Plainfield Sun (Chicagoland area) Album Review/Commentary

Music can offer answers along life's twisted path
By Tom Hernandez
August 29, 2008

I was talking to John Mellencamp the other day ....

OK, well, not actually talking to him. Actually he was more talking to me.

OK, well, not actually talking to me. Actually he was more talking about me - or at least about my life - through several songs on his magnificent new CD, "Life, Death, Love and Freedom."

Mellencamp and I have had these kinds of conversations for more than two decades. I heard personal messages in his Midwestern rock back when he was still (unfortunately and amusingly) named Cougar.

Then, the songs were about young life, young love, rebellion and the power of rock 'n' roll. The world of the 20-something from Indiana making music for a world of fans that looked and lived and thought like him.

As he aged, I aged. As he learned about the harder edges of real life, I learned about the harder edges of real life. As he thought bigger thoughts, I thought bigger thoughts. As he got wiser and sharper, well, I thought bigger thoughts.

Anyway, here we both are now in middle age (me early, him more middle/late). His latest collection finds us both peeking at life's rearview mirror, wondering where the time went, what the future holds and if what we have done with our lives amounts to much at all in the big picture.

The opening lines from the song "Don't Need This Body" sum up my mental, not to mention my physical state in recent months: "This getting older/Ain't for cowards/This getting older/Is a lot to go through/Ain't gonna need this body/Much longer/Ain't gonna need this body/Much more."


Then "Longest Days" hit me like a ball-peen hammer between the eyes: "It seems like once upon a time ago/I was where I was supposed to be/My vision was true and my heart was too/There was no end to what I could dream/I walked like a hero into the setting sun/Everyone called out my name/Death to me was just a mystery/I was too busy raisin' up Cain/.

"But nothing lasts forever/Your best efforts don't always pay/Sometimes you get sick/And you don't get better/That's when life is short/Even in its longest days."

Spoken like a man who has seen his world from the top of the top, and now finds himself somewhere around the middle wondering how and when he got there.

And I am telling you, Mellencamp may not have been literally talking to me, but I heard him loud and clear as sure as if he was sharing a cup of coffee across my kitchen table.

Strictly, a poem of mine called "Just" ponders some of these same thoughts:

The weight of mediocrity
is a foot across my throat
The odor of arrogance soured, spilled
on youth steals my breath away
A memory lifted by laughter
of time spent on the roof
believing, knowing that I could fly
Maybe not today, but definitely
Remembering a boast, floating on
wings lifted by jet-streaming confidence
Five years would make me Royko
and 10, Ernest's ghost in new khakis
Tomorrow became today became yesterday
and no wings, no Parisian "Feast"
Sliced bread is still the greatest thing
God's gift going elsewhere, always
Now I laugh to cool the fire of tears
Drawn to the harsh light of my reality
crashing against dead dreams, knowing
that I am just ... just ... just ....

That was written more than 10 years ago, before my knees ached with every step.

Before my gut threatened bodily harm if I dared to try to lose weight.

Before my eyes began fighting their own personal battle between near-sightedness and far-sightedness, mocking my vain decision to ignore my wife's urging to get bifocals.

Back when "the boys next door" were just rhetorical fodder for entertaining conversation about my daughters, not actual monosyllabic shadows lurking in my garage each summer night.

Before I hit, you know, "middle age."

All of which raises an interesting, infuriating question: How does one measure progress at the midpoint of existence, as one slides inexorably down the other side of the hill of life?

Jeez, that last paragraph reads like such a downer. Sorry about that. But I mean it more as an honest inquiry. Just as parenting doesn't come with a manual, there are no clear directions about living.

Have goals and dreams, sure. Aspire to be the very best at whatever one does, absolutely. Faith in a higher power certainly lights life's path. A good family and friends provide support and love. A good job, if one is so blessed, helps to acquire the material things both necessary for daily living and wanted for entertainment and pleasure.

But what does it mean when one doesn't make all of ones goals? Or never rises to the top of his or her chosen field? Or finds faith lacking? Or has a lousy family? Or never seems to make enough money? Does that constitute failure? Or am I taking it all too seriously?

I guess I'll have to wait until I die - or for my good friend John's next CD - to learn the answer.

Hopefully, the new CD will arrive first.
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