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."
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 noballad 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 years, 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 if John 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."
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