Archives for the month of: April, 2022

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.

The discomforts of rehearsing for Lucy’s wedding did not rise or sink to the level of a fight: they just exposed some differences in the ways Johnny and I approached music, performing, arranging, rehearsing. Our first real conflict materialized on Thanksgiving weekend, the day after our first Thanksgiving meal together.

Thanksgiving is my mother’s favorite holiday and for forty-plus years I had been assisting her in making the food, an extravaganza of free-range turkey, chestnut dressing, mashed potatoes and gravy, yams, tossed green salad, cranberry sauce, yeast-risen rolls and two kinds of pie. We made everything from scratch, our only shortcut was using canned pumpkin in the pumpkin pie. We made the same menu every year, the only variable the second pie we would choose to make. Mom and I had a well-practiced routine. She is a good cook, known for her thin, crisp pie crust.

We invited Johnny for Thanksgiving dinner and sat him at the head of the table next to me. He ate well, although my family of origin did not direct much conversation toward him. I tried to pick up the slack.

Before he met me, Johnny had sometimes attended a Thanksgiving dinner for local “orphans,” people who did not have immediate family in the area. In 2012 that dinner fell on the day after Thanksgiving and I agreed to go with Johnny. I made an extra pie to take to the gathering and, because I was transporting food on the bus, I chose to leave my guitar at home.

Johnny arrived by cab and, as it happened, the party took place in the same Berkeley home as the ballad group where Johnny and I had met, so we took our customary places at the end of the dining table where we ate our second Thanksgiving dinner with six other people.

We sat at the table for several hours, eating, waiting for food, talking. I think Johnny had brought some beer and I know that the hostess, Marlene, brought out a bottle of bourbon.

As is often the case, I wasn’t drinking at all. My tastes run to champagne and single malt whiskey and I am careful to limit quantities of alcohol due to my family history and my own low tolerance for alcoholic beverages.

Johnny drank, of course, and I noticed that he drank more than anyone else at the party. That should not have been a surprise to me — I had seen him drink on previous occasions: he was a big guy and liked to drink. This time, though, I saw signs of slippage: he referred to a politician as a “fuckhead” and when I said lightly “Bad boy!” he responded by saying “You know you love it” and grabbing me.

I was shocked. It’s not that he couldn’t grab me physically in private, but I did not know some of the other guests and am fairly circumspect about public displays of affection. I attributed Johnny’s coarser language and behavior to his drinking.

When we had eaten dessert we moved to the adjoining living room to play music and sing. I took up residence on the couch, where I eventually stretched out flat: the long hours of sitting at the table and the long hours on my feet preparing Thanksgiving dinner the previous day had taken their toll.

I am the kind of limited player that needs to play my own instrument: I have hand damage from earlier fractures that affects my ability to play and, as I said, I had left my guitar at home so that I could carry food to the feast.

Once or twice Johnny suggested I play something and someone would hand me an unfamiliar acoustic guitar (Johnny was playing his Telecaster). One guitar I could not play at all; I eked out something on the other. Johnny, meanwhile, led songs, accompanied people on songs of their choice and played duets with his friend Beth. He stayed in the center of the action, played tirelessly and kept drinking while I grew tireder and tireder.

I don’t remember what time we left the party or how we got home that night, but I do remember a bus ride where Johnny said, “I’m going out with a crazy person.”

He said that because I mentioned his drinking and behavior at the party. He chose to interpret my comment as a complaint about how he behaved in the session. He accused me of telling him he was hogging the session or grandstanding, but what I wanted to address was how his demeanor toward me had changed.

“You weren’t acting like yourself,” he said. “You were being passive, not participating.”

“Johnny, I was tired. It was a long day and I didn’t have my guitar because I had to bring a pie.”

He told me I had to stop behaving like I had toward my father and my alcoholic brothers.

“They weren’t there,” I said.

“Oh, they were there,” he insisted.

Johnny thought that everything would be fine if I just accepted his drinking and trusted him to handle it, but I didn’t trust anyone who drank until they proved to me several times that they remained pleasant, trustworthy and, above all, fully present.

When Johnny referred to me as “crazy,” I cautioned him not to say things he might regret. I knew that I could react to certain words or behaviors, but I also knew I was not crazy, that I was reacting to things that Johnny had done and said.

It took hours of accusatory emails and conversations to sort it all out and come to peace. The underlying issues remained, however, and would rise again.

Right after the Labor Day debacle when Johnny got restricted from visiting me, Johnny invited me to sing several things with him for a gig at his niece Lucy’s wedding in Santa Cruz. He first asked me to sing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” a song dear to the bride-to-be, which I had recorded on my CD “Paris,” and to sing “Ingenue,” which I had just written about falling in love with Johnny himself. He mentioned including Bruce Springsteen’s “Fire” and Alan Toussaint’s “New Love Thing,” which we had been singing together.

But on Friday September 7th, eight days before Lucy’s wedding, he sent me a long list of songs to sing back-up on, some of which I did not know, some of which I had never heard. I immediately requested lyrics and details via email. He said breezily, “You’ll do fine.”

Fast forward to the rehearsal on Tuesday. Johnny had asked me to rehearse at his house, to go over all of the parts before his band came to rehearse with us. He booked two and a half to three hours for us to go over all of the parts.

Now, I have a reasonably good ear and I have sung most of my life, starting with singing along with records as a small child. I have two primary harmony-singing traditions: I have done a lot of choral singing where you sing fixed parts from written music and you have weekly rehearsals to go over your parts. I also sing with groups of folk musicians where we all improvise harmonies when we are not leading a song and singing the melody.

Rehearsing parts with Johnny was something else again. He either sang a harmony line for me, played it on his guitar, or used some combination of singing and playing to produce the line. He expected me to learn a harmony line, reproduce it in perfect rhythm, memorize it and then go on to learning the next line in that song, or the first harmony line in a different song. The only thing I had to rely on was my musical memory. Also, I was working in genres that I didn’t sing in — R&B, for example.

Johnny spoon-fed me lines for a few hours. Many different lines. I struggled to jam them all into my head. And then he started to complain about my vocal tone, that it didn’t match his. “You don’t sound like a soul singer,” he said.

“Excuse me?,” said the voice in my head. “I never said I was a soul singer. Hello! I’m a white girl, soprano in the upstairs choir, folk musician.”

I had been working hard to please Johnny, but I was working in unfamiliar territory. I tried again. Once we had gone through all of my parts we started singing the songs.

After awhile, Johnny said, “I’m not feeling it. You can stay for rehearsal if you want, or you can go home. Your choice.”

I felt abruptly dismissed. My thoughts raced. “Is he really cutting me from the gig? Am I not going to sing at all at the wedding? What about ‘Fire?’ What about ‘our song?’”

Drawing a deep breath and pushing aside my emotions, I said, “I have a question.”

He looked at me.

“Do you want me to sing on anything?”

“That’s a good question. You can sing on ‘Fire’ and on ‘Center of the World.’ You’ll have to stay for rehearsal.”

Just like that my participation went from a dozen or more complicated parts to the ones I knew in the first place.

The conflict did not end there. We began to rehearse “Fire,” which we had sung together informally a couple of times. I was singing on the tag line and then full out on the third verse, “Romeo and Juliet, Samson and Delilah…” I sang the part the way I always had, with a rising inflection on the second syllable of “Delilah,” the same way you say the name: De-LI-lah.

Johnny keyed in on that word. He asked me to stay on one note for all three syllables.

I tried it. I didn’t like it. I argued for my position. “I’m singing it the way you say it. De-LI-lah.”

“The note’s not in the chord.”

Oh, give me a break! Technically, I was singing a suspension. I didn’t think to say that. Suspensions are common one-note variations from chords that add drama or tension (and resolution when you move off of them). I am an intuitive singer and was singing what felt right to me in the harmony line. Johnny had never objected to my singing the word that way before. When not bound by written music I was used to choosing the notes I wanted to sing.

Johnny didn’t like my line. I didn’t like his. I gave in and sang it his way because I like the song and I liked singing it with Johnny.

Next, we worked out a cue for me to come in on the third verse, which came after an extended guitar solo and some schtick Johnny did vamping over it. We agreed on the cue.

Meanwhile, the band came in, all smiles, greeted each other, set up and began to play. Johnny came alive and on fire during rehearsal. The musicians laughed, joked with each other, called out low-key compliments. I sat listening with one hand over my left ear because the drums were too loud for me to bear, feeling increasingly alienated: the band sounded good, was having a good time, grooved together — I was the odd one out.

When it came time to sing “Fire,” Johnny forgot to cue me and I missed my entrance to verse three. I pointed out that he had forgotten to cue me and he cued me the next time. We sang the song and moved on. No one said a word to me. Not “nice voice.” Not, “Nice to hear the harmony.”

The rehearsal went on into the night. At one point, Johnny called a short break and maneuvered me into the hallway. “What do you think?,” he asked.

“I’ve been thinking how different we are,” I said.

This was already an old conversation between us, only usually he said “We’re so different” and I’d laugh and say “I was just thinking how much alike we are.”

I might have added, “I don’t belong here.” I was certainly feeling that.

Johnny looked puzzled, then hurt. He shone with excitement. “Did you notice the guitar solos? I played every one differently for you. Did you hear me put your name in “Cripple Creek?”

I hadn’t been following the guitar solos. I rarely did: music, for me, is about lyrics and melody and harmony. And I hadn’t heard my name in “Cripple Creek,” maybe because I didn’t know the song and maybe because I had my hand over my ear to ameliorate the sound of the over-loud drums.

Johnny said, “I’ll talk to you later” and went back to rehearsing. When the evening broke up I got a ride home from Patrick the bass player. I told him how frustrated I was: “I can’t learn several parts in a few hours.”

“Of course not,” he said.

Later Johnny and I rehashed the whole rehearsal from my feeling that I might as well not exist in that context to his feeling that I wasn’t happy for him. I was happy for him: it’s just hard to sit through a multi-hour rehearsal when you don’t feel included or appreciated. I saw Johnny in his element no question and I couldn’t see where or how I fit in. We didn’t go over my musical numbers with the band, other than “Fire”: “Hallelujah” and “Ingenue” would be solo performances for me while the band was on break. In fact, while I was onstage singing a love song for Johnny at the wedding, Johnny was having a conversation with the wedding officiant. I told him that I had looked out in the crowd for him while I was singing, “Here I am falling, falling for you,” only to see him talking to someone rather than listening to me.

Johnny told me he had picked out a spot from which to listen to me sing and the wedding guy had found him and button-holed him with questions about the schedule. I don’t know why he couldn’t have said “Shh. That’s my girlfriend onstage. I’ll be with you in five.”

A month after the wedding I got me and Johnny a gig to play at The Arlington cafe in Kensington on December 21st. I wrote in a Facebook publicity announcement “Johnny Harper, the great and powerful, and Sharyn Dimmick, the small and meek (well, small anyway) will be playing at The Arlington. You heard Johnny at Cur-Ville, now come hear him sing with his new love thing in bucolic Kensington, California.” I had hopes for us as a duet act as well as for us as a couple, despite the emergence of early differences.

Dear Readers,

Too many late nights this weekend. Story postponed for a few days…

When Johnny and I got together I had been unemployed for over two years, let go from my recreation job with the City of Berkeley in the aftermath of the 2009 national recession. I had been unable to find another recreation job or similar position and I had only had one interview in two years. I had sold a few watercolor paintings and a few music CDs, weeded my bookshelves and CD collections for things I could take to used stores, worked as a poll worker. I had tried working with a coach to help me attract writing practice students and planned to offer a free introductory evening in January 2013, but by October 2012 I was pretty desperate for money. I was heard to mutter things like, “I don’t need a job, I just need an income.”

I had done some work with Maia Duerr and her Liberated Life Project, focusing on right livelihood. Late in the fall she sent me a reference to a post of two by Chris Guillebeau about how to make cash to pay the bills. He mentioned holding a garage sale and selling infrequently used items, but he also mentioned busking or performing in public. “I can do that,” I thought, “I can sing and play guitar. What have I got to lose?”

I told Johnny I planned to investigate playing at the Berkeley Farmers’ Market where I had shopped for years. I found out that I could sign up for three spots a month to play two and a half hour shifts. He said, “That’s great, honey. Think of it as getting paid for practicing” and asked me to let him know when I was scheduled to sing there.

Buoyed up by Johnny’s encouragement and some future busking shifts at the market, I decided to try busking at Berkeley BART during the morning commute. I went one day early to check out the situation and decided to catch the bus at 7:19 on weekday mornings starting October 15th, 2012. I would walk to the BART station, take up a spot against a brick wall opposite the escalator leading to the rotunda, salt my open case with a few bills, tune my guitar and sing for two hours, playing whatever I could think of to play. At the end of the shift I would collect my earnings and pocket them, pack up my guitar and reverse my steps to the bus stop to go home.

I learned to carry a couple of quarts of water and set them next to my guitar case within easy reach. Singing is thirsty work and goes better if your vocal cords are well-lubricated. I learned to start off with songs in the middle of my range so as to warm up on the job and to save more challenging material for later in the shift: I sang Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” ascending on the chorus, but I never sang it first thing. Better to begin with something like Elizabeth Cotten’s “Freight Train” or a Chris Smither/Dave Van Ronk hybrid of “Green, Green Rocky Road” or “Sittin’ on Top of the World.”

I learned to group my songs by what fret I played them on: playing on first fret without a capo tires my once-broken left hand. Dropped D tuning eases it a bit, but when I started I couldn’t count on being able to hold the strings down on first fret by the end of my two-hour shift. I played continuously so as to keep my spot, stopping only to drink water, pocket any large bills or answer a question from a passer-by. When people liked what I sang they smiled, gave me a thumbs up or tossed a coin or a small bill into my case. My first busking shift netted me five dollars profit after I covered my bus fare.

I learned to value songs that allowed me to fingerpick their melodies in between some verses because they gave my voice time to rest. Singing solo for two or two-and-a-half hours is a lot, especially if you don’t play many guitar solos. Even opera singers don’t sing continuously for hours.

The hardest thing about busking is keeping your spirits and energy up on a low-tip day. My years of zen practice helped with this: I saw my job as to show up, to sing and to accept whatever I was given — if I earned anything at all, it was more than I would have earned sitting at home. Of course, I preferred days when the tips piled up in my guitar case and lots of people praised my voice, my repertory, even my guitar playing, just as I preferred cash tips to the days when people gave me cookies, bananas and business cards. I did appreciate it when fans bought me coffee, tea, or bottles of water, especially if they asked me what I would like.

I wryly termed my busking shifts “the day job” because they took place during daylight hours and I began busking to bring in money rather than purely for the love of singing. I developed a habit of phoning Johnny after my morning shift at BART to report my earnings for the day — it became one of our rituals.

“How’d you do?,” he’d ask.

“Pretty good,” I’d say when someone had thrown me a twenty. Or, “Today was tough” when a young woman playing the harp set up in front of the coffee stand and the escalator was broken so that fewer people filed past me. “The good news is that I played my whole shift.”

“That’s show business,” he’d say. “Good for you.”

Pretty quickly I decided that I needed to earn ten dollars a day minimum and that if I didn’t earn my ten in the morning I would return to Berkeley after lunch to play a limited one-hour shift. To encourage myself to do the second shift I made a rule that I would only play whatever I most wanted to play. But, in the main, I liked busking better than anything else I had done (I had wanted to be a folksinger from the minute I heard my first Joan Baez record in fifth grade) and here I was playing folk songs five days a week in public and making a little money doing it.

Dear Readers,

I have had a busy weekend and need more time to write the next installment of the Johnny and Sharyn story. I’ll have it by Wednesday at the latest. Stay tuned. — Sharyn