LITTLE DITTY ‘BOUT JACK & DIANE: Holding On To Sixteen Forty Years Later

Forty years ago, one of the big hits of the day during my senior year of high school was, for better or worse, “Jack & Diane” by John Cougar (the Mellencamp moniker was still a few years away). It was a ubiquitous soundtrack playing everywhere on any given day — outside in my school’s parking lot, cranking from cars and boom boxes, and emanating across the football field.

Last week, I sat on a similar, if decidedly more modern, 21st century multi-purpose field for my 6th grade daughter’s annual Back To School picnic celebration. It was a hot, not quite end-of-summer afternoon. I particularly enjoyed the DJ, flanked by an array of turntables and powerful speakers at the 50-yard line, zig-zagging between records and mixing beats old and new. He seamlessly segued from Lizzo and Harry Styles (for the kids and 20-something teachers) to Beyonce and Justin Timberlake (for the 30-something parents and teachers) to dance floor staples like The Pointer Sisters and Madonna (for those of us parents and faculty a little bit, ah, older).

I met and mingled somewhat awkwardly (some things never change, awkward high school mingling included) with the good-natured assembly of other new faces with nametags. We made small talk about our kids, the excellent school facilities, and starting a sparkling new year of learning. Chatter that we hoped would create a quick and reassuring, if admittedly superficial, bond between all of us strangers. Privately, though, I couldn’t shake the notion of how strangely surreal this all-too familiar, spirited school scene felt to me — and whether I was the only one among the crowd who experienced this odd sensation.

I was gnawingly conscious of where I was standing in relation to other people/strangers, for one thing, balancing a flimsy paper plate of food and trying to act casual and breezy without spilling my cole slaw. For another, here I was in the role (and yeah, sometimes it feels like that) of parent, instead of student, occupying a very different place and space along the life and time contiuum. Was it really a lifetime ago that I stood at the edge of the grass and gravel at 16, ready to run the 100-yard dash like a deer?

Suddenly, a crunching electric guitar riff sliced through the hip hop and dance music blasting out across the football field. The power chord hit me like a familiar thunderclap reverberating through my life. That song … Sure, it had a new, sleekly modern beat behind it, built by the DJ scratching and mixing in 21st century sounds, but its muscular drama was unmistakable: “Little ditty, ‘ bout Jack & Diaaaannne …”

I smiled inside and started walking across the green grass toward the 50-yard line and the DJ, where most of the kids were clotted in clusters small and large, shouting, running, bumping bodies and shoulders together. They exuded that crackling edge-of-hysteria abandon and energy kids have when they’re finally, gratefully, free of their parents. They were also likely oblivious to the forty-year-old melody and John Cougar’s raspy vocal soundtracking their own jousting and bonding.

Striding the grassy field between the goal posts, the sense memory of the music made me feel wistful for my own teenage years. But it also made me feel lucky and grateful to be here now; that I was able to enjoy this moment, this collision of past and present, savoring the freighted simplicity of watching my daughter laugh and run and be young with new friends.

It hit me as its chorus cavorted across the field that “Jack & Diane,” besides being a somewhat corny yet marvelously effective pop evergreen that’s since become a staple on Classic Rock radio, was ripe for autumnal contemplation. Over the decades, it’s slyly accrued a kind of stately wisdom for those of us who first heard it back when we ourselves resembled the song’s restless namesakes. And as conversationally tossed-off as Cougar’s voice sounds, the song itself is anything but casual.

OK, so “Jack & Diane” is not exactly Dylan (but to be fair, it’s not a far cry from a decent Springsteen or Petty coming-of-age tale, the more I think about it). But it is actually a clever cautionary tale told through a simple sketch of two daydreaming teenagers, with Johnny the narrator stepping in and urging the listener — that would be us — to not take those precious halcyon days for granted: “Hang onto 16 as long as you can,” a chorus of Cougars sing. “Changes come around real soon / Make us women and men.” We all grow up and older, confront and accept adult responsibilities, and finally reckon with the fact that, as the song’s penultimate line goes, “life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone.

On that sunny afternoon last week, those words carried more weight and substance than I ever thought possible back when I heard it seemingly at every keg party and video arcade. It reminded me of how Bob Seger’s “Night Moves” still makes me feel when I hear it alone at night in my car. (“I woke last night to the sound of thunder / How far off I sat and wondered?“).

But “Jack & Diane” is a bit more of a rousing, hopeful sing-along than Seger’s darkly nostalgic lament. It’s a charming Polaroid snapshot of those two kids captured in their youthful element. But it triggered at least one 50-something adult to appreciate the fact that I still have some of my old friends (not to mention my brother and my wife) who were young with me once too.

We still keep in touch, ask after each other’s families and lives, mark the triumphs and mourn the tragedies, even rekindle the old days from time to time. I’m grateful that we — well, most of us anyway — are still here (and my heart hangs heavy for those who are not). Sometimes, we can even conjure 18 again. I know I’m fortunate to have that feeling, because not everyone gets that luxury.

And luckily for me, “the thrill of living,” the possibility if not promise (because as we’ve all learned the hard way, nothing is promised) of new adventures unfolding, continues. Sometimes the twists and turns are dramatic life changes taking shape. Sometimes they’re subtle, incremental shifts or micro moments. But those are no less meaningful. And they’re worth paying attention to. Like me watching my daughter play and laugh and run amid her music and mine, set free in the sun.

Thanks for the reminder, Johnny Cougar.

5 comments

  1. This I find a beautifully written piece, and although I’m slightly older then you are, in a different country and have no daughter, I very much can relate to the time travel experience when hearing a beloved old song.

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    1. Thanks so much for reading, for the nice words, and your own reflection, Peter. Music does connect our selves to our history , doesn’t it? Best, Jonathan

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great piece Jonathan!!

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  3. Just beautiful. You lend it the poetry now that it never had for us when we actually were 16 and it was on the radio relentlessly. The thing is, this post makes it clear you can’t hear poetry in it until you’re NOT 16.

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  4. John Laprade · · Reply

    Awesome piece!
    That song was inescapable! I didn’t really connect to JCM until the following albums Scarecrow and Lonesome Jubilee, but you are so right about how that song has changed for me as I’ve aged.
    Thanks for the great read!
    J

    Like

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