Ten years ago, John Mayer performed a set from his debut album Room for Squares in the WYEP studios - an independent radio station in Pittsburgh. I heard a recording from that session this morning. "Will you want me when I'm not myself?" he sings. As it turns out, my answer is Probably Not.
I used to say that he was the poet nearest my heart - a line stolen from the movie Shakespeare in Love. A movie about the imagined life of Shakespeare and the reckless love - 'come ruin or rapture' - that inspires him to write both Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night (from which comes my favorite line in all of Shakespeare's writing..."If music be the food of love, play on.") And I really loved John Mayer. Before he made it to commercial radio. Before he became the playboy of the western world - before his words went from 'poetry to prose' -- to borrow a line from "Not Myself".
But then, as a writer of prose, how can I stand in judgement? Further, as a writer of fiction - creator of unreal realities - why can I not separate the man from the artist? Why should I care that he dated Jessica Simpson? That poor girl likes a doughnut as much as me - but at least I'm not on the cover of every magazine with the words 'Wide Load' plastered across my ass-end.
Originally, I was angry that he'd chosen her. I had imagined him with a girl who'd broken his heart in 6th grade. A plain but pretty girl who (as he sings in "Comfortable") could distinguish between Miles and Coltraine. The One. So, seeing him posed next to the platinum Simpson was a blow. But the real problem for me occurred when he started saying ugly things about Jessica and the other high-profile women with whom he'd paraded down the red carpet. How could this callous misogynist be the same man who wrote "Daughters"? Who seemed to keenly understand the complications particular to girls who'd been abandoned by the first man they ever loved? Who wrote about watching his parents age with unparalleled tenderness in "Stop This Train"? About high school reunions and St. Patrick's Day; hope and heartbreak? Who left track #13 blank - just in case. How John? Please, if you're out there, I really want to know. How do we know if we'll want you when you're not yourself if we don't know which self is really you?
Alice Walker once said, "Deliver me from writers who think the way they live doesn't matter..." I agree. And I disagree. Let's say I was to make it to the big time as a writer. Let's say readers were out there imagining my life - idealizing a set of ideals for me. Absorbing my words like gospel - holding me to an unattainable standard - and then one day, I was exposed. Caught in a contradiction between my public and private life - billed as a fraud and a liar and a jerk. But what if I really meant everything I'd ever written? In that moment in time, it was true - I felt every emotion that had plucked the soulstrings of those once faithful followers? Who could say which moment was me being 'myself' and which was me as 'somebody else'?
Maybe it's best not to know too much about the artists whose work inspires us to lift our lighters in a dark sky. I don't know. But I do know that when I heard him singing this morning, I couldn't stop it - that old reckless love.
Listen to "Heart of Life" and decide for yourself: