This week’s suggestion came in from Mike Grosvenor who said, “Hi Jon, I love story songs and would love to know the story about John Cougar’s Jack and Diane. Are they real people and is it a real story?” Well Mike let’s find out.
The song opens with the line, ‘A little ditty ’bout Jack & Diane’. The dictionary definition of ditty is a short simple song. This is not a short song. Ok, it’s under four minutes, but it tells a story and, when you look into it, it’s not that simple either.
When John J. Mellencamp, as he was born, released this song in 1982, he wasn’t a new kid on the block. He was 31 and of German ancestry. He was also born with spina bifida of which he had surgery as a child to correct the problem. Everything in his life was seemingly early forming his first band, Crepe Soul, when he was just 14 and within a few months of graduating at the age of 18 he married his pregnant girlfriend and became a father before he was 19. In turn, his daughter had a child when she was 18 and thus Mellencamp, by the age of 37, was a grandpa.
Let’s clear up any confusion over his name as it has varied over the years. His birth name is John J. Mellencamp. There was much speculation as to what the J stood for and no-one seemed to know. According to Tony Buechler, the web host of Mellencamp’s own website, who, in turn, has spoken to John’s sister, Janet, and she said, “the J stands for nothing.” Now we know.
In 1974, travelled between his home state of Indiana and New York playing his songs to anyone who would listen and found, along the way, a receptive audience who enjoyed his song writing and storytelling. He then joined MainMan Management run by Tony DeFries, a British manager who had helped David Bowie to stardom, and it was DeFries who suggested he change his name to John Cougar because he thought Mellencamp was too much of a mouthful. Mellencamp wasn’t happy but reluctantly agreed. His first album, Chestnut Street Incident, was released under that new name but failed to excite anyone. In a 2005 interview, Mellencamp said, “That name was put on me by some manager. I went to New York and everybody said, ‘You sound like a hillbilly.’ And I said, ‘Well, I am.’ So that’s where he came up with that name. I was totally unaware of it until it showed up on the album jacket. When I objected to it, he said, ‘Well, either you’re going to go for it, or we’re not going to put the record out.’ So that was what I had to do… but I thought the name was pretty silly.” Over the years he has released various songs under the names, John Cougar and Johnny Cougar as well as John Cougar Mellencamp. Either way, he’s the same person.
His fifth album, American Fool, in 1982, became his breakthrough album. The first single from it, Hurts So Good, went to number two on the Billboard Hot 100 but it was the next release that really made him a household name. “Jack & Diane was originally based on the 1966 Tennessee Williams film Sweet Bird of Youth,” Mellencamp explained, which was about interracial love. When Mellencamp first took it the record company, they weren’t keen on the idea of a song on that subject so instead he altered the song to be about two young teenagers growing up in the Midwest. It wasn’t a song he was particularly keen on saying, “It was a terrible record to make. 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.”
Even when Cougar and the album’s producer, Don Gehman, were in the studio they were trying to figure out the right sound especially with the drum part. “That was one of the things that really hung us up,” Gehman explained. “I didn’t know anything about rock & roll drum sounds — I didn’t understand how you even made a gated sound. Still, having originally been managed by David Bowie’s manager Tony DeFries, John knew people within that camp, including Bowie’s guitarist Mick Ronson. So, we asked him to come in for a day and help us with the arrangement. When we explained how we were trying to get a rock sound on the drums, he said, ‘Well, you ought to do a gated echo with a plate.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘Make the plate kinda short, put gates on the returns and gate the send,’ and when I did that it was one of those ‘Aha!’ moments — ‘Oh, my God, so this is how you make something sound like it’s getting hit hard.’ What Mick told us was a gift.” Mellencamp gave his view in an interview with Classic Rock magazine, “Mick was very instrumental in helping me arrange that song, as I’d thrown it on the junk heap. Ronson came down and played on three or four tracks and worked on the American Fool record for four or five weeks. All of a sudden, for Jack & Diane, Mick said, ‘you should put baby rattles on there.’ I thought, ‘What the f**k does put baby rattles on the record mean?’ So, he put the percussion on there and then he sang the part ‘let it rock, let it roll’ as a choir-ish-type thing, which had never occurred to me. And that is the part everybody remembers on the song. It was Ronson’s idea.”
Ronson then explained, “You see, one of our models for Jack & Diane was Phil Collins’ In The Air Tonight. John came in one day and, after he sat down and played it, he said, ‘This is what I want to create. I want to have a couple of verses that sound like a little folk song and then I want the big, bombastic entrance of some drums, and we’ll take it to a whole new place.” Mellencamp later added, “the clapping was used only to help keep time and was supposed to be removed in the final mix. However, he chose to leave the clapping in once he realised that the song would not work without it.”
The story is just two teenagers happy to be whiling away the hours Suckin’ on a chili dog outside the Tastee Freez and then Diane losing her virginity in the back of Jack’s car. Jack later suggests they run off to the city to which Diane replies, ‘Baby, you ain’t missin’ nothing. The song’s verses are as catchy and as memorable as the chorus of, ‘Oh yeah, life goes on, long after the thrill of livin’ is gone’
The song’s accompanying video didn’t have the backing of his record label. His record label brought in Jon Roseman Productions to make videos for a couple of other songs scheduled for future release but not for Jack and Diane. In the book I Want My MTV, Paul Flattery, who worked for that production company, explained that Mellencamp made a special request after those videos were completed: “He said, ‘Look, there’s a song on the album the label doesn’t believe in. But I do. Can you do me a favour and save one roll of film, shoot me singing the song, I’ll give you some old photos and stuff and then you cobble it together for me?’
Flattery said, “We stole some editing time in LA. We projected slides on the edit room wall, and we had the tape-op wear white gloves to do the clapping. We didn’t charge John a cent.” Some of Mellencamp’s school pictures and some home movie footage was included in it. “Mellencamp spent a long time crafting this song in an effort to make it a hit. This was part of his plan to become so successful he could ignore critics and tell his record company to stick it.”
At the time of the song’s release, Mellencamp told the L.A. Herald Examiner, “Most people don’t ever reach their goals, but that’s cool, too. Failure’s a part of what you’re all about anyway. Coming to terms with failed expectations is what counts. I try to write about the most insignificant things, really. I mean, someone who picks up a copy of Newsweek, then sits down and writes a song about the troubles in South America — who cares? What’s that song telling us that we don’t already know? Write about something that matters to people, man.” And that, in John’s mind, is what Jack and Diane is about.
In Mellencamp’s eponymous 1998 album there is a track called Eden is Burning in which he references the pair again – the song opens with the line, ‘Diane and Jack went to the movies’.