In 1982, John Mellencamp wasn’t even John Mellencamp. He was John Cougar, a record company creation meant to be a poor man’s Bruce Springsteen appealing to the same audiences that flocked to see Rick Springfield or John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band. Mellencamp had languished for years by the time the ‘80s rolled around, and as he passed his 30th birthday, there was no real light at the end of the tunnel.
Then came ‘Jack & Diane’. With its lyrics about chowing down on chilli dogs and a middle section break down arranged by the late great Spider from Mars himself, Mick Ronson, ‘Jack & Diane’ vaulted Mellencamp straight to the top of the charts in the US, giving him the kind of cache that let him do just about anything he wanted to do afterwards.
And so, in the proud tradition of artists making sacrifices in order to broaden their mainstream appeal, Mellencamp has not shied away from voicing his distaste for the song that made him a star. “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,” Mellencamp said with only a little bit of modesty in 2008.
“‘Jack & Diane’ was a terrible record to make,” he added. “When I play it on guitar by myself, it sounds great; but I could never get the band to play along with me. That’s why the arrangement’s so weird. Stopping and starting, it’s not very musical.”
Mellencamp wasn’t very charitable with regard to the parent album, American Fool, either. “To be real honest, there’s three good songs on that record and the rest is just sort of filler,” Mellencamp told Creem magazine in 1984. “It was too laboured over, too thought about, and it wasn’t organic enough.”
Still, Mellencamp doesn’t hang on to any vitriol towards the song. “Some people probably think there’s a place in hell for me because of those two people,” he continued. “But it gave me the keys to do what I want… I’ve lived the way I wanted to live, sometimes recklessly and stupidly, but still been able to do that. I’ve been able to live on my whims, that’s what Jack and Diane gave me, so I can’t hate them too much.”