Archives for category: Johnny and Sharyn

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.”
“No.”
“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.

I had been thinking since I was in France in June that I would wait to have a conversation with Johnny about his drinking until he and I could see each other in a public place, have lunch, have a cup of coffee. One night in late July 2013 Johnny told me he wanted to talk to me “about people.”

When he called me the next afternoon to ask about my day I mentioned renting a room at the Kensington Community Center “where I go to an Al-Anon meeting.”

“You went to a 12-step meeting?”
“I told you in June I was going to Al-Anon.”
“How many meetings a week do you go to?”
“I used to go to five. Now I go to three.”
“Five!”
“Johnny, I don’t love going to meetings. But sometimes someone says something I find helpful.”
“I’ve got to go now.”
“I thought you wanted to talk about people.”
“Now is not the time.”
“Okay. Call me when you want to.”
“I will call you,” he said. “In the morning, if not tonight.”

* * *

When Johnny called the next morning he told me it upset him that I mentioned going to Al-Anon. He said, “I thought I’d get better and that we could see each other and I could have a few drinks if I wanted.”

“Did you think your drinking was not a problem?” I asked. “Johnny, I love you. Whatever you do, I can continue to be your friend. You can call me and I’ll be there for you, but if you continue to drink I can’t be in a relationship with you. Your drinking is hurting you. I think you need help.”

“What would that look like?”

I waded into uncertain waters. In retrospect I wish I had turned the question on him and asked him what he thought he needed, but instead I told him I thought he needed to detox under medical supervision and then to get some kind of ongoing support for sobriety. I told him it didn’t have to be AA if he hated AA.

“I’m not abandoning you, Johnny. You can always reach me by phone. You can take time to think about what I’ve said.”

After a long silence, he said “Thank you for sharing. I’ll be calling you sometime.” Then he hung up on me.

After Johnny hung up I notified his brother and a few friends of our conversation and then I went to an Al-Anon meeting.

When I got back, the phone calls started. In one he said I had “dynamited the trust between us.” He called me “arrogant.” Then he called again to call me “an amateur,” presumably because he knew more about drinking and sobering up than I did. He also said I was “judging him” and “laying trips on him.” In still another call he forbade me to talk to his friends and family.

“Johnny, if people call me and want to talk to me it’s my decision whether to talk to them.”
“Now you’re fucking with me. If you do that, you’re out of my life.”
“Johnny, you’re going to do what you are going to do, but if people call me I get to decide how to respond.”
“If people call you, refer them to me.”

I wanted to laugh. I wanted to say, “Maybe they want to talk to someone who will talk to them.” But I didn’t laugh or say that aloud.

The last thing that Johnny said to me was that talking to me made him feel like him feel like dying and he didn’t want to feel like that so he wasn’t going to talk to me. Then he hung up again.

I understood in the moment that Johnny was hurt and angry, that my decision was threatening his drinking, that he was wounded and lashing out. I initially felt lighter to have had the conversation about his drinking at last. Then I felt relieved briefly when the angry phone calls stopped. By the next day I was crying in meditation and asking to be given a heart of love, to be freed from my own anger. The day after that the internal jukebox tormented me during meditation by playing the line “White Lightnin’s still the biggest thrill of all” from “Okie from Muskogee” over and over. I missed Johnny and I worried about him and I still daydreamed about a future with him, but I didn’t know how things were going to go.

Johnny called me again two days after our conversation, but my phone was off the hook and I missed the call. I got the message the next morning. His voice sounded stronger, more like it used to. He didn’t sound angry and said, “Call me, please. Thanks, Johnny.”


On July 22, 2013, eleven days after Eric and I go to San Leandro to check on him, Johnny calls me in the morning at the time I would normally be leaving for my busking shift: I decide to talk with him and take a later bus. When I ask him how he is, he characterizes his life as “moment-to-moment survival.” He says he is watching T.V. around the clock to keep his pain away, filling his waking hours with cowboy and crime films.

Johnny cries often during our conversation. He says he feels bad that he has let people down.

“Johnny, lots of people love you and care about you, even when they are pissed at you. People are meditating and praying for you.”

“Thank you for saying that.”

He bursts into tears again.

“I miss David,” he says. “David always knew what to say to me.”

His brother David died in February.

“Maybe you could repeat to yourself some of the things David used to say.”

“It’s not the same,” he says.

“No. It isn’t.”

Johnny says he is talking to his friend and former therapist Deborah. He says he can’t afford to get other help. I do not confront Johnny on this point, but I know it is not true: what Johnny can’t afford to do is use the money from David’s estate to fund all of the projects he would like to fund and also hire a therapist. Besides, a good therapist might confront his drinking or require him to make agreements about it.

In the mean time, Johnny is taking a few actions. He has made the effort to call me. He tells me he plans to call his brother Peter later in the day, calling it “one of my projects.”

“I’ve been in touch with Peter,” I tell him.

“Good,” he says.

“I’ve been in touch with a few other people.”

“Good,” he says again.

“Honey, are you playing your guitar?”

“No. I haven’t touched a guitar since Les’s memorial. I’ve lost all my callouses.”

Guitar players build up callouses on the fingertips of each hand from repeatedly pressing their fingertips to metal strings, holding the strings down on wooden fretboards. The callouses extend both over and under the surface of the skin. If you stop playing for a few weeks you lose your callouses and your fingers become those of a tender beginner: it hurts to play. The only remedy is to play frequently for short but increasing periods of time until you develop calloused tissue again. Johnny has not played for more than five weeks.

Johnny normally keeps his guitars on stands within easy reach in his office or living room, amplifiers adjacent. All he has to do to begin playing is pick up a guitar, plug in a cord and flip a switch. He tells me that his guitars are still in their cases.

Johnny is punishing himself big time. Music is his chief solace, joy and inspiration.

“I dream about music though. Wild dreams.”

“Your unconscious is giving you music. It’s such a big part of your life.”

“You know, Johnny, when I have stopped playing I make it a practice to take my guitar out of its case. I don’t have to play it, I just have to get it out. Maybe you could take a tiny step, like just listening to music for a few minutes, or putting a guitar on a stand.”

I don’t remember if he replies to my suggestion.

I think now, in 2022, that perhaps Johnny was protecting his guitars from the effects of his drinking (he wouldn’t want to knock one over as he stumbled through the living room) as well as avoiding the pain that playing music might unleash: music often opens us to our emotions.

I asked Johnny if there was anything I could do for him. He asked me to call sometimes. He said it helped to get calls, even if he did not pick up the phone. He thanked me for my call about Bob Chrisman’s death and for coming out to see him earlier in the month.

For the most part our conversation is devoid of anger and defensiveness. Johnny even laughs at one point.

“There’s that laugh,” I say.

He does tell me, however, that the difficulties we were having in June (our differences of opinion over particular pieces of music) contributed to his slide into depression. Note the subtle placement of blame and the omission of the role of his favorite depressant drug.

Before I went off to work I told Johnny I loved him and he said he loved me and cared about me. We ended the phone call with our characteristic sign off:

“Love you.”

“Love you.”

I feel relieved and grateful to know that Johnny is alive, happy to hear his voice on the telephone. Later I email his brother Peter to say that we had spoken and I speak to Patrick and Eric about our call.

* * *

That evening I call Johnny to say good night as I used to do. I do not reach him directly, but he calls me back about half an hour after I phone him. He tells me he called Peter and that it a wasn’t warm and fuzzy experience. He breaks off his conversation with me because he wants to check in with his friend Deborah, but says he wants to talk with me again tomorrow.

I am not raising issues with Johnny when I talk with him, but focusing on listening to what he says and giving him support and encouragement when I can. I guess I have learned a thing or two from all of those Al-Anon meetings after all.

Before I go to bed that night I am thinking about what to say when Johnny and I have our next “O.R. talk” (Johnny-speak for “our relationship”). I do not know yet when that talk will be: it depends on when he reduces his drinking and can leave his house. I envision us talking in person.

The next day Johnny doesn’t call and I am back on the roller coaster again, worrying about him. The day after that he calls in the afternoon in a panic. He says his phone battery is low and his charger isn’t working and he is afraid he will be cut off from the phone calls that are his current lifeline.

“What do you want me to do, Johnny?” I ask.

“Could you call a few people and ask if they can help me get a charger?”

“Okay.”

Before I make the calls I check in with my brother, who is in recovery from his own addiction. He tells me I am “enabling” Johnny, that Johnny needs to deal with his own problem, get his own charger. But I have promised Johnny I will call some people, so I do.

I call Johnny’s old faithful friends Eric and Patrick. I leave a message for one. The other is en route to a dentist appointment.

I call Johnny back to tell him I have been unable to secure help for him.

“Maybe I could call a cab, go to the AT&T store and get a new charger.”

“That sounds like a good plan, honey.”

I go off to my afternoon busking shift. By the time I get home Johnny has left me a message telling me he has gotten a new phone charger and that I can call him “anytime.”

When I call him later that afternoon, Johnny answers. “How was your shift?,” he asks, as he used to ask every day.

I give him a rundown of the latest day in the busking trade. Then I tell him I am looking at renting a room in the Kensington Community Center to teach writing practice classes.

Johnny responds by giving me unasked-for advice on how I could advertise my writing classes more effectively. Although this breaks our ancient rule of not telling each other what to do, I listen carefully, and let him know he has a couple of valid points. I do not, however, commit to doing anything he suggests — I merely avoid getting into a fight about advice-giving or the particulars of his suggestions.

Johnny signs off, saying he has to go, but he will call me later. I tell him I am home for the afternoon and evening and he is welcome to call when he likes.

After we hang up I reflect that I do not know what normal behavior is and I do not know how I am going to find out what normal behavior is. Am I going to learn it at Al-Anon meetings? I hadn’t known how to respond appropriately to Johnny’s phone charger crisis or to his drinking and depression. I want to be a good girlfriend, a loving and supportive partner, and I do not know what “the rules” are. Johnny’s drinking and isolating are far outside the norms of conventional behavior, far outside Johnny’s former functioning, although his ability to acquire the phone charger, to make and answer phone calls and to take some interest in what I am doing signals an upswing.

[A note to readers: this is the original version of the piece called “A touching gesture.” I wrote it. It disappeared in an internet fluke. I rewrote it from memory and published it last week. Today it inexplicably resurfaced in my WordPress drafts so I have replaced the old version with this one. There will also be a new Johnny and Sharyn story tonight 9-18-22.]

Today, in the aftermath of a multi-day heat wave, I was sitting in our upstairs library with my mother. We had just finished lunch. She had been talking about various issues with the house (roof, floors, etc.) when she said, “You have a personal letter.”

Personal letters are rare these days. I carry on much of my correspondence by email and Facebook message. She handed me a large envelope.

I did not recognize the name or the writing on the envelope. The address was in Berkeley, headed The ____ Family. “The writing looks like a child’s,” I commented, looking at the outsize letters, sprawling “r”s in “Sharyn” and “Oberlin,” the uneven spacing and the way the “i” and “a” of “California” went almost to the edge of the paper.

Slipping my fingers under the flap I tore through the bottom petals of a yellow and white rose to reach a large gold-bordered print of the same rose above the dark green inscription “With Deepest Sympathy.”

Before I became a busker in the Berkeley BART station, before I became a writing practice teacher on Zoom, I worked for eleven years in the City of Berkeley’s Inclusion Program in the Department of Recreation. The inclusion program was an after school and vacation program for able-bodied neurotypical children and children with various disabilities to learn and play together.

Two of my favorite children in the program were a Filipino brother and sister. Both were smart, lively, engaging, curious. The boy became a special pal of mine — I often took him swimming, worked with him in the garden or the kitchen at James Kenney Recreation Center, had conversations with him. I watched him pass from elementary school into middle school and, after I left the program, I would see him traveling on BART with groups of kids or going to appointments by himself after he graduated from Berkeley High.

When I began busking in the fall of 2012 this boy began to stop by to have brief conversations with me. We talked about his grandparents and I asked after his sister. He came from a close, loving family. One day I told him I would be moving to San Leandro.

“Why?” he asked.

I explained that I had met a man named Johnny Harper who lived there and was moving there to live with him.

My pal asked how I got there and I said I took BART to Bay Fair station and walked, took a bus, or took a cab. Thereafter, he asked me when he saw me if I was going to San Leandro to see Johnny Harper, always using his full name.

When I opened the card, turquoise ink spelled out “Dear Sharyn” above the printed message “May you find comfort in the knowledge that the memory of your loved one will live forever in your heart.” My old friend had written below this “I’m so sorry to hear about Johnny Harper. May he rest in peace Amen With Much Love from ___ (He signed his name).

The left side of the card informed me that “my departed loved one” and my family had been enrolled in the Seraphic Mass Association and will share perpetually in Special Novenas and also be remembered in the prayers, Masses, and good works of Capuchin Friars throughout the world. And, on the back, the card displayed The Blessing of St. Francis of Assisi:

May the Lord bless you and keep you.
May the Lord show His face to you and have mercy on you.
May the Lord smile upon you
and give you His peace.

I have had no contact with my old James Kenney pal since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic when I stopped busking in March 2020. I did not have his address and wouldn’t have thought to notify him of Johnny’s death. But my old friend is a whiz with the internet on his cell phone and, for all I know, has tracked me and Johnny quietly through the years. He is a sweet and shy young man and I feel protective of his privacy and that of his family, which is why I do not name him here, but I am touched beyond words that he has followed the story of Johnny Harper and was thoughtful enough to send me a condolence card and to make a donation for friars to say masses. Johnny, although he was not Catholic, or even Christian, would be touched that his memory and our love for each other rippled out into the world in this unexpected way. I thank my old friend and the friars who keep Johnny in remembrance and I write this to remind us all that you never know the effects of a kind word or a sympathy between people. In case he is reading this some day I tell my old friend I have never forgotten him or his family, that I was blessed to know him, that I wish for him the happiness he bestows on others and that he is always welcome to keep up with me online here at The Kale Chronicles or elsewhere.

When I finished the last line of “Ingenue,” the pianist Ben stood to applaud and I gestured awkwardly to him with my left arm as I left the stage. I went to the green room to return my guitar to its case and settled down for a few minutes to drink some water. Through the green room speaker I heard Deborah Blackburn singing harmony to a pre-recorded track of herself and Johnny singing “I Walk the Line.”

I was back in the house to hear the end of John McCord’s “House of Love,” Edie O’Hara’s “Don’t Keep Her Waiting,” Mance Lipscomb’s “Shake, Shake Mama,” Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad” and Seán Lightholder leading everyone in the first singalong of the evening, Warren Zevon’s tender “Keep Me In Your Heart.” That one always makes me tear up, but I sang along on the sha-la-las, mostly droning on a high B-flat at the top of the chord. I made a note to myself to listen to the song on the archived live stream: Johnny had wanted it sung at his memorial.

Back in the green room to finish my sandwich before I was due back onstage, I listened to Patrick McKenna sing “Go to the Mardi Gras” and heard some kind of confusion over the intro to “Guitar Rhumbo.” I was in my front row seat to hear Jerry White sing “Blue Angel” simply and sweetly after musing on what Johnny sang about (drinking, love, sex, escape and connection) and inviting us to let the music set us free.

We heard remote, absent Johnny telling us a long story — as he often did — about running away at the age of ten, hoping to float down the Mississippi River like Huck Finn. He didn’t get that far, but he caught the drifting dream in his song “Loafin’ on the Water,” sung ably by Abby Dees.

Abby fronted the next two Johnny Harper classics, “Nothin’ But A Party” and “Light of a New Day,” backed by Maureen Smith and Shirley Davis and then it was time to take the stage for the final numbers. Once again I threaded my way past horns, guitar, bass and drums to the clump of vocal mics, trying to figure out where to squeeze myself in to the short girl mic between Maureen and Shirley.

Jennifer Jolly announced the tune and the band launched into the familiar opening run of “The Weight.” Deborah lead off with a descanted line of “I pulled into Nazareth.” Everyone was in by the chorus, “Take a load off Fanny.” Jenny had printed the words in the program and warned us that Johnny would surely cut the power to the house if he heard anyone sing “Annie.” From where I stood there were plenty of effs — I hit them hard.

Shirley stepped into the mic to sing about Carmen and the Devil in her rich alto. I stepped back as far as I could to give her room. Then Dale Geist took a mic for “Go down, Miss Moses,” ideal for his tenor voice.

I heard the walk down, stepped to the mic and hoped for the best, bringing forth Crazy Chester from deep in my chest. It was a little crazy — my third line went wild, leaving the melody behind, but regaining it for the last line and the chorus.

Freed to sing anything I liked on the last verse and chorus I started to enjoy myself, tapping my foot and swaying, ending the chorus on a high hum. The fun continued as we swung into “They All Ax’d For You,” a good-time tune if there ever was one and a signature tune for Johnny.

Abby gave us the verses about the Audubon Zoo and the deep blue sea, interspersed with scintillating piano from Mark Griffith and followed by a plethora of horn solos. Then Jennifer Jolly asked the band to vamp on the one chord, quieting them down so that I could be heard, and counting me in for my last solo: “Went on over to the other side…”

Jerry picked it up again, singing “Went on down to the Carnival gig.” Then, while Jeremy Steinkoler kept the rhythm on drums, Jenny took the mic to thank the venue, the sound techs, the live stream provider, the online viewers, our absent friends, our donors, the M.C.’s, the planning committee and the musicians. Abby sang the iconic Johnny Harper verse “Went on down to the federal pen,” everybody sang the chorus and the saxophones closed out the final line.

I went backstage again to gather my gear, the backpack full of shoes, extra masks and tissues that I never used. I went out to the lobby for a couple of group photos that I haven’t seen yet. Then I got a chance to mingle and see people I hadn’t seen, to chat with one of Johnny’s drummers and some old friends. I checked at the favor table to pick up a gator from Johnny’s collection, but they had all been packed away for the night — I figure my shrine to him will be a plastic gator decked with Mardi Gras beads: like the gator, he had sharp teeth, a big wide smile and a wicked sense of fun. I will never forget him, his last big party, the music he made, or the people I met through him. I hope we all meet again before too long.

P.S. If you want to see the entire list of personnel and songs for Johnny’s Big Party, here is a link to a PDF program: Event Program

https://tinyurl.com/JHMemorialProgram