I don’t hold myself out as an historian or an authority on Indiana music. I’m just a fan. I’ve gone through a few phases during which I limited my listening to specific styles, but for the most part I love some artists or tunes in every style of music. I’m also a musician, though due mainly to technical limitations I’ve played mostly rock and pop. But I know a good song when I hear one...
Regarding important figures in Indiana music history, I’ve been re-assessing John Mellencamp. A guy in my band brought in the song “A Ride Back Home” from his 2008 album Life, Death, Love and Freedom, and we’ve played it a dozen or so times. It’s a really amazing song – simple yet powerful. It's one of my favorite songs to play these days. I bought the album from iTunes and I realized it was the first time I’ve ever purchased any of his music.
It’s nearly impossible to have a conversation about important figures in Indiana music without discussing Mellencamp, but other than acknowledging that he’s “important,” it’s tough to think what to say about him. He’s been famous as long as I can remember. It might have been a little strange to be a kid growing up in Bloomington, glued to MTV, and seeing those videos shot in the neighborhood. But it wasn’t that strange. It just…was.
I secretly loved those ubiquitous hit songs during the 80s – Jack and Diane, Hurts So Good, Pink Houses – but I pretty much kept it a secret. His meteoric rise coincided with my discovery of punk and hardcore, and admitting to liking anything vaguely commercial would have made me an outcast. I just didn’t have that much self-confidence. For some reason it was okay to like Springsteen…I’m not really sure of the perceived difference.
When I moved back to Bloomington from Boston around 1990, having established myself a little bit in the music world, Mellencamp loomed large. My friends and I used to take the piss out of him (in the abstract) a fair amount, and I’m not sure why. I had a great deal of respect for Scarecrow and most of his late-80s/early-90s output. I’m not sure why we publicly cultivated such ironic detachment from and occasionally disdain for the man. I think it might have had something to do with the distance he kept from the local music community despite his purported loyalty to the town.
It was weird: I had all these connections to Mellencamp. I shared a house with his engineer. I played and recorded with his violinist. I spent more time in his guitarist’s recording studio than I spent in my own apartment. My band-mate taught him and his wife yoga. I did sessions with his drummer. But despite all of those connections, in my five years in the Bloomington music scene, I never once laid eyes on the man. Not only did he not give a crap what my friends and I were up to musically, it seemed he barely even existed in town outside the walls of his home and studio.
I have a music journalist friend who considers Mellencamp to be one of his pals and looks forward to their marathon interviews over weekends at his house. I've met a number of people in the music biz community who hold him in the highest regard. I’ve also heard plenty of credible stories from insiders about Mellencamp’s temper tantrums and indefensible behavior. At the end of the day I don’t really give a shit either way. Now that I’ve spent more than a decade living away from Indiana, I think it’s awesome that we have an artist and star on that level we can truly claim as our own. Unlike Indiana born and raised talents such as Michael Jackson and Axl Rose, Mellencamp stuck around, and his association is such a huge part of his character and image. I'm content to judge the man based on his work, and the consistent quality of his work makes that point clearly and easily.
I’m not about to do some big re-discovery of his music; there’s no point. I like it when his songs come on the radio, as they do all the time. I’m psyched that he’s still digging deep and doing relevant, interesting work, and I’m psyched that he’s a vocal and committed lefty. I don’t have some big point to make here, but I’m glad I’ve reached a point where I can just sit back and appreciate the man and his work sans the baggage of all my pre-conceptions. He might never mean as much to me personally as my very favorite artists, such as Neil Young, Townes Van Zandt, Joe Strummer, Leonard Cohen or (Mellencamp pals) Lou Reed or Dylan; but at this point I’m psyched to consider him one of the great Hoosier artists.