Who is John Mayer?
Last week, when I saw a promotional photograph for the new John Mayer record “Born and Raised,” I laughed out loud. It’s not that there is anything particularly funny or embarrassing about this photograph, it’s just that I was really, really confused. The promo was from the music video from his new single, “Shadow Days,” which features Mayer traveling across the western part of the US with shoulder-length hair, a beard and a cowboy hat that he has been wearing in all the interviews I’ve seen him do lately. I suppose at first I thought it was all some sort of charade to promote a song. But, on second thought, I realized that John Mayer hasn’t ever given me anything other than unapologetic honesty. And that is why I have always found him so compelling.
Some of you probably picture Mayer as the bushy-haired youngster chasing young love in the halls of a high school. Others know him as a tatted up rock star with a beautiful, famous woman at his side. To some, he might just be the psychotic pervert from his infamous interviews with Rolling Stone and Playboy where he referred to his former girlfriend Jessica Simpson as “sexual napalm.” Still others might simply know him for his bluesy guitar playing and raspy voice. Well, he is all of those things or, actually, I should say he was. At each of the various stages of his career, he was exactly who you thought he was. It’s just that, while he was always being himself, he didn’t actually know who he was.
I mean, think about it: he went from being an average looking, non-descript white guy to being a lean rock star with arm sleeve tattoos living in NYC and now he’s a cowboy. Is this some sort of trick, the act of a shameless chameleon on the order of a Lana Del Rey? Or do people just change? I tend to think that his brand of brutal and confessional honesty leads him to broadcast to the public his personal life and relationship woes during each stage of his life, resulting in a genuine, if bizarre, pageant of personas over the years.
I hadn’t thought much about Mayer in the past couple years and it wasn’t until this latest ad for “Born and Raised” that I realized he had been out of the spotlight for a change. He lives in Bozeman, Montana now, and has for about two years. His house is on a quiet plot of land that I’m sure is scenic, remote and beautiful. In a recent interview on The Ellen Show, Mayer offered a relaxed, mature vibe with the prevailing theme that he needed to grow up and be away for a bit. He referred to his past interviews with Playboy and Rolling Stone as a “violent crash into being an adult.” Yet, at the same time, I didn’t get the sense that he felt too much regret toward all the mistakes of his past. One of his songs on his new album called “Speak For Me” even opens with the lines “Now the cover of a Rolling Stone ain’t the cover of a rolling stone.”
Through these recent interviews and song lyrics on his latest album, he is showing that, with this transformation, he might be more his real self than he has ever been. A lot of that is due to the fact that he realized he needed to let go and take a step back before he could go anywhere. He had pursued a plan of success and accomplished a lot of what he set out to do but it only led him down a rabbit trail of addiction and depression. To me, taking the time away was exceptionally mature. It is also what makes his whole situation fascinating to me. At the height of his power and fame, he took a break to reevaluate it all. Most of us, myself included, naturally try to trudge through our issues without ever stopping, which just creates this sort of compound interest scenario on the principal of our antipathy and bewilderment. It’s kind of like the man in the forest trying to cut down trees with a dull axe who refuses to go sharpen it because he would have to stop and walk a half-mile to do so. He would rather struggle through it to achieve immediate yet poor results.
The chorus to his single “Shadow Days” says “I’m a good man with a good heart, had a tough time, got a rough start but I finally learned to let it go / Now I’m right here and I’m right now and I’m hoping, knowing somehow that my shadow days are over.” I wouldn’t go so far as to say his shadow days are completely over, but he has certainly moved forward. He’s found something, but only after giving up a lot. And that is a secret I think few will come to find out.