SAN JOSE — John Mellencamp likes to shoot from the hip.
He’s honest, observant and unafraid — which goes a long way toward explaining why he’s such a terrific songwriter. Those same qualities, however, could make him a bit of a wild card during a Q&A session in front of a live audience.
Thus, before he started fielding questions on Monday night in San Jose, Mellencamp thought he’d better first caution the crowd.
“I think it only fair to say I come with a warning,” the 60-year-old singer-songwriter said right after taking the stage at the lovely California Theatre. “So just be aware of that.”
As it turned out, his most outrageous moment in an otherwise orderly appearance was when he lit up a cigarette inside the theater. Still, Mellencamp continues to be a breath of fresh air in an age often consumed by political correctness, where watching what you tweet seems at least as important as writing what you know. That factor is one of the main reasons why he’s such a deserving recipient of the 2012 John Steinbeck Award.
He came to town to receive the prestigious honor, which is also known as “In the Souls of the People” Award, from the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University. The award presentation also included a Q&A session, moderated by Robert Santelli of the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles, and a short seven-song concert, featuring
The whole package was a treat. The Q&A, which basically came across as a conversation between Mellencamp and Santelli, was insightful. The mini-concert that followed was well-rehearsed and fun, focusing mainly on greatest-hits material. Both parts of the program helped to explain why Mellencamp was chosen to receive this honor, previously bestowed on three other musicians — Bruce Springsteen (1996), Jackson Browne (2002) and Joan Baez (2003) — as well as actor Sean Penn, director Michael Moore, author Studs Terkel and other well-known figures.
The Steinbeck Center presents the honor to “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.”
Yeah, that fits him.
Having started in the mid-70s as a rock-pop idol performing cover songs and using the manufactured moniker Johnny Cougar, Mellencamp dramatically matured over the years and became a champion of many of the causes associated with Steinbeck, including, most famously, the plight of the American farmer.
The most interesting topic explored during Monday’s Q&A was the songwriting process. It was intriguing to learn that Mellencamp does not consider himself an autobiographical songwriter.
“As I said to my girlfriend the other day, ’You know that when I say ”I,“ I’m not talking about me,’”“ Mellencamp said. ”I never write about myself.“
He doesn’t take full credit for his best tunes. He thinks of himself as a conduit through which songs pass on their way to the page — and sometimes it takes him a while to understand just what he’s written.
“There have been songs that I’ve written in five minutes that, 20 years later, I’m like, ’Oh, I get it!’”“ he said. His follow-up concert touched on some of his best-known songs, including ”Rain on the Scarecrow,“ ”Pink Houses“ and ”Crumblin’ Down.“ The legacy of Steinbeck colors those songs, as it does so much of Mellencamp’s catalog. Now, thanks to the Center for Steinbeck Studies, the two Johns are forever linked.
Follow Jim Harrington at Twitter.com/jimthecritic, Facebook.com/jim.bayareanews and http://blogs.mercurynews.com/aei/category/concerts.