Archives for the month of: February, 2022

Dear Johnny,

I’m wondering if you enjoyed your birthday breakfast: eggs sunny side up, homemade hash browns, bacon and sausage, fresh fruit, plenty of coffee, zucchini muffins. I would not eat the eggs for you, but they were there shining in the pan. Other people ate them.

Thank you for being with me in this beautiful place. You always talked about coming to New Mexico, eating green chile cheeseburgers in San Antonio and seeing the license plate-covered guitar. You loved that story: I told you about that guitar on a little stage with a piano, the kind of joint you could play, but I never showed you the picture because no one sent it to me before you died. I hope you can look at it through my eyes when I get it.

I don’t know how you would have felt about the snow. You would have wanted to crank up the heat, maybe sit by the fire where I’m sitting now. You would have looked dramatic in the snow with your black clothes and your silver hair, but you did not have clothes warm enough for snow when I knew you. You toured in Montana once, but it must have been in the summer.

I always want to share Mabel Dodge Luhan House with people who are special to me. Mom never came. You never came here — always too busy or else incapacitated. Suzanne came here and she doesn’t talk to me anymore. You know that.

Dorotea is here, the one who called you Johnny Love and wanted to sing back-up on my records. Natalie is here — you met her a long time ago. She asked me to sing a song you liked during slow walking and I sang “The Cuckoo” because it worked with the pace. I didn’t say, “I can’t” or “Johnny’s songs were made to dance to, they all have rhythm and a strong groove.”

I wanted to sing “They All Ax’ed for You.” I’ve always loved your version of that. I’ve taken up singing it and made up a new verse for you. Your verse goes

I went on over to the other side and they all axed for you:

The heavenly host was out of hand and they needed somebody to lead the band.

I went on over to the other side and they all axed for you:

The devils axed and the angels axed and Saint Peter axed me, too.

Baby, they all axed for you…

They all ax for you, Johnny. We all miss you. Gavin is collecting the scraps you left behind — the tapes, the charts the CD roughs, the video. Jerry is taking things off your computer. People are posting videos with the names of the songs wrong and no attribution. You would have hated that.

Me? I’m learning some of your songs and planning to learn more. Lucy came up and cleaned your house and started going through your things. I’m hoping you find a way to intercede and give me the Martin and I think Jerry should have the red Telecaster if James Clifford doesn’t want it.

I don’t know if you were mad at me when you died, or merely heartbroken or resigned. I wish I had talked to you one more time and said something kind. I wish I had been with you when you breathed your last breath to soothe your brow and give your forehead a kiss. I know you wanted me there again: you told me so. But it was not to be — I couldn’t leave my 92-year-old mother. I never stopped loving you or wanting things to be better, wanting you to achieve your full potential.

All my love,

Sharyn

I said, describing my recently deceased former partner, “This train was bound for glory, but derailed at regular intervals.”


Betsy said, “I’ll bet there’s a story behind that.”


There is a story, but there are missing pieces in the telling because we can’t look straight into the character’s heart and mind.


The man, John Harper Lumsdaine, aka Johnny Harper, was bound for glory (and would have appreciated the nod to Woody Guthrie’s autobiography). Born the eldest son of a family of boys, he sang “Tying a Knot in the Devil’s Tail” to his spellbound elementary school classmates, having heard it a few times on the radio or around the house, spooling out the long tale of drinking, hell-raising and branding, dehorning and knotting up the devil.


At seventeen, Johnny met a girl who played the guitar. He began to play himself, first to impress her, and then because he fell in love with the combination of music, song and story. He fell so hard that he dropped out of Stanford University to pursue music, giving up a scholarship and landing in the Viet Nam war. He fell so hard that he determined to master not one, not two, but all the styles of American roots music, from blues to R&B to classic country, from gospel to funk to rock and roll. And master them he did, spending hours listening to records, copying licks, watching the hands of guitar-players when he went to concerts.


Johnny started out on acoustic guitar, but when he was in the Navy he heard The Byrds’ version of “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Transfixed by the sound of Roger McGuinn’s electric 12 string, Johnny moved to acquire the record and an electric guitar. He spent his shore leaves in Hawaii haunting record stores, ever eager to hear more, to learn more.


Released from the service as a conscientious objector with the help of an Episcopal priest, Johnny parlayed his love of music, his skill and dedication, into a career. He ran Down Home Music record store in El Cerrito for awhile, played in bands, DJ’d a radio show on KPFA Berkeley. He formed bands of his own and played all over the San Francisco Bay Area for years. He toured playing guitar behind Maria Muldaur. People who saw Johnny perform never forgot him: his patter, his impish grin, his command of his entire vocal range from the deepest half-spoken growl to the softest falsetto coo, and his incomparable, spirited, polyrhythmic guitar-playing. If you heard him play, Johnny Harper put a spell on you.


I came to know that Johnny was a versatile player. He worked solo, in duets, quartets and larger bands. An acoustic-based folksinger myself, I longed for Johnny to tone it down and play with the restraint that I would have played with had I had his chops. But in living with him, watching him rehearse, listening to him and attending his shows I came to understand that Johnny was at his best as a bandleader. He chose the songs, wrote the arrangements, selected the players and rehearsed them with care and patience and then let fly on stage a spicy gumbo of music long-simmered in his skill. He fronted his bands dressed in black with his red Telecaster strapped across his body, his long legs encased in black jeans.


People danced at Johnny’s shows. They laughed and cried and begged for the Mardi Gras beads he threw to them. They hired him to play at their weddings, funerals and street parties. They took guitar lessons from him. One of his friends followed him to every gig as sound man, roadie, whatever he needed.


When people heard Johnny play for the first time, whether he was fronting a band, hosting an open mic or playing behind someone else, they came away asking, “Who was that guy?” He was that good, that talented, that memorable.


So why, as our friend Dale Geist says, do you not know about Johnny Harper? Why isn’t he a household name? Why don’t you have a shelf of Johnny Harper CDs and a playlist of Johnny Harper favorites? What could stop this glory-bound train of talent, ambition, drive, energy and joy?


What indeed. Some time after Johnny fell in love with American vernacular music, Johnny fell in love with the bottle. No one is sure when it happened. Like many people, Johnny turned to whiskey and beer for solace, for company, for the buzz. The bottle sang a siren song to Johnny, telling him he could do whatever he wanted, that together they were invincible, immortal, telling him that she would always love him, inspire him, comfort him.


And so, after years of hard work, after some success, after promising beginnings, the Johnny Harper train began to derail. When Johnny felt under pressure from a project, under pressure from his impeccably high standards, almost always when he was on the verge of a success — a CD release party for a protege, a video shoot, a series of tribute shows to the music of The Band — Johnny ran off the rails, blew off the gig or the rehearsal or the studio date, holed up in his house with the blinds closed, hollow-eyed, drinking, watching videos for hours on end, letting his phone ring unanswered until the voicemail got full and, sinking further, letting go of showers, shaving, changing clothes, eating.

Every time he fell, Johnny got up again and gave life another try. Until this time:

On a February day or night in 2022, Johnny Harper breathed his last. He died alone on the floor of his bedroom, leaving behind students, friends, an ex-wife, a former partner, professional colleagues, fans and admirers, a beloved niece, some cousins and a brother, plus a huge trove of cassette tapes, CDs, video footage and other music that had not met his standards. He lives on in his students and in the minds and hearts of those who loved him.