Yeah love and happiness,
Have forgotten our names.
And there’s no value left,
In love and happiness.
That’s a lyric from one of my favorite John Mellencamp songs, Love and Happiness. Just now, my iTunes shuffled its way to a live bootleg I have of Mellencamp circa 1992, which opens with that song. It didn’t take long for the flood of memories to come crashing down.
I saw Mellencamp on that tour at Market Square Arena on 2 February 1992. I remember that day like it was yesterday.
It was a Sunday. I was still in college, living in my parents’ house in South Bend. I was in a long-distance relationship with a girl from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan whom I met on Spring Break the previous March. We kept in touch and I flew up to Marquette to visit her in November 1991. I had a sweet, sweet mullet back then! We were still together, so she decided to fly down and visit me in South Bend for a weekend. It was the same weekend that Mellencamp was playing Indianapolis in a series of hometown shows for the Hoosier-born singer.
People forget, but this Mellencamp album and tour were a pretty big deal back then. He was a major recording artist throughout the 80s. After a string of wildly successful albums—Uh-Huh, The Lonesome Jubilee, Scarecrow and Big Daddy—Mellencamp took a break. He was burnt out. The 1991 release of Whenever We Wanted ushered in a new era for Mellencamp. Not only was he ditching the violins, pseudo-zydeco and country sounds he employed on his previous three albums for rawer rock sound, Whenever We Wanted was the first album he released as John Mellencamp. John Cougar was officially dead and buried.A Last-Minute Decision.
Being as how it was such a big tour—especially for the Indianapolis dates—demand was high. A co-worker friend of mine at the Olive Garden had tickets for the Sunday night show. Her seats? Behind the stage. She, being a huge Mellencamp fan, wasn’t too thrilled about having to watch the show from behind the stage. Knowing I was going to have a visitor that weekend, I thought it would be a fun surprise for her and I to go see the show, but for the fact that it was a sellout.
A few days after the conversation with the co-worker, I learned an additional Indianapolis show was added to the tour. Upon informing my Mellencamp fan co-worker, I told her I’d buy her tickets for the Feb. 2 show. She agreed. She was able to procure better seats and I was able to take the girl to see Mellencamp. It wasn’t planned, honestly. It was something of a last-minute decision, really.
The Sunday Road Trip.
I remember nearly every single detail of that Sunday road trip to Indy and back. It was a cloudy day and pretty cold outside. No snow was predicted, but winter driving in the Midwest is often a wildcard. I was piloting my first “red sled,” a 1990 Chevy Cavalier. I loved that car, even though it would develop some peculiarities over the next two years before it was destroyed in a car accident. I even remember what I was wearing: blue jeans, brown loafers and a tan, button-down dress shirt, buttoned all the way to the collar (hey, it was a thing back then). Oh yeah, I no longer had the mullet.
On our way out of town, we stopped off to say hi to a buddy of mine who was living through a very bizarre episode of his own that I’ll not get into…but we stopped by, nonetheless. It was a pleasant, albeit brief visit and then we embarked on our journey down U.S. 31-South to Indy.
This was only my third “grown-up” trip to Indy. I recall a summer family vacation where we visited Fort Knox in Kentucky and also swung by Fort Harrison in Indianapolis. Our parents wanted to shop at the PX and the commissary. I distinctly recall the commissary entrance had a pinball machine, a video game and a big cutout of an IndyCar on the wall. Because I was already something of a fan of the Indy 500, I found that wall cutout rather intriguing. I spent a lot of time that day wondering how far away we were from the track (answer: the other side of town). Anyway, back to the story.
En route to Indy for the Mellencamp show, we stopped in Kokomo to get a quick bite to eat—at Denny’s!—before the final push into Indy. I couldn’t tell you what we had to eat, but I do recall turning left out of Denny’s and nearly getting T-boned by oncoming traffic. It was probably not as harrowing as I seemed to think it was, at the time, but I did have an “oh shit!” moment in Kokomo. Who knew this would become the first of MANY “oh shit!” moments I’d have in Kokomo over the years: breakdowns, unruly pets, bad traffic, cops pulling me over…another topic for another day.
Welcome (Back) to the Circle City!
For the most part, the drive was pretty easy, but my anxiety was creeping up as we drew nearer to our destination. It was only my third grown-up visit to Indy. I didn’t know the streets all that well. I knew Market Square Arena was very close to the center of the city, but that was about all I knew. The two previous trips I’d taken there were for basketball games, and I didn’t even drive one of them. In reality, my Indianapolis at the time consisted of Meridian Street, Circle Center and Market Square Arena. That was it. The mere thought of attempting an alternate route down a parallel street was verboten and insane. No thanks. I’ll just sit here in traffic with all the other out-of-town rubes, thank you, very much!
Luckily, downtown Indy is stupid-easy to figure out. I mean, U.S. 31 takes you directly to Monument Circle. I knew MSA was visible from the Circle and we’d figure out parking once we got there. Sure enough, we turned onto Market Street off the Circle and parked in a crappy, little garage about two blocks from the arena.
The Not-So-Madhouse on Market Street.
This was my first concert at MSA. I’d been there twice previous for Pacers games, but never for a concert. Those games and this concert pre-date the mid-90s success of the NBA Pacers, so Market Square Arena wasn’t known for being a very loud building yet. Going to a game at MSA was a rather polite affair; mostly because no one expected much from the Pacers. But this was not a Pacers game. And the crowd was much more attune to the significance of these shows, so the atmosphere was decidedly different. The air was thick with anticipation.
Staring at the Backs of Heads All Night.
I’ll admit I wasn’t crazy about sitting in seats positioned in the exact opposite direction of which way the performers were facing. I wasn’t grumpy about it, but if I had the chance, I would’ve traded up. Nevertheless, our seats weren’t too bad. We were in the upper bowl of Market Square. From our vantage point, we could see the entire stage. We were on the left side, sort of in a corner. Even though I didn’t feel like staring at the backs of heads all night long, I quickly shed that attitude, as the show turned out to be stellar, regardless of your view.
”…We’re Droppin’ Our Bombs in the Southern Hemisphere…”
As the house lights dimmed, the low buzz of the 16,000+ exploded into a roar. Being as how we were seated behind the stage, we could see the band members taking the stage, moving into position. I spotted drummer Kenny Aronoff getting seated behind his kit and I kinda got giddy. Aronoff is one of the best rock drummers out there. He makes everything better. I couldn’t wait to hear him live. What I didn’t expect was Kenny Aronoff opening the show.
From a blacked out stage—the only light in the arena emanating from cigarette lighters (remember that?), Aronoff kickstarted the show with an intense, pounding drum solo that cut through the screams and shouts like a chainsaw. Aronoff took immediate command of the stage and set the tone: we are here to kick your ass.
Aronoff’s drum gave to the rest of the band filling in on the opening chords of Love and Happiness, the first track off Whenever We Wanted. All I remember is they sounded tight. They played with an energy I can’t quite describe; not angry, but locked in. As the band ripped through the opening, a spirited John Mellencamp made his entrance, bouncing and shaking across the stage as the 16,000+ in attendance collectively lost their shit. It was truly a pretty awesome moment.
A Two-Hour Hit Factory.
I went into this show thinking I knew quite a bit of Mellencamp’s material. I’d been a casual fan for a few years. My dad got me American Fool a few years prior, when Hurts So Good and Jack and Diane were very popular. I always liked that album, but it wasn’t a “wow” album for me. Mellencamp’s subsequent albums would change all that for me. He was a mainstay on the radio and on MTV. Mellencamp was also a rarity, earning both critical and commercial success throughout his career. The older I got, the more I understood the message of his music.
Even with all that in mind, I wasn’t prepared for the two-hour hit factory I witnessed at this show: Jack and Diane, Small Town, Paper In Fire (another wow moment), Rain On The Scarecrow, Lonely Old Night, Cherry Bomb, Pink Houses, to name a few…it was simply incredible. The energy, the sound, the intensity…just incredible.
This show was the first time I’d heard a couple songs that have since become favorites: Martha Say and Jackie Brown, the latter of which closed Mellencamp’s first set. I always appreciated the song, but it came off much heavier and darker when he performed it live.
It was also on this night I was introduced to Minutes to Memories. The lyrics have always been rather poignant for me:
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.
While experiencing Small Town, Pink Houses and Rain On The Scarecrow live are memorable moments, it was when Mellencamp performed a pissed off rendition of Pop Singer that he became one of my favorite artists. It’s already an angry, cynical song. On this night, the anger was cranked up to 11. I loved that!
Coming into this show, I knew John Mellencamp was a thoughtful artist who, similar to guys like Dylan, Bob Seger and Bruce Springsteen, he gave voice to people and issues that are often forgotten or marginalized. It wasn’t until after this show I realized the depth of Mellencamp’s commitment. Sure, I knew he was an organizer of Farm Aid, so I knew the cause was important to him. It’s different, though, when you hear the artist telling his stories live. I never heard his music the same way after this night. In that sense, I “got” it.
Mellencamp closed the show with a communal moment. House lights turned on, he led the crowd in a bouncy, whimsical and optimistic Cherry Bomb.
That’s when a sport was a sport,
And groovin’ was groovin’.
Dancing meant everything,
We were young and we were improving.
What a great lyric and a great sentiment to close the show. It captures the essence of that night and, really, it captures that moment in my life.
The Perfect Day.
That girl and I parted ways about a year and a half later. About 2-1/2 years after that 1992 concert, my brother and I moved to Indianapolis. My buddy who was going through his episode? Yeah, that seems like nine lives ago. I don’t know if any of that has anything to do with my memory of the Mellencamp concert, but it all seems somehow relevant, to me.
Twenty-three years later and I still remember the finer details of not just the concert, but so many trivial details about that day. At the time, it felt like the perfect day. Even though we’re all in different places in our lives now, it is still a perfect day. No, I don’t feel a sense that she was “the one that got away.” I seriously doubt she feels that way about me either. Some relationships don’t have to last forever to be special or significant. Sometimes, they just have to carry you from one station to the next and then you both move forward in your lives and you’re both better for the experience you shared. You really can’t improve upon that, can you?
…and days turn to minutes and minutes to memories.