show is just him and his acoustic guitar and if he feels like breaking off a cover after a minute and a half—or if he screws up one of his own songs and has to ask the audience for the next line—well, then, he does. He’s not much of a guitarist, to put it mildly, but then he himself has said he never really wanted to be. I remember seeing an interview with him where he said something about how he "never wanted to make the guitar howl and scream; I just wanted to be able to play well enough to write my own songs." And from the evidence of this low-key show, that’s pretty much exactly what he did.

And in the middle of the last song, "Jack and Diane," he deviates from the recorded version of the song. I’m nowhere near enough of a fan to know if this was normal for him or not, but it's a really striking moment. He's already stretched out the key line—"long after the thrill of living is gone" several times, repeating it over and over again, with the odd result of not ramping up the tension, as would be the expected result, but softening that truly harsh line, a line he later said he wrote off the cuff and kinda regretted. It's a sweet bit.

But here, towards the end of the song, over the normal chord changes—actually, I think he simplified them for his own convenience, as he very much did to the already extremely basic changes on his cover of "All Along the Watchtower"—he sings softly, in an almost intimate whisper, as though truly no kidding trying to reach out and make a connection, "Just a little secret between me and you."

And that’s one of the keys to rock and roll, isn't it? Mellencamp's singing that in front of a small but rabid midwestern crowd and good golly it surely feels like he means it. That’s a conundrum that’s at the heart of rock and roll and one reason it’s so incredibly powerful. Because in the middle of two or twenty or eighty thousand people all screaming and dancing and clapping, you’re caught up in the power of the moment, of the communal chaos…and yet at the same time it’s a personal communion between you and the artist. Just the two of you. And somehow that goes for each and every one of those twenty thousand people there. He’s speaking for you and for himself and to you and listening to you all at the same time and doing that with twenty thousand others simultaneously. I don’t understand it. And yet there it is. As a man much smarter than me once put it:
"Rock is art and a million other things as well—it's an indescribable form of communication and entertainment combined, and it's a two-way thing with very complex but real feedback processes as well. I don't think there's anything to match it."
And there aren’t many set-ups more powerful than "just a little secret between me and you…" It opens up a universe of possibilities and somehow at that moment all of them seem likely to be good. Very, very obviously, that’s just not always the case. And yet hope springs eternal.

Maybe that's the promise of rock and roll. Eternal hope. Eternal youth. And sex, of course. But I guess that that's redundant.
Little ditty about Jack and Diane
Two American kids doin' the best that they can

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