Paris is not a city celebrated for her street art, yet as I walked down the Quai Valmy in the drizzling rain, the graffiti thickened around me until I arrived outside the Point Ephemere, a music venue playing host to the Disquaire Day music festival. The crowd around me was as graffitied as the architecture, and I was lost in a sea of tattooed smokers until I collected my courage enough to walk up to the entrance.
"Do you know where I can find John Grant?" I asked a seemingly 10-foot-tall security guard. "I am supposed to meet with him before the show."
That was not entirely true. John had mentioned that he would be playing a show in Paris and, as I was living there, that I should attend. He had not returned my messages since, hence the need to collect my courage. The guard radioed my inquiry. “Your name?" "Jonathan Grant." "You are searching for yourself ? " he added, winking. "Always." The guard told me to wait at the bottom of the stairs while he went off to search for an answer, and I did so, nervously accepting defeat. When he came back for me, we wandered a few hallways until we reached a large room full of sofas. John was sitting on the floor talking with some guy in an orange t-shirt (Andy Butler, I later found out, of Hercules and Love Affair). John immediately got up to hug me, grinning from ear to ear. I could tell that he was exhausted, but he radiated kindness. John always has a no-bullshit air about him, mixed with a mysteriously acquired Southern charm and a warm, slightly morbid sense of humor. He also has a pretty impressive beard.
"I have a few things to finish up, but you can hang out anywhere around here, and I will catch you in a few minutes." I think he even added an "okay, hun?" at the end. I went to the window and pulled out a book—some biography of Dorothy Day—which kept my attention for a little while. Across the room I could see John, a relative I barely knew, yet was so dear to me.
Growing up, I didn't know my Uncle John. In the family farmhouse in Missouri, we had candy boxes full of old photos–perhaps he was in those, but no one mentioned him. This might not be odd in your family, but my family does not keep secrets well. I thought I knew everything about my relatives. We tend to be the open-book type.
The first time I'd heard of John Grant was in 2004 when I was living in Cardiff, Wales. I was at a Czars concert with a few friends. They had a thick, soulful sound. The lead singer’s voice reminded me of my brother's, my father's, my grandfather's voice.
Afterwards I called my parents and told them about the lead singer of this band. He looked like us. Sounded like us. Had the same name as me. It was at this point my parents had to tell me the story—how he moved to Europe at a very young age, and that they had not seen him since. My mother did not know he was gay at this point. Still, I was more than shocked.
John is not exactly my uncle. He is my father's cousin, but all of my parents’ cousins are thought of as aunts and uncles because our family is so close. Too close probably. Everyone knowing and
Around the same age I was voted friendliest guy in my high school class, he was sent from his home to a gay
rehabilitation center in Germany.
commenting on everyone else's business. It had only ever been a beautiful aspect of my life – this involvedness – but for John this was not the case.
I have come to understand, through both our conversations and his lyrics, the pain that proximity can bring. His childhood was idyllic and similar to mine: small Midwestern town, small church, a working-class nuclear family on the rise. His family moving to Colorado at the moment things precipitously changed from pleasant to terrible. He was isolated, ostracized, and bullied. Our family, too, was a source of oppression and grief for him. They reacted badly to his coming-out, but more profoundly rejected him for his sensitive personality. I didn't have any of that. My teen years rocked. Around the same age I was voted friendliest guy in my high school class, he was sent from his home to a gay rehabilitation center in Germany. I am still struggling to comprehend his adolescence.
When John finished his conversation with the orange t-shirt, he joined me on the couch near the window and we talked for a bit. Life updates, boyfriend updates, family updates. The usual start. There was more to say and ask, but we could do that after the show. It was clear that John needed to be alone, but he said it was alright for me to be there, so we talked quietly for a while. Did I want to go see Hercules and Love Affair's set? Of course. We headed downstairs.
When we reached the bottom of the stairs, it was difficult to get through the crowd. Person after person shared with John how much his music meant to them. They were also asking him for his autograph and making it difficult to get away. I was immediately overwhelmed and felt a little protective of him. I knew he was tired and frazzled. But he never let on. He smiled, and joked and was genuinely present to his fans.
John autographed our way back to the green room, where he introduced me to a few people – his manager, his guitar player, his publisher–all friends who had been with him through rough times. John discussed the set list with his manager, and then left to exchange his jeans and t-shirt for a suit.
As we talked, I discovered that John's crew knew most of my family. Over the course of many tours, they had gotten to know my brother and cousins, as well as other uncles and aunts. They shared a few funny stories, and when John returned, we all went downstairs for his performance. In the darkness of the venue, I could see the mouths of the audience members singing along, even to his lesser-known songs.
The three or so hours after the concert were an examination of our jarring similarities and stark differences. We sat in the corner of a dimly lit restaurant, eating burgers and talking about our family, our hilarious relatives, and our anger and frustrations for the past. He told me about his father, who had always been distant. We talked about my father who had always been loving and present. Now and then we would explain our family to those dining with us. I had a father who would envelop me in a hug and who would tell me every day that he was proud of me. John's father, though loving, could be relied on (at best) for eye contact and a warm handshake. I never understood that.
He and I both travel incessantly for work. We are both based in Europe and have a passion for
languages, though he is a much better student. We both have a dry sense of humor, although John’s intellect far outpaces mine. We both use our chosen mediums to explain our world, though the world he describes is one of pain and rejection, and mine is mostly antique or imaginary.
Over the years, we have kept up despite the fact that our time together is always brief. Most of those times seem to be either dramatic familial events or concerts. John called me on the day my father was killed. I don't remember what he said to me; I was still stunned. But I know that he was there for me. Whenever I see John we talk about this: the event, my father's life, a few funny stories, the recovery process.
We were messaging over Skype in 2010, when he told me that he had AIDS. He seemed to take it in stride. He told me that this was not public yet, and I felt honored to keep his secret until it was time to share.
The Grant men have all been talented musicians, painters, or poets—some secretly and some publicly. John was the first to turn his art into his career. There has always been an attitude among us that what we create is for the family and no one else. We sing and play and paint for our own pleasure and for the pleasure of friends, but never as our career. When I talk about this now, it sounds old-fashioned. Perhaps it’s best illustrated by my great-grandfather (John’s grandfather), whose songs and poems I still perform from yellowed sheet music. But for all his talents, his job was raising hunting hounds. I could tell the same story about each member of my family. Each creatively gifted, each content to keep his talents in storage.
This is what inspires me about John. How he achieved instant “hero status” in my eyes. John took his voice and his hands and did what all the rest of them had been afraid to do. His lyrics speak to an honest depth even I would be embarrassed to expose. John has guts. As I build my creative career, I keep thinking about the risks John took.
He is a troublesome hero, a world-travelling freeagent. But then again, so am I. It would be too much to expect of him sudden reintegration into our family, after years of rejection, so I try to give him space. Gradually we all grow closer. Gradually we uncover the secrets each has hidden, and now fewer are lurking around our lives. We are learning from our mistakes. I hope I can convince John to come home for Thanksgiving next year and bring his boyfriend.
I know John never set out to be a hero or role model, but in creating freely and honestly he has paved the way for me to do the same. The night we talked in Paris, he told me that he was proud of me, something my father had once done so regularly. I have never doubted that John is rooting for me, as I am rooting for him.
We understand each other. We are cut from the same cloth.