[15 November 2011]
After the success of “Small Town”, John Mellencamp’s beautiful tribute to his Southern Indiana home and upbringing, music reviewers began uniformly referring to Mellencamp as “the keeper of the small town”. On his episode of Storytellers, Mellencamp said, “I never wanted to be the keeper of the small town. I just looked out my window and wrote what I thought was the truth. In this case, the truth is something that made people feel good about themselves.”
Much of Mellencamp’s music examines and explores, with notes of despair and a voice of everyday heartbreak, the dark side of American culture and the ugly side of human nature. “Love and Happiness” is an angry rock song that condemns the American political class for its betrayal of the dreams of its citizens. “Cuttin’ Heads”, co-written with Chuck D, and “Jim Crow”, a duet with Joan Baez, lament the persistence of bigotry and racism, even in the face of egalitarian progress and promise. “Jackie Brown”, which Mellencamp wrote after the suicide of childhood friend, is one of the most devastating and heartbreaking depictions of life in poverty ever put to tape.
The truth, at times, can make you feel discouraged, disheartened, and disappointed with everything from yourself to your world. The feeling of sympathetic outrage on behalf of suffering people is an invaluable necessity in the construction of a meaningful life and the maintenance of a good democracy. Mellencamp knows how to evoke those feelings. A truly gifted artist, Mellencamp also has the gigantic imagination, and a big enough heart, to look through the terror of life and see triumph. He can size up human failure and still sing a sweet song about human strength.
Mellencamp’s presentation of the truth that he sees outside of his window always makes me feel good about myself, and I enjoy his music more with each passing year, largely because whenever I play a Mellencamp song, I almost never think about Mellencamp. I almost always think about me and I almost always think about my grandfather, Nick Bruich.
Mellencamp currently lives in Bloomington, Indiana but he grew up in Seymour, Indiana – a town of less than 10,000 people during his youth. My grandfather was born, raised, and spent his life in Thornton, Illinois – a town of less than 5,000 people.
Bill Kauffman writes that “mobility is the great undiagnosed sickness afflicting America.” Lives outside of Manhattan, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C. are less visible, and often considered less valuable, than those in the financial, entertainment, and political capitals of America. Mellencamp’s hit “Small Town” was significant, and remains important, because it celebrates communities like Seymour and Thornton without irony and without bitterness aimed at cities. It’s done with love:
Well I was born in a small town / And I live in small town….Educated in small town / Taught the fear of Jesus in a small town / Used to daydream in that small / Another boring romantic that’s me…But I’ve seen it all in a small town / Had myself a ball in a small town…No I cannot forget from where it is that I come from / I cannot forget the people who love me / I can be myself here in this small town / People let me be just what I want to be…I was born in small town / I can breathe in this small town / Gonna die in this small town / That’s probably where they’ll bury me
Mellencamp never lived too far from his small town. He’s presently less than 50 miles away, and in Seymour, he opened an arts center and sold it to the city for one dollar. He owns several businesses, and regularly supports its schools and public projects.
My grandfather’s tiny town of Thornton is 25 miles south of Chicago. His childhood was colored by the desperation of the Great Depression and during two of the best years of his life he earned two purple hearts, while helping to defend America after an unprecedented attack in World War II. He fell in love with a woman named Anna and with her, he raised one daughter, Pearl, who would then fall in love with and marry Lou Masciotra before giving birth to her son, David. On Monday through Friday, my grandfather worked in the quarry and on Saturday, he bartended at the American Legion in Thornton. He was a good neighbor and friend, and he lived according to a vanishing code of ethics that places the community at the center of life. He worked, shopped, and lived locally, preferring to support a neighbor or friend rather than a faceless entity.
My grandfather never left Thornton. When he came down with heart failure at the age of 80, he spent the last few months of his life living in my parent’s house. Those few months, along with his military years and his honeymoon, represent the entirety of his life outside of his hometown. He loved that town and its people. It was a town that people ridiculed and retreated from, but he never relied or even courted the approval of others when determining his lifestyle, behavioral choices, or code of ethics. With his family and faith in God, he was tough enough to do what he believed was best for him and those close to him. He didn’t need the imaginary approval of a chic crowd to gain comfort in his decision making. He stayed in Thornton and gave to Thornton, and by doing so, he taught me, by example, the value of place.
“Minutes to Memories”
Mellencamp learned the same the lesson from his grandfather to whom he dedicated his classic album Scarecrow and makes the subject of one of his best songs, “Minutes to Memories”. I remember playing “Minutes to Memories” the afternoon of my grandfather’s funeral. Like the character in the song, Nick Bruich helped “build this land”, “worked his whole life” in a backbreaking job, and “earned every dollar that passed through his hand.” He also gives a young Mellencamp the same advice my grandfather gave me:
He said an honest man’s pillow is his peace of mind / This world offers riches and riches will grow wings / I don’t take stock in those uncertain things / Days turn to minutes / And minutes to memories / Life sweeps away the dreams / That we have planned / You are young and you are the future / So suck it up and tough it out / And be the best you can / The old man had a vision but it was hard for me to follow / I do things my way and I pay a high price / My family and friends are the best things I’ve known / Through the eye of the needle I’ll carry them home
Mellencamp said that his grandfather was “no bullshit”. My grandfather was “no bullshit”, too. Just like Mellencamp, however, I have to learn that the old man’s vision was right, and pay a high price in the process. Men who earn every dollar, consider their family and friends the best and most important parts of their lives, and sleep with peace of mind are beautiful to love, but difficult to emulate. As I struggle and stumble, at least I know that I have his spirit to guide me, and his legacy to bequeath me mysterious gifts.
When I lose touch with that legacy, and run the risk of betraying its ethical compact, I can turn to my grandfather’s daughter, I can turn to his memory, and as odd as it may seem, I can turn to Mellencamp’s music.
In 2004, Mellencamp wrote, recorded, and released a song called “Thank You”. It’s another artful presentation of a feel good truth – an example of what Cornel West calls “existential freedom”, the being-in-the-world that “embodies an ecstatic celebration of human existence without affirming the prevailing reality”:
Let me say thank you to those who love many / Let me say thank you to those who still play fair / Hallelujah, the meek shall inherit… Let’s give a smile for those who feel that they have nothing / Let me shake the hand of Johnny Doe out on the street / Let’s give a wink for those girls who don’t feel pretty / Let’s find some water for those who need a drink… Let me say thank you to the people raising families / Let me say thank you to the men who grow the bread / And here’s to dreams of a bigger, brighter future / That we all got someone to keep the stones from our bed
There were many people who gave sincere and tearful gratitude to my grandfather throughout his life. Although, he was a man of modest means, he never hesitated to take better care of his family than himself, giving money to my parents and me when we needed it. More importantly, he was undyingly present. He visited the house every day, and called on the rare days he couldn’t. He sat with me in the hospital when I had pneumonia or broke a bone.
At his funeral, as a senior in high school, I learned that his tenderness extended beyond his immediate family. He attended every softball game for a girl who lived in his neighborhood after her parents died. He gave weekly rides and grocery money to an old high school friend who subsisted on social security and food stamps, and he saved aluminum cans and collected them from neighbors to give to the literal town drunk who walked around collecting Coke bottles from curbs, while a whiskey bottle bulged out his back pocket.
Mellencamp is the unofficial biographer of my grandfather. “Small Town” captures the elemental truth of his upbringing in a tiny community, and his lifelong loyalty to it. “Minutes to Memories” assigns dignity to the working class, family life of my grandfather, who toiled endlessly to provide for those that he loved, but never chased the promises of worldly riches. “Thank You” elevates and emphasizes the idea that life is best when lived as a gift for others.
There is a photograph of my grandfather and grandmother when they were young newly weds. His hair is impeccably shaped and sculpted, and his large neck is stretching the limits of the white tuxedo shirt that is underneath his black jacket. His wide frame is leaning over a busy bar, and his hand is about to grab a shot glass right next to a bottle of beer. His wife is wearing a silky dress, and she is brushing the side of her face just beneath her glowing, dark eyes. They are both looking toward the bartender with skeptical smiles – smiles that emphasize their beauty and tough-mindedness. It is one of those photos that seemed staged, because the people around them, with their backs to the camera, seem like mere props intended to enhance the glamour of the centerstage couple.
One of Mellencamp’s best songs is called “Cherry Bomb”. The song has an infectiously breezy melody to which it is nearly impossible not to dance and sing along. In the bittersweet verses, Mellencamp sings about how much his life has changed in the 18 years between 17 and 35. In the chorus, Mellencamp summons unadulterated joy to recall the nights of his well-spent youth:
That’s when a sport was a sport / And groovin’ was groovin’ / And dancin’ meant everything / We were young and we were improvin’ / Laughin’, laughin’ with our friends / Holdin’ hands meant somethin’, baby / Outside the club “Cherry Bomb” / Our hearts were really thumpin’ / Say yeah, yeah, yeah
The simplicity of the line, “holdin’ hands meant somethin’, baby” illustrates an entire world – a space and time – that is forever gone, vanished somewhere in the rearview mirror on the same neon and digital road that people marked on the map “Utopia”. It was the space and time of my grandparents in that photograph. Their lineless faces are about to break into laughter, and their hearts likely beat like bass drums when they held hands on the walk home.
The idea that Mellencamp’s music enables me to emotionally touch the past of a man I loved deeply without even having been alive during that past is a testimony to the greatness and genius of the Indiana songwriter. It is also, however, an indication of how popular music needs to have performers with understated personalities to gain intimate relevancy and resonance in the lives of listeners.
Mellencamp’s abilities as a songwriter, along with his smart strategy of backing away from the spotlight throughout his career, allows me to pull off the psychic magic trick of imagining that Mellencamp wrote most of his songs about my grandfather, and a few of them about me.
In a certain sense, he did write all of his songs about my grandfather and me, because he wrote them about and for people like us. The elevation of everyday people to a pedestal of prominence and a place of dignity is a noble calling that is too often lacking in a materialistic and consumeristic culture. For an artist to honor it, he must achieve excellence in his craft, but he also must have enough compassion in his heart to get out of the way after releasing products of that excellence.
Mellencamp, at nearly every level of his career, has used his great music, and subsequently muted his personality, to send the message that Nick Bruich, a quarry worker, is just as important as a rock star with a supermodel wife. That’s quite a beautiful legacy for someone who first met the world as Johnny Cougar.
In both the world of popular music and the small towns of the Midwest, there are good souls.