By Jim Harrington
John Mellencamp, the Hoosier State troubadour known for crafting such tuneful slices of Americana as "Pink Houses," "Small Town" and "Jack & Diane," is this year's recipient of the John Steinbeck Award.
The 60-year-old singer-songwriter, who has sold more than 40 million records during a career that spans five decades, is the fourth musician to earn the honor, also known as "In the Souls of the People" Award, following Bruce Springsteen (1996), Jackson Browne (2002) and Joan Baez (2003). Other recipients of the honor, which is bestowed annually through the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University, have included actor Sean Penn, director Michael Moore and author Studs Terkel.
Mellencamp will receive the Steinbeck Award from Thomas Steinbeck, an accomplished author and son of John Steinbeck, on Monday at the lovely California Theatre, 345 S. First St., San Jose. The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer will perform songs at the event and participate in a talk moderated by Robert Santelli, executive director of the Grammy Museum. Showtime is 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $55-$100 (www.ticketmaster.com).
I talked with Mellencamp last week, as he turned his thoughts toward the Steinbeck Award.
Q First off, congratulations on winning the Steinbeck Award.
A It's a nice thing to get. I like it when families do this kind of thing, as opposed to business people. I got the Woody Guthrie award a few years ago from the Guthrie family, and that probably meant as much to me as anything else I've gotten.
Q What was your reactions when you heard that you'd won the award? Were you aware that the award existed?
A I knew about the award. And, of course, I know a lot about Steinbeck. I was pleased.
Q This won't be the first trophy in your case. How does it stack up to some of the other honors you've received?
A Awards -- they only give them to old people. Keep that in mind. When you start getting awards, you know you are old. But it seems a little bit more ... oh, I guess the word would be honoring, when it is from a family, as opposed to a bunch of music affiliates. To get something from the Guthrie family or the Steinbeck family is pretty nice praise for a guy from Indiana.
Q You're the fourth musician to receive the award -- after Springsteen, Jackson Browne and Joan Baez. Not bad company.
A I would imagine they offered it to Dylan, but he wouldn't take it -- if I know Bob.
Q The award is given to, and I quote from the Center from Steinbeck Studies, "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." That an apt description for your body of work?
A I don't know if that shoe fits perfectly, but I have written a lot of songs about extreme parts of life that all of us go through.
Q When someone mentions Steinbeck, what images first come to mind?
A My favorite Steinbeck piece is "Tortilla Flats." It is so beautiful -- and so grotesquely beautiful. I sent Springsteen a copy of the movie -- Spencer Tracy stars in the movie. It's about the problem of the possessions.
Q Why do you think Steinbeck continues to fascinate so many readers?
A Because he's good. It's that simple -- because he's good. And because he's dealing with stuff that people just don't deal with anymore. People don't want to deal with that type of reality. If you just look at the movies that were made of Steinbeck's books, and then the movies that they make today. What chance do you think "East of Eden" would've had of being made today? I'll tell you -- none. They just wouldn't do it. Hollywood is all about Spider-Man.
That's why he endures with a certain type of person. Not with the general public, I don't think anymore, but with a certain type of person.