Now that Mayer has left the cloistered seclusion of his room, however, what he seems to want more than anything is to make up for his loneliness by courting mass attention. It's what his public life is about. It's why he decided to make records like Battle Studies that back-seat his scorching blues guitar in favor of pop-happy lyrics and commercial melodies, the Trio album notwithstanding, and why he even sings songs at all. As far back as 2002, he was saying things like "I scientifically engineer my music to be as accessible as possible," just as today he says, "I love being a famous musician. I love being the center of attention. I believe in judging the quality of a song by how much of a hit it sounds like." At least he's honest. But the ultimate effect is to make Mayer the singer-songwriter and Mayer the man about town sometimes seem disconnected, like they don't even belong in the same body. He says he's going to shake things up on his next record. "I want the next one to be gritty, real gritty," he says. "The no-ballad gritty one." But then he laughs and says, "One ballad." And then he laughs again and says, "I've got a built-in failure attenuator." He gives, he takes away, he's got his course charted, he's a blues killer, he's a pop superstar, he seems so open, he seems so shut, he is a master of disguise.
Last year, his folks finally got divorced, after which Mayer moved his dad, now 82 years old, out to California, to an independent-living facility, where he could see him more often and help take care of him. Mayer won't talk about it, though, what it means to be so close to his father at this stage of his dad's life. Nor will he let you talk to his dad, or his mom, or his brothers, like they might reveal some strange truth. In fact,Mayer is cagey about his Fairfield years. He can talk about the most intimate details of his personal life, but about his childhood, and the forces that shaped him, he remains steadfastly mum. But maybe that's the way it should be. Perhaps it's best to rise above the gnawing tabloidlike need to have all mysteries revealed.
Mayer does say that ever since the divorce, he has felt slightly adrift. "I was in L.A., making the record, when it happened. You get orphaned. I never went home. I never went back to the home I grew up in. I never went and saw it again. It happened. My house is gone." Among other things, it's the house where, at the age of 14, he fell in love with the girl who would inspire "Your Body Is a Wonderland" and without whom he would not be where he is today. He recently got an e-mail from her. "It was a beautiful e-mail about what it's like to hear me on the radio," he says. "She said she smiled. I started crying as I wrote her back. This woman is precious. She can vouch for me not as a celebrity. She carries with her information of this 14-year-old boy she knew. She knows the truth. She hadn't written me in a long time. I think she was trying to forget me because she has a husband and kids." That's one possibility. But there's another possibility: that Mayer is the one who continues to pine, either for her or the idea of her and their shared innocence, his pre-celebrity existence, and he can't bring himself to say so.
Over the year, lots of musicians have weighed in on Mayer's talents. Said Fall Out Boy's Patrick Stump, "Mayer is single-handedly making the Stratocaster cool again!" Said Buddy Guy," Every once in a while, a young man comes along to make sure the blues can survive." Said a puzzled Ozzy Osbourne, " 'Continuum: Music by John Mayer,' whoever that is. 'Continuum.' I couldn't understand what that word meant." Said Jason Mraz, after seeing Mayer kill at the Viper Room, "He didn't play no 'Body Is a Wonderland.' He was playing for his love of music. He was Jimi Hendrix and Buddy Guy and Stevie Vaughan all rolled up into one big reincarnation burrito."
In 2006, Mayer spent 10 days working on songs with Eric Clapton at Clapton's estate, where Mayer seemed to have reverted to some of his childhood ways. "He treated our days together as work," says Clapton, "and I tried to point out to him the importance of music being the truth — and to get him to come out of the bedroom. There are a lot of bedroom guitar players. And John was in and out of that. I wasn't sure ifJohn was aware of the power of playing with other people, though I think he is now." He goes on, "I think he becomes too caught up in being clever. It seems to me his gift happens in spite of him. He's a prime saboteur. And he will do himself in, if everyone lets him. But his gift is in good shape."
And while all of that is very interesting, it's not really what people reading tabloids care about. All they care about is "Who is Mayer going out with now?"
Jessica Simpson was his first big tabloid-heavy romance. They got together in mid-2006 and went public at Christina Aguilera's New Year's Eve party and then they got swarmed. At first Mayer didn't think he could handle all the media heat — "I got so many tension headaches from magazine covers that it felt like a threat" — but stuck it out with her for just shy of a year. Then there's his latest, Jennifer Aniston, and it was the purest kind of celebrity relationship, almost every minute of it documented in one way or another. When it ended, Mayer held an impromptu press conference outside his New York gym in which he planned to flay himself alive for breaking up with Aniston — "I'm the asshole. I burned the American flag. I basically murdered an ideal." Instead, he came off like a jerk only interested in taking credit for the breakup. "I've never really gotten over it," he says. "It was one of the worst times of my life."
He still thinks about Aniston a lot, and in conversation her name pops up often.
"I met a girl one time in Vegas, her name was Dimples, and the 'S' in Dimples was a dollar sign," he's saying early one evening sitting outside at the Chateau Marmont hotel. "I have this weird feeling, a pride thing, for the people I've had relationships with. I still feel like I'm with them, in the sense that if I fucked Dimples, what does that say about someone like Jen? I feel like it's all connected. How could I ever cosmically relate these two people? What would I be saying to Jen, who I think is fucking fantastic, if I said to her, 'I don't dislike you. In fact, I like you extremely well. But I have to back out of this because it doesn't arc over the horizon. This is not where I see myself for the rest of my life, this is not my ideal destiny,' and then I see myself fucking Dimples? What does that say for my case?"
Then again, there is what he did last summer. At a hotel in Vegas, he saw some girls by the pool, one thing led to another, and they all wound up in bed together. "And you know what? It wasn't smarmy. It was awesome. And then, after that, when I went out that night, I had the greatest time ever, because I was depleted, had no libido left, didn't have to do any of those crazy Blue Steel looks. It was unbelievable."
A waiter shows up. Mayer orders chicken. But then he realizes he ate chicken yesterday. "Fuck the chicken," he says and calls out for spaghetti Bolognese.
"I'll be honest with you," he says then. "All this weird shit about me? All this strangeness? I wouldn't have a music career without it. But I am at odds with myself. I have some presence of psychological damage from the past 36 months. I have not had a woman appear in my dreams sexually without a paparazzi in the dream too. I can't even have a wet dream without having to explain to someone who's grinding on me, 'We can't do this right now, because there's a guy over there taking pictures.'" He groans. "I don't know how much further I can do this before I'm a dead body on the side of the road. I mean, either I'm a total fucking nut case who can explain himself, or I'm really not crazy and I can explain myself. I don't know yet. But I'll be happy when I close out this life-partner thing. It's been a long time since I've felt attached. Think of how much mental capacity I'm using to meet the right person so I can stop giving a fuck about it."
He's on a real roll right now, caught up again in the workings of his own mind. At times like these, it's impossible to get a word in edgewise. It seems dangerous to even try. It's best just to let him go on, reserve judgment, realize that, above all else, he means well and is simply, in the end, only trying to find his way, as best he can.
"I don't care about anything other than energy," he goes on. "That's why people think, 'Is he bi? Is he that?' I've never slept with a man. But I get it. I've seen pictures of men on the Internet that are sexier than pictures of most women."
Has he ever felt it stir?
"Sure. Abso-fucking-lutely. You know when I didn't feel it stir? When I actually stood next to a real dude. When I walk in the locker room at the gym, I'm 100 percent straight as an arrow. But, look, because of all the porn I've watched, I'm now enamored with what I call 'the third kind.' It's not male, it's not female. It's a new creation by way of the hundreds of blow-job films I've seen. There's a new brand of dicks going around right now. It's a new dick. It's a superdick. This superdick is straight and one color, and it seeks to destroy the race of men before them.
"I have a hugely creative and visual relationship with things," he continues. "So what's my job going to be? Finding somebody to be the only person. Basically, what am I going to do with my imaginary headless, hung dudes without a hair on them or anything masculine about them? What am I going to do with those dicks when it comes time to find somebody? Do they go away? Do you find a woman who incorporates it? Do you love this woman so much you no longer need it? I'm like in Avatar. I'm a legless, dickless dude laying in a chamber, projecting myself in all ways. I'm this legless asshole — "
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