Before I continue the dark tale of my life with Johnny in 2013, I’d like to address a question I sometimes hear, especially from people who did not know Johnny and who are only meeting him in these blog posts. What drew me to Johnny? What did I like about him? One of my writing friends recently quipped, “It was all about the music.”

It was partly about the music. Johnny and I met at a musical gathering. He attended for two years before he and I got together as a couple. Johnny came alive around music he loved or even liked: he had acute hearing and when one of us sang in the ballad group he focused his entire attention on the song. I noticed his rapt focus right away. “This man listens,” I thought. He also listened to discussions around the ballad table, some of which were about music, and participated in those conversations. He did not have the annoying habit some guitar-players have of noodling in the background while waiting for their next chance to play and he never played on songs unless someone asked him to do so.

In those ballad-table conversations I picked up a few other bits of information that I stowed for future reference. One time Johnny was telling a story of his experiences in the Navy during the Viet Nam war. He mentioned shore leaves where his shipmates would go whoring and he would hie himself to the nearest record store to listen to the latest music because he was sweet on a gal at home. “Faithful,” my mind ticked off my imaginary checklist of the qualities of a good man.

Also, Johnny was good-natured, good-humored. I would have called him sunny. He would have talked about “positive energy.” Most times when I saw Johnny he smiled, seemed relaxed, said nice things to other people, laughed at amusing moments. Because I had grown up with a hot-tempered brother and an erratic father I enjoyed Johnny’s temperment. And when Johnny played and sang he radiated positive energy, pulsed with life.

He was also romantic and affectionate. He liked to hold hands. He liked to spoon in bed, or let me lay my head on his chest. He’d tell me I looked beautiful in something I was wearing. He printed red hearts after my name on his schedules and on file folders with my name on them.

Johnny was generous: I saw this first in the comments he made about other people’s songs and singing. He always praised a version he liked, or told someone their singing was beautiful or wonderful. When I came to know him better, he told me that if he had a dedicated student who had hit a financial snag and wanted to come for lessons he would teach for free, as his grandmother had done during the Depression. He did this, despite the fact that he himself was often short of money. I saw him take care of his band members financially, paying them first even if he had to short his own share. And, once we became a couple, Johnny took me out on birthdays, Valentine’s Day and our anniversary without fail, although we went Dutch on other occasions. When we moved in together (twice), he paid the moving expenses and, when I said I couldn’t afford to pay rent, he said, “I’m paying the rent anyway. Just move in.”

Johnny and I both wanted a real partnership, which, to both of us, looked like appearing in public as a couple and, eventually, living in the same house and sharing daily life. When we decided to become a couple, after a two-year acquaintance in the ballad group, Johnny was good about introducing me to friends and family and bringing me to parties, friends’ gatherings and family events. He wrote to friends to tell them he had met me. He met friends of mine as well and started spending Christmas and Thanksgiving Day with my family.

I had lived with one man back in the early ‘80s and had wanted to live with the man who was my partner in the early ‘90s. Johnny and I talked of getting married — he was not opposed to it, sometimes said he wanted to marry me — but I had some legal and financial reasons not to marry him as things stood, so we began our daily life together by sharing his house.

Some time after I moved in, seeing how hard I worked, how much time I put into busking shifts, planting and tending a garden, cooking nourishing breakfasts and dinners for us each day, and seeing that I sometimes earned under ten dollars a day, Johnny instituted the practice of giving me “Johnny money.” “Johnny money” was a twenty-dollar cash infusion only to be used for specific things: I could use it for cab rides, BART tickets or other emergency transportation, or to buy coffee. I carried the twenty in my wallet until I had to spend it and, once I had spent part of it, I would say, “Honey, I spent seven dollars on a cab” and he would top it up again. This was Johnny’s way of seeing that I never got stranded somewhere without a way to get home or the means to get a cup of coffee. I honored our agreement about Johnny money and if I really wanted to spend some of it on another item, I would call and ask permission to buy something for the house or a food item for cooking (in general, I was restricted from using Johnny money on groceries).

When we had a common goal, Johnny and I could work together, whether it was boxing up the kitchen to protect our kitchen goods and food during cockroach spraying (more about that later), packing the refrigerator with groceries, or planning how to get out of the house in time to get to a movie, party or concert.

Johnny was better than I at getting things done, specifically about making decisions. I admired his ability to look at a situation, decide what to do and move into action while I was still weighing the pros and cons. He was used to improvising, thinking quickly on his feet, but he was also good at planning things, working out what steps to take. He used this in his teaching to help students to get from one skill level to the next. We were both good at deciding what we were going to do and sticking to it: I went out busking five or six days a week at the same time, played a two or two-and-a-half hour shift, closed my case, counted my money and went home. I played in rain or shine, day after day, unless I was sick or unduly tired from a few late nights in a row. Johnny had routines, too, from checking his bank balance first thing each morning, to typing and printing a daily schedule to work from each day.

Johnny and I were both articulate, verbally adept people. We had similar vocabularies and facility with grammar, spelling and English usage. We both liked to read. He turned me on to Walter Mosley’s Leonid McGill series and Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe novels (He had shelves of them). He and I made up little songs about my cat Fiona — he wrote “Fiona’s Lullaby” (based on Emmett’s Lullaby), which became part of our bedtime ritual: Fiona would settle on the bed and Johnny and I would sing to her:

“Lullaby and good night, be a sweet little kitty,
Lullaby and good night, don’t fuss and don’t bite!
Go to sleep, go to sleep and don’t make a peep
Go to sleep now and rest and don’t be a pest.”

Johnny met my needs for a smart, committed, loving partner. Except when he didn’t. But isn’t that the story of all relationships?

When Johnny and I arrived back in the Bay Area from our trip for his brother David’s funeral I was still trying to process the sights of Johnny vomiting in public and drinking whiskey at seven in the morning. Although my father and brothers were all alcoholics I had never seen them vomit from drinking or drink before early afternoon. My childhood gave me a baseline for how drinkers behaved, but Johnny did not adhere to conventions such as drinking only at proscribed times and he had shown no embarrassment at losing his dinner in a restaurant while servers scurried to clean the floor.

During our first post-trip night together, soon after I closed the bedroom door, I set to re-stringing my guitar, struggling to loosen stubborn bridge pins and pricking a finger on sharp lead wires. Johnny offered to change strings for me but I said no, feeling it was good practice for me to do it myself. Johnny pulled a bottle of whiskey from his omnipresent black satchel. I went silent. He drank and played aggressively with my cat. I let him put on the last two strings after my pricked finger started bleeding.

I do not know how to talk to Johnny about his drinking without resorting to blaming and judgments. I know I don’t know how to talk to him about it. When I say his drinking makes me sad he calls me “mopey.” When I say that “regular” people don’t drink in the morning, he says he is not a regular person. He tells me he accepts everything about me (poverty, cerebral palsy, my living at home) and he wants the same acceptance from me (but he does not accept my discomfort over his drinking, which he thinks I should get over).

I consider reading the AA Big Book. I consider attending Al-Anon meetings, although I never cared for Adult Children of Alcoholics meetings I attended in the past. I write him an unsent letter that begins “Dear One, I can’t handle your drinking” and ends “I do not like it when you are belting whiskey morning and night and I do not like it when you turn on me and make it my fault. You keep saying you are being charged with another man’s crimes, but I am talking about your drinking, not my father’s drinking or my brothers’ drinking or anyone’s else.”

Johnny has gigs in March and April 2013 — he’s playing a private party in late March, and appearing at an April 1st benefit for fiddler Sue Draheim. He and I will play our second duet gig at The Arlington cafe on April 5th and he has a blues gig scheduled for April 15th in Marin County and a band gig on April 21st in Oakland.

Johnny and I rehearse for our gig. We enjoy running through our songs on April 3rd and 4th, fine-tuning our arrangements and laughing as he drills me on the pronunciation of “one” in “My One Desire.” He pronounces it “wun,” reminding me of a movie gangster who says “dese” and “dose.” We take in The Good Ol’ Persons reunion show at Freight and Salvage on the third as well.

After we play The Arlington I need to get down to the annual business of preparing my tax returns. I dread doing my taxes every year because I am a self-employed sole proprietor with no business background: I dutifully slog through IRS publications and forms for the creative pursuits that produce my tiny income, counting CD sales, gig money, painting sales and writing consultations. I do not earn enough to pay someone else to prepare my returns and my record keeping is idiosyncratic to say the least. I tackle my returns with a mixture of confusion and resignation: I will get them done (I always do). I live in fear of an audit: I am scrupulously honest, but I am afraid my documentation might not pass muster.

On Sunday night April 7th, just as I am about to start my taxes, filmmaker Les Blank dies of cancer. Johnny stays up half the night writing a five-page obituary for his friend and mentor and emails it to me. I read it and inform Johnny of a discrepancy in the titles of two films in the piece (like me, Johnny is a stickler for accuracy), but I don’t fully take in the meaning that Les’s life, art and philosophy had for Johnny. The obituary lays this out beautifully and yet I don’t absorb just how important Les was to Johnny (Later Johnny will request that he himself be buried in Sunset View Cemetery as close to Les’s grave as possible). I do register that Les’s death is a second loss for Johnny, closely following the death of his brother David.

On Tuesday morning of tax week, Johnny emails me to say that he’s been invited to a gathering to remember Les, organized by Les’s ex-wife Chris Simon. Johnny wants me to go with him. I have told him I can only do three things during tax week: talk to him, work at my day job and do my tax returns. I answer that I do not want to go to the memorial, that I did not know Les well, that I would go if it weren’t tax week or if I had finished my tax returns.

Johnny fires back an email telling me how he would handle my tax returns (skip work until I get them done or file an extension). He tells me that it is important to him that I appear as his partner. And then he writes this paragraph, in which he criticizes me for taking a two-hour break from tax prep to watch an episode of “American Idol.”

“I know how stressful this week is for you,” he writes. “And of course you need to relax sometimes. Still, you were okay with taking two hours last night to watch a T.V. show starting at 8:00. And my impression is that you actually stopped working on your tax stuff at least a little before that hour. I hope making this appearance with me could be given at least this much time.”

The morning of the Les Blank memorial, Johnny receives notice that Sue Draheim has died — death #3 in the space of less than two months. I agree to attend the Les Blank gathering and Johnny agrees to spend the night with me following the get-together. He tells me he will pick me up at 5:30 PM for the 6:00 PM party in the Berkeley hills near my home.

Unbeknownst to me, Johnny has passed out at his home in San Leandro that evening while I sit, dressed and ready to go, anticipating a ride or a phone call informing me of a change of plans. Johnny’s driver cannot rouse him until 7:30 PM, at which point they drive to my house where I have been waiting for two and a half hours. Johnny’s driver has not cleared space in his station wagon for me to sit, so I perch on Johnny’s lap in the passenger seat for the ride to Les’s house.

Unwinding myself gingerly at the curb, I pick my way over a grassy strip, turning at the sidewalk to see Johnny lurching his way across the grass, barely able to remain upright.

We enter the house. Johnny introduces me to a few people, including the hostess, and accepts the first drink on offer. In no time at all, he has vomited mucus on a leather chair and part of the hardwood floor. I speed to the kitchen for paper towels to clean up the mess and a woman I don’t know says to me “He shouldn’t drink.”

I shrug my shoulders. Does she think I am responsible for him? How is it my job to control his drinking?

Meanwhile, Johnny, feeling better after vomiting, has grabbed another beer. I drink a ceremonial champagne toast with a couple of musicians I know, raising a glass to Les’s memory, and then I am ready to go home. Johnny, however, wants to have a long conversation with each person remaining at the party.

We got back to my mother’s house around midnight and got into bed. I began to cry. I could not fathom how someone could be too sick to eat, throw up the contents of his stomach and then open another beer: when I vomit, I rest and take cautious sips of ginger ale. I considered breaking up with Johnny that night, doubting whether I could sustain a commitment to him, having visions of being dragged to more parties where I knew few people, could not participate in music beyond my skill level, and got stuck listening to the all-afternoon or late-night drinkers rambling on to one another.

By the next morning, after little sleep, Johnny was his kind and loving self again. He ate a hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs with cheese and salsa, toast and butter. Later on he sent me a sweet email: “Thinking of you with love, honey. Good luck with everything today. XXX JH.”

I finish my tax returns on April 14th, and mail them on April 15th before Johnny whisks me off to his evening gig at the Station House in Point Reyes. He calls me up to the stage to sing “Sitting on Top of the World.” I get polite applause for that and sit down again. He calls me up again to sing “Clueless,” my own song about the mishaps of our courtship, and the crowd loves it. In fact, every single musician there makes a point of telling me how much they enjoy it.

Johnny and I sing “New Love Thing” together. One couple gets up to dance and some people sing along. Also, Johnny and I get to sit down to a delicious dinner on the house: I eat skirt steak and broccolini and half of Johnny’s bread pudding. He orders a rich, cream-based oyster stew. I am happy to have an elegant meal and a relaxing evening. The drummer plays tastefully. The bass is not overloud. And the piano player is smokin’.

Dear readers,

I don’t have it in me to write a Johnny and Sharyn story tonight. “Soon come,” as Johnny used to say.

In 2013 Johnny and I are discussing moving in together, but I have still not stayed a night at his house. My mother starts to complain again about Johnny’s visits to her house, although we follow the rules about no consecutive overnights. She says she wants to spend her old age in peace.

Meanwhile, both Johnny and I have financial challenges: the guitar student trade has dips and ebbs and my busking income is tiny. I am advertising regularly for writing practice students on Craigslist, which usually brings in complaints that I don’t teach for free or people wanting to rent me writing space. Counting my pennies and trying to save for a retreat with my teacher Natalie Goldberg in France, I decide I will do an extra busking shift five days a week: after I play two hours in the Berkeley BART station in the morning I will return to either Downtown Berkeley or Ashby in the afternoon and play another hour. To make the afternoon shift more palatable I decide that I will only play the songs I most want to play during my second shift. Things are slow enough for Johnny that he muses about busking himself and goes so far as to make a busking set list. He says that if he busks he will make a large sign informing people that he teaches guitar.

On February 22nd, 2013 Johnny’s brother David has multiple cardiac arrests and lands in the hospital in Boston. His doctors sedate him, put him on a ventilator and chill him down to protect his organs. Members of his church come to sit with him and pray over him while Johnny and I sit in California.

Johnny and I both have late February birthdays. I ask Johnny if he wants to forgo celebrating because of his brother’s condition and he tells me no, that we are alive and need to celebrate. Earlier in the month we have gone to hear both Alan Toussaint and Dr. John at Yoshi’s as they pass through town on tour. Toussaint is particularly engaging, interpolating Mozart’s death march into “St. James Infirmary” and leading the audience in a sing-along of “City of New Orleans,” assuring us that “All white people know this song,” and turning his mic toward us as we sing.

I buy Johnny a card for his 67th birthday and bake him a pear tarte tatin. His birthday falls on Super Bowl Sunday, so I come out to San Leandro for awhile to see him and to avoid the Super Bowl at my house. Three days after that, on February 27th, Johnny’s brother David dies and, the next day, Johnny treats me to dinner at my favorite Indian restaurant in Berkeley.

I wake up sick the following day, no doubt stressed by David’s illness and death. I stay home from work for a few days, trying to get well before a road trip to Seattle for David’s funeral. Johnny and I will be traveling by car with his niece Lucy and her husband Adam. I sort out black clothes, shoes and raincoat for the service. I cannot find a black beret, so I decide to pack tights and a hat in Lenten purple. Since Johnny’s entire wardrobe is black, he will have no trouble dressing for the funeral where he will sing a few folk hymns.

Lucy and Adam propose camping in Ashland for the first night of the trip, but I look at a forecast showing 90% chance of rain and Johnny books us motel rooms for the night. By then we know that David’s estate will cover our expenses for the funeral trip: meals, lodging, etc., including a couple of nights in Seattle.

Johnny’s family gather at David’s Seattle house for a few hours. Someone brings in some beer for that occasion, but there is no food, no ceremony. We sit in the living room of a house that has been closed-up for months, talking of Johnny’s parents who used to live there. We gather again at a cemetery in the rain for prayers and songs. Those who wish to can use a spade to throw dirt on David’s coffin. We gather that night for a salmon dinner at Ivar’s, a restaurant that has been in Seattle since 1938 and then we go our separate ways.

Johnny is drinking heavily. He gets sick in the car and again in Ashland when we go out to have dinner. At least once during the trip I wake up to see him swigging whiskey from a pint bottle first thing in the morning.


“Whiskey before breakfast?” I ask.
“A good old Irish tradition,” he answers.

I do not say anything else about Johnny’s drinking right then because his beloved brother has just died: he is grieving and does not need extra pressure from me. And I am still trying to figure out whether Johnny is merely someone who drinks heavily on occasion or whether he has a true addiction to alcohol.

"Clueless" CD "Paris" CD breakfast dishes busking butternut squash cookbooks Daring Bakers desserts eggs feta cheese food paintings food photos fruit trees gluten-free recipes Johnny Harper leeks Natalie Goldberg pasta peaches pears pen and ink sketches philosophy pie crust polenta relationships salads seasonal cooking seasonal recipes Sharyn Dimmick Sharyn Dimmick — art Sharyn Dimmick — recordings soup substitutions summer recipes Thai flavors The Kale Chronicles The Lauren Project tomatoes travel vegetable gardening vinaigrette watercolor paintings Work With What You Got writing practice yeast breads

"Clueless" CD "Paris" CD breakfast dishes busking butternut squash cookbooks Daring Bakers desserts eggs feta cheese food paintings food photos fruit trees gluten-free recipes Johnny Harper leeks Natalie Goldberg pasta peaches pears pen and ink sketches philosophy pie crust polenta relationships salads seasonal cooking seasonal recipes Sharyn Dimmick Sharyn Dimmick — art Sharyn Dimmick — recordings soup substitutions summer recipes Thai flavors The Kale Chronicles The Lauren Project tomatoes travel vegetable gardening vinaigrette watercolor paintings Work With What You Got writing practice yeast breads

From the time Johnny and I got together in 2012 we spent our dutifully-spaced nights together at my mother’s house where I lived, with occasional overnights at friends’ houses when we played an out-of-town gig or went to a party far from home.

In December 2012 we made our one and only appearance as a couple at Camp Harmony, a multi-day New Year’s camp-out put on by the San Francisco Folk Music Club. I had been a club member for decades and often spent five days at camp in late December and early January.

One of the features of Camp Harmony was a swing dance or rock and roll dance that took place in a rotation of contra dances, French dances and other dances during the week. In 2012 somehow I got wind of the fact that some of the people who had traditionally led, managed and played for the Swing Dance would not be attending camp. This gave Johnny an opportunity to put himself forward as the bandleader/organizer for a Rock and Roll Dance (I wanted Johnny to go to camp with me and I knew it would sweeten the pot if he got to bring his Telecaster and amp and lead the band, a volunteer group of musicians — you never knew who would show up to play keyboards or bass, to sing back-up, to lead a song).

Johnny corresponded with the powers that be, collectively known as Ralph, and convinced them to give him a try. He hired his friend Sunnia Eastwood to bring us and our gear to camp. I gave him a rundown on how camp usually functioned. We bunked in a cabin with friends from the Ballad group and Joe Offer from the Mudcat Cafe, who had been a kitchen crew buddy of mine in years past.

Johnny threw himself into the job of managing the rock and roll band, as he always did, recruiting players he knew that were on site. I don’t remember too much about the actual dance except that Bob Reid and Art Peterson sang back-up parts on “The Weight” and Johnny and I reprised our duet on Springsteen’s “Fire.” People danced and sang and played and Johnny helped people have a good time and kept things moving.

Sunnia came to pick us up from camp after our two nights there. She was to take us to another party for the night, but just as we left camp we got into a car accident. Air bags deployed, gear moved about, and all three of us got thrown around and battered. Johnny’s friend Dale came to get us, to take us to his house for his party and to bring us back to camp the next day. At that point, my long-time friend Deborah, who was leaving camp to attend a choir rehearsal, offered to drive Johnny and me back to Kensington. I called ahead to tell Mom we had been in an accident and were shaken up and she kindly allowed us to stay the night on New Year’s Eve, the night before her birthday.

We did not stay up until midnight to ring in the New Year: I retreated to the bathtub to soak my bruises and scrapes from the accident after setting Johnny up at my computer to check his email. We did, however, begin to talk about the coming year, during which we planned to move in together. I thought I would move during the summer after I got back from a meditation retreat in France, while Johnny advocated for my moving in in February, our mutual birth month. I pointed out that, although I had been to his house, usually for rehearsals, that I had never seen the bedroom or stayed overnight there: whenever I had been to Marcella St. the door to the bedroom was closed and I had taken to referring to it as “The Forbidden Zone.” He assured me, as he often did, “Soon come,” saying he thought the bedroom would be ready for me to visit in February 2013. I didn’t think I would be able to begin visiting and move in the same month — we had Valentine’s Day and two birthdays to celebrate, there was a President’s Day holiday as well, and it was the shortest month of the year besides. It turned out that neither of our predictions were correct: it would be January 2014 before I moved to Johnny’s house.

Recently I started singing transatlantic duets with my friend David, who lives in Yorkshire. He mentioned “Scarlet Town” by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings and I was keen to try it. David sent me some lyrics which didn’t jibe with how I heard the song, so I listened to the recorded track from “The Harrow and the Harvest,” running it back a few times to check particular words or phrases.

When I had done the best I could, I emailed a new version of the lyrics to David. Then I hunted up live performances by Welch and Rawlings on YouTube and watched Welch’s mouth, trying to lip-read as well as listen: was she singing “Cairo on a bet?” or “Cairo on a bend?” And was it “holly on the mountainside?” or “Polly on the mountainside?” Although I could hear no clear “n” or “t,” I put my trust in “on a bend.” Just to be sure, I listened to several other performers sing the song and found support for “on a bend” and “Polly.” Along the way I heard several clear enunciations of another phrase “a lean old time,” which I had heard as “leavin’ town” and David had heard as “a little town.” Welch and Rawlings do not include their lyrics in their liner notes or on their website so listening and comparing is the only way to approximate their songs.

In the folk world, misheard words are called “mondegreens” because someone once heard “They have slain the Earl of Murray and Lady Mondegreen” for “They have slain the Earl of Murray and laid him on the green.” Johnny, whose hearing for both words and chords was better than mine, laughed at some of my “mondegreens” in songs by The Eagles. I had interpreted “Life in the Fast Lane” as “I do the best thing” (I only ever heard it on the radio on a poor stereo system) and thought the phrase “a heartache tonight” was “a party tonight” under the same conditions.

When Johnny was alive, no matter what was going on between us I could ask him, “Hey, Johnny, what do you think Gillian Welch is singing here?” I could also ask him “What is that chord progression? I can’t figure out the third chord.” I could ask him, “What is Tracy Chapman playing in the intro to ‘All That You Have Is Your Soul?’” I could ask him to listen to any song and come up with a credible version that I could play, tailored to my skill-level as a guitarist. I marveled that he could listen to a recording and determine whether the guitar-player was using a capo or playing in an alternative tuning and also identify each version of each chord used. He had honed his skills by listening to music and teaching himself to play anything he wanted to play, playing along with recordings until his ears told him he matched a part note for note.

Within the first six months we were together, Johnny showed me how he drew a box chart for an arrangement of a song: each 4-beat measure got a box with a chord written in it. If the chord changed on the third beat, he drew a diagonal line from the upper right corner to the lower left corner and put one chord in each half of the box. Sometimes Johnny would draw groups of musical notes, quarter notes and dotted eighths, for example, and write the letters of the notes above them: he wrote out the introduction for Richard Thompson’s “Just the Motion” for me in this way and used blank spaces on the page to draw chord symbols for “Fsus2” and “Gsus4” before I learned how to count up the scale and create my own suspended chords. I responded to the chart with enthusiasm, writing him to say that having the chart made practicing fun rather than frustrating because it mapped how to get where I wanted.

Before I met Johnny, I devised most of my accompaniments impressionistically: for simple songs I could hear the chords, or hear chords that would do — chords that would go with the melody. I didn’t try to copy the arrangement on a record: what I did was learn the song by singing along with the record repeatedly, then singing the song as I walked around and went about my day and then finally picking up my guitar and fitting chords to the song I had now learned. For some things — like Joni Mitchell songs — I consulted songbooks, which featured tortured chord changes in standard tuning. None of this is necessary now: you can often find specific lessons for playing particular songs on YouTube where the guitarist breaks the whole arrangement down for you, and you can find a list of songs in each of Joni’s custom tunings on her website, but when Johnny and I started to play in the ‘50s and ‘60s the internet did not exist. I approached songs as a singer rather than as a guitarist (Feel free to insert derogatory music jokes here).

If I had met Johnny in my youth, I might be a better guitar-player today. By the time I met him I had my own ways of doing things; specific cheats for getting around barre chords, for example, and idiosyncratic chord changes to a few well-known songs. I had just a few formal lessons in some basic arpeggios, a few tips from other players. Although I started out playing exclusively in standard tuning without a capo, I soon employed a capo to move any song into a singable key with easy chords. My hands were never strong enough to master a full barre chord, except for a blurred-sounding F# minor. A fall I took in my fifties broke my left hand in two places below the index and ring fingers, temporarily destroying what hand strength I had and forever impairing my reach. I went to hand therapy, did every exercise I was given, wore strange contraptions of wire and rubber bands designed to stretch my bent ring finger, brought my guitar in to show the hand therapist what I would need to do in order to play. When I started busking shortly after Johnny and I got together, my left hand would sometimes cramp while I was playing, leaving me unsure whether I could make the next chord change.

I tried guitar lessons with Johnny a few times, but they frustrated both of us: with forty-some years of playing behind me I was not a beginner, but I was not a conventional player either. Eventually, we figured out that it worked better for me to consult him when I wanted to learn a specific lick or skill or “the right chords” to something. Johnny always obliged these requests from me no matter what the state of our relationship was and I always honored his skill and generosity in doing so. I miss his ears today as I forage forward on my own.

Johnny loved time travel stories: he would read any book or watch any movie that involved time travel. He loved watching “Outlander,” every Sunday night, seeing Claire and Brianna go through the stones to Scotland and America.

I have been to the house he lived in for many years: I know that his things are no longer there and I know where some of them have gone. And yet, persistently, for the last couple of days my mind has constructed a different world.

In the world that I see, Johnny inhabits the Marcella Street house. He sits in his folding chair in his living room, plugs his red Telecaster into his Marshall amp and plays and sings. He does not sing to us anymore. He does not go to Zoom music sessions. Students do not come to his house. You cannot call him up “any time,” as he always encouraged people to do. You cannot reach him by email and if you go by the house he will not answer the door.

I cannot explain this, but I see Johnny playing guitar, watching T.V., listening to music. He is not unhappy or lonely and he still has his stereo, his records and books. For me it is like watching someone in a life-sized doll house: I can see into the interior. I do not think he sees me.

In this self-contained world he orders food-to-go: beef stew from the Hof Brau, barbecue from E.&J, crawfish etouffee from Angeline’s. He may make ghostly visits to the Bay Fair Farmers’ Market where he bought corn and strawberries and pumpkin pie. He can bring home the strawberries, but he cannot have conversations with the vendors. He moves through a world where he cannot talk to anyone, but he can get what he needs.

There is no alcohol in this world — no whiskey, no vodka, no beer. He does not need it anymore. He is not partying or drinking to overcome some pain or shame. He plays his music and listens to music and is contented.

It is almost like Johnny lives in the world of an ofrenda for the Day of the Dead, surrounded by the things he loved most: music, books and food. Johnny liked to go to the Oakland Museum to see the exhibited altars every November.

I do not see him walking around in New Orleans or having conversations with other dead musicians. I do not see him reunited with his brother David or departed friends. I do not see him playing gigs. I do not see him in his office using his computer. I only see him in his living room where he taught and played and rehearsed and Zoomed. I see him in the house we sometimes lived in together, but I do not see myself there — we do not pass in the night like ghosts as I water the garden or cook in the kitchen. I am not there at all.

I do not know why I have this particular vision unless it is that the house is where Johnny died and his spirit is hanging around until such time as it is ready to move on, sitting quietly in a spirit version of his most-used room with his beloved music for company. I feel strongly that he is there. And I accept that I cannot call him up or visit him — I do not feel that as a pang. Instead I feel glad to know that he is safe: the sensation I have is that I am in this world over here and he is in that world over there.

Do any of you see Johnny anywhere these days? Do any of you understand what I am describing? Do any of you have a felt sense of where he is?

One of the things I brought back from Johnny’s house on Marcella Street was a binder of charts and set notes, most from two gigs we played in Kensington in 2012-2013. Johnny always typed up large-print set lists with the name of each song and the key he would play it in.

Johnny certainly knew how to put together sets: he had been a bandleader for decades and a D.J. at Berkeley’s KPFA radio. But when I look at the set lists for our first two duet gigs they look crazy to me: the song choices don’t hang together, the order of the songs doesn’t make sense. Each set looks like a tug-of-war between two sensibilities.

I had gotten us our first gig for December 21, 2012 at the Arlington Cafe in Kensington where I lived. We would play for tips and food and would have to bring our own P.A. if we wanted one. Johnny had spent six weeks in October and November producing records for Edie O’Hara and John McCord. Before I confirmed the booking I asked Johnny if he was sure he wanted to play it. He said, “I don’t have anything else going and it’s better to play than not to play.”

I remember our first rehearsal: Johnny came over to my house with a small Marshall amp, his Telecaster, a clipboard with pen, pencil and paper. We sat in the living room and started to talk about what to play.

“Honey, the gig is only four days before Christmas,” I said. “I think we should play some Christmas songs.”

“Sure. We can do that,” Johnny agreed.

I envisioned some kind of Christmas set, traditional carols interspersed with a few popular songs. I had grown up singing in a church choir and loved sacred Christmas music. In my burgeoning busking career I sang “River” by Joni Mitchell, “Hot Buttered Rum” by Tommy Thompson and “Blue Christmas.” I knew many Christmas carols and asked if we could do “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” — I knew that Johnny could come up with gorgeous chord voicing to my favorite carol, which ends with the poignant plea


“True man, yet very God,
From sin and death now save us
And share our every load.”

While I no longer believed the doctrine behind this, the wish to be relieved of suffering resonated with me: how wonderful it would be to be rescued from our errors and have our burdens shared.

Johnny wrote “Lo, How a Rose” into our first of two sets, but he did not group it with our other Christmas offerings. Instead he gave it the penultimate position in the set, followed by his original funk number “Work With What You Got,” which had the effect of erasing the touching carol, radically altering the tone of the end of the set.

Similarly, Johnny began the set with Robbie Robertson’s “Christmas Must Be Tonight,” which he sang lead on, and followed it with a solo blues number, “Kind-Hearted Woman.” The set ricocheted between Christmas numbers and songs that Johnny might have played in a solo show and my acoustic original songs and low-key covers.

I remember that Johnny suggested that I play Hazel Dickens’ “Working Girl Blues” and that he encouraged me to sing it in a lower key than I preferred. I acquiesced to that: it was only a matter of moving my capo down a few frets and losing a couple of high notes. He originally thought he wanted to do Bob Coltman’s “Before They Close the Minstrel Show” together, but I balked when he wanted to cut out choruses and elide middle verses.

“I don’t want to sing it that way, Johnny. The chorus is the heart of the song.”

When Johnny left the Coltman song was in the set list that I sent him via email, but his penciled note on a sheet of paper in the charts binder says “Think We Sh’d Drop.”

We dropped it. Johnny phoned to say he wasn’t feeling it: if he couldn’t arrange the song the way he liked, he didn’t want to play it at all and he didn’t want me to play it either.

Not wanting to fight, I said, “That’s okay. I can always sing it on the day job.”

We never sang it again.

More penciled notes indicate songs Johnny had considered adding to our set: “Frankie and Albert,” “St. James Infirmary,” “Visions of Johanna,” and “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” all of which would have fit in with my folkie repertoire, but, in the end, Johnny chose to pack the last set with a parade of Johnny Harper hits: “Suzy Q,” “If the Good Lord’s Willin’,” and “This Land Is Your Land.” It’s almost like he had gotten tired of pretending it was a duet gig and wanted to turn the evening into a Johnny Harper show. I had parts to sing, scripted on “If the Good Lord’s Willin’” and my own part on “This Land Is Your Land.”

When we played The Arlington again in the spring of 2013 the sets didn’t hang together any better. Johnny reprised “Kind-Hearted Woman,” “Work With What You Got” and “If the Good Lord’s Willin’” in the first set, along with “Belle Starr” and “My One Desire.” I added “Finger Ring,” and “Buckets of Rain” plus Mary O’Brien’s “We Can’t Pay That” at Johnny’s request. But the beginning of the second set whipsawed between Johnny’s opener of “King Harvest” by The Band and “Ingenue,” a tender love song I had written for him.

We followed that with a run of love songs that concluded with me singing an a cappella folk song in Scots called “The Lea Boy’s Lassie.”

And then what happens? Johnny leads the room in a roaring sing-along of Ernie K-Doe’s “Mother-In-Law.” I doubt that these two songs had ever been heard on the same bill before, much less in the same set. After that I sang “Sitting on Top of the World,” Johnny added a medley of “Spoonful” and “Smokestack Lightning” and we closed once again with “This Land Is Your Land.”

If I had it to do over again I would have refused to sing in Scots, which general audiences don’t understand. An American blues ballad such as “Poor Lazarus” or “Little Sadie” would have been a better choice, both livelier and more comprehensible to the listeners. In the early days of our musical collaborations, I deferred to Johnny more than perhaps I ought to have, awed by his musical skills and flattered when he praised or requested songs in my repertoire. While I did not care for a couple of Johnny’s original songs I sang parts on them and would never have suggested removing them from the sets (I, too, was playing some original songs). My model for collaboration was something like sex columnist’s Dan Savage’s dictum: partners should be “good” (skilled), “giving” (generous) and “game” (willing to try things, to take risks). I believed that Johnny would use his skills to create good shows for us, but these set lists belie that.

What was going on, I wonder now. Was Johnny too burned out from his production jobs to focus seriously on our gigs? Did Johnny expect me to defer to him completely, expect to tell me what to sing and how to sing it? Did Johnny, who had been saying he wanted to play duet gigs with me, not have his heart in these gigs, perhaps because he would rather play solo or with his band?

I think Johnny and I could have come up with better sets had we taken a lot of time to discuss the actual sets, rather than to slot in songs piece by piece, had we discussed our individual concepts of the gigs, had we explored the subsections of music that we shared (Bob Dylan songs, Afro-American blues ballads, white mountain gospel music). I would have had to speak up and say, “Honey, I don’t think these sets are working” and risk Johnny’s reaction. Imagining that conversation, I can imagine everything from the snide (“Oh. You are the one with the thirty years of professional experience.”) to the passive-aggressive (“Alright. You plan the sets. I need them in forty-five minutes.”). I can imagine him deciding he didn’t want to play the gig after all, leaving me to either play a solo gig or cede the gig to him.

Perhaps I could have been more honest earlier in our musical relationship, differentiating between things I liked to hear Johnny play or sing with his band that I did not want to sing on, and things I would like to sing with Johnny, or have him sing at my gigs. I could have stuck up more for songs I loved to sing. Johnny loved music so much, had such strong feelings about it, that he could get upset over differences in musical tastes: he identified with the music he played. If I didn’t like a song, singer or arrangement, he would often take this as a personal criticism and jump to the conclusion that I didn’t like him, that I didn’t understand him, whereas I was willing to say, “It’s just a difference in aesthetics. People like what they like.”

It would take Johnny and me another six years to develop shared repertoire. I learned to play “The Weight,” “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Highway 61 Revisited.” He played “Raised on Robbery” and sang with me on the intro. We worked up Richard Thompson’s “Walkin’ on a Wire” and “Wall of Death” and Bruce Springsteen’s “My Hometown” at my suggestion and crafted a duet of “Pancho and Lefty.” He learned David Rawlings’ “Ruby” for me and Linda Allen’s “Love Song for the Hard Times.” Unfortunately, the Johnny Harper train derailed again in October 2019 before we got to record or perform those songs.

Dear Readers,

I’m interrupting the chronological story of Johnny and Sharyn to write about current events: yesterday I made my last pilgrimage to the house on Marcella Street where Johnny lived the entire time I knew him. I lived there, too, a couple of times, as did my beloved cat, Fiona, or, to give her her complete name, Fiona Felina Houdini Cobweb Purrington (aka “Mrs. Purrington,” aka “Tex”).

I moved out of the Marcella Street house for the last time in late 2019, not long before the pandemic hit, and, because of the pandemic, with public transit declared risky, I did not visit the house often. I saw Johnny once in March 2020 when he asked me to come out and get some things I had left behind and I spent a half-day in his backyard earlier that month, while he was in the hospital, digging up shrubs, trees and tomato plants that I had planted there in order to transplant them to pots in Kensington. I left that day with a fig tree, a raspberry plant that Johnny called “Robert” (for Robert Plant), a blueberry, and a couple of tomato plants.

When I last saw Johnny at Marcella Street in March 2020 he was wearing strange clothes: either someone had given them to him or he had found them at a thrift store. He wore a sweatshirt, blue jeans, some unlaced tennis shoes on his feet. I had never seen Johnny dressed in street clothes other than head-to-toe black: black jeans, black long-sleeved button-down shirt, black socks, black leather dress shoes, black leather jacket. He carried a black leather satchel, and had a black watch cap and a black cotton sweater for inclement weather. I did see him wear a red or purple tie once or twice, but I had not seen him in colored clothes, other than blue and white hospital gowns.

The house was not too bad on that visit. A friend of Johnny’s had gone in and straightened it up and perhaps Johnny, too, had made one of his periodic efforts to clean and order his environment. We met in the living room and he pointed out things he wanted me to take. I used to be able to take anything I didn’t want down to Thrift Town on East 14th Street, a short walk from the house, but Johnny told me it had closed down after I left in late 2019.

Although Johnny and I had more than one conversation about my coming back to Marcella Street for a visit, ostensibly so we could rehearse some music we had previously developed arrangements for (We both missed playing music with another person), I never went. I told Johnny I was a little afraid to see what condition the house was in and I didn’t know how it would feel for me to be there — I was afraid that I would feel sad or shaky. What actually kept me from going back, however, was not fear of discomfort, it was Johnny raising the stakes: just when we had worked out how I could visit, he said, “I wouldn’t want you to come unless you were thinking of staying. It would be too painful if you came and then left again.”

Coming and leaving again was precisely what I had in mind. I understood Johnny’s point and told him so, but I was not ready to promise to do anything other than play some music and see how it went. I said, “Johnny, we haven’t been able to see each other at all. We couldn’t meet for coffee, or have a meal, or go to the movies. Now we’re talking about an overnight visit, a couple of days, after which I’ll have to quarantine.”

Johnny never reissued the invitation and I did not go, although I would have loved to resurrect our music.

After Johnny died I made a couple of trips to Marcella Street. The first time, about a month after his death, I sat on the floor of his office and went through files and boxes of paperwork, removing “Sharyn” files and “Ballad Group” files, correspondence, and signed CDs and cassettes I had given him, taking home the paper trail of a shared life. I had dinner that night with Johnny’s niece at the home of our friends Jerry and Sally who lived in town. We ate greens and red beans and rice and homemade peach cobbler and talked about Johnny. We played a little music on two of his guitars. I picked up his Martin and played “Buckets of Rain” softly while Jerry and Lucy talked.

The second time I went back to Marcella Street, I brought pruning shears and cut wayward spurs from the peach tree I had planted. I chopped the errant growth into short lengths for kindling and brought home an armload of budded peach and persimmon branches. I dug up the main root and runner of an olallieberry I had planted, along with a tomato plant and some cut chard. I went with Edie O’Hara, Johnny’s friend, student and protege. We took a few pictures in Johnny’s living room in front of a wall of records, still in their shelves.

Yesterday I went back to pick up a few more things Johnny’s niece and his ex-wife had set aside for me. There was a slim binder of charts for a few songs I had written and a few I had performed at a show with Johnny, including Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock,” plus a couple of set lists from gigs we had played in my home town, a birthday card I had sent him, a cassette of mine that had strayed into his collection. Once again, I visited “my” trees in the yard and took photos of them. I peeked into the shed where we had stored many belongings that did not fit in the two-bedroom house: the only remnants of my life there were seed packets that some animal had torn into and the square pavers I had laid as a path to the shed. I cut a final bouquet from the rogue chard that insisted on growing between squares of the patio.

I walked through the old bedroom one more time, seeing a wooden block that had once supported my central double bookshelf, still screwed into the wall. I saw a bag of wrapping paper I had bought in a paper bag in Johnny’s office. The kitchen junk drawer still held a curtain I had taken down and a collection of old shoelaces I kept for tying up plants. Few traces, really, of a life together. Outside, chunks of concrete I had broken with a borrowed sledgehammer sat near the back gate — no one had ever hauled them away.

I walked around and snapped pictures, gathered chard, stowed binders in my backpack without much emotion. After I had called for a ride service to pick me up, Johnny’s ex-wife helped me carry a heavy turntable down the front steps. As I went through the front gate she said, “It must be hard leaving somewhere you lived together.”

I teared up then. “I hope there will be some kind of closure, “ I told her.

I balanced the turntable on the rusted trunk of Johnny’s old Toyota Corolla that still sat in the driveway while I waited for my ride.

After I greeted my driver, put my belongings on the backseat of his car and buckled my seat belt, the driver and I exchanged remarks about the hot weather. As he followed directions given by his talking GPS, taking a route to the freeway that Johnny and I would not have taken, my tears spilled over, blotted by the edges of my mask: I had caught the song on “the jukebox,” Johnny’s name for the songs that play in our heads — all the way home from San Leandro to Kensington, I heard a variation on Steve Earle’s “Goodbye”

“Maybe I was off somewhere,
Maybe you were just too high,
But I can’t remember
If we said goodbye.”

Hi Readers,

No story tonight: I’m wiped out from my Covid booster on Friday. I’ll try to get the next installment up within the week, but I can’t promise anything.