Article by David Masciotra
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that the “greatest gift is a portion of thyself.” All great artists submit part of themselves into their art, whether it is channeling the frequency of their spirit into song, emptying some part of their heart into a palette or poem, or investing their own intellect and imagination into the process of invention.
John Mellencamp has made it clear that not all – not even the majority – of his songs are actually about him, but in the true tradition of the authentic artist, he has given himself to his audience. No artist is able to create without engineering some discovery of humanity – his own, someone else’s, or that which is universally shared – and the creation functions as documentation of the clues gathered on the discoverer’s expedition. It is impossible to listen to the most marvelous of Mellencamp songs – “Minutes to Memories,” “Jackie Brown,” “Longest Days,” and many others – without wrestling against the deep insights into the human experience that they offer. What is, perhaps, most profound and hopeful about the Mellencamp story is that of all the people who knew him, including the executives at his record label who demanded, with futility, that he turn himself into the next Neil Diamond, and the friends who offered the well-intended advice that he stay home and get a good job to support his family, the person who least expected him to become one of America’s great songwriters was himself.
When his first record company asked him to write songs, he had no interest, and his first attempts at songwriting, he admits, were “so bad” that if one knew nothing else of his music, one would ask, “why did he even continue?”
Talent is innate, and not all songwriters, painters, or poets are created equal, but the joyful surprise of Mellencamp’s transformation captures the magic of human potential. The potential waits for someone with the courage and tenacity to mold and manipulate it. How many people allow their own potential to decay, unused and unborn? What would have happened had Mellencamp insisted he should not write songs, or gave up after his first record failed commercially and critically, or allowed his record company and management firm to impose their will on him?
The inquiry into the paradox of identity – something seemingly fixed but simultaneously buildable – influences the viewing experience of John Mellencamp’s new documentary, John Mellencamp – Plain Spoken: From the Chicago Theatre.
Mellencamp has an insistence – exciting to me and many others, but perhaps frustrating to some – of never doing anything according to convention. The new documentary is a unique presentation of the work and mind of a musician, unlike any other concert film. Mellencamp and his band’s live performance from 2014, featuring songs from his then new record, Plain Spoken, and a career full of hits, becomes background accompaniment to John Mellencamp’s own narration.
The songwriter and painter’s deep and smoky voice plays over the top of the music and concert footage. He becomes the speaker at the other end of a table over a barroom conversation on a quiet afternoon. Most of his remarks and reflections center on the subject of artistry, paying particular attention to his childhood and early years in music.
Anyone watching already knows everything he achieved – countless records sold, prestigious awards, dozens of hit singles, and a collection of songs that have carved out territory in the hearts and minds of millions of fans. To watch that man of achievement lead a stellar band through the hallmarks of his own career, while a voice speaks of the passion, excitement, triumph, and trouble of youth creates a contrast that is thrilling.
I spent years as a fan before beginning my own book, Mellencamp: American Troubadour. I then intensively researched Mellencamp’s life before sitting down to write. The new documentary contains several stories I have never heard about his family, early romances, first attempts at music, and Indiana childhood.
Mellencamp is open about himself, but with a certain irony. About halfway into Plain Spoken, he explains that any public figure, whether they are trying to sell concert tickets or win votes, allows the public to see only the “shadow side” of themselves – “the image that they have deliberately left behind.”
The image that emanates from the documentary is John Mellencamp as a man restlessly and irrevocably dedicated to the pursuit of an artistic and authentic life.
All of his stories, with rollicking renditions of “Pink Houses,” “Pop Singer,” and “Troubled Man,” playing in the background culminate in an urgent testimony. It is almost a secular sermon that Mellencamp has created: The homiletic art of offering one’s own life as evidence for the adoption of a principle.
The principle Mellencamp implores the audience to accept and actualize is so important that he repeats it three times: “There is no reward in this world for settling for something you don’t want.”
At the beginning of Plain Spoken, he expresses skepticism over the next generation finding their great artists, because people are rarely, if ever, now given the time and opportunity to grow, as Mellencamp was in the 1970s and ‘80s.
People also, I worry, might not possess the patience, vulnerability, and independence necessary to create art that is rich, lasting, and valuable.
At a minimum, there is the hope that when people begin to weaken, question their own imagination, and resist the affection of their heart, John Mellencamp – Plain Spoken: Live at the Chicago Theatre will exist to tell and show them exactly why they are wrong.