But, while Mendez can play rings around most any musician you can name in Northern Michigan, he admits he has had a tough time marketing himself -- in fact, he‘s virtually clueless as to some of the local restaurant venues and nightclub scenes where he‘d be a perfect fit. He‘s planning to move to Nashville at the end of the month to search for better opportunities.
“After two winters here I realized I could not make a living here,“ he says wistfully in his Spanish-accented English. “The only way you can live here is to have a place to have a show all week. And then, how much can they pay you? The rent is not cheap here, and the food is not cheap.“
JOHN PAUL‘S DREAM
“If I could have a dream, it would be to come back here someday when I have money and buy a place like a camp where people could get together and play from 9 in the morning to 10 at night with a policy of gentleness -- don‘t push, don‘t pull, don‘t shout -- just enjoy a friendly time together,“ he says.
“But Traverse City is the groundkeeper of the rich,“ he adds. “If you came here as a tourist, you could not visit if you had the kind of jobs that people have who live here.“
Mendez exudes no sense of bitterness -- he‘s just matter-of-fact. And he knows what it is to struggle as a musician at a subsistence level. He‘s worked day labor to make ends meet and has played five-hour gigs at tourist resorts. One of the best jobs he ever had in America was rounding up shopping carts at a Wal-Mart in Florida, a $5.50-per-hour stint he enjoyed because it was outdoor work and good exercise.
And although he performs astonishing flamenco-flavored music, he‘s also worried about what the music scene means for a performer over the age of 50. “If I had my own place, I could push my half-century with a little more hope,“ he notes. “It‘s terrible getting old.“
Yet at one time, Mendez was a musical recording star in southern South America, with his name and face familiar to millions. His odyssey has been one of both folly and determination, going from early pop success to a mature resolve to master every aspect of the guitar through five hours of daily practice.
LIFE IN CHILE
Mendez was born in 1954 into a musical family of seven brothers and one sister in the small town of San Fernando in Chile. “I didn‘t have my own guitar when I was growing up,“ he recalls. “There were three guitars at our home and it was a matter of seniority as to who got to play.“
But he was a keen observer and quickly caught on, teaching himself to play by ear. “I copied my brothers. I realized that if I played the guitar, I‘d get the girls like my brothers. Then I learned that if I could hum a song, I could transfer it to the guitar. The guitar would teach me the rest, because it‘s all here in the 12 notes. It was all observation -- the mother of science is observation.“
His family moved to Santiago when it was still a city of one million people -- today the capital city has swollen to seven million. Mendez attended the university there, but fate played a hand in bringing him to the United States. “We could have been the Jackson Brothers of Chile, but I left when I was 19 years old,“ he recalls.
That was in 1974, when he took a trip to visit his brother who was performing in a Latin hybrid band in Cincinnati, Ohio. His brother had purchased a new truck for his father and young John Paul was going to help drive it back more than 10,000 miles to Chile. Unfortunately, he was in a motorcycle accident on his brother‘s 750cc Kawasaki motorcycle within a few hours of arriving in Ohio, and ended up losing a knee. The accident prolonged his visit, however, and he was awestruck by his brother‘s band and the showbiz lifestyle of a young musician.
By 1981, Mendez was back in Chile with a record contract from the Warner Brothers Electric Atlantic label. He released a single that was a hit in six South American countries, making him a celebrity on television. Unfortunately, some misguided career moves -- such as shaving his head and contradicting a music exec -- irked some of the middlemen in Chile‘s music business and his career began to suffer. By 1991, he decided to return to the United States, hoping that his Latin-flavored act would be a hit north of the border.
“This is a great country of freedom,“ he notes. “It‘s a great place to expose a musician -- you have all the nationalities here, all of the religions -- everything. It‘s the great country that everyone wants to come to.“
Four years ago, he came to the Traverse City area to spend the summer at a local campground. There, he met Robin, his future wife, and his stepdaughter Jenna. Local pianists Tom Kauffman and David Chown were also helpful with advice on the region‘s music scene.
In 2000, he traveled to Captiva Island in Florida where he played five-hour gigs in a tiki bar six days a week for tourists. “I had an established job, which is rare for a musician, and three meals a day,“ he recalls.
While at Captiva, he resolved to practice five hours a day to master the guitar in a way that surpasses most musicians‘ understanding. Mendez has an almost mystical understanding of the instrument -- he‘ll tell you how much more important the rhythm is than the melody, because it goes to the heart and soul -- and how learning to make the guitar “whisper“ was one of his greatest lessons. He‘ll tell you how 12 basic notes on the fretboard can say things in a universal language that go beyond other forms of communication, like the simple sounds that set the mood in a film depicting love, horror or comedy. “You have the 12 notes and the semi-tones and then they repeat -- you clone the sound,“ he says. “It‘s all incredibly simple, but at the same time there‘s an incredible magic in music.“
If Mendez sounds a bit like a character, rest assured, he has the quirks one might expect of a great artist. He‘s prone to saying things like, “I learned I had to be the mouse‘s head in the parade, rather than a hair on the lion‘s tail.“ His conversation is filled with symbolism and an exuberant sense of expression, but you get his drift.
For Mendez, performing is life itself -- as necessary as air to breath. He‘s the consummate, polished professional, performing in a black suit and gaucho-style hat -- he even brings his own P.A. system to open mic gigs so that his sound is perfect for the lacksadaisical audiences such venues attract. He‘s literally a world-class musician twisting in the thin air of Northern Michigan‘s lost opportunities.
As an extremely talented musician without an outlet, he‘s had troubles with depression, even though he exudes a zestful spirit. He‘s also respectful and enthusiastic in regard to the efforts of other musicians. “I do appreciate any good player and anyone who takes themselves out of the boredom of life by performing,“ he says.
Two years ago, he came back to Traverse City, looking for a stage to land on. He‘s had some small luck with local restaurants and recently played to a full house at a library concert in town, but mostly, it‘s been tough, even with the help of patrons such as former Mayor Margaret Dodd.
“I thought this was a good place to do my training, but I realized I had nowhere to play -- I was invisible.“
John Paul Mendez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and would welcome opportunities to perform.