I think I trod on his plectrum.
Was it heart-shaped?
Was it damaged by my black patent Doc Marten shoe?
I hope so. For symmetry’s sake.

You see, for me & Mayer it was love at first listen: 2013, All FM on the car radio (community station, patchy presentation, musically diverse) – and this song came on which sounded like Bob Marley’s Could You Be Loved speeded up, with slick Steely Dan vocals over the top. It was most interesting – uncategorisable. I made myself remember some lyrics so I could Google them when I got home.

“I don’t want to think this through / I just want one night with you…”

(I didn’t have Shazam yet.)

I found the song on Youtube – No Strings by Mayer Hawthorne – but the version was different: slower and smoother… sedate even… and no Bob Marley bass riff (or is it Oddysey’s Back To My Roots?) Eventually I located it on Soundcloud – the RAC remix:

So, was it Mayer Hawthorne I had to thank for this amazing thing or RAC? (= Remix Artist Collective / André Allen Anjos = producers of indie band alternative mixes which aren’t formulaic club-dance mixes.)

I’m still not sure of the answer to that question, but it turns out that I do like other songs by Mayer, although he’s not my usual cup-of-tea, being prone to ballads. His best songs are rather middle-of-the-road, but are saved by a cool, quirky, west-coast sensibility. I say west-coast because the vocal harmonies and polished production remind me of Steely Dan and The Beach Boys, who incidentally were formed in Hawthorne, California, according to Wikipedia. And Mayer Hawthorne’s videos look like they’re filmed around L.A. But he himself originally hails from Michigan, and many of his songs explore Detroit’s musical legacy, particularly Motown.

His up-tempo music, which as a dancefloor junky I should prefer, can sound a bit ‘constructed’. For instance The Ills sounds very like Curtis Mayfield’s Move On Up, but it’s not driven by soulful energy, it’s driven by a desire to reproduce a particular sound. It is from Mayer’s first album though (A Strange Arrangement, 2009) so perhaps I’m being harsh. A Long Time from his second album (How Do You Do, 2011) is much more catchy and appealing, though several of the other tracks just sound like bland Motown pastiche to me, and I can’t really see the point of doing that, in spite of the Detroit connection.

Wine Glass Woman from his third album (Where Does This Door Go, 2013) is clearly a homage to Steely Dan / Donald Fagen, while Reach Out Richard is properly soulful, engaging and does not sound overly derivative to me.

MH has been known to cultivate a David Byrne look which works well, I think… the suit, glasses, blank/perplexed expression, geeky… and some of his videos are amusingly absurd. (I wonder if the visual likeness was the inspiration for RAC’s ‘world music sound’ remix?) But faux awkwardness aside, Mayer’s more your beautifully-dressed, unlikely rom-com lead… a masculine Carrie Bradshaw perhaps? He could possibly star in his own series with self-penned soundtrack? A role-model for urbane, sensitive young men, confounded daily by a tangle of mutually exclusive aspirations. Doomed to remain unresolved.

But that’s his lyrical alter-ego I’m talking about. In real life Andrew Mayer Cohen presents as a talented muso with a sweet voice who’s into clothes and records. He claims to enjoy waffles for breakfast but looks like he may skip lunch and dinner to make up. Here he is talking about his latest vinyl discoveries, which I think he bought in Manchester:

(I presume this city’s record shops have a global reputation, given the region’s obsession with vinyl and recorded music in general…)

When I first stumbled upon ‘No Strings RAC Remix’ it made me think of Gotye’s ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’, which was still quite recent. I thought – this song is such a breath of fresh air, it could be a global hit – but they need a TV ad campaign to get it out there! I’m pretty sure this was how Gotye’s song topped the charts in the UK. It was a drastic investment to make on behalf of an obscure artist, but somebody’s gamble paid off… the song reached the most ears/households simultaneously and the video was weird and retro enough to peak the curiousity of even old people like me who hardly ever buy music.

I can’t afford to fund an ad campaign for Mayer but I have taken it upon myself to evangelise on a smaller scale wherever possible. At one point my husband accused me of having an affair because he mistook my ‘No Strings’ message on Facebook to be some kind of declaration of amorous intent, when in actual fact I was just trying to browbeat my (male, gay) friend to listen to my favourite song.

In May 2015, Mayer came to Band On The Wall to do a DJ set with Tuxedo but I was double-booked and only got there as they were finishing. I managed to take one blurry photograph while he and Jake One were posing for someone else. I was too shy to ask them to stop and pose for another.

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They look like they’re at a wedding – those outfits were an odd style decision.

This is a more succesful photo, taken about 10 minutes later, of 2 women eating chicken, as if that were reason enough to venture into town… still blurred, but now I have the excuse that I had to zoom inexpertly to intrude into their lives…

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(As I reviewed my photos that month I noticed there were lots of blossoming hawthorn trees… May trees… bright and beautifully focussed… a co-incidence which now seems hardly worthy of note, but seemed taunting at the time.)

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Mayer’s latest album ‘Man About Town’ was released earlier this year with a short film, showcasing tracks ‘Cosmic Love’, ‘Love Like That’ (very Hall & Oates, who co-incidentally appear to have adopted him as their long-lost son) and ‘Get You Back’. It’s very ambitious – he’s great on-screen – but I don’t find the end-product entertaining for some reason:

Maybe it’s the film’s slavish devotion to cliches which puts me off… maybe it’s the self-indulgence. Also there appears to be a problem with the women in Mayer’s videos… they are almost always utterly characterless. This works OK when the desired effect is absurdity, but the cumulative impression can start to feel a bit creepy… a bit 90s lads’ mag. Is MH chauvinistic? Oh no! I don’t want to think that!

Fast forward to November 2016, Mayer Hawthorne back at Band On The Wall, with a band. The gig hadn’t sold out, but on the night the venue looked full. Most of the crowd looked very ordinary – 30s, 40s and 50s – and dressed for the weather. (It was freezing outside and pouring down.) Fearful of accidentally channeling Mrs Robinson in response to Mayer’s Benjamin Braddock persona, I had purposefully disrupted my 1960s leopard coat’s sinister potential by wearing a graffiti House of Holland dress and clashing bingo-ball tights. Sadly, there was no time to fine-tune the outfit before rushing out of the house:

HoHBingoBall

Mayer and his band were wonderfully well-rehearsed – it was all very slick indeed. In his trilby, Mayer started to remind me of Bruno Mars… I found this a bit disturbing…

‘He has toured with him’ I thought, ‘I suppose the mannerisms must rub off…’

I started to feel embarrassed about dragging my brother and friend along to see what now felt like a dress rehearsal for an over-rehearsed, impersonal stadium show, or perhaps cabaret entertainment. But then they played No Strings and the distinctive RAC riff came in towards the end, and my heart was warmed.

There was a costume change, and Mayer looked less Bruno in his new outfit thankfully. I filmed a couple of songs, one which reminded me of Plan B and pre-dates The Defamation of Strickland Banks by a year. (You’re Easy Lovin’ Ain’t Pleasin Nothin’.)

But then something weird happened with the sound… Mayer’s voice was cutting in and out with the beat (or possibly the bass, in time with the song) and everyone looked perplexed.

‘Welcome to Manchestah!’ shouted a fat bald man, who was standing several feet away, grinning. I cringed. Yes, Welcome to Manchester where people always shout ‘Welcome to Manchestah’ when things go tits up. And we pretend that being shit is somehow preferable to being good. And we fondly imagine we’re special and/or full-of-character, when we’re far more likely to be blandness personified.

There was an instrumental interlude:

And then Mayer broke the dire news: the sound desk was blown and it wasn’t fixable:

The improvised performance which followed was impressive… and the sound didn’t distort too badly:

I Wish It Would Rain

Just Ain’t Gonna Work Out

As the gig finished, Mayer flung his plectrum into the audience and it landed right near me but I was too proud to start groping around on the floor… But then when no-one found it, I felt quietly hopeful. As the crowd dispersed, I spotted a likely-looking object off to my right… but as I moved to pick it up, a young man whooped with delight just behind me. The plectrum had apparently been under my left foot.

Back in the bar, a large queue was forming to purchase Mayer’s ‘Man About Town’ merchandise but I wasn’t tempted. It’s so bland! And he doesn’t appear clearly on any of it! His hat covers his face on the album cover – it could be anybody – Bruno even – and the T-shirt design makes him look like Ed Milliband. I should have just lined up to get my ticket signed but my friend and brother were anxious to be off… perhaps they feared I would embarrass myself… And so I was frog-marched through the rain to Sugar Junction, which my friend was oddly desperate to visit. (She is tee-total, so fair enough I suppose.) We arrived just as it was closing.

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Red vinyl 10″ Just Ain’t Gonna Work Out

So who is Mayer Hawthorne? He seems to be an over-thinker (I sympathise), a control-freak, a chameleon. He moved to a smaller label to gain full creative control over his latest (fourth) album ‘Man About Town’. Weird that the merchandise gives the opposite impression… of moving towards the mainstream… while the new music seems to flow seamlessly on from the previous albums… beautifully crafted but consciously derivative.

The irony is, I love ‘No Strings RAC Remix’ because I can’t categorise it. But much of Mayer’s music is genre and category-obsessed, which can make the sound and structure overly predictable. RAC’s remix works so well because somebody managed to wrestle Mayer’s work away from him and disrupt it. Something similar happened at the gig. But sadly I suspect such disruptions are likely to be few and far between.

A Long Time

Oh, Henry was a renegade
Never liked to play it safe
One component at a time
There’s got to be a better way
Ohh people came from miles around
Searching for a steady job
Welcome to the Motor Town
Boomin’ like an atom bomb

[Bridge:]
Oh, Henry was the end of the story,
Then everything went wrong
And we’ll return it to its former glory
But it just takes so long

[Chorus:]
It’s gonna take a long time
It’s gonna take it but we’ll make it one day

Oh, Barry had a record store
Started up a studio
Oh, West Grand Boulevard
Turned it into solid gold
Oh, people all around the world
Tunin’ into radios
Welcome to the Motor Town
Buckle up ’cause here we go

[Bridge:]
Oh, Barry was the end of the story,
then everything went wrong
And we’ll return it to its former glory
But it just takes so long

[Chorus:]
It’s gonna take a long time
It’s gonna take it but we’ll make it one day

Wherever we’re going
It’s gonna take it but we’ll make it one day
Whatever we’re doing
It’s gonna take it but we’ll make it one day
However you want it
It’s gonna take it but we’ll make it one day

You’ve got to love the lyric “One component at a time / there’s got to be a better way” – a sentiment so unlikely to appear in a pop song, even though the concept is fundamental to the culture we live in.

The song is a very potted history of Detroit – Ford and Motown – booming industry followed by urban decay. I love the idea of it. I wonder could we do a similar song for Manchester? Except in our case it would be industry > urban decay > arbitrary regeneration and nobody knows why, how or where all the money’s coming from.

“Francis was a renegade”… that’s the Duke of Bridgewater… Am I going back too far?

“Oh, Tony was the end of the story, then everything went wrong…”

* * * * * * * * * * *

My kids are very impressed with this video:

Five Nights At Freddy’s apparently, while the song resembles ELO. Who’d have thought Mayer’s appeal could span the generations so?