Rel­a­tively Close

Hello Mr. Magazine - - CONTENTS - Jonathan Ran­dall Grant

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.

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