Examiner.com : "The Souls of the People" Award: John Mellencamp Recieves The Steinbeck Award

By Christine Herndon - Examiner.com Blue spotlights hung suspended above the edge of the stage. Two worn, black leather chairs sat, poised against a backdrop of drums, his name lettered in red on the kick-drum, an upright bass hand-painted with white crosses, and an acoustic guitar that echoes a story all on its own in the silence. Hundreds sit, an electricity buzzing in the air, waiting in excited anticipation to see John Mellencamp receive the John Steinbeck Award.

As he takes the stage, hundreds stand in his honor. Dressed in a black suit and white dress shirt, a scarf tied loosely around his neck, he takes a seat across from Robert Santelli and begins to speak. Mid-thought, John looks out across the California Theater, and cautions, "I think it’s only fair to say I come with a warning, so just be aware of that." The crowd laughs appreciatively, thinking they get the joke, and they do. Almost. For John’s most dedicated fans, we “get it”. We know John Mellencamp comes with a warning.

We just choose to ignore it.

The Steinbeck Award, known also as the “Souls of the People” Award, is given to those “writers, artists, thinkers, and activists whose work captures the spirit of Steinbeck's empathy, commitment to democratic values, and belief in the dignity of people who by circumstance are pushed to the fringes." John Mellencamp’s music spans more than three decades, a reflection of the social and political landscape of our country, sometimes an expression of a single moment in our history, like the nooses hung from trees in Jena, Louisiana. Most times though, his songs reflect a greater experience, a broader view of the human condition; the War in Iraq, the legacy of George W Bush, the struggles of the family farmer, poverty and homelessness, the atrocities we commit against each other behind closed doors, and racism, the greatest injustice and inequality that touches every corner of our lives.

Unafraid, unwavering, and unashamed, John Mellencamp’s songs have always been written from truth, from inside the souls of his listeners. It’s as though he climbed inside, moved around in the depths of our existence for a while, and lived to tell the tale. One song at a time. And that’s the warning; the words and music of John Mellencamp speak the truth. About ourselves and about each other. And even sometimes, about John himself. Usually it’s the truth we’d rather not see, the ugly realities we spend a lifetime distracting ourselves from. With his words, and with his music, John Mellencamp can turn those ugly truths into something beautiful, a sight to see. Songs such as Jackie Brown, Minutes to Memories, Between a Laugh and a Tear, Ghost Towns Along the Highway, Save Some Time to Dream, Longest Days, and Don’t Need This Body, For the Children, Walk Tall, and The Real Life, our lives changed forever. His songs live forever in our souls; giving us hope, inspiration, and the courage to be the best we can. The music of John Mellencamp makes us better people, better friends, better mothers, fathers, daughters, and sons, better sisters, better brothers. Better human beings because we carry a truth within our souls; the one that exists inside of us, and the one we see in the world within which we live. What better than to honor John with the “Souls of the People” Award?

For those of us whose souls have been indelibly etched with the words and music of singer/songwriter John Mellencamp, we are proud; words offer no measure of our gratitude, and our love. To share in John’s moment of glory on such a night, an honor, for we’ve held him in our souls for most of our lives. For we are the people.

After cautioning the audience to heed his warning, John reached into his suit pocket and pulled out a pack of smokes; American Spirit, the blue box. He shook one out, and leaned over, off mic, to ask if he could smoke. Robert Santelli nodded his head, and John lit up, a cloud of smoke swirling around his head. An ashtray was provided as the audience laughed, surprised. I wondered what had taken him so long. John answered questions, blowing an occasional smoke ring, the smoke backlighting his image bathed in a clear blue light from the spotlights above, setting the stage for the Steinbeck Award recipient to impart his words of wisdom…oftentimes hilarious, and at times, very profound.

On timing

“Life has never, at 60 years old, been on my timetable”.

On songwriting

“You asked about songwriting. Well, I hate to say it, but a lot of times I really have nothing to do with the songs. I’ve written some songs in five minutes, and 20 years later I go, ‘Oh I get it’. Lines of a song that I love now, that I thought I could’ve spent more time on, oh that line is weak, and 25 years later it’s like, ‘No, it’s not. That’s the best line of the song’. A lot of times I couldn’t understand what the ‘guy’ was trying to tell me. I wasn’t sophisticated enough as a young man to understand what is being sent to me, but as an old man you get the picture of what was being said. I really think the best way to walk up to write a song is with a clean palette and not have an idea of what it is you’re going to say, or trying to say”.

“I write these songs that surprise me. They go where they need to go. You know I like to not try to force it where I want it to go. Let it just go where they need to go and talk about what it needs to talk about. And really, if I’m really lucky, sometimes I can’t even keep up with it, I can’t you know, even write fast enough…but if you have to labor over something, it’s like pulling teeth. Usually the song’s not so great if you have to beat on it, and scratch on it. And you know…choose your words very carefully”.

On songs that can be agents for social and political change in the country, that it’s okay to write a song that has a message, that demonstrates something about our country

“Well, maybe…I don’t really know about all that. I don’t have such thoughts”.

On songs being autobiographical

“No, I never…I just said to my girlfriend today, ‘You know, whenever I say I…now you realize I’m not talking about me?’…I never write about myself”.

On being rock star, Johnny Cougar

“I worked with this guy. He managed David Bowie whose name was David Jones…and he kind of saw himself as PT Barnum or something like that. And so he uh, comes to me and said, ‘We just can’t sell a guy named Mellencamp’, and I said, well I’m not really for sale. But he made me think I was. I’m only 22 years old. I don’t know anything about anything. He said, ‘Take the f*cken name or go home’. So I said, okay, Johnny Cougar it is!”.

On writer’s block

“I had a friend call me up once, he’s a famous songwriter, and he said, ‘John, you ever have writer’s block?’ I said, no. He said, ‘How do you do that?’ And I told him, just look out the window. You can write a song about anything. Give me a topic, and I can write a song for you right now. There’s so many things to write about. The most perfect things to write about are the smallest things, the things we all have in common. We’re all the same box. But what’s inside that box is what makes us complicated and different, that makes people and life interesting. As long as we don’t get suckered in…”

On painting

“I’m also a painter and the guy that I studied with said, ‘John quit being so precious with that painting. Paint fast, make mistakes, correct, correct, correct…paint fast, make mistakes, correct, correct, correct’ It’s been really solid advice for me”.

On Stephen King

“I’m friends with Stephen King and I asked him, Steve, you ever write an outline? And he said, ‘What? Not since I’ve been published!’”

On Woody Guthrie

“The songs Woody Guthrie wrote were so simple. I loved him even more for the way he lived his life”.

“Pete Seeger said, (on Woody Guthrie) ‘I really don’t like that creep, but I hate it when he’s gone”.

On Arlo Guthrie

(while working with Arlo Guthrie at the first Woody Guthrie Centennial Celebration in Tulsa, Oklahoma) “It was my pleasure (to work with Arlo) because I had so much fun with Arlo, because Arlo and I have known each other for a long time. But Arlo doesn’t really know me, ‘cuz I’ll just sayanything. So Arlo’s trying to teach me to play Oklahoma Hills, right, and this is Guthrie’s kid, and I’m going ‘No, God damn it, you don’t play it like that!’ And Arlo’s looking at me like whaaaat? And I’m going, ‘No, no, no that’s not the right way to play it. It goes like this. And he’s going, ‘No, John’. And I said, ‘Arlo, this is the way you play it!’ And so, Arlo Guthrie says, ‘Okay!’.

On John Steinbeck

(With Steinbeck) “The subtext was not simple. It’s very complicated and you had to read it and watch it. My favorite Steinbeck novel is Tortilla Flats. He was writing about having possessions, and making too much of the possessions, and letting the possessions run your life. Danny Alvarez had two houses. One of them burned down. He didn’t give a f*ck. He has another house…both houses burned down. And the character, he said, ‘Shit, we started out sleeping under trees; we’ll sleep under trees again’. The subtext is really, you know, all these things we strive for we think are important, and suckered into believing having a new car tells you who you are, having this outfit, or this thing or that thing, doesn’t really mean anything in the long run”.

On Farm Aid

“…Willie and I went to congress, served on the subcommittee. Me and Willie, between the two of us we can’t string two sentences together. We understand each other. My favorite part of the subcommittee meeting was when one guy says, ‘Ah cut the bull, when you guys gonna play us a song?’ And Isaid, you know, we should be leaving, so we got up and left”.

(on progress and change for family farmers) “…Where we see progress is on the individual level. Individually we’ve made a lot of progress and helped a lot of people with suicide prevention and loans for the people to pay the bank for one more year on the family farm. Individuals have made a great contribution; globally, not so much”.

On His Fans

“I want to thank everyone that’s helped shine a light on that star that I’ve been following”.

On his career

“I could’ve been more successful in life if I had kept my mouth shut and my head down, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it”.

John Mellencamp, in his own words

“I always admire somebody who can be abrasive and honest, and has an opinion, and does not really care where the chips fell after what they said…”

“I’ve spent my whole life trying to figure out how not to be a sucker. Nothing wrong with being a sucker, it’s like being a hypocrite. A lot of people tell me today, that’s hypocritical, John. Whaat? I’m not allowed to change my mind? You don’t change your mind? If I had a list of things I liked when I was in my 20’s, it wouldn’t be the same list today”.

“You guys’ll miss me when I’m gone”.

But John, for us, you’ll never be gone.

You will live on in the “Souls of the People”. Forever and for generations to come, for we are the people.

To quote a line from one of your songs,

“We are the people, and we live forever. We are the people and our future’s written on the wind”.

Set List

Acoustic Guitar
Jack and Diane
What Kind of Man Am I? (from Ghost Brothers of Darkland County)
Longest Days

Full Band
Paper in Fire
The Real Life
If I Die Sudden
Crumblin’ Down
Pink Houses
Cherry Bomb