Things John Mayer Told Me
It was November 2009, and I was a college graduate working at a coffee shop. I did not have a baby, or a husband, or even an apartment. I slept in my parent's garage. I had never been paid for a piece of writing, though I desperately believed I should be a writer. My one auto-debit charge each month was a gym membership that cost ten dollars, a charge which frequently overdrafted my checking account. I am telling you these things to explain them to myself as much as to you, because now it seems so far away from me.
When my friend Ben called on a Wednesday night to tell me about a secret, free John Mayer show that was happening in Brooklyn the very next day, I did not have a single reason to hesitate. No pressing obligations, nothing important, nothing I couldn't blow off. When you live in a garage, spontaneity costs you nothing. I rallied the troops: a fellow barista and my old college roommate.
We were all living our own version of post-2008-recession malaise, spinning our wheels and waiting for our student loans to come due. The wrought iron doors of our promised futures seemed soldered shut for the time being, but there were free John Mayer shows in Brooklyn to attend in the meantime. I went for a run on the bizarrely painted purple treadmill at the gym that I couldn't afford, then waited two hours outside the Music Hall of Williamsburg to get a wristband for the concert.
I had seen John perform live before--all four of us had. But this show was different. Off the heels of a (third? fourth?) messy public breakup and getting slaughtered anew in the press, John was ostensibly touring to promote his new release, Battle Studies. But in that intimate venue, on a small stage, wearing his hair wild and a black shirt torn off at the sleeves, John made it clear that he had come to us for something else: a reckoning.
The paparazzi were hounding him, and he was the target of tabloid disdain. He'd been tried by the court of public opinion and found lacking in moral capacity. He was a cad, a lothario, a narcissist, a "crooner." John had never set out to be any of those things. What he wanted to be was a rock star. But some people--a lot of people--thought his musicianship, his talent, were a joke. To some observers, it looked very much like his career as a serious songwriter could be over, the distractions of his personal life a weight his image could not sustain.
Toward the end of the set, he stopped singing and broke into a rhythmic, revival-style monologue. He was frustrated, it was clear, with the circuitous narrative of his life. He rallied and ranted against the way he'd been portrayed. He claimed victory over the role he'd been assigned by "the media." "There's nothing wrong with who I am," he seemed to insist. "My plan from here on out is to keep being me."
But the songs, the presentation, the set list, all of it, told a different story. Pleading earnestly into his headset, a seriousness overtook the lyrics as he sang them. The energy in the room was electrifying as John turned the charm on, then up, then up so high it became distracting.
Though he crowed with confidence between songs, Mayer's voice trembled with emotion as he sang that night. "If fear hasn't killed me yet, then nothing will," he admitted in a brand new track. He looked down at the stage and up at the lights and sang of pain, into the darkness. His energy frenetic, John barely looked at the audience throughout the two-hour set. He had a question for us: "Is this working? Because the only hope I have is that this works." He desperately needed to know.
Wearing size four jeans, a tiny navy jacket, and my long blonde hair hanging straight down my back, I had come to Brooklyn feeling profoundly dissatisfied, unoriginal, undeserving of goodness. I was young enough then to spend a lot of time feeling envy, even during the concert, of my beautiful friends; Mia's bright eyes and perfect bangs, Alison's eclectic style and magnetic self-assurance.
Watching John up there, I felt dizzy with comprehension. I was in awe of having gotten so close to a person that had been an untouchable, constant presence in my life--only to realize he was living in his own version of my parent's garage, wondering if who he was was even going to work. Confused with regret, energized by defiance. Hoping life would show him a way out.
Or maybe the dizziness was just because John Mayer is so damn handsome in person.
It was about a year after that show when I heard the news that John had been diagnosed with granulomas in his throat. I wondered if it was from those concerts, touring Battle Studies, barraging the country defending his ego and drinking whiskey after whiskey all the while. He was sentenced to silence; no touring until his chords healed from granuloma surgery, and no talking for months at a time. There were no more long nights out, no partying. No interviews.
The first surgery led to another surgery, and the silence was prolonged. His verbal link to the world forbidden, John communicated his needs with an iPad. Hubris and social anxiety alone might not have been enough to wreck his career, but when he couldn't tour to give his albums some momentum, his comeback prospects seemed doomed. He was also faced with the very real possibility that he might never be able to sing again. This was all besides the very distressing fact that lots of people were still making fun of him.
So John Mayer bought a ranch in Montana and hid.
He also expanded his collection of custom sneakers and Rolex watches. He wrote songs, but only sometimes. He did some things that made sense, like invite reporters to his ranch to show he was a changed man, humbled. He did some other things that did not make sense but were fascinating anyway, like dating Katy Perry.
I got married on John Mayer's birthday in 2010, and went on a short honeymoon to the Paradise Valley in Montana. I didn't try to track John down while I was there, but only because he didn't live there yet. I canceled my membership to the cheap gym with the dirty purple equipment and set up overdraft protection so my new bills at my new apartment would get paid. I stopped trying to write for money, and I got a new job that had health insurance instead.
My vibrant, spontaneous, broken, and road-blocked life gave way to something much more difficult to penetrate. Silence.
I can't tell you very much about the years that followed because I didn't write the details down. I do know that there were times of beauty, times of peace, and times of struggle. Times of faith and of crippling doubt. I didn't buy Rolexes, but I did buy an Essie nail polish every time I got a paycheck and indulged myself by being painstakingly choosy with my color selection. It was months before I looked at them all lined up in a row on a lucite nail polish stand and realized, to my horror, that all of the bottles were neutrals. (This was an apt metaphor.)
I did some things that made sense, like run half-marathons and use my vacation time carefully. I did some things that did not make sense, like berate myself continually for not having a bestseller even though I couldn't be bothered to even keep up with a journal.
I thought a lot about craft, and what I would do if I ever got my writing voice back. I started and stopped and started writing again, so many times. I had things to say, but I did not want to be the person that said them. I had done things I was ashamed of that I didn't want to talk about, and I was also very angry at the world for not being easier to live in. I felt criticized, always, but by nothing in particular.
Then I did something that had nothing to do with John Mayer: I had a baby. Maybe because my husband is so damn handsome in person.
And on my third day home from the hospital, my voice came back.
I was alone in my apartment, with a kind of loud, vaguely sweet, very helpless human being who was depending on me to keep it alive. My career ambitions were the farthest thing in the world from my mind as I put Eli in his big, expensive baby swing, sat on our old leather loveseat, and, for lack of literally any other ideas for how to occupy a tiny person, played some John Mayer songs on YouTube. Then I started to write.
I did not feel my voice stilled by the silence. The silence had evolved into something else. Quiet.
My baby son was soothed by guitar solos while I was calmed by the familiar songs. Layers of envy, failure, resentment, anger, and their like shed off of me like a second skin. Sunlight poured through my window and I thought of the frenzied and desperate longings of my youth and the stunted growth of my twenties that followed. I did not wonder who I was or who was making fun of me. I looked at Eli, and I suddenly could not come up with one regret.
The playlist drifted from John's solo originals, to his jazz trio work, and then to covers. I admitted to myself that "Kid A" and "XO" are my favorite songs John's ever recorded, and they aren't even his. Like the best version of himself comes through when he's put the pressure off of being only him and incorporates the creative vision of other people. My own mind wandered toward how much I'd always enjoyed editing other people's work. I got an idea for a website, a service I could provide, a job I could make for myself that would let me stay at home. My fingers could not scribble fast enough.
I thought about that free concert and wondered if perhaps this gentle YouTube serenade from my favorite songwriter, with my beautiful, amazing son right in front of me, was actually better. I felt the desperate hope that who I am, would work. But I also felt, with a surging certainty, that it already did.
John's newest album is going to be released before the end of the year. He's titled it, The Search for Everything. For his sake, I hope he found it. Because he's led me to so much of what I know.