25 March 2010

The Answer

I wrote this while on the road, and wanted to let it simmer for awhile before I typed it up. It's about as open as I can get...which is pretty scarily, guilelessly open. So be nice to me. :) I dedicate it to everyone I've met along the way who knows....
"How could you see anyone in concert more than twice? I wouldn't want to see God in concert more than twice!" --my brother Sean, pondering my John Mayer concert plans for late winter 2010

Here's my Sunday-morning, legs-aching, post-show answer, live from the Indiana farm kitchen of my dear friend Gret (a person I would never, ever have met, were it not for John Mayer). It consists of multiple strands:

The elusive connections and total abandon of youth.
The desire to be outrageously female and sassy, which finds no safe haven in a small hometown, but blissfully blossoms on the road.
The window-staring wanderlust of a lifelong bus-train-plane passenger.
The say-anything recklessness of a solid friendship (or 20).
The anticipation of planning, the revelation of discovering (cities, people, food, you name it).
The nerve-wracking experience of stalking tickets online, literally seconds after they've come on sale...frantically inputting codes and waiting with held breath to see what row comes up, all without leaving the mundane homeport of your office desk. Then triumphantly and abruptly scoring seats that will place you a few scant yards away from THAT GUY.

See, I've already managed to fill a paragraph with deeply felt reasons, and it's not even about John Mayer yet. Well, until the THAT GUY part. Because FL1 Row E Seat 4 is a satellite to the planet of his whirling, expanding career. I've had a hard-won seat for his trajectory since 2003, and I'm not about to stop now. Another strand: The moment when the stage lights blast on, and a roar swells behind me and washes over the stage, where at the center mic is that affable face, the tumbled waves of dark boy hair, the acute angle of that guitar neck, and his hands plying the instrument surely and knowingly, even as he acknowledges the roar with humility. At that opening-song reveal, every time he's standing in front of me, I think: There he is again...those precise words; and each time, I feel the same expression cross my face: fortunate, joyful fondness.

John Mayer's music got into my bloodstream starting in August 2002. Back-to-school shopping with Zoë and friends, in someone else's minivan, radio waves beamed out his voice. Do I know this guy...? I wondered from my passenger seat, monitoring the grey highway horizon. I bought Mayer's first album not long after, feeling like I needed to hear more than the single. It was instant DNA music (credit Zoë for that term). His lyrics knew things that I already knew, but framed and elevated those things so that they could be shared and comprehended. As I stood then at the portal of 40, pondering who I was after decades of being someone for others, Mayer started handing me keys. Just as you don't know what you've got 'till it's gone, sometimes you don't know what you need 'till you get it. Then, finding myself in a community of fellow travelers experiencing such epiphanies was a blessing beyond imagining. From my lonely island lifestyle, my occupation wearing thin, with losses of authority figures piling up, I found rescue.

But, really. John Mayer: easy on the eyes. Check. A band that wields collective power to make me dance my ass off every single show, left sweating and thankful. Check. These items are heady and freeing. Check. Undoubtedly, I needed these things.

On this rainy farm morning after show #25, I've just grasped yet another powerful answer for all these shows. I felt it so profoundly last night that it seems to emphatically underscore all of the above. Here is the fact: I am an unrelenting, ravenous, lifelong music fanatic. Never endowed with the skill to create my own music, instead I seek it and bond with it. I will admit that I have an astonishing capacity to embrace multiple genres, and all of that music burns within me. In fact, Peter and I merged lives with this same urgent instinct as one of our strongest connections.

I learned that John Mayer was the same kind of polyglot music freak when I first heard the audio commentary on his DVD, Any Given Thursday. (That's right, he and a buddy provide narration over his own concert performance, hilariously.) Not only did his self-deprecating, endlessly referential banter sound completely familiar to me, but out of nowhere Mayer talked about Jimmy Smith. I listened, I paused, I rewound: seriously, did I just hear that?!Yes, I did.

Many people don't know who Jimmy was. That's all right--most people didn't grow up with a jazz musician mom. She exposed me to a universe of hip players, all of whose talents reeled out, literally, on a reel-to-reel tape player in our living room. You carefully threaded the slender brown tape into that 1960s luxury, then engaged a chunky "play" button that pulled up the shiny strand and started the music flowing. It was a ritual, as was the process of determining which LP would fill the apartment. Jimmy Smith was a go-to choice for me, and even as a preschooler, I clutched his tape cover like a teenybopper swooning over Meet the Beatles. Jimmy bridged the trad jazz world with wicked West Coast funk. (Well, I didn't know that then, but maybe I sensed it.) Simply stated, Jimmy Smith was the best jazz organist ever. He brought startling emotions to a staid, churchy instrument: nuances and nudges, jubilance and full-throated wails. And rhythm.

John Mayer knew who Jimmy Smith was, and quite plainly adored him. I was floored. When someone gets what I get, I want to know them. In that way, my life's been like an all-embracing music club, with numerous friends and family already in it..and I felt driven, watching Any Given Thursday, to add John. (No cheesy Hangover wolf-pack jokes, s'il te plaît.) Because it wasn't just John's music that felt like common ground, I realized...it was a huge range of music that we listen to and absorb, performed by others.

Last night, at show #25, new ground was broken. John was covering a song from my AM-radio youth, "Ain't No Sunshine". Mayer does not play this song straight--he interprets it like a jazzman, injecting levels of personal emotion that transcend Bill Withers' original Top 40 recording. I watch John avidly when he's off on these tangents, drawing energy from it. (People say I dance like a musician, which is not necessarily flattering, although it's better than The Elaine.) I would have done the same if I could have seen Jimmy Smith in his prime, I promise you.

There's a bridge in this song when Bill Withers intones a mantra: "I know, I know, I know, I kno-ow, I know..." Trying to convince himself; wishing he were wrong. I have my own emotional landscape for this song; Mayer obviously has his. After a blistering solo, Mayer began playing this bridge on his guitar, far from the microphone. I instantly knew he was riffing the bridge, and I started moving along with the insistent "I know" repetition, and singing it over his guitar notes, reveling. I was dancing up on my tiptoes, seeing my way clear over a few rows of tall people. Mayer made his way to the mic, still riffing, and started singing too: "I know, I know, I know." We locked eyes at that moment and started moving in unison as we both sang that heartfelt mantra, over and over. I stayed with it no matter how he syncopated it, and kept looking right at him, and he at me.

You know, I've had some transcendent moments in my 30 years of concertgoing, but nothing approaches the physical and mental high of being that musically in sync with someone who, yes, knows what I know. I certainly lost any inhibitions I might have been dragging around, and at the climactic end of that bridge, "YEAH I'm gonna LEAVE your thing alone, ain't no sunshine when she's gone...", the energy generated by that singing and moving left me in a cloudburst.

Unforgettable. Bracing. Mine.

So, brother o' mine, I haven't seen God 25 times in concert. But I have experienced strong emotions, bathed in fortifying music, and learned life-altering things about myself and my potential. I share the road with amazing friends from all over the continent. I never fathomed that my 40s could bring me so many gifts. And ultimately, it all boils down to pronouns and a verb: I know, he knows, they know, we know.

And one more thing, the obvious: he never plays a song the same way twice.

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