Here in Indiana, there’s a saying that if you don’t like the weather just wait 15 minutes and it will change. Now, is that an exaggeration, most Hoosier’s will say no, but, in reality, it is. But, when you look at a week’s forecast, it can be in the 70s one day and a day or two later, we will be getting snow. The weather is especially volatile like that in the spring. I remember when I was teaching and coaching track, when my wife and kids would be on spring break in Florida, while I was back home attempting to have track practice during ice storms or even having school canceled due to snow accumulations. Then, the following week, when I would be off by myself, I’d just hang out at home while experiencing beautiful weather for a couple of days and one last cold snap before April would roll around.
It was during one of those solo spring breaks I had that I researched musicians who came from Indiana. I know, I must have been in one of my weird moods for me to check this out. Growing up, I had been told by my maternal grandmother that Indianapolis had an important and vibrant jazz scene. She told me of famous jazz artists like guitarist Wes Montgomery growing up in Indianapolis. She also noted that two of the greatest songwriters of her time were from Indiana: Hoagy Carmichael and Cole Porter. Both of those men added important songs to what we now call “The Great American Song Book”.
Other Hoosiers would have made a name for themselves in many genres. First and foremost, the Jackson family, you know Michael, Janet and the rest, were originally from Gary, Indiana, which is near Chicago. Then, there was blues guitarist Lonnie Mack, who is from a tiny town in southern Indiana. Southern gospel is actually centered in Alexandria, Indiana, where you will find Bill Gaither and his family creating and producing music. ’90s soul crooner Babyface is from Indianapolis, as is Americana singer-songwriter John Hiatt. Metal and Hard Rock are represented by Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth, Guns N’ Roses members and former members Izzy Stradlin, Axl Rose and DJ Ashba, and Motley Crue guitarist Mick Mars. Country singer Crystal Gayle is from Wabash, Indiana. The dude who wrote “Jingle Bells Rock”, Bobby Helms, lived in Indiana from birth to death. A Hoosier even contributed to the grunge/alternative scene of the ’90s with the group Blind Melon, Shannon Hoon.
There are many others, but those are some of the more famous Hoosier musicians. But, the man most associated with rural Indiana is John Mellencamp. Of all the artists listed earlier, none carries more Hoosier traits than Mellencamp. He is famously self-described as someone who has gone through life pissed off, like most Hoosiers. That characteristic is the reason for his nickname, “The Little Bastard”. But, he is full of contradictions as well. While Indiana is a “red state” and known for its staunch conservatism, Mellencamp routinely speaks out against those views and espouses liberal opinions. It’s that heart that I relate to, especially when he was one of the first to call out the George W. Bush administration for war crimes in his infamous song “To Washington”. Additionally, Mellencamp made a statement about race relations during the “Jenna Five” incident in Louisiana a few years back when he released a song called “Jenna”.
It is his willingness to stand up against the so-called traditional values that have left many of his loved ones and friends behind over the past 30+ years during which he had been a rock star. Now, I do collect his music because I respect him a great deal, but he is not one of my favorites. But, I will be first in line to purchase his next CD when it’s released in a couple of weeks.
Here’s to the man that truly put Indiana on the rock music map over thirty years ago. First, I saw him lip-synching “This Time” and, in a Temptations-styled dance routine, “Ain’t Even Done with the Night” Then, I remember when he played on Saturday Night Live for the first time, then hearing “Hurts So Good” and “Jack and Diane” being played all over campus in the spring of 1982. I heard stories of former guitarist Larry Crane teaching a college friend how to play guitar. And, I remember the first time I met his current drummer, Dane Clark, because his daughter and my younger son were friends while growing up together.
Today, I present to you, my loyal reader, My Top 20 Favorite John Mellencamp Songs.
20. “This Time” (1980). I know that he can’t stand this song, but it was a pretty good pop song.
19. “I Need a Lover” (1979). People from Indiana must be the only ones to know this is really Mellencamp’s song and Pat Benatar did the cover version.
18. “Lonely Ol’ Night” (1985). The man was great at taking the sounds of the Stones, Motown and a little Indiana to make this great rock song,
17. “Rumbleseat” (1985). Indiana is famous for its love of cars, and Mellencamp shows that love here.
16. “Key West Intermezzo (I Saw You First)” (1996). John lost his way a bit in the ’90s yet was still able to write a Dylan-esque hit like this.
15. “Human Wheels” (1993). John had just rediscovered his rock muse when he started to be influenced by artists like Tom Waits, as this song sounds.
14. “Get a Leg Up” (1991). John had just completed his Band-influenced era by returning to his rocking sound. This song comes from the album Whenever We Wanted, which he described as being American Fool with better lyrics.
13. “Ain’t Even Done with the Night” (1980). This song was one of my favorite songs during the winter of 1980, along with another new artist’s hit at the time, “I Wanna Be Your Lover” by Prince.
12. “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.” (1985). Back in 1985, I thought this song was a little to pandering for me. Now that I am older, and don’t hear it all the time on the radio, this song has all the great musical things that made ’60s pop music so great. How he did it, I will never know!
11. “Wild Night [with Me’shell Ndegeocello]” (1994). Mellencamp’s brilliance is recognizing the talent of up-and-coming artists and collaborating with them, like he did here with bassist extraordinaire and soulful vocalist Me’shell Ndegeocello as his musical foil in this remake of the Van Morrison classic.
10. “Jack and Diane” (1982). This may have been Mellencamp’s first attempt at bringing the Hoosier experience of growing up to the general public. Certainly, it was his first successful attempt at that very thing.
9. “Crumblin’ Down” (1983). John makes his best Rolling Stones-sounding hit with this song.
8. “Peaceful World” (2001). This song was released right around the time of 9/11. I just remember how poignant the lyrics were at the time. Of course, it lacked the apparent jingoism that made his later hit, “This Country”, so popular with those Chevy commercials a decade ago.
7. “Hurts So Good” (1982). This is the sound of Mellencamp finally putting together a band worthy of this jump in his songwriting. John found is groove here.
6. “Pink Houses” (1983). This is John’s first classic, where he makes a beautiful statement about Reagan’s American underbelly.
5. “Small Town” (1985). In Indiana, if you are not from Indianapolis or what we call “The Region” (those cities on the Indiana side near Chicago), you pretty much live in a small town. John is simply describing our lives, which is why it resonates with Hoosiers so well.
4. “Play Guitar” (1983). This was never a hit, except with people at college parties back in the day. All I can say is, “Shut up with all your macho shit and learn how to play guitar!” That sums rock up in one sentence.
3. “Paper in Fire” (1987). The first single from The Lonesome Jubilee album served notice that Mellencamp was incorporating Appalachian sounds to his brand of rock and roll, and nothing will be the same again.
2. “Authority Song” (1984). Forget that the video won MTV’s “Friday Night Video Fights for several weeks on end. This song is simply about sticking it to the system and the man, only to get it thrown back in our faces. But, at least someone was trying.
1. “Cherry Bomb” (1987). John got a little nostalgic here, but it’s so tender and comes off with its innocence in tact, that it has stuck with me forever as my first warning about the perils of growing older. “Ah, and holding hands meant so much.” Yep, they sure did.
I have to admit that John Mellencamp is one of my favorite artists. Yet, for some reason, I never list him in my Top 20 Favorite Artists. I think I need to re-evaluate my mental list again.