I grew up in a family where each member had different musical tastes. My mother loved opera and blasted recordings of Gounod’s Faust or Verdi’s Aida whenever she painted the stairwell of the house. My parents and I loved Gilbert and Sullivan. My older brother Kevin holed up in his room listening to The Doors, The Rolling Stones, Cream and Led Zeppelin and The Beatles’ White Album. Down the hall I listened to Joan Baez, Judy Collins and Joni Mitchell. Both brothers and I were all obsessed with Christmas with the Happy Crickets and played it whenever we were allowed to, singing through our noses. We three loved The Beatles, too and watched their cartoon show on Saturday mornings.

I always liked to sing. I sang 19th century songs Mom played on the piano. I sang in church and school choirs: hymns and anthems, madrigals, Gregorian chants, Handel and Bach. When I went to summer camp I learned everything people sang, from rounds to Peter, Paul and Mary hits. I brought my guitar to junior high and high school and sang with small groups of friends. We learnt songs from each other: one girl sang “Candles in the Rain” by Melanie Safka, “Lola” by the Kinks and “Muskrat Love” by the Captain and Tenille.

I grew up in the ‘60s and ‘70s. I didn’t listen to the radio much. When I was in seventh grade my choir teacher, Mrs. Cox, used to play popular recordings for us to sing with to warm up our voices. I remember hearing Michael Jackson singing “Ben” and Mungo Jerry singing “In the Summertime.” I didn’t listen to much rock music, R&B or soul. I learned popular songs when singers I liked, such as Linda Ronstadt, put them on their records. I gravitated toward songs with intelligent lyrics and tuneful melodies, rather than to dance music, and I often preferred the first version of a song that I heard.

In May 2013 I was planning to move to Johnny’s house in July. When I wasn’t working I measured each piece of my bedroom furniture and went over to Johnny’s to measure his kitchen counters, cupboards and walls. I scavenged a coffee grinder and spare filter cone from my Mom’s house and bought a pastry blender for my kitchen-to-be. Mom gave me her old electric mixer and made promises to gift me with a case or two of cat food for Fiona.

Johnny, meanwhile, had some studio work, some guitar students and a late-night band gig in San Francisco. I met a woman who wanted to locate a studio to make a recording: after I told her what I knew, I referred her to Johnny to talk about studios and production.

On Monday May 20th, Johnny summons me to San Leandro in the afternoon after my second busking shift. “We need to talk,” he tells me on the phone. He does not tell me what we need to talk about.

I make the two-hour trip to Marcella Street. Johnny is clearly upset. It is a beautiful day and the last thing I want to do is sit in his crowded living room. I want to feel the sun and air and the ground beneath me so I ask if we can sit outside on the front lawn.

Johnny drags an oak chair out for himself. I sit on the grass, as I prefer. Johnny begins to talk. He seems to be talking about my musical tastes. He has called me to his house on a Monday afternoon because he wonders, all of a sudden, if he can be with me because I don’t love or like some pieces of music, some styles of music, some artists that he loves.

I am dumbfounded and probably scared: I have spent nearly nine months with this man and am on the verge of moving in with him and he is considering ending the relationship because of musical differences? We do have musical differences and we also have a body of music in common. Johnny often introduces me to songs and recordings I have not heard. Sometimes I like them. Sometimes I don’t.

We talk until the sun sinks. I leave in time to catch the last bus home, which leaves downtown Berkeley at 7:00 PM. Not long after I get home the first email from Johnny arrives, titled “aanh.” During our extended conversation it came out that I am not especially fond of two of the songs Johnny has written, “Work With What You Got,” a funky, rhythm-driven piece and “If the Good Lord’s Willin’” a folksy farewell song. If the test for loving Johnny and being his partner comes down to loving these two songs I am not going to pass the test.

His email reflects this:


“Work With What You Got.  Aaanh.  Y’know.  Another kinda so-so song.  Yeah, y’know, people sing along, applaud and shit, some sort of positive message, but aanh, y’know, just another kinda so-so song.  Some people seem to like it, but what the fuck.  I like the guy, though, nice guy, but just another song.”

I answer by return email:

“I don’t ‘like the guy.’ I love the guy and admire him. I like his character and dedication and I like some of his songs better than others. So sue me. Everybody has opinions. Many people love many of your songs. I don’t understand why that isn’t enough for you, but that is between you and your psyche.

I want to be in this relationship, Johnny. I have chosen it over and over and am still choosing it. If you want something else, I hope you get what you want. I want you to be happy. If my opinions get in the way of your being happy and you can find someone who loves you and shares all of your most cherished opinions I say go and be happy. At least I had you for awhile. For that I am grateful.

Sharynxo of Opinions-R-US”

Over the next four days in emails and phone calls, I tell Johnny in every way I can that I love other songs he has written: “Burnin’ Up,” “I Found My Home in Your Heart,” “Nine Lives,” “Love’s Little Ups and Downs.” I tell him I know that “Work With What You Got” is a well-written song. I acknowledge that I know he loves it and is proud of it and that other people love it, like it and admire it. I say I understand that it expresses his philosophy. I tell him that the fact that he loves it is the most important thing, not what I think of it.

I tell Johnny that I love him, that I want him to be happy, that I want to continue our relationship, but that he gets to decide what he wants and what he needs. I tell him that I love and respect his music, that I support him following his musical dreams —I said right away that he should record a CD of his music. I cannot, however, be his fan-in-chief, loving absolutely everything he loves to the degree that he loves it.

He responds in writing “Why is it so hard for you to say ‘Work With What You Got,’ my god, that is an amazing song! … Why don’t you just dig it? Why don’t you just love it?”

I email him “I can say it if you like. It doesn’t grab me, Johnny.”

I write, “I know this is hard for you. I wish that I loved the song because it would make things easier between us. But all that my not loving the song or being thrilled by it means is that it doesn’t hit me the way you want it to. That is not your fault or mine: we all respond to different things.”

In the past, I, too, have had the fantasy that someone will love everything about me, including my songwriting, my repertory, my singing voice. But my experience has been that no one likes everything I write or everything I sing. No one likes every song or singer I like to listen to. No one likes all of my favorite records. Most people I know, including romantic partners I have had, liked some of my work and some of my music. Some liked my voice, but not what I chose to sing. I understand that I have things I would like to be loved for, but that I don’t get to choose what people love me for or what they love at all.

We go back and forth. Johnny tells me he is a more accomplished musician than I am. I am not arguing about this. He tells me his songs are technically superior to mine. I am not arguing about that either. He tells me he deserves someone who loves his music. I do love his music — I just don’t love every single note that he sings or plays or listens to.

Looking back on all of this from the vantage point of 2022 I would say I underestimated how important music was to Johnny. I did not underestimate his skill or his talent, but I may have missed the degree to which he identified with his music, how he felt that his music was him and he was his music, how deeply disappointed he was that his chosen companion did not love everything he loved.

Johnny and I simmer down in a phone conversation on May 21st. I promise that I will listen to music that he loves. I do not promise that I will love it, but I agree to listen to it. He says it means a lot to him that I will listen to it — I do it to create some peace between us. And, underneath that, I resent it: why should I have to school myself in music I am not attracted to? Why can’t I lead with love, ask about the music I hear from Johnny that I do like, that I am curious about? And, I realize that if I am going to devote time to listening to Johnny’s choice of music that I am going to have to devote equal time to my own music because otherwise it is going to get lost in the shuffle. Johnny says to me, “I just made this up, didn’t I?,” meaning that he had created the whole drama out of his own anxiety.

By Friday May 24th Johnny is upset again over my response to music. I’ve heard Eva Cassidy sing “People Get Ready,” and I am thinking about whether I want to learn to sing it for the busking trade. He asks me to listen Aretha’s Franklin’s version of the song. I have tried to tell him that I don’t like Aretha Franklin’s singing, that I find it florid and over the top, that I prefer singers who use more restraint. I don’t remember if I listened to that track then, but I listened to it the other day and I still object to the same characteristics in Franklin’s singing style.

He responds by telling me my tastes are “too white” He tells me I only like white singers who sing watered-down Black styles and only Black artists who tone themselves down to appeal to white audiences (This reminds me of a conversation I once had with a Black coworker, who accused me of not having any Black friends. I replied that I was friends with another Black coworker of ours and she shot back: “Fulani’s not Black!”). Johnny expresses real reservations about whether he wants to share his life with someone who doesn’t love a lot of the music he loves. He thinks he will not be comfortable with my not liking some artists he loves. He is genuinely upset about this and I am tired of talking about it, tired of sending him emails listing every Black artist that I like, every Black artist in my record collection. I am tired of trying to explain which Black music I like and which I don’t. I wish he would adopt a “live and let live” attitude about this or declare “Vive la différence.”

Johnny tells me he has never met anyone who does not love soul music. He tells me everyone in “our generation” loves it. I remind him that he and I belong to different generations, twelve years apart. When he was discovering “Sgt Pepper” I was nine years old. When he heard The Band’s Music from Big Pink for the first time I was learning camp songs at summer camp. When his peers were dancing to “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” I was listening to my first Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell records and learning to play guitar (Our paths may have crossed briefly in the early ‘70s when I was in high school: he and I both sometimes went to hear “The Good Ol’ Persons” play bluegrass at the Red Vest Pizza Parlor in El Cerrito). I know many people from Johnny’s generation. I tend to like them. I have often wished that I had been in Greenwich Village in the ‘60s or at the Newport Folk Festival, but I was too young to be there and lived on the other coast.

After more anguished emails, Johnny and I finally talk on the phone Friday night for an hour and a half. At the end of that conversation he says “Let’s take living together off the table.” He also says “We need to take a break.”

The words “We need to take a break” strike terror to my heart. My beloved former partner used to announce “We need to take a break” or “I don’t think we should see each other for awhile” at random times in our relationship. I always reacted with grief and fear that the relationship was over, but I eventually learned to ask for a specific date when we would see each other again, or a specific time we would talk because that helped me manage my anxiety.

I say as much to Johnny, that I need to know when we will speak again. He responds “There are no rules. You can call in five minutes.”

Johnny and I are in the habit of speaking to each other on the phone two or three times a day and emailing each other in between calls. I call him that evening to say goodnight. He does not pick up the call or leave me a voicemail. I call the next morning and the next afternoon. I send brief emails. Every time he does not respond my anxiety ratchets up another notch. Johnny remains silent for nearly twenty-four hours, at which point he emails me the synopsis of a crime novel he has been meaning to finish writing. I read it and respond with interest.

Apparently my reading his writing resets our communication and we begin talking regularly, emailing frequently, discussing possible options for Memorial Day weekend. I am relieved. We finally settle on a plan for me to visit him on the evening of Saturday June 1: I will come to his house directly from an afternoon singing session in Albany.