Archives for the month of: October, 2022

Dear Readers,

I have recently had to assume a care-giving responsibility of unknown duration that will take me awhile to get my head around. I cannot tell you when I will have the time and space to write more Johnny and Sharyn stories (There are plenty more!). Thank you for reading. — Sharyn


A year after I followed Johnny up to the Cur-ville festival in Kenwood and heard his triumphant performance of “Burnin’ Up,” a year after he called me “the fabulous Sharyn,” a year after everyone I talked to at the festival told me what a great guy he was, I go back on my own to sing a small set at Cur-ville on a secondary stage. I have taught myself to play an accompaniment for my own song “Clueless,” which I had been relying on Johnny to play since I wrote it. I will perform it for whatever crowd I have while Johnny sits in San Leandro doing whatever he is doing. It is August and he has only made it out of the house since June to buy booze and to get himself a new phone charger, but he cuts his fingernails the day before my gig, which will allow him to start playing guitar again.

Busking has prepared me well for singing at Cur-ville. The stage is near a couple of food trucks, some small tables. People order their food, chat to each other. They are not listening to my lyrics, hanging on my every word.

The M.C. admires my vintage pawnshop Harmony guitar. People applaud when I sing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Others look up when my friend Mary comes to the stage to sing a duet with me on “Morning Shanty.” Another performer sings a snatch of my “Wallflower Waltz” and says she has meant to learn it. I wish Johnny were present to hear my set, to comment on what he felt I did well.

My friends Mary and Alan give me a ride home so I get home at a decent hour. I am able to call Johnny. Reviewing the festival for him I say “Lots of chops, no taste.” Many of the musicians I have heard play can play and sing well, but their songs are forgettable. I, on the other hand, can write a memorable song, but have no chops. I fantasize about making a record with Johnny, either Johnny producing and playing on my next album, or perhaps making a duet record with him, but neither of us are making records today.

Johnny tells me he is drinking more water. His voice sounds stronger and more spirited. He expresses some interest in music performances, recordings and documentaries about musicians. He talks to me about the arrangements and personnel on Dale Geist’s record (Johnny produced it and is 99% happy with it). The fact that Johnny is talking about music shows me that he is on the mend.

In teaching myself to play “Clueless,” working out an accompaniment, I am learning what I will have to learn many times over: hanging out with a great musician can be fun and they can enhance your performances or arrangements if they are in the mood, but you still need to build your own skills, rather than relying on them for the hard bits.

A few days after my Cur-ville mini-set I am possessed by the desire to learn to play Richard Thompson’s “Walking on a Wire.” I know the song to sing it, but it is a minefield of hard chords to play: C# minor, G# minor, B major. If a song has just one chord I find hard to play, such as a B minor, I can work out a way to cheat the chord, or I can capo, in some cases, and play an A minor shape, which is easier, but there is no key in which I can sing Thompson’s song that will not require some difficult chords. I am limited by my inability to play barre chords, chords where you place your left index finger across all of the guitar strings and make the shapes of the chords with your other three fingers: it takes strength and practice to hold down a barre and get a clean sound on all the strings. Johnny, of course, when he is playing, can play any chord. He likes to call himself “a twelve-key man,” meaning he can play in any key anyone wants to play in.

Johnny suggests that I just play the root and the fifth of each chord instead of trying to play the whole thing. I try this out, but I don’t like the way it sounds, so I go back to the real chords. I can play two finger barre chords — just — where I can use both my index and middle fingers to hold down the strings, which means I can play F# minor and G# minor, but other chords require a full barre, so I decide I will practice barre chords for ten minutes a day.

I ask Johnny for tips on how to play barre chords and I also find some online information: someone says you use tiny muscles in your middle knuckle to play barre chords and recommends standing while curling and extending your fingers as fast as you can for a hundred repetitions. I have never tried this before. The online sage also mentions that no other thing you do in normal life works these knuckle muscles.

It turns out that ten minutes a day of barre chord practice is too ambitious for me: by the time I play for two minutes sweat is pouring off my forehead, my left hand is cramping both in the palm and at the base of the thumb and my forearm is hurting as well. I will have to practice two minutes five times a day to get ten minutes in.

On August 16th I get an email from Johnny. He is back to using his email and has contacted his bandmates and the Avonova venue and a recording studio. Good. Progress for Mr. Harper in reclaiming his life. He also starts the practice of sending me one song a day to listen to. Sometimes he sends me the words and some background on the song, sometimes just the link to a video. His first selection is “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”

Somewhere in this time period Johnny has actually quit drinking — he doesn’t send me an email saying “I’ve quit.” Instead, he sends me an email saying that he has been going through all of his old email from before he started isolating until now and he has had some really bad news. He says he is “in the kind of pain that sure would have sent me to the bottle.” He says he does not want to drink and he doesn’t know what else to do. He says there is nothing on T.V. and he can’t talk to me because I am at the Farmers’ Market singing for tips. He concludes, “Music is my refuge, I guess.”

Although I call Johnny back as soon as I discover his message, I don’t reach him for a couple of days. When I do get him on the phone he sounds shut down. He is still watching movies around the clock and using “small amounts of alcohol.” Like the narrator of “Alice’s Restaurant” he becomes “open and honest on the telephone.” He begins to cry about how stressful it is for him to stay on top of his life as an independent musician. He says that when the stress gets to him he is unable to stop the slide into depression, inactivity, withdrawal, increased drinking. I don’t remember how he refers to it this time around, but he has used the words “stress” and “depression” before to me.

“I’m afraid to pick up my life again,” he tells me. “I just can’t deal with the stress.”

I am not surprised that Johnny is stressed: he has been drinking for six weeks at least, not eating. I can’t imagine putting my body through the amount of stress his is under. His coping mechanisms are drinking and watching movies and T.V. with one call to his friend and former therapist a day. I want to tell him that his body needs food and vitamins, but I do not raise the issue. Today I just listen.

Johnny tells me that the plan for me to move in had been a source of stress for him and that he is still worried about my not wanting to share every bit of his music. He told me he had a conversation with a thirty-year-old woman about New Orleans at Les Blank’s memorial. I want to say, “Johnny, you are a charismatic musician. There are always going to be fans and younger women wanting a piece of what you’ve got.” I want him to say to those women, like Paul Newman, that he has “steak at home.” But if he is having doubts about me it is good for him to voice them. Maybe he will work through them. He does tell me it helps him to hear my voice.

At the end of our long conversation Johnny says, “I’ll call you tomorrow. Or you can call me.”

* * *

The next morning Johnny and I talk again. He jumps a level in honesty. He tells me he goes out once a day to replenish his liquor supply. I think this is fucked up — he cannot walk a quarter mile to Walgreen’s to get himself vitamins or simple food; he will not go to a grocery store. But I am not an alcoholic, do not sustain myself on booze.

“How many days do you think it would take you to get to Berkeley?” I ask. “I’ll buy you lunch when you come. I’m worried about your not eating. You are cannibalizing your own organs. Your body steals nutrients from them. Couldn’t you at least get some vitamins?”

“This is not a good direction,” he says.

Just like that I have fallen back into making suggestions.

“I’m sorry, Johnny. I’ll stop. I’m just so worried about you.”
“My problems are emotional, not physical.”
“Physical and emotional states are connected,” I say.
“That’s one way of looking at it,” he says. Then “I’m having a hard time forgiving myself for letting McCord and Edie down.”
“We all fuck up sometimes, Johnny.”
“I feel like a terrible person.”
“You’re not a terrible person. You made a mistake. We all do. A hundred people would say you helped and inspired them. McCord and Edie would say that about you.” (They would while also acknowledging that he had let them down at two important album release gigs).

When I hang up I reflect on how powerless I am to help Johnny. All I can do is listen and say compassion meditation for him. All I can do is try to take care of myself so that I can talk to him without rancor or pleading or insisting that he do something.

* * *

The next day he tells me that he has not showered or shaved or changed his clothes for a month. Yow!
“Maybe that’s something you can do today, Johnny.”
“I’m not ready.”
I don’t ask any more questions or make another suggestion.
“I might turn on my computer or start getting rid of the beer bottles.”

I tell Johnny I am reading a book called Guitar Zero by Gary Marcus, a cognitive psychologist who studies guitar and studies his own learning process.
“I’m interested in how people learn,” he says.
“Do you know about Gardner? He writes about different learning styles.”
“I don’t know his first name. He wrote a whole book about learning.”

July has passed into August and Johnny is still holed up in his house. But on August 2nd he tells me “I want to stop drinking. I don’t know how I’m going to do it. I don’t want to go to A.A.”
“My brother goes to Life Ring. And Eric Maisel, a psychologist who works with artists, has written a book on recovery for artists.”

Johnny makes an interested noise. He tells me he has been drinking two six-packs of beer and a pint of whiskey each day. He says there are seven hundred bottles in his living room and he might call a hauling service to get rid of them.

I tell him he will have to come up with healthier ways of coping with stress if he gives up drinking, that there will certainly be some hard times ahead.

“I want to take better care of myself. I’m worried about not eating. I see food on T.V. and it looks good, but I don’t feel the urge to eat.”
“I’m worried about that, too. Sometimes it’s easier to eat with other people. Start with something plain, maybe some soup or some eggs.”

I remind Johnny that he does not need to punish himself, that it would be enough to put his life back together and face other people again.

Johnny likes to quote a line from the movie, “The Right Stuff”: someone asks a pilot, “Do you wish to declare a state of emergency?”

The pilot always answers “No.”

* * *

I myself have been hollow-eyed, despite my best efforts to take care of myself during Johnny’s extended drinking binge. I need to set firmer boundaries around phone calls, tell Johnny that I need my head to hit the pillow by 9:30 at night because I am getting up at 5:30 each morning. I decide to take a day off the next day, spending much of it in bed, sleeping off accumulated weariness from the summer’s long ordeal. I call Johnny and say “I wish to declare a state of emergency,” telling him I’m staying home for the day.