John Mellencamp, Midwestern Rock Star

I have a soft spot for John Mellencamp. 

John Mellencamp

“Midwestern rock star” may be an oxymoron, but John Mellencamp, born and raised in Indiana, is ACTUALLY a midwestern rock star. According to Google,  he still owns a house near Bloomington, Indiana, a gorgeous university town that is often dubbed “the Athens of the Midwest.” 

 When I was a student in Indiana and was told that Mellencamp lived nearby, I was indifferent. “Oh, really?” I was oblivious of celebrities, and, to be honest, I may not have known who he was. To this day, I fail my husband’s rock music quizzes. 

YouTube videos have changed that, to an extent, of course, and now I admire many of Mellencamp’s songs, including his latest, “Wasted Days,” which he performed with Bruce Springsteen, and classics like “Minutes to Memories” and “Rain on the Scarecrow.”

Mellencamp is an intense singer/songwriter, with a passionate love of the midwest; he often treats themes of American injustice that are specific to the midwest.  In “Rain on the Scarecrow” he sings about bank foreclosures on small farms and their disappearance from the midwestern landscape; his 1985 hit, “Small Town,” is a sweet, sentimental anthem to those who live their whole lives in small towns (in the video, he films scenes in Seymour, his hometown); and in “Minutes to Memories,” an old man sits next to a young man on a Greyhound bus and tells his story:  “I’m old kind of worn out inside/ I worked my whole life in the steel mills of Gary/ and my father before me.” 

Watching the YouTube videos gives us a different perspective on his work.  Mellencamp’s performances differ in energy, perhaps according to mood, perhaps to intensive touring, perhaps to venue – who knows?  Sometimes he is manically, adorably energetic, giving himself to the crowd, other times he holds back a bit, though he is always very present, and during an MTV Unplugged concert he hid behind dark glasses. 

But at the Farm Aid benefit concerts, he gives himself wholly; he is invested in the cause, as a co-founder of Farm Aid in the ’80s. 

I must say that I approve of his low-key fashion sense at a Farm Aid concert in 1992. Any fan, male or female, could emulate his look: jeans, sneakers, and a white t-shirt under a black shirt.  He took off the black shirt  (either as a sexy strip-tease, or because he was sweating, who knows?) and danced in his t-shirt and jeans. 

Mellencamp was very cute when he was young, with thick, glossy hair and a slim, muscular body, not the toothpick-thin look of what I consider the “average” rocker (whoever that might be).  He smoked during interviews, which gave him a daredevil look. Not that I’m endorsing smoking.

Of course Mellencamp, 71, is older now and looks a bit haggard, as though he has lived a hard life, but haven’t we all?  Personally, I think haggard is a pretty good look: if you have it, flaunt it! As he says in his poignant song, “Wasted Days”:

How many summers still remain?
How many days are lost in vain?
Who’s counting out these last remaining years?
How many minutes do we have here?

 Reading in Public and Elsewhere: The Indie Bookstore Trend

“Where are all the independent bookstores?”  I wondered every time I read in a glossy magazine about the new independent bookstore trend.   

 Ten years after the rest of the world – a typical time lag for a trend to reach the midwest – independent bookstores are springing up on the landscape.  There is Dog-Eared Books in Ames, Iowa, a university town that, tragically and improbably, lacked an independent bookstore for 15 years after Big Table Books, a co-op bookstore, closed in 2006.  Dog-Eared Books, which opened in 2021, specializes in new books, with a small selection of used books.  It also has a coffee bar and a dog.

I was thrilled and intrigued to learn that another new indie bookstore has arrived on the scene.  Reading in Public opened this month in a sleek, streamlined new building in Valley Junction in West Des Moines, Iowa.

“Read books and be kind to people” is the Reading in Public motto.  I have it on a bookmark.

Walk into  the chic urban space and the polite bibliophiles step back and part like the Red Sea.  There were no walking crashes, just a couple of narrow squeeze-bys, when three or four people tried confusedly to pass in different directions. (The store was crowded.)

The owner, Linzi Murray, a graphic designer who moved back to Des Moines from New York to start the bookstore, has a zealous philosophy of bookselling.  She told a local newspaper, “For me, curation is my No. 1 priority. It’s [about] getting the books in front of the people that may never find them because you never know what book is going to meet the person at the right time and what impact it could have.” 

I am impressed by the collection of books.  A  carefully-curated display on top of low shelves enticed me to examine books I had not heard of. And you can sit on comfortable stools in front of these shelves, so you can see the books at eye-level.

Of course, I was mesmerized by the floor-to-ceiling shelves.  There were so many books I wanted.  Should I buy Thrust by Lidia Yuknavitch, I wondered. Or Geraldine Brooks’s Horse, which I was unable to find before Christmas?  I also considered a Mexican novel by a writer I had never heard of.  

One customer clutched a copy of Louise Erdrich’s Pulitzer-winning The Night Watchman. (“Good choice,” I almost said.)  Another browser intently perused anthologies of short stories.  A couple waited at the coffee bar while the barista fussed over the brand-new espresso machine. 

My one complaint:  I wish Reading in Public and Dog-Eared Books had better backlists.

But these booksellers probably know their audience. People do like to keep up with the latest books.  

I’ll be back.

 And, let’s face it, a good backlist isn’t built in a day!

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