‘Oh yeah, life goes on …’
By RALPH HARDIN
Evening Times Editor L ast Tuesday night, my wife and I headed over to the Orpheum Theatre in Memphis to catch John Mellencamp in concert. It was a Christmas present for my wife from me, because for as long as I’ve known her, she has said that his 1982 hit “Jack and Diane” is her all-time favorite song, so I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to let her hear it live.
You’re probably familiar with the song and its singer, even if, like me, you’ll always think of him as John Cougar Mellencamp, which is what he went by, at the insistence of his record label, until he got famous enough to tell them he was dropping the “Cougar” part.
Anyway, the Orpheum presented him with the opportunity to show some film clips on the big screen that had inspired his songwriting over the years. It was cool to see stars like Marlon Brando, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and Gregory Peck in some of their finest performances. It also sort of reminded everyone that all these great stars of yesteryear were dead and gone. I’d be willing to bet that this was intentional on Mellencamp’s part.
Ol’ Johnny himself is 71 now, and his performance reflected that. There was no massive set piece with flames and fireworks and background dancers. He didn’t do any backflips or get suspended from any wires. No, he and his band of six supporting musicians came out and simply put on a show. Let’s face it, the fans in the seats were largely no spring chickens themselves. In our late 40s, my wife and I were definitely among the younger members of the audience.
But even with a stripped-down show (at least compared to something you’d see from your big-name rock band these days), he still delivered. Sure, 71 years has put a little more gravel in his voice but his talent as a songwriter and a storyteller, as well as a performer, still rang true. Turns out, he’s still writing songs. In addition to all the greatest hits, he sang us some new stuff too, and it was pretty good (even if the guitars were at times too loud to clearly hear what he was singing about).
And, of course, toward the end of the show, he stopped and talked with us in the audience. He marveled at the fact that he had been “doing this for 50 years now … man, 50 years!” He then told us a story about how he had been able to be with his 100-year-old grandmother right before she died, and how she had asked him to pray with her (“even though she knew I wasn’t really the praying type”). He said the prayer wasn’t too bad “the first 15 minutes” but it did inspire him to write a new song, “Life Is Short (Even in Its Longest Days),” which he then sang for us, just him and his acoustic guitar.
The cool part was that the end of the song transitioned into what my wife and probably most of the fans in the theatre were waiting for, “Jack and Diane.” Now, we’d all head that song probably a thousand times in our lives. In the 1980’s you couldn’t listen to the radio for any length of time without hearing it, and now in the age of streaming music, you can literally hear it any time you want.
But this one was different. Again, it was just Mellencamp and his guitar, and for several of the key lyrics, he actually had us sing them, so it really was a one-of-akind rendition of a well-known song. Of particular note is a little breakdown part in the latter half of the song that goes, “Oh yeah, life goes on … long after the thrill of livin’ is gone. They walk on …” It’s funny, much like the song implies, as a kid, or even as a young adult, your perspective changes as you get older. In my younger days, I connected with the titular characters in the song, growing up and falling in love and thinking you’re going to live forever. Now, as I approach turning 50 in a few months, I picture my own kids as Jack and Diane, those “American kids doin’ the best that they can.”
And while I haven’t quite gotten to the “thrill of livin’” being gone (and hopefully I never will), I do understand it better. I’ve now seen people in my life get old and get broken down to the point that the real quality of life is gone. And that’s a sad part. Maybe that’s why I’ve always really taken another line from the song, “Hold onto 16 as long as you can,” to heart.
It seems to have worked for John Mellencamp, who told us he doesn’t “sleep” anymore. He takes naps. “You always hear about so-and-so dying in their sleep,” he told us. “You never hear about anyone dying during a nap.”
Maybe he’s on to something?