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."
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.