Recalling My Old Neighbor, John Mayer

We moved to the block in 1985, only a couple of years after I had been hired as the first editor of GUITAR for the Practicing Musician, a publication which would go on to become one of the most popular music magazines of the decade. My neighbor, John Mayer, was then about eight or nine years old. To me he was just another of the regular horde of neighborhood boys who used the tree in our front yard as second base for their stickball games in the summer and the south end zone marker for their football games in the winter. There were at least six of them in the horde, as I recall, including the three Mayer brothers. My two daughters, aged 2 and 7, were definitely charter members of the sidewalk cheering squad that urged those boys on to even more unseemly acts of male bravado on my front lawn. When the older one got old enough, she invited John to a basement boy girl party, where John got claustrophobic and wound up trying to crawl out of the basement window.

It was several years later that I started hearing the sound of an electric guitar wafting out of the window of the house across the street and two houses down. This was just about the time my wife had decided to fulfill a lifelong dream of learning how to play guitar and I had used my influence to get her a discount on a nifty Yamaha FS-310 acoustic. But the speed and fluency displayed by our neighbor (we soon learned it was John) as he deftly mastered the pentatonic scale in less than a week and a half proved too much for her as she earnestly plucked her way through “Mary Had a Little Lamb” for the 90th time. She was his 8th Grade Art teacher, for crying out loud. So she sadly went back to painting portraits.

It seemed like days later, when my older daughter came home to say that John Mayer wanted to know if he could call me to ask for advice about music. Of course, I told her to tell him, heavy metal maven that I was. The difference, I found, between people who were really serious about getting ahead in the arts, and the mere dreamers, was their ability to identify the people who could give them good information, and then go after them, in the process demystifying an otherwise daunting journey.I gave my daughter a Guitar Magazine t-shirt for John, but he never did call.

Nevertheless, when John left the block to attend The Berklee School of Music in Boston, we were impressed but not surprised. We were definitely more surprised come the Spring of 2001, when word came circulating back to the block that a John Mayer was opening for the Dave Matthews Band on his current tour and was soon to have an album out on Columbia Records! This was a leap beyond our ability to grasp. In this fame-drenched world of ours, where the media leads you to believe that every third person is or has a great shot to be famous, if not for fifteen minutes, then at least five, few people realize that just about anyone they’ve heard of is already in the top 1% of all those who struggle daily with making it in the arts. I know. I was one of the perpetrators. In the world of the national magazine, where editors routinely bestow fame in the form of giddy headlines and outsized predictions, everybody is a star; that’s where you start. If you’re in a magazine, on TV, on the radio, or even a rumor on the Internet, fame is a given. But to go from the Berklee School of Music to an opening slot on a Dave Matthews tour would be a defining moment of achievement usually reserved for only the most amazingly brazen of fingerpickers. And John was surely not that brazen. It had to be a different John Mayer.

But then my younger daughter confirmed through her research online that John had put out an independent CD. Good for him—a great first step. I had to tip my cap to my old neighbor, my beat up GUITAR magazine cap, and run out to my local record store to purchase the CD. Not only didn’t they carry it, but I was informed a couple of weeks later by the clerk that they couldn’t even get it. This is a local kid, I ranted. Where else is he going to sell any records? They were a national chain, the ignorant clerk shrugged.

If only John had come to me, I thought, not for advice, but for a blurb. While I was no longer with GUITAR by then, my career as a blurb writer, though it consisted only of two blurbs, was exemplary. Back in 1973, a quote lifted from my review in The New York Times was used to headline an advertisement for another East Coast legend in the making, Bruce Springsteen. Twenty years later, a similarly zingy paragraph of mine helped to launch John Jackson’s book, Big Beat Heat, into an eventual Ralph J. Gleason Award as Rolling Stone Magazine’s Book of the Year.

Oh well, it was a lesson he’d have to learn, and better early than late. In fact, though there was much I could tell John about the heartbreak of not being able to find your latest work in even the local stores, I was sure he’d rather hear it from a peer. In my then soon to be published book, Working Musicians, Brenda Kahn, who had an album out on Columbia in 1992, spoke eloquently on the subject.

“It’s really important to keep fame in perspective,” she said over sandwiches at the Hotel Edison Café. “Fame is like a drug; you can never be famous enough. If you want to get famous, that’s a whole industry networking game. But if you want to be a musician, you get to play music. That’s what you get. You get that experience with the audience. That’s the deal. It took me years and years and years to figure that out.”

Of course, in about another minute and a half, the need for such philosophical advice would become moot. That’s when John Mayer appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, looking a little stiff in front of his band, but yes, it was the same John Mayer of the Fairfield, CT Mayer brothers, of stickball in the summer and football in the winter, and general mayhem all year round.

After that you couldn’t go a day without something else turning up. First it would be a tune buried in the soundtrack of a hip teen show like Felicity or Dawson’s Creek. Then it would be a cut played on WFUV. My daughter started getting Instant Messages from friends all around the country who were listening to John Mayer. Then I ran into a friend of mine in the print music business who said they were bidding on a piece of his publishing. He had an advance copy of the new CD, soon to come out on a subsidiary of Columbia Records! When Mayer’s video started showing up on VH-1 and in the buzz bin at MTV, and Rolling Stone put him in their Hot issue, and Teen People named him ‘Someone to Watch,’ my daughter was heard to proclaim that we had a star on the block.

I looked out the window at the Mayer house, visible through the still bare trees. As yet there were no limos outside, no groupies encamped. But was it only a matter of time?

A few months later his show at the esteemed Irving Plaza sold out quickly, but my daughter, of course, had already purchased her tickets weeks before. Due to some fluke of poor planning, typical of the teenage condition, she wound up having to take her mother as her date. When she was informed that Irving Plaza was a standing room only venue, my wife phoned Mrs. Mayer, to see if she had any pull. “Just a pass a note to John,” she advised her. “He’ll come out and bring you backstage.”

Veteran of many such stage-door imbroglios, I bemoaned their naiveté as the two set off to the show. “He won’t even get the note,” I scoffed.

And yet, not only did they wind up in the V.I.P. Lounge (where there were real couches and a reporter from the Associated Press, as well as a couple of other neighbors), but they sat with the Mayer family, the elderly father, a former principal, the stunned, look-alike younger brother Carl, who probably never forgave me for not giving him a Guitar t-shirt as well. Near tears the whole show, the father was especially nonplussed that the audience knew the lyrics to John’s songs. Otherwise, he was way out in the ether, along with the rest of the family, John included, who stopped by to say hello after the set, his eyes distant, fixed on the immediate itinerary: Philly, Cincinnati, Atlanta, a basketball team on the road to the Final Four. I remember Springsteen like that, when I spoke to him one afternoon in 1973, in the commissary of Columbia Records, flush with the raves for his first album.

“It’s strange, let me tell you, very strange. I don’t know if I dig all this commotion. Lately, you know what I do when I’m not playing—-I sleep, period. I go home and go to sleep, get up and play again. Run to Baltimore to play, run back. This week I’ve got three days off, which is a really big vacation. All I want to do is write some good songs. The main problem is not to lose sight of what is actually going on. All the hype, anyone with any sense just ignores it.”

On the Rosie show, not long after that, Elton John brought Mayer’s name up, out of nowhere, claiming he had “the voice of an angel.” A little while later, Mayer opened for Elvis Costello at the Beacon. Room For Squares went gold. Even my local store had a few copies. Not long after that John caused a near riot when he attempted to visit his old high school.

As famous (infamous) as he’s since become, John has always maintained his outsider’s honesty–something that’s gotten him into trouble in the press more than once. One Halloween not long ago, a neighor of mine found him handing out treats when he brought his daughter to the door. A guitarist himself, he and John talked shop for a half hour while the daughter vainly urged her father to keep moving. Another time, maybe a year later, John was just standing and chatting with friends on our next door neighbor’s lawn. Years ago, before the fame, he and the neighbor used to jam in the neighbor’s living room. A few months ago I got to interview John for the first time, when he was one of the centerpieces at a big music business event, talking about his seemingly magical, seemingly effortless career. He went out of his way to ask about the family. “And I always wanted to tell you how much I appreciated that Guitar t-shirt,” he said.

About fame there is no longer a question. The question has been answered. And yet, though John’s family no longer lives on the block, I’m not certain the block has ever recovered. I heard my two neighbors have been talking about forming a band.

I just hope they don’t divorce their wives and move to Atlanta.