Archives for posts with tag: Johnny Harper

Johnny loved time travel stories: he would read any book or watch any movie that involved time travel. He loved watching “Outlander,” every Sunday night, seeing Claire and Brianna go through the stones to Scotland and America.

I have been to the house he lived in for many years: I know that his things are no longer there and I know where some of them have gone. And yet, persistently, for the last couple of days my mind has constructed a different world.

In the world that I see, Johnny inhabits the Marcella Street house. He sits in his folding chair in his living room, plugs his red Telecaster into his Marshall amp and plays and sings. He does not sing to us anymore. He does not go to Zoom music sessions. Students do not come to his house. You cannot call him up “any time,” as he always encouraged people to do. You cannot reach him by email and if you go by the house he will not answer the door.

I cannot explain this, but I see Johnny playing guitar, watching T.V., listening to music. He is not unhappy or lonely and he still has his stereo, his records and books. For me it is like watching someone in a life-sized doll house: I can see into the interior. I do not think he sees me.

In this self-contained world he orders food-to-go: beef stew from the Hof Brau, barbecue from E.&J, crawfish etouffee from Angeline’s. He may make ghostly visits to the Bay Fair Farmers’ Market where he bought corn and strawberries and pumpkin pie. He can bring home the strawberries, but he cannot have conversations with the vendors. He moves through a world where he cannot talk to anyone, but he can get what he needs.

There is no alcohol in this world — no whiskey, no vodka, no beer. He does not need it anymore. He is not partying or drinking to overcome some pain or shame. He plays his music and listens to music and is contented.

It is almost like Johnny lives in the world of an ofrenda for the Day of the Dead, surrounded by the things he loved most: music, books and food. Johnny liked to go to the Oakland Museum to see the exhibited altars every November.

I do not see him walking around in New Orleans or having conversations with other dead musicians. I do not see him reunited with his brother David or departed friends. I do not see him playing gigs. I do not see him in his office using his computer. I only see him in his living room where he taught and played and rehearsed and Zoomed. I see him in the house we sometimes lived in together, but I do not see myself there — we do not pass in the night like ghosts as I water the garden or cook in the kitchen. I am not there at all.

I do not know why I have this particular vision unless it is that the house is where Johnny died and his spirit is hanging around until such time as it is ready to move on, sitting quietly in a spirit version of his most-used room with his beloved music for company. I feel strongly that he is there. And I accept that I cannot call him up or visit him — I do not feel that as a pang. Instead I feel glad to know that he is safe: the sensation I have is that I am in this world over here and he is in that world over there.

Do any of you see Johnny anywhere these days? Do any of you understand what I am describing? Do any of you have a felt sense of where he is?

One of the things I brought back from Johnny’s house on Marcella Street was a binder of charts and set notes, most from two gigs we played in Kensington in 2012-2013. Johnny always typed up large-print set lists with the name of each song and the key he would play it in.

Johnny certainly knew how to put together sets: he had been a bandleader for decades and a D.J. at Berkeley’s KPFA radio. But when I look at the set lists for our first two duet gigs they look crazy to me: the song choices don’t hang together, the order of the songs doesn’t make sense. Each set looks like a tug-of-war between two sensibilities.

I had gotten us our first gig for December 21, 2012 at the Arlington Cafe in Kensington where I lived. We would play for tips and food and would have to bring our own P.A. if we wanted one. Johnny had spent six weeks in October and November producing records for Edie O’Hara and John McCord. Before I confirmed the booking I asked Johnny if he was sure he wanted to play it. He said, “I don’t have anything else going and it’s better to play than not to play.”

I remember our first rehearsal: Johnny came over to my house with a small Marshall amp, his Telecaster, a clipboard with pen, pencil and paper. We sat in the living room and started to talk about what to play.

“Honey, the gig is only four days before Christmas,” I said. “I think we should play some Christmas songs.”

“Sure. We can do that,” Johnny agreed.

I envisioned some kind of Christmas set, traditional carols interspersed with a few popular songs. I had grown up singing in a church choir and loved sacred Christmas music. In my burgeoning busking career I sang “River” by Joni Mitchell, “Hot Buttered Rum” by Tommy Thompson and “Blue Christmas.” I knew many Christmas carols and asked if we could do “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” — I knew that Johnny could come up with gorgeous chord voicing to my favorite carol, which ends with the poignant plea


“True man, yet very God,
From sin and death now save us
And share our every load.”

While I no longer believed the doctrine behind this, the wish to be relieved of suffering resonated with me: how wonderful it would be to be rescued from our errors and have our burdens shared.

Johnny wrote “Lo, How a Rose” into our first of two sets, but he did not group it with our other Christmas offerings. Instead he gave it the penultimate position in the set, followed by his original funk number “Work With What You Got,” which had the effect of erasing the touching carol, radically altering the tone of the end of the set.

Similarly, Johnny began the set with Robbie Robertson’s “Christmas Must Be Tonight,” which he sang lead on, and followed it with a solo blues number, “Kind-Hearted Woman.” The set ricocheted between Christmas numbers and songs that Johnny might have played in a solo show and my acoustic original songs and low-key covers.

I remember that Johnny suggested that I play Hazel Dickens’ “Working Girl Blues” and that he encouraged me to sing it in a lower key than I preferred. I acquiesced to that: it was only a matter of moving my capo down a few frets and losing a couple of high notes. He originally thought he wanted to do Bob Coltman’s “Before They Close the Minstrel Show” together, but I balked when he wanted to cut out choruses and elide middle verses.

“I don’t want to sing it that way, Johnny. The chorus is the heart of the song.”

When Johnny left the Coltman song was in the set list that I sent him via email, but his penciled note on a sheet of paper in the charts binder says “Think We Sh’d Drop.”

We dropped it. Johnny phoned to say he wasn’t feeling it: if he couldn’t arrange the song the way he liked, he didn’t want to play it at all and he didn’t want me to play it either.

Not wanting to fight, I said, “That’s okay. I can always sing it on the day job.”

We never sang it again.

More penciled notes indicate songs Johnny had considered adding to our set: “Frankie and Albert,” “St. James Infirmary,” “Visions of Johanna,” and “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” all of which would have fit in with my folkie repertoire, but, in the end, Johnny chose to pack the last set with a parade of Johnny Harper hits: “Suzy Q,” “If the Good Lord’s Willin’,” and “This Land Is Your Land.” It’s almost like he had gotten tired of pretending it was a duet gig and wanted to turn the evening into a Johnny Harper show. I had parts to sing, scripted on “If the Good Lord’s Willin’” and my own part on “This Land Is Your Land.”

When we played The Arlington again in the spring of 2013 the sets didn’t hang together any better. Johnny reprised “Kind-Hearted Woman,” “Work With What You Got” and “If the Good Lord’s Willin’” in the first set, along with “Belle Starr” and “My One Desire.” I added “Finger Ring,” and “Buckets of Rain” plus Mary O’Brien’s “We Can’t Pay That” at Johnny’s request. But the beginning of the second set whipsawed between Johnny’s opener of “King Harvest” by The Band and “Ingenue,” a tender love song I had written for him.

We followed that with a run of love songs that concluded with me singing an a cappella folk song in Scots called “The Lea Boy’s Lassie.”

And then what happens? Johnny leads the room in a roaring sing-along of Ernie K-Doe’s “Mother-In-Law.” I doubt that these two songs had ever been heard on the same bill before, much less in the same set. After that I sang “Sitting on Top of the World,” Johnny added a medley of “Spoonful” and “Smokestack Lightning” and we closed once again with “This Land Is Your Land.”

If I had it to do over again I would have refused to sing in Scots, which general audiences don’t understand. An American blues ballad such as “Poor Lazarus” or “Little Sadie” would have been a better choice, both livelier and more comprehensible to the listeners. In the early days of our musical collaborations, I deferred to Johnny more than perhaps I ought to have, awed by his musical skills and flattered when he praised or requested songs in my repertoire. While I did not care for a couple of Johnny’s original songs I sang parts on them and would never have suggested removing them from the sets (I, too, was playing some original songs). My model for collaboration was something like sex columnist’s Dan Savage’s dictum: partners should be “good” (skilled), “giving” (generous) and “game” (willing to try things, to take risks). I believed that Johnny would use his skills to create good shows for us, but these set lists belie that.

What was going on, I wonder now. Was Johnny too burned out from his production jobs to focus seriously on our gigs? Did Johnny expect me to defer to him completely, expect to tell me what to sing and how to sing it? Did Johnny, who had been saying he wanted to play duet gigs with me, not have his heart in these gigs, perhaps because he would rather play solo or with his band?

I think Johnny and I could have come up with better sets had we taken a lot of time to discuss the actual sets, rather than to slot in songs piece by piece, had we discussed our individual concepts of the gigs, had we explored the subsections of music that we shared (Bob Dylan songs, Afro-American blues ballads, white mountain gospel music). I would have had to speak up and say, “Honey, I don’t think these sets are working” and risk Johnny’s reaction. Imagining that conversation, I can imagine everything from the snide (“Oh. You are the one with the thirty years of professional experience.”) to the passive-aggressive (“Alright. You plan the sets. I need them in forty-five minutes.”). I can imagine him deciding he didn’t want to play the gig after all, leaving me to either play a solo gig or cede the gig to him.

Perhaps I could have been more honest earlier in our musical relationship, differentiating between things I liked to hear Johnny play or sing with his band that I did not want to sing on, and things I would like to sing with Johnny, or have him sing at my gigs. I could have stuck up more for songs I loved to sing. Johnny loved music so much, had such strong feelings about it, that he could get upset over differences in musical tastes: he identified with the music he played. If I didn’t like a song, singer or arrangement, he would often take this as a personal criticism and jump to the conclusion that I didn’t like him, that I didn’t understand him, whereas I was willing to say, “It’s just a difference in aesthetics. People like what they like.”

It would take Johnny and me another six years to develop shared repertoire. I learned to play “The Weight,” “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Highway 61 Revisited.” He played “Raised on Robbery” and sang with me on the intro. We worked up Richard Thompson’s “Walkin’ on a Wire” and “Wall of Death” and Bruce Springsteen’s “My Hometown” at my suggestion and crafted a duet of “Pancho and Lefty.” He learned David Rawlings’ “Ruby” for me and Linda Allen’s “Love Song for the Hard Times.” Unfortunately, the Johnny Harper train derailed again in October 2019 before we got to record or perform those songs.

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.

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.

After three nights of long phone conversations, Johnny called me early the next morning, leaving me the message to call him if I had a minute.


I called. “I have a minute,” I said, “Or two or three, but then I have jury duty in Richmond. What’s up?”


“I just wanted to hear your voice. I need to see you. I think I can come tonight if I can move a student.”


Johnny taught guitar lessons in his living room.


“What happened to ‘We’ve got time’? Can we decide this later? I’ve got to go.”


I felt bad about cutting our conversation short, but I couldn’t be late to court. I grabbed a lunch and hopped on the first bus. If I got put on a jury at least I’d have jury duty pay to add to my income.


I did not get put on a jury. I went home and resumed correspondence with Johnny by email. I told him if he decided to come over we had options, that we had rooms in the house where either of us could sleep if we wanted to get some sleep and he wouldn’t have to make the long journey home in the middle of the night (Neither Johnny nor I drove: I relied on buses and BART, while he took combinations of buses, trains and cabs and sometimes hired drivers for gigs).


I gave Johnny bus directions to get to my house and planned a dinner for us to eat. I decided to sit outside in the front yard so that I could meet him when he came and bring him into the house where I lived with my mother and brother. I asked him to bring a robe or something to maintain modesty in our upstairs hallway.


Johnny missed a bus and arrived close to sunset, wearing a black leather jacket and carrying an acoustic guitar and a satchel. He bent down to kiss me and I smelled beer on his breath. In my world, you brush your teeth before a date. In what kind of world do you have a drink before visiting your girlfriend?


I introduced Johnny to my mother and brother, then got us some food. We sat in the small breakfast room where my family usually dines to eat, adjourning to my upstairs room after taking our plates to the kitchen.


Johnny hung his jacket over the back of my desk chair and sat down his satchel and his guitar. He drew a short robe from his bag and I hung it on a hook in my closet.


I lit candles and put some music on my computer. At some point I excused myself, went to the bathroom and changed into a robe. Johnny wanted more light than the candles provided so I turned on my closet light, turned off the overhead light and got into my side of the bed.


Johnny sat to remove his shoes and socks and then stood to remove his black jeans. He came to bed wearing only his black shirt, habitually rolled above the elbows to expose his muscular forearms. We rolled toward each other and nestled together, my head on his chest, his arm around my shoulders. I could hear his beating heart.


We cuddled and talked most of the night, joined cautiously by my cat, Fiona, who was at first spooked by Johnny’s height and his big feet (from a cat’s perspective). Once Johnny lay down, Fiona crept up to investigate him and made friends rather quickly when she discovered he was warm.


To keep my family comfortable, I made strict rules for appearances outside my bedroom: for trips to the adjoining bathroom we needed to be clothed and to appear in the public rooms of the house we needed to be completely dressed: shirt, shoes, etc. When we were in my room I played music on my computer to create a sound-screen for our conversation.


Alas, Johnny’s Labor Day visit blew away any good will I had garnered with these strategies…

Another weekend I followed Johnny up to a north bay folk festival to hear him play, tagging along with Marlene, who was going. I made a Greek salad for the potluck dinner and baked a big apple pie. I wore a plunging halter top, an art deco rhodium-plated necklace that had belonged to my paternal grandmother and my habitual black jeans. I brought my guitar, hoping to get a chance to play a couple of new songs for Johnny in the evening sing-around that followed the concert performances.

After singing a gospel-inflected song and a political piece, Johnny said “We’ve been talking about spiritual things, but now it’s time to talk about the carnal, y’all…” He went on for awhile and I have always wished I had a recording of that introduction to his rocker “Burnin’ Up.” The crowd danced and smiled.

When Johnny came off stage I came to say hello to him before returning to my seat at the edge of the stairs. He sat in a chair behind me for a bit, nudging me and poking me like a schoolboy with a forbidden crush on a girl while I bantered with him, saying things like “It’s too bad you don’t know any nice people.”

“I know, darlin’,” he said, shaking his head. “But I got you, babe,” he added, putting his arm around me for a minute.

I had had misgivings about Johnny after attending a previous gig of his. I was singing back-up for him on a tribute to Woody Guthrie as part of a group he called the Hard Times Choir. The event manager had offered every musician two drink tickets for beer or wine. I didn’t plan to use mine. Johnny came to me after he had drunk his two beers.

“They only give you tickets for two beers,” he said. “Would you buy beer for me?”


“I don’t think I could do that,” I said, not wanting to break the rules, thinking two beers should be enough for anyone, not wanting to procure alcohol.


“It’s not a problem,” he said, going off to ask someone else.


That request was my first indication of Johnny’s thirst, his capacity and his willingness to bend the rules to get what he wanted. Trying to avoid heartbreak, I had gone home and written a song called “The Werewolf” about the fear I had felt growing up in an alcoholic family. In the song after describing the atmosphere around my father, my older brother and my sister-in-law, the breath-holding and the scenes, I address Johnny directly:


And then there’s you, I like you a lot.
I dream of sharing everything we’ve got.
Don’t know you so well that I’d know for sure
If that old werewolf is knocking at your door.

There is no room in a heart to share
If you’ve got a werewolf already living there.
I’d give you my love, but it won’t get through —
The werewolf will get it, and then he’ll turn on you.

Just a story, just a song,
Just between friends while we’re getting along,
Just one thing that you should know:
If I see the werewolf, then I have to go.

At the Cur-Ville Festival, I saw Johnny drinking prodigiously, filling cup after cup from a keg on the porch, but remaining lucid, jovial, funny, steady on his feet. And everyone I talked with loved Johnny: they told me he was a great guy, generous, how helpful and encouraging he had been to them, what a good friend.

Mid-afternoon, Johnny gathered together “the ballad gals” and his friend Reid, who was visiting, for an impromptu round of singing on the porch. I got my friend Mary to sing “Peggy Gordon,” a song she owns, in my opinion. For the first time ever, Johnny took a harmony on the chorus, rather than simply listening. I sang “Poor Lazarus,” a blues ballad about an outlaw — Johnny would know — he always kept a record of what people sang. Reid sang a song about falling over drunk.

We would have continued to sing in our small group, but some of the other musicians were anxious to start a song circle and asked us to join them. I got out my guitar, planning to sing “The Werewolf” or “Ingenue,” which I had written about falling in love with Johnny, but it was not to be. Every time I got ready to open my mouth and strike my chord some other gal with a guitar would launch into an original song. Johnny and Marlene did a duet on the hilarious “Third Rate Romance,” which I had never heard before, before Johnny left the circle, crossed the yard and began playing duets with Beth, a striking woman with big blue eyes and waist-length brown hair that I had seen with him at the Woody Guthrie gig. I watched them from afar.

When Marlene signaled that she’d like to go, I collected my dishes from the potluck table and told her I’d be just a minute. I walked over to Johnny to say goodbye and a bystander asked who I was.

“This is the fabulous Sharyn,” Johnny said with a smile.

“The fabulous Sharyn,” brown-haired Beth echoed softly, trying it on and raising her eyebrows. I bade Johnny goodbye and turned to leave with Marlene and Reid, helping pilot us all back to the East Bay by way of Petaluma.

* * *

When ballad group came around the next month I brought my guitar and got there early. Johnny arrived early as well. Looking at the clock, I asked the hostess if I could play an illegal song before the meeting started at two o’clock, in about ten minutes.

“Yes,” said Johnny. The others nodded.

“Sweet song or scary song?”

“Sweet song first,” Johnny said, always ready to lead.

I sang “Ingenue,” a song about the experience of falling in love, watching my thoughts, moving helplessly under love’s spell. It ends, “But my heart is singing like an ingenue/Singing and falling, falling for you.”

Johnny enthused over “Ingenue.”

“I could hear Bonnie Raitt doing that song.”

“That would be great,” I said, “As long as she doesn’t mess it up.”

“Now, play the scary song,” he said.

I glanced at the clock again.

“Go ahead,” said the hostess.

So I sang “The Werewolf” before we switched to the traditional ballads we had come to sing. I don’t remember what else happened that day, but tall, long-legged Mr. Harper offered to walk me back to BART.

“I’m slow,” I said, being more than a foot shorter than he was, carrying a heavy guitar case and walking with a limp.

“That’s fine,” he said.

We walked the seven or eight blocks saying little of consequence.

Johnny told me later that when I sang “Ingenue” he had the thought that I must be falling in love with someone and a twinge of regret that the song wasn’t about him. He also registered the desire to kiss me for the first time.

I felt no hint of this in the BART station as we paid for our tickets and descended the stairs to the single platform. We stood together, waiting for the trains that would take us in opposite directions. He looked down at me and said, “You’re a captivating singer. That song … well, both songs.”

I looked up into his light eyes and said, “I had good inspiration for those songs.”

He nodded.

I drew a deep breath.

“You know those songs are about you, right?”

“No, I did not know that. ‘The Werewolf,’ too? I need to hear those songs again.”

Just then my train pulled alongside the platform.

“That’s my train,” I said.

“I might call you,” he said, as the doors opened and I stepped through them.

That day on the BART platform was the day I got on the Johnny Harper train. It arrived with a chance meeting, a couple of songs and then I was gone, over the moon, madly in love. He fell hard in love with me, too. We began talking on the phone that evening, spending hours talking like love-struck teenagers.

Johnny said he didn’t want a casual relationship, only a serious one. My heart leapt at those words. We began to pledge ourselves to each other over the next three nights of phone conversations.

One night while conducting our relationship entirely on the phone, I said, “Sing me a lullaby.”

He hesitated.

“There will be no firing squad,” I said, “Just sing me something.”

I know I ought to remember what that first lullaby was. I don’t. Johnny would have known. He probably kept a list somewhere. From that night on, it became a tradition for Johnny to sing me a lullaby every night that we were not together in person.


Million Dollar Bash: self-portrait with Johnny Harper.

Million Dollar Bash (Self-Portrait with Johnny Harper). 12″ x 12″ watercolor pencil on paper. Sharyn Dimmick.

While many of the locals were preoccupied with the Worlds’ Series (Yay, Giants!), my sweetie got asked to play a last minute gig for a party in Oakland. Being the gentleman that he is, he asked me along to sing harmony and to wear a red dress that harmonizes nicely with his Telecaster. Saturday found us in someone’s backyard under a white cloth canopy on a temporary stage, setting up mic stands and duct taping the sign on the tip jar. The party was a reunion of sorts for some rescued pit bulls and their owners. One of the pit bulls is named Johnny Justice and we spent a certain amount of time swiveling our heads around whenever we heard people calling “Johnny.”

From where we sat on our stools onstage we could see lit Jack-o-lanterns on small tables, a bar that looked like a tiki shack, guests wearing colorful cowboy hats. A man in a red Western shirt was there to provide square dance music and calls after dark. Folding chairs and picnic tables were scattered about, along with a few hay bales. A small barn held a few of the less social pit bulls.

Bad Boy that he is, Johnny — the man, not the dog — launched into a Dylan tune called “Million Dollar Bash” after playing a few other things. He followed that with a rendition of “Pretty Boy Floyd” by Woody Guthrie, striking his blow for singing about economic justice. Demure little me sang along on both songs and was not above raising my floor length skirt for a moment to flash some leg when the lyrics called for flash. We were not asked to leave, despite such wicked antics, and, in fact, we were encouraged to have a drink and fill a plate after darkness fell. We could have square-danced, too, had we wanted to, but Johnny chose to break down gear instead and deposit the gig check in the bank.

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said, “The rich are different from you and me.” People had driven in from Minnesota to attend the soiree. We wondered what the hosts were feeding them and wandered over to the food troughs. What we found were hot dogs and fixings: vegetarian hot dogs, sausages, hot dog buns, squeeze bottles of mayonnaise and barbecue sauce, bins of sauerkraut and dill pickles and red peppers and onions, so, once again, I was dining on a hot dog, this time with barbecue sauce, sauerkraut, red peppers and dill pickles.

The tiki bar held red wine, white wine, tiny bottles of water, warm beer in cans and several mixed drinks made in quantity in large glass jars. One, the Barn Burner, consisted of bourbon, ginger ale and apple cider, while another featured vodka, ginger ale and limes. I drank a virgin lime and ginger onstage and had the real thing later. Johnny gave me a sip of his Barn Burner, a tasty fall drink to be sure. He also gave me a cut of the take from the gig, proving once again what a good guy he is, and giving me the right to say that I get paid to sing, although, as Gillian Welch says in “Everything Is Free,” “We’re gonna do it anyway” — you can’t keep musicians from playing music, but we are really happy when you pay us and feed us to do it.

As luck would have it, we still have turkey hot dogs and sausages in our refrigerator. If hot dogs are good enough for the rich, I guess they are good enough for us to eat, too. The last time I ate hot dogs this frequently was on hot dog day in elementary school. Every Wednesday parents would gather in the auditorium of Kensington Hilltop Elementary School and boil hot dogs, place them in buns, adorn them with ketchup or mustard, or leave them plain and deliver them to each classroom. Or perhaps it was in junior high when I went through a phase of eating a hot dog, a cup of Hawaiian Punch and a package of Hostess chocolate doughnuts for lunch everyday (I survived the diet of my adolescence and your children will too, most likely). We do not, however, keep a bar stocked with vodka and bourbon — I turn vodka into homemade vanilla extract if it crosses my path and no one here drinks bourbon at all — for that, we’ll have to get invited to another private party. And, in case any rich people are listening, I would recommend upgrading the ginger ale to ginger beer — Cock’nBull brand is the best I’ve ever had.