Cover Story: Mayer of Atlanta
John Mayer plays Philips Arena, and all I got was this lousy cover story
Call me Carraway. In what's probably the closest thing we have to a Great American Novel — The Great Gatsby — a diminutive narrator named Nick Carraway tells the story of the larger-than-life Yankee blueblood Jay Gatsby from the perspective of a next-door neighbor who was privy to everything that transpired.
It might be stretching the point, but when it comes to the rise of America's guitar-slinging heartthrob, John Mayer, I'm sort of like Carraway. I was there in June 1998, the night he and Clay Cook, his former partner in a duo called Lo-Fi Masters, walked up the stairs of Decatur acoustic-music club Eddie's Attic to play his first gig at the weekly open-mic competition (they won). It was November of that year when we competed in the bi-annual open-mic Shootout at the Attic (they won again). It was six months later when he got to sit on the judges' panel, passing judgment on me in the next competition (I lost in the semifinals). In April 2001, I first interviewed him for Creative Loafing — his first feature story — on the eve of his first major label release, Room For Squares. And when I talked to him just a few weeks ago, it was the first time I had ever had a long conversation with a rich and famous pop star.
I recall a conversation we had one night, way back when, after a gig at Eddie's. I was drinking my beer and John, drug-and-alcohol-free as usual, was chugging his favorite drink, milk. He told me, in that musing, someday/someway manner of aspiring musicians, that he would let me open for him once he made it big and returned to play in town.
On Nov. 21, Mayer finally makes his triumphant return, but I'm not bitter that I'm not opening for him. After all, who could have imagined John Mayer would bypass, say, the Roxy, for the 18,000-seat Philips Arena?
From Carraway's perspective, there have been three stages so far to John Mayer's career. First, he was the cocky guitar geek who didn't know when to shut his mouth. Second, he was the cocky sex-symbol-in-bloom who told me, "I wasn't put here to be good looking, so I better start doing some real work here." Now, he's the cocky-geek/sex-symbol-star who has learned to put things — even accusations about his cockiness — in perspective.
"A lot of people think I'm cocky," he says, "and I think cocky can be cute. Being arrogant is totally different. I've learned that now. If cocky is when, before someone throws you a pitch, you think you're gonna hit it, then yeah, I'm cocky. Arrogance is talking about it in the dugout all day."
Chapter one: ?
A starving artist still has to make the rent, so John and I starting picking up shifts at Eddie's Attic, working the door, in early 1999. He eventually left his doorman post to take a job at Pier 1 Imports. One night he asked me, forthrightly, what I thought of his music. I straightened myself up — as wise sages often do when dispensing their wisdom to Johnny-come-latelys — and gave him these words of advice: "Stop singing about running up and down the halls of your high school. Nobody wants to hear that shit."
I was referring, of course, to the song "No Such Thing," which showed up on Room For Squares and helped the record sell more than 3 million copies. Now he has a new album out, Heavier Things, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard chart. He hangs out with Sir Elton John. And this is the one that gets me the most: He jammed with the band I idolized in high school, the Police. How fitting. I'm half expecting to pick up the paper tomorrow and read that John Mayer is now dating my mom.
When I mention my jealousy about the Police, he says, "It's a little unfair, isn't it? The Police were back together for, like, 18 minutes [at their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony] and I somehow ended up on stage singing 'Every Breath You Take.'"
At the very least, it sure is a long way from open-mic night.
The first time John played Eddie's Attic, it was with Cook, as part of the Lo-Fi Masters. Cook, who'd grown up in Georgia, first met John when the two were students at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. John isn't from Atlanta, he's from Connecticut; Cook talked him into moving to Georgia. Lo-Fi Masters easily won the open-mic competition that first night, with a song they'd co-written called "No Such Thing."
Club owner Eddie Owen was so impressed with the duo he began booking them twice a month, even though they had no draw. Then Lo-Fi suddenly disbanded. Cook moved to California and John found himself with an inadvertent solo career in Atlanta.
"Eddie put me on call," Mayer says. "Somebody's car would break down on the way to a gig and, boom, I'd be on stage in 30 minutes."
During this period, Mayer wrote one of his best songs, "Why Georgia." The song exudes both confusion and confidence in one breath, as he stands at the crossroads of young adulthood, singing, "Everything happens for a reason is no reason not to ask myself if I'm living it right."
"John wanted to take it in more of a pop direction than I did," Cook says of the Lo-Fi days, "and we both knew that it would be like a marriage gone bad if we ever started seriously touring together."
While national recognition has not yet followed for Cook, he's seen his share of fat royalty checks as co-author of "Neon" and "Love Song For No One" from the Squares LP, and of "Man On the Side," from John's live album Any Given Thursday. That live album, by the way, was recorded at the Oak Mountain Amphitheater in Birmingham, Ala., a venue that's exactly two miles away from my mom's house.
There's a DJ in Birmingham, Scott Register (he goes by Reg), who hosts a popular program on WRAX-FM (107.7), called "Reg's Coffeehouse." Looking at his playlist every week is like stepping away from commercial radio and taking a breath of fresh air. While it could be classified as adult alternative, Reg doesn't always follow the format's parameters and has been known to actually pay heed to his listeners and champion unsigned artists. This is how Reg became, in late 1999, the first DJ to play John Mayer on the radio.
"A fan sent him a CD and he started playing it," Mayer says. "I eventually got in my car and drove over there [to Birmingham] one day to do the morning show and it kind of got things rolling."
I asked Reg why Birmingham embraced John before Atlanta did.
"That's an easy one," he said. "It was the relationship that existed between radio, local retailers and the music lover in Birmingham. It was a textbook example of how it should be in every market."
The CD Reg played on his program was John's first and only independent release, Inside Wants Out (later reissued by Sony after Squares went big time). It was recorded and co-produced by Glenn Matullo at Orphan Studio in Atlanta. Matullo also recorded "Lullaby," the breakthrough single for another Eddie's Attic graduate, Shawn Mullins. "Lullaby" was as ubiquitous over the airwaves in 1998 as John Mayer songs are now.
"John didn't have anything to sell at his shows," Matullo remembers. "He also didn't have a dime to his name. I thought he was an incredible guitarist and a great songwriter, so I financed the CD for him. The whole reason that disc sounds so stripped down is because John was playing solo shows at the time and we wanted to capture what he did live."
Also around this time, John started to get noticed in the Atlanta press. Creative Loafing music critic Gregory Nicoll, who often covers Eddie's Attic shows, wrote a series of lukewarm blurbs that acknowledged Mayer's talent but called him "oddly distancing," and likened him to "an underfed Ben Affleck" who engages in "spotlight-stealing subterfuge" when performing with other singer/songwriters.
The rising star took notice and sent an e-mail to Nicoll defending his musical intent. "I couldn't even send them to my parents," Mayer says of the write-ups, "because they essentially said, 'Yeah, he's a really talented guy and, oh, by the way, he's a jerk.'"
The exchange is mostly fodder for scrapbooks now, except for Mayer's assertion in the e-mail that his songs aren't "radio ready" and that he's not "trying to achieve slick MTV status."
In the last couple of years, Mayer's had some good reviews, but he's had his share of negative criticism as well. He's got the detractors figured out, though. "I think that, because what I'm doing is so straight up and doesn't really have a lot of attitude, it challenges people's ability to buy it," he says. "And if you really are a steadfast intellectual type, I can totally understand how people don't wanna be played. Like, 'You're not gonna pull it over on me kid, I see through you' — as if I were some kind of plotting mastermind who has taken the body of a sensitive singer/songwriter to do my dirty work."
Chapter Three: ?
It was easy to get in touch with John for our first interview in 2001. I dialed him direct, just like I always did. He picked up and we met the next day at a coffeeshop in Buckhead, where he lived. Listening to tapes of that old interview now, after he's gone from playing small clubs to packing arenas, is surreal. At one point there's a long, contemplative silence as he stares out the window into the parking lot. "We're getting a van like that soon," he says, nodding toward a junked-out 15-passenger van that cruised by.
Getting in touch with him now actually wasn't that much more difficult. I dialed him direct, left a voice mail and sent an e-mail referencing my voice mail. I figured this was best after my editor relayed the news from Mayer's publicist that he wasn't giving interviews at this time. A few days later, I heard back from Mayer, via his publicist, via my editor. (Mayer no longer handles his own schedule and had forwarded my interview request to the publicist.) Since the piece was going to be a cover story, the publicist agreed to give me a half-hour interview. I responded — with a wink and a nudge to the ghost of Andy Warhol — that all I needed was 15 minutes.
Two days later, I am in my kitchen, pretending it's my office, when John calls. After we dispense with the salutations, the first thing I say is, "John, come on! Philips-Fucking-Arena! And next month: Madison Fucking Square Garden!"
He gives a little laugh and says, "People are supposed to be in awe of it, I guess. But the thing is, for me, I still feel like it's all connected to the same day. It still feels very non-glitzy, very pedestrian. I'm getting ready to play Philips Arena the same way I got ready to play Eddie's Attic on a Friday night. But there's the way it is and then there's the way it appears, and sometimes you don't wanna challenge the way it appears because it contributes to the whole myth."
We spend most of the interview catching up and talking about the mechanics of fame. He seems especially worried about his perception among people from the early days in Atlanta. "This is why it's good to talk to you," he says, "because I really worry that people feel like I don't need them anymore. There was this kind of disassociation once it got to a certain point. Once I started to be on TV or sell records, there was this feeling of, 'Well, there's John, I guess he doesn't need us anymore.' I hope that people understand that it's more or less the mechanics of this life."
I tell him that, even though I never watch TV, listen to Top 40 radio or keep up with celebrity gossip, I always know what he's up to because of reports from friends who do. "You know, that's cool, though," he says, sounding pleasantly surprised. "My point of relativity on that is Shawn [Mullins'] success. I also saw how it made a lot of people very frustrated and very competitive around him, and I wonder if that same thing happens with me. I feel a lot of this pressure, but the bottom line is, this is all par for the course."
I give him my personal congratulations on what appears to be the longest winning streak I've ever seen — from that cocky Attic newcomer who told me, "I'm going to be bigger than Shawn Mullins," to the triple platinum artist who definitely is. He continues speaking, but in a humble tone that I'm not used to hearing from John Mayer. "You know, I'm trying to do it gracefully. Again, I saw how gracefully Shawn did it and I really don't know how I would've handled it if I hadn't seen someone like Shawn handle it to begin with. I still reference his success with my own."
Yes, John Mayer is huge, but he's yet to have much of an impact outside of a certain demographic. Sure, some soccer moms are into him, but at Philips this week, thousands of twentysomething women will be singing every word to every song. The other few thousand seats will be filled with young men, maybe singing along in their heads, but mostly hoping they get laid that night.
He's yet to write his "Every Breath You Take," but Heavier Things shows him moving in that direction. I once told him that his love-song lyrics didn't ring true with me and he confessed that, outside of the "first love" in his mid-teens, he's never really been in love. I then suggested, rather glibly, that he needed to get his heart broken to become a better songwriter.
It's a common debate among songwriters: Do you have to be miserable to write a great song? The super-confident, well-adjusted John might be a test case for that question.
Within a few years, John Mayer could either be a three- or four-hit throwback to the early 2000s, or he could be the first serious crossover artist of the century. Crossover, as in becoming an icon who transcends all demographics — like his new buddies Sting and Elton.
Maybe he needs to attach himself to a political cause. But which one? Sting's already got the rainforest. And Elton is doing great work for AIDS awareness. At the very least, I fully expect to see John Mayer in one of those "Got Milk?" ads any day now.
After hanging up with Mayer, the first person I need to call is my mom. I dial her direct, just like I always did. To my amazement, she picks up.
After we dispense with the salutations she asks how I am and I tell her I'm working on a feature that will be on the cover of a newspaper.
"That's wonderful!" she says, "What's it going to be about?"
"John Mayer," I say. "How he got his start here in Atlanta and all that."
"John who?" she says.
And those are exactly the words I need to hear.