By Jimmie Tramel Tulsa World
Woody Guthrie Center Executive Director Deana McCloud was previewing a new exhibit when she said this: “This is the first time that we have had a motorcycle on our gallery floor. I mean, who would have thought in the Woody Guthrie Center we would have a motorcycle?”
It’s not just any motorcycle. It’s a 1965 Honda CL77 acquired by “Slate” J. Mellencamp when he was in high school.
You know Slate as John Mellencamp. Or John Cougar. Or John Cougar Mellencamp.
The new Woody Guthrie Center exhibit, “Mellencamp,” is an exploration of the life and career of an artist who champions heartland values and is an advocate for American farmers.
The exhibit features items like photos, handwritten lyrics, the motorcycle and musical instruments. Among instruments on display is a guitar David Bowie utilized during the Ziggy Stardust tour and a Neil Young guitar won by Mellencamp in an arm-wrestling match.
Sound interesting? McCloud expressed confidence that the exhibit will attract foot traffic.
“Especially in the Midwest, in this area, John Mellencamp is very, very popular — probably as much as he ever was,” she said during a recent preview of the exhibit. “We expect for this to really be something that people are wanting to come and see.”
The exhibit is scheduled to open Friday, Aug. 31. This is a big week for Tulsa-related Mellencamp news. Mellencamp will be presented the Woody Guthrie Prize during an 8 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 30, event at the Fly Loft.
The intimate and sold-out program, moderated by music journalist Bill Flanagan, will include a Q-and-A and songs. Those who purchased tickets to the program will be treated to a peek at the exhibit before it opens to the public.
The Mellencamp exhibit, curated by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, is the first team-up between the rock hall and the Woody Guthrie Center. Installers from the rock hall said it looked like the exhibit, which matches the surroundings, was made for the space, according to McCloud.
And Mellencamp “fits” at the Woody Guthrie Center, period.
“John is such a Woody Guthrie advocate and someone who follows in Woody’s footsteps so directly,” McCloud said. “Of course, this was a no-brainer that this needed to be here.”
McCloud said Mellencamp visited the Woody Guthrie Center a couple of years ago and wanted to see more things and even take some items home.
“I told him he couldn’t do that,” she said. “But he definitely walks the walk and stands up for those who are less fortunate.”
An early-years display reveals that Mellencamp, who dealt with spina bifida, was one of the less fortunate. Another display focuses on his work with Farm Aid. Said McCloud: “This is a definite connection to social justice work and standing up for those who need help, helping to organize Farm Aid and being a participant in the shows to help out farmers, which we certainly appreciate here.”
Mellencamp is a painter. McCloud requested that Mellencamp’s Martin Luther King Jr. painting be a part of the exhibit. Words on the painting say “Martin Luther King had a dream and this ain’t it.”
Did you know the hit song “Jack & Diane” was initially about race? Here’s an excerpt of a Mellencamp quote about that: “I was playing night clubs and I was seeing new American couples, mixed-race couples. I thought it was cool. The song was my effort to make a song about that, but, of course, the record company guy didn’t like it.”
McCloud suggested you can tell Mellencamp had a strong hand in the curation of the exhibit because his quotes connect to items on display.
The exhibit strikes a nice balance between eye candy (cycle, leather jacket, poster from a movie Mellencamp directed) and interesting information. He was described in an early public relations release as “looking like an uptown hustler” (whatever that means), but history has proven him to be a grounded person with something to say.
Said McCloud: “It’s like Woody says in the quotes on our board here as you enter: ‘I’m an educator and not any entertainer.’ John is not here to entertain us and make us feel good. He’s here to make us think. The true artists make us think and consider the world around us instead of just entertaining us and making us feel good about everything. Sometimes you don’t want to feel good about everything. You need to have awareness.”
One of Mellencamp’s elementary school report cards is part of the exhibit. He got a “needs to improve” in writing, and a teacher scribbled on the report card that he was careless.
“It just goes to show, in second grade, people couldn’t tell,” McCloud said.