The Wonder of John Mayer Land
He's a hyperverbal rock star hunting for a wife, a hugely talented guitarist and songwriter who needs to be a stand-up comic. But don't believe the tabloids—nobody knows what's going on in his head.
This story was originally published in the March 2008 issue of Best Life.
When John Mayer finds a wife, he'll finally be able to take it easy.
Lots of things will change. For one, the gossip-hound paparazzi knuckleheads won't bother him as much as they do now. Just recently, this is what happened: He was leaving a New York City restaurant, his then-girlfriend and Friday Night Lights star Minka Kelly on his arm, when the paparazzi swarmed. "How you doin', John?" this one video guy asks, all friendly. And then… "Was Cameron Diaz's body a wonderland?" Normally, Mayer wouldn't respond. But, really, this was too much. "Do you see that I'm with a woman?" he asked the guy. "Do you see that I had dinner with a woman and you're asking me about another.…Man, that's terrible!"
"When I get married, all that stuff will be null and void," he says.
Married guys have other problems, naturally, but Mayer is positive he won't have many of those. Let's say he has to go to work. Right now, he's 30 years old. He has been a heartthrob singer, songwriter, and guitar player for only the past seven years, but what he has accomplished during that time is remarkable: three major-label hit albums, including Room for Squares, his first, and Continuum, his latest, as well as nine top-10 hit singles, including "No Such Thing," his first, and "Say," his latest. He has won five Grammys. He has played onstage with the great B.B. King and recorded with everyone from Kanye West to the Dixie Chicks. He has called a Porsche dealer in New York from Eric Clapton's estate in England and, sight unseen, bought a $134,000 Turbo S, just because it was the rock-star thing to do. He has been named a Time magazine top 100 influential person. In addition to Diaz and Kelly, he has gone out with Jennifer Love Hewitt and, most tumultuously, Jessica Simpson. He writes a monthly column about anything that interests him and maintains his own blog. Most recently, he has decided he wants to be a stand-up comic and has gone onstage in pursuit of yuks. In other words, anything he has wanted to do, he has done, and he wants to do lots more.
But what about his future wife? Will his future wife bitch and moan about it and tell him, for instance, that he can't go on tour this year, because she has other plans and what about her plans for a change? She will not. She will be incredibly happy for him. She will say, "I understand." And she will say, "No complaints."
"I think about my wife all the time," says Mayer. "I kind of obsess on it, and what I want to find is a person who can speak those kinds of magic words. I mean 'No complaints' is a great way to live. Also, I want a woman who doesn't hear 'How are you?' as 'I would like you to come up with something dramatic now that will allow me to sit in front of you and give you more attention than I would have if you had just said 'No complaints.' When I find the person I can relate to on that level and who is also a pinup and who also says 'Can I please take pictures of your ass?' then I am going to get married to her. That I can promise you."
But there is one small hitch, and it bedevils Mayer day and night, because it's largely out of his control.
"My fear," he says, "is that I go up to the girl of my dreams and say, 'I'm sorry, but I've got to say hello to you,' and she slides the stool back and gets up and walks away, saying, 'Not for me, Bub. I don't want anything to do with you.' And she says that because of something in my past. I mean, I know how to be a celebrity. I know how to be a guy on the street. I know how to roll with the punches. I know how to do the whole thing. And my past is actually pretty sterling. But when I think about my wife, I worry. I worry about what she thinks when she reads about me in US Weekly. It's all vapor, nothing, ether. But I worry about it. I worry about what she thinks."
So, that's John Mayer at the moment: a worrying, thinking man living in a land of vapor, nothing, ether, his perfect woman out there, sitting on a stool, maybe knowing too much about him already. Conversely, she might not know nearly enough–about his odd early years as an acne-ridden shut-in, about certain "loopholes" in his brain and the Xanax in his pants pocket, about his self-penned pornographic scribblings, about his constantly flapping lips, about his love for Jessica Simpson (and it seems he did love her) and how she changed his life. Things like that. Things that maybe his future wife really ought to know before she goes off half-cocked, deeper into Mayer Land, for better or for worse.
Look at him. Look at him in his chair at an Indian restaurant in the SoHo district of New York, near where he lives. Look at his big shock of tousled black hair, at those big, soulful, smoky-brown eyes, at that big head sitting atop that muscular six-foot-four-inch frame. Look at Mayer, in his black sweater and green slacks. Everything about him is big, oversized, exaggerated. Now listen to him talk.
Pushing back from the table, Mayer squares his shoulders and says, "I tell you this without fear. I don't feel like anybody knows my personal life. My personal life is 100 percent intact. Where I ate last night or who I ate with is not my personal life. You want to say the name Jessica Simpson? Say the name Jessica Simpson. You want to say Cameron Diaz, say Cameron Diaz. That's not my personal life. My personal life is what happens in my heart and my head. Nobody knows what's going on in my head.
"You know what else?" he rolls on. "If you really like doing this, if you really feel like you're born for this, then you have to get so meta in your consciousness that even the worst parts of it seem about right. People being nasty to me or not knowing how to relate to me…I almost have found a way to acknowledge what the positive is by way of how to look around the negative. So, if the negative is present, it's got to be there because there's a positive that has created that negative. So, I go, Oh, wow, I'm getting picked apart left and right. I must really be somebody. In a way, you kind of understand your place by understanding what the trouble is. You know what I mean?"
The honest answer is, of course, more or less, because whew, what a great big overstuffed load of verbiage. But that's typical of Mayer, to never say simply what can be said with Fourth of July fireworks. "I think I've always been verbose," he says. And with that admission, you'd think he might slow down a little. But then off he goes again, full-steam ahead, this time talking about his yearlong on-again, off-again relationship with Jessica Simpson, which ended early last summer, and how difficult the media circus surrounding it was for him.
"Let me bring you into the mind-set now," he says. "When you take two people who are trying to get together and relate, that's already kind of a cluster f–k. But then, with us, there was this whole looming threat. And at a certain point, I got so many tension headaches just from magazine covers. Real tension headaches, from the mention of my name with someone else's name and how people felt about that. Literal physiological responses where I was like, Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God, oh my God. I thought to myself, Are you sure you want to do this? And what I said to myself was, You know what? There are times in your life when there is nobody to confer with but yourself. And you know what? This is my life, and this is a person I want to spend more time with, and I'm not going to let that other vapor get in the way. And I'll defend that decision till the end." He pauses, then marches on. "I also want to say about Jessica that I don't want to talk about her or my experience with her as a dark cloud or something tumorous or cancerous. That's all perception. It was very comfortable and very soothing. I never went, Gee, I sure would like two or three days away from this."
It's interesting the way he spills this last bunch of words. No one here has mentioned cancer or tumors, nothing even close. On the contrary, his time with Simpson seems to have been good for him. But up come these ugly thoughts and images, ushered forth for no apparent reason. It's as if he doesn't know when to put a sock in it, and you have to wonder where it comes from, that uncontrollable urge to talk, come hell or high water.
One thing he doesn't like to talk about so much is his childhood–or, rather, he likes talking about only what he has talked about before. For the most part, it's pretty basic stuff. He was raised in the richy-rich Connecticut town of Fairfield, the middle child of three. His dad was a high-school principal, his mom a middle-school English teacher. At the age of 13, he took up the guitar and became obsessed. If he wasn't in school or with his high-school girlfriend, he was behind closed doors in his bedroom, strapped to his guitar, working out the licks of guitar-god heroes such as Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Guy, and Robert Cray. When he was 15, he told his parents that he might as well drop out of school, because he was going to become a famous guitarist. They weren't buying. In his 17th year, he landed in the hospital with an irregular heartbeat that was diagnosed as cardiac arrhythmia. The episode so upended him that afterward he began writing songs with lyrics for the first time, "with a depth I didn't even know I had as a person." After graduation, he attended Berklee College of Music, in Boston, but packed it in and moved to Atlanta in 1997. He began playing the local club circuit there, developed a reputation, went to Austin to play the annual South by Southwest festival, caught the ear of some record-label types, and a year later, in 2001, released Room for Squares. He was immediately labeled "sensitive," for his "empathetic voice" and "emotional fearlessness." Girls loved him. Guys weren't so sure. When he went onstage to collect his Grammy for "Your Body Is a Wonderland," he said, "This is very, very fast, and I promise to catch up," a heartwarming statement that he made good on in short order, with 2003's Heavier Things (which was only slightly heavier), 2005's Try (his terrific blues exploration, as part of the John Mayer Trio), and 2006's Continuum (which was indeed just that and produced the hit single "Waiting on the World to Change"). And that's how it has gone for him, more or less: everything young, everything fast, everything great.
But if you lean on Mayer about a few lesser-known childhood details, mainly surrounding his bedroom guitar playing, a slightly more complicated picture starts to emerge. He says, for instance, that he took up the guitar only because he saw no other way for him to ever get ahead in life. He felt trapped, and the guitar was his way out. Common enough. But the strange thing is how he went about it, so single-mindedly, nearly as a monomania. On two separate occasions, his parents grew so concerned that they took him to shrinks to try to figure out what was going on and maybe open the kid's eyes to the wisdom of more realistic career choices. Nothing doing. He stayed in his room. He played his guitar. He fought with his folks. And though it all happened years ago, he can't bear to talk about it even now, and he stammers when he tries.
"I uh, I uh, I think it's for me in my life a really good idea to close off certain parts of my past," he says. "It was difficult. It was difficult for everybody."
And that's pretty much all he'll say about that…for now.
Out there, a potential future Mayer bride has been reading Mayer on Mayer and knows a few things. She knows that, like most guys, he collects stuff–in his case, wristwatches, sneakers, and guitars–and that he loves his high-definition TV. And that he likes his fast cars. And that he loves spending money, always has. She knows that his dominant color is blue, that he is a huge fan of sugar-free Popsicle ice pops, and that he is good friends with Elton John. She knows that certain people think he sounds too much like Dave Matthews. Also, that they hate the faces he makes onstage and think he is a pompous ass. None of this bothers her. But she is confused by one or two things he has said and she wants clarity. He once said that watching another couple having sex is something that might make him "vomit out of pure arousal." On another occasion, he said that one of his girlfriend rules is "You have to run every single fantasy you've ever had through me. You'll never cheat. You see a cute guy at the gym, I'll be him. Or we'll get him. I don't care." So the question is, Is this man a voyeur or what?
"That would be true," Mayer says, forthrightly. "I'm an image-based person, and for me it's all about the detail. I'm not interested in all-American…I mean, I can't get motivated by what most people get motivated by. But the problem is that most people can't meet me where I need to be. I find myself, in a lot of situations, collapsing my expectations, because girls aren't walking around saying, 'Oh, I bet he wants this.' I've always been supermental with this stuff. And I'm not talking about kinky. I'm talking about the detail. In other words, I've never seen auto-arousal, or auto–whatever, as secondary. I never saw it as a letdown. I remember when I first heard girls say, 'It's not the same, I don't wanna.' Well, it's not supposed to be the same. And so when I cruise the Internet, I really am resigned to probably not finding anything I'm into. I mean, there are times when I've written my own stuff. I have written it just to bring my ideas to life for me."
He pauses here, leans back in his chair, and shrugs. "The thread is unbroken in my life as to the difficulty of being who I am," he says. "I've always had a relationship with being different. But the world needs me to be wacky, I need me to be wacky, I need me to stay wacky, and I'm never going to apologize for being wacky." So there.
In his early days as a rock star, he made a big public deal about not going down the road to rock-star ruin that he'd seen so often while watching VH1's Behind the Music. To that end, he wasn't going to drink, wasn't going to smoke dope, and most especially wasn't going to date -celebrities. "At every level of the career, there are gonna be pitfalls," he once said. "Level one is, like, don't bang a celebrity." Soon enough, however, all that changed. He started to drink (Scotch, though not heavily), smoke pot (through a vaporizer, though he soon quit), and, most especially, date celebrities (on-going). He made these changes mainly because he wanted to be someone other than who he was, and who he was mainly had to do with those parts of his guitar-obsessed childhood that he'd rather keep closed off.
"Again, I don't want to talk about it too much," he says, "but when you're alone a lot and it doesn't go the way you want outside, you make it the way you want inside. You create comfort to make up for the outside world. You create, create, create, create. It's all in your head, but you go to it, because it's your safe place, and that's what I did."
One problem he had to deal with back then was his skin. Throughout his teen years and into his early twenties, he had terrible acne. "In Atlanta, I had acne so bad," he says, "that I would cancel dates and plans and stay in the house. I would not go out. When I was a kid, I remember thinking, Well, I'm not going to be a model, so I better get real good on the guitar." So the guitar became it, his life, furiously and with a vengeance. "All I wanted to do was be a robot and kill it, kill it, kill it, and take people's heads off. If my blood were alphabet soup, it would spell, 'I'll show you, motherf–ker.'" For a long while then, he felt he was nothing without his guitar, that he didn't really exist except to the extent that his fingers continued to work their fret-board magic. He didn't drink, smoke weed, or date celebs. All he did was play the guitar. And that was better than okay with him. It was what he wanted.
In his early twenties, however, some-thing shifted inside that private little self-created world of his. He won't say exactly what happened, only that on one specific day, he realized that "you can create dark neighborhoods in your mind as easily as you can create rural wonderlands. And the day I realized that was one of the worst days of my life. It sent me on quite a spin. I went on a bender. An anxiety bender." Which is why he keeps Xanax in his pocket even now: "Because there are these incidental kinds of loopholes in my brain, where the wires can cross for a second and the hard drive crashes." But the real turning point in Mayer's internal life didn't occur until 2006, when he met Jessica Simpson and decided to exchange the tension headaches he suffered in private for good times in public with his new girlfriend, paparazzi be damned.
"I'd been a famous touring musician who had also been a shut-in for a really long time, which was weird," he says. "But I'd had it really, really good. I had hit song, hit song, hit song. 'Did you hear about this kid?' And I'm like, Look at my respect. Look how credible my artistry is. I'm really perfect. I'm really doing it. It's aces. And you get addicted to cultivating that thing and making it perfect. I'm telling you, man, I'm not f–king with you. But it stopped being perfect the day I said to myself, Wow, my heart is involved in this. The one thing I'd never been in my life is a person without a guitar. I used to be really frightened that if I stopped, it would leave me. But I had to evolve. If I wanted to see Jessica more, I had to grow up. And that's the day that I grew up. A lot of people say it's the day I grew down. Too bad. It's the day I grew up."
One thing about Mayer is he's courageous like that. He is always searching for new truths about himself and, once found, he's unafraid to move toward them as best he can. It's like that with stand-up comedy. He loves it, and while he might not be getting laughs all the time yet, he's not about to stop trying. "I go onstage, I will keep going onstage, and nobody can tell me I can't go onstage," he says, "and that's the thing. Nobody's going to tell me I can't. I'd just say, 'Don't tell me what I can't do, motherf–ker. Of course I can.' I mean, look at what I've done in my life. I don't have any reason to believe that anything I think of is impossible. That makes me annoying sometimes. But it has all come true. All of it." Quite a guy, then, this Mayer. Although he is right, it does sometimes make him a little annoying.
Mayer is getting a bit antsy. A couple of big-name Italian watch collectors are in town, and he wants to go hang out with them and talk watches: Omega, Cartier, Patek Philippe…they call them chronographs in that price range. "I know all the reference numbers," he says. "I know exact market prices per day. I go home, I'm on all the message boards. I don't talk sports, but I can talk watches all day long."
Before leaving, however, he wants to clear up one thing about his future wife. He knows that it's largely his fault that the girl of his dreams may be so hard to find.
"I accept myself as a very specific kind of guy, and in that sense, I'm a little like a woman, because my chemistry is so exacting," he says. "I can't describe it in words, but I can see it in my head, its color, its light, its shapes, and I've managed to synthesize my love for myself by way of many different reasonings and processes, and I've been able to really synthesize my own satisfaction and things that do it for me. They've usually been self-taught, self-instructed, self-refined. So to be with anybody else has to somewhat lie in that comfort zone I've created with myself so well."
Like much of what Mayer says, what he specifically means by this is somewhat murky, but the great thing is, it's okay. He'll never put a sock in it. The whys are unimportant. And now it's time for him to go. He stands. He puts on his winter coat and jams his hands into the pockets. He shuffles his feet, starts to walk away, then thinks better of it and returns. He thrusts his big head forward. "Let me ask you a question," he says. "Do you believe me? I mean, overall, do you buy me? Do you at least believe that I believe me?" Yes, of course, maybe, probably. But when the perfect girl comes along, she'll both buy him and believe him, and what obscures him to others will only illuminate him for her. And when she agrees to be his wife, it'll all be different then, just like he has always hoped.
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