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The Dirty Mind and Lonely Heart of John Mayer

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Along the way, he tries to explain himself and his various predilections. His love of poop Twitters, for instance. "I mean, in the wake of some completely fabricated story in Star, you'd be surprised what a good poop joke can do for you. When I send a poop joke out on Twitter, every single time, people write back, 'LOL, that's why I love you. You're not like every other bullshit celebrity.' It shows an artist detaching from the matrix of trying to micromanage per-fection. It's about not caring. So, it's not really about poop at all."

This is pure Mayer talk. Nothing is what it seems. He operates in layers of meaning, where a poop joke is so much more than a poop joke. "He's a student of cause and effect," says Chad Franscoviak, Mayer's sound engineer and sometime roommate for the past 10 years. "And he'd be a phenomenal chess player, because he knows all the moves so many steps ahead. That's just how he operates."

"I am the new generation of masturbator," Mayer says later on, out of the blue, apropos of nothing, really. "I've seen it all. Before I make coffee, I've seen more butt holes than a proctologist does in a week."

Does this new generation of masturbator masturbate every day?

"I don't like that question, because it seeks to make me sound strange if I say 'yes,' but of course I do. I mean, I have masturbated myself out of serious problems in my life. The phone doesn't pick up because I'm masturbating. And I have excused myself at the oddest times so as to not make mistakes. If Tiger Woods only knew when to jerk off. It has a true market value, like gold bullion. First of all, I don't jerk off because I'm horny. I'm sort of half-chick. It's like District 9 – I can fire alien weapons. I can insert a tampon. No, I do it because I want to take a brain bath. It's like a hot whirlpool for my brain, in a brain space that is 100 percent agreeable with itself."

After that, he continues in like manner, revealing another one of his situations. He's in love with the sound of his own voice, always saying things like, "Let me break it down for you," and then laying into it with revelatory verbal fireworks of the kind that constantly threaten to blow him to smithereens. He can't help himself, he's got to say what's on his mind, despite the consequences, which often get played out in the tabloids and on trash TV, such as the time during a stand-up-comedy gig when he said he never got to have sex with early girlfriend Jennifer Love Hewitt because of a bout of food poisoning.

"I sometimes wonder what the fuck I'm doing," he says. "I have these accidents, these mistakes, these self-inflicted wounds, and then I tear my head to shreds about it for days. I'll read a little something and die a thousand times in my own mind, visualizing the death of my career or respect for me and my music. I almost go blind. But then two weeks ago, it occurred to me, 'John' – if I can use my own name with myself – 'The only reason you're going through these trials is because you're brave-enough to say, "I don't want to detach. I don't want to go live in a gated community."' So, I will continue to make these worldwide dignity mistakes as often as it takes to not make them anymore."

How Mayer got to be like this is kind of a mystery. He grew up in the leafy Connecticut town of Fairfield, the middle son of level-headed professional educators. His mom, Margaret, was an English teacher; his dad, Richard, some 20 years his mom's senior, was a high school principal, and Mayer wasn't anything like them. A class clown in his early years, Mayer had taken up the guitar by his midteens and had begun shutting himself off in his room to the exclusion of everything else. It's all he did and all he wanted to do — "kill it, kill it, kill it," with that guitar. He plastered his room with posters of Stevie Ray Vaughan, B.B. King, Jimi Hendrix. While the other kids were listening to Nirvana, Mayer was deep into reading the Buddy Guy biography Damn Right, I've Got the Blues and cutting out the photos when he was done.

"He kept to himself quite a bit back then, and he was pretty quiet in school but hilarious once we got outside," says Fairfield-raised tennis pro James Blake, who's known Mayer since they were seven. "He seemed pretty disinterested in what was going on in school."

For several years, Mayer took guitar lessons from Al Ferrante, owner of the Fairfield Guitar Center. "He came in holding a Stevie Ray Vaughan album, said, 'I want to learn this stuff,' and in short order he was wailing away," says Ferrante, "way beyond anybody else." To his friends,Mayer's talent was obvious. "He could play the guitar and drum at the same time," recalls Joe Beleznay, who played rhythm guitar in Mayer'shigh school band, Villanova Junction (named after the Hendrix song). "He'd sit behind the drum set, get the bass drum going, then on the down strum of his guitar he'd hit the snare. It was crazy, inventive shit. He just had it." Says Blake, "With girls, I wouldn't say he had the same kind of success he's had now, but he didn't put in the same kind of effort. His focus was on that guitar." At some point, however, this single-minded devotion to music so freaked his parents out that they sent him to shrinks to see if something was wrong (he was given a clean bill of health). Meanwhile, the kid had his own worries. For one, his parents fought a lot, which he says led him to "disappear and create my own world I could believe in." Also, he'd begun to suffer from anxiety attacks and feared ending up in a mental institution. "Growing up," Mayer says, "that was the big fear." Says his pal Beleznay, "I would get anxiety attacks too, and we would talk each other down. It was heart palpitations, shortness of breath, coldness and shivers, strange stuff, and we'd be like, 'You're totally fine. You're not having a heart attack.' His mind works at such speed that I think he would sort of second-guess his sanity at times."

In his senior year, Mayer decided he was going to skip traditional higher education and become a musician. "I tried to talk him out of it," says Blake, "but then he told me that he didn't care if he was sleeping on a pool table in a dirty bar, he just wanted to play music." When he told his parents the same thing, all hell broke loose. Their reaction was so strong that even today Mayer wraps himself up in his arms while talking about them and says, "Look at my body language. My goodness."

After graduation, he attended Berklee College of Music in Boston — while there, his father had a change of heart and sent "him a note that read, 'Remember me when you go platinum'" — but Mayer dropped out after a year and moved to Atlanta, to join its thriving singer-songwriter scene. He started off playing Monday's open-mike night upstairs at Eddie's Attic and soon became a regular performer there, as well as a part-time doorman. "He was very talented and extremely determined — as determined as anybody I've ever met," recalls Eddie's Attic founder Eddie Owen. "He thought it was going to happen for him, and by God he did everything he could to make it happen."

Even so, he could still be a shut-in. He had terrible acne and often canceled dates because of it. Eventually, he suffered a kind of breakdown — "an anxiety bender," he once called it — out of which came a new Mayer, the freewheeling social-animal Mayer, the Mayer we know today. In 2000, a gig at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin led to meetings with several record labels, during which he behaved in typical strong-willed Mayerian fashion.

"As a kid, he picks up a guitar and isolates himself because he's so overtaken by passion for the instrument or because he's not comfortable socially and is an outsider," says Michael McDonald, his manager and friend for the past 10 years. "And then at home, his pursuit isn't supported. But what happened was he became his own biggest advocate. When he went to those meetings, he would tell people how he wanted it to be, and if they offered alternatives, he walked away."

Eventually, Mayer signed with Aware/ Columbia. Shortly thereafter, Room for Squares was released, "Your Body Is a Wonderland" became a hit, as did "Daughters," from his second album, Heavier Things, and everyone was happy, especially the label, which was hotly anticipating a third record full of similar radio-ready tunes. Instead, in 2005, Mayer presented it with the cool blues of the John Mayer Trio. Says McDonald, "They were like, 'Oh, fuck. Can we please make it an EP?' But John's got a course charted that he doesn't share, and the Trio, to him, was an answer to 'Wonderland' and 'Daughters' — not a rebellion against but an answer to."

The Trio's live record, Try!, didn't do as well as Mayer's other albums, but that was hardly the point. The point is, he will showcase his talents on his own schedule.

And so forward he moves, on a journey that seems to have gone by with wondrous ease, except, of course, for the acne, and the shut-in business, and the worries about a mental institution, and the anxiety bender — all of which, sum in toto, are probably responsible for the way he is today, this willy-nilly scattered metaminded eccentric who seems next-door normal only on his records. He recently told MTV, "You get kicked in the heart by someone who's aware of it or not, and you get sent alone into a room, and if you have a little bit of intellect, a little bit of talent and a lot of loneliness, you'll probably make it."

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