“I think all good things probably started as jokes,” John Mellencamp said back in 1982. “Wasn’t God having a laugh when he made this whole place?”
At the time, a then 30-year-old Mellencamp (who was using the name “John Cougar”) was at the onset of a very notable “good thing”—throughout that year, he released a string of now-iconic singles (including his signature hit, “Jack & Diane”), all supporting the release of his breakthrough album, American Fool. By the next year, he was accepting the Grammy award for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance, and the rest is rock’n’roll history.
But the spark that truly lit the John Mellencamp flame was a tune that, itself, started as a joke: his single, “Hurts So Good.”
With its opening backbeat, its blazing guitar riff, and Mellencamp’s emotive, gravely croon on the lyrics, the song is a brilliant, nostalgic expression of embracing life, regardless of its often-rough edges.
When I was a young boy
Said, ‘Put away those young boy ways’
Now that I’m getting older, so much older
I long for those young boy days
With a girl like you
With a girl like you
Lord knows there are things we can do, baby
Just me and you
Come on and make it a
Hurt so good
Come on, baby, make it hurt so good
Sometimes love don’t feel like it should
You make it hurt so good
All elements combined, “Hurts So Good” is an electrifying song, the kind that gets your toe tapping and your head bopping… which makes sense, considering that it was written in a truly jovial fashion by Mellencamp and one of his childhood friends and longtime collaborators, George Green.
“I literally dreamt up that song in the shower in my house in Bloomington,” Mellencamp wrote in the liner notes of The Best That I Could Do (1978-1988). “I was still dripping wet when I got dressed, walked out of my bedroom, and said to my old songwriting friend George Green, ‘Hey! I just thought of a great chorus.’”
With the spark lit, the two immediately pounced on the idea. “We thought of it as like a Shel Silverstein thing—it was really just a joke,” Mellencamp said in the same 1982 interview with The L.A. Herald-Examiner that the opening quote from this article came from. Speaking years later with American Songwriter’s Paul Zollo, he explained that he and Green “exchanged lines back and forth between each other, and laughed about it at the time. Then I went and picked up the guitar, and within seconds, I had those chords.”
Just like that, “Hurt So Good” was born. Not too long after, Mellencamp got into Cherokee Studios in Los Angeles with drummer Kenny Aronoff, bassist George “Chocolate” Perry, and guitarists Larry Crane and Mike Wanchic, and the track was immortalized on tape. Then, they headed twenty miles southwest of Mellencamp’s hometown, Seymour, Indiana, to the small town Medora, Indiana, to film a rousing music video (it was ‘82—MTV was a year old).
By August of 1982, “Hurts So Good” peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, only being withheld from the coveted No. 1 spot by Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger,” which was taking the world by storm at the same time. That winter, Mellencamp received his first Grammy nomination, thanks to his vocal performance on the song.
With that, the decades-long legacy of John Mellencamp really began, taking the nation by storm and providing a crucial foundation for the genre of Heartland Rock. Still going strong at 70 years old, Mellencamp is continuing that legacy today, writing songs, playing shows, making jokes, and loving all the good things that can come from them.
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Photo by Marc Hauser /Sacks & Co