Vulture By Rachael Maddux
In 2008, ABC’s Good Morning America followed John Mellencamp around his hometown of Seymour, Indiana. Naturally, the story included a mention of the singer’s most famous song, “Jack and Diane,” which hit No. 1 in October 1982, when Mellencamp was still calling himself John Cougar. The GMA report specified the line, “Suckin’ on a chili dog outside the Tastee Freez,” going on to note that “the actual Tastee Freez is long gone,” before segueing into Mellencamp’s concerns about the corporatization of middle America and the destruction of family farms (which, in 1985, pushed him to co-found FarmAid).
As immortalized in the song, the Midwestern frozen-treat stop is a monument to good old-fashioned teenage boredom, wanton horniness, and greasy fast food consumed without any regard for calories or arterial disease. With Diane in his lap, Jackie makes a dubious offer to go “dribble off those Bobbie Brooks” — irresistible, apparently, despite his almost-certainly beefy-bean breath. In an attempt to immortalize yet another minor music landmark, Vulture set out to find exactly which Tastee Freez Mellencamp was singing about.
The Tastee Freez chain was founded in 1950 in Illinois. In the Vaseline-lensed sixties and seventies in which Mellencamp’s song is set, hundreds of franchises were scattered across America’s heartland. It's widely suggested that Mellencamp wrote the song after watching Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood's fraught young love affair in Splendor in the Grass; some fans have also floated the idea that he was inspired by one of his own high-school relationships back in Seymour. The song's heavy with a certain restless, rust-belt ennui, so that's not hard to believe. Such a reading also helps narrow the scope of potential locations.
A search on the official Tastee Freez website turns up no Seymour location. In fact, there’s not a single franchise left in the entire state of Indiana — not even a nearby outpost of corporate siblings Weinerschnitzel or the Original Hamburger Stand, some of which carry a limited Tastee Freez menu. (Yep, even Tastee Freez fell victim to the corporatization of Middle America — the chain was bought by the Galardi Group, a California-based franchiser, in 2007.)
Perhaps, I thought, it might be fruitful to put the mystery to some Mellencamp fans. His hardcore partisans call themselves “Mellenheads,” and I e-mailed one. Mike Rainey boasts that he’s “been to over twenty concerts, has over 200 CDs, interviews, DVDs loaded with TV appearances, and countless news clippings.” But he too is stumped about the Tastee Freez. “I don't have anything where John mentions the Tastee Freez specifically, or his inspiration for it — I'm pretty sure it's just made up,” Rainey writes. He is able to tell me, though, that Mellencamp originally intended Jack and Diane to be an interracial couple, but that he “abandoned that idea because he thought it was a little much for the early eighties,” and that he almost trashed the song entirely because it was “a pop song and too light-hearted for the serious songwriter he was striving to be.” In the end, as these things often go, it became his biggest hit.
Jana Plump says she’s not a Mellenhead, exactly. She’s “just another 60-year-old life-long resident of Seymour.” In an e-mail, she spells out the array of snack bars that graced the town in the seventies and eighties. “There was the Dairy Queen, the Dairy Depot, the Dairy Barn, the Dairy Breeze and Kovener's Korner,” she writes.
It’s the latter establishment that seems closest to the songwriter’s heart. “The Kovener's Korner is located about two blocks from Mellencamp’s boyhood home on 5th Street,” writes Plump. “[There was] no actual Tastee Freez that I recall, but ‘someone’ still enjoys a visit to Kovener's Korner.” She attaches a recent snapshot of Mellencamp pausing outside the stand (located at 712 West 2nd Street) in jeans, a button-down, and sunglasses, digging into a large Styrofoam cup housing some kind of frozen concoction.
Attempts to contact Tastee Freez — or, rather, the Galardi Group — about any
Seymour location, past or present, were unsuccessful. When we tried to reach
Mellencamp himself for some insight, his reps demurred: “His inclination is
always to leave the looking back to others.”
But even if there was one single Tastee Freez that Mellenheads and other devotees could make some pilgrimage to and suck down a commemorative chili dog of their own, it would miss the point of the song. Mellencamp successfully shoehorning a clunker like “Kovernor’s Korner” into the lyrics might’ve been a heroic bit of pop songwriting, but some of the beauty would’ve been compromised. “Jack and Diane” are an everycouple; too many specifics would ruin the song’s effect. In the end, it’s not about Tastee Freez or two kids named Jack and Diane or Seymour, Indiana, at all. But ... the Galardi Group did send me some nice PDFs about becoming a franchise owner. If I opened one in Seymour, think Mellencamp would swing by?