Archives for posts with tag: Johnny Harper

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.

The day after Eric and I go to Johnny’s house to see him, one of my old friends, Bob Chrisman, dies in Kansas City. I learn of his death via email two days later and decide that I will honor him in the Buddhist way, sitting zazen and reciting the Heart Sutra for forty-nine days. To do this I will get up in time to be on my meditation cushion by 5:30 AM, which will allow me to sit, chant, write, have breakfast and get out the door to my busking day job by 7:15 AM.

Because Johnny has asked me to call him occasionally I call to leave him the message that Bob has died and that I will be sitting for him every morning. I understand this as Bob’s gift to me in a dark time because his death assures my daily return to meditation.

The day before I learn of Bob’s death, I note in my morning writing that “my life without Johnny has opened up a hole of time. Al-Anon fills some of it.”

Five days after I see Johnny at his house I miss him terribly. I cry on my zafu, for him and for me, and the whole time I meditate “When the Saints Go Marching In,” which they play at New Orleans funerals, plays in my head. I think about having a big party for Johnny while he can still appreciate it, drafting his friend Mike Goodwin to cook vats of red beans and rice, hiring the Savoy family and a second-line band Johnny has recently discovered. I fantasize about inviting all of his friends and family and combining the party with an intervention, telling him “This is what you are going to lose if you keep drinking.”

One minute later I think that it will never work. Johnny will wonder where the booze is, will send out for it, or nip from a pint flask.

I still go to Al-Anon meetings three times a week on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. I do not like them, but sometimes someone says something useful. In my spare time I read passages from AA’s Big Book and memoirs about addiction. My motivation for this reading is to try to understand alcoholism so that I do not blame Johnny for his choices or his denial: denial is a symptom or feature of alcohol addiction — it comes with the territory. Johnny will be telling himself that he can drink if he wants to, that he can control his drinking, that his drinking is not a problem, whatever he needs to tell himself that allows him to drink whenever he feels the need. Unfortunately for me, the more I read about alcoholism the more hopeless I feel. This reminds me of a nun I knew who liked to say, “The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable.” Eight days after Eric and I have gone to see Johnny I feel angry.

I am angry at the intractable disease of alcoholism. I am angry that it is hurting someone I love and I am powerless to do anything about it. I am angry that there are no guarantees, no fool-proof intervention. I am angry that reading about alcoholism, as Al-Anon instructs me to do, fills me not with hope, but with horror, as the hopelessness of my situation and Johnny’s seeps into my pores. I have dreams where things are out of control at Johnny’s house, water pouring from first one, then two, faucets, as I try to turn them off, but can only reduce the flow, twist and turn though I might. Dream Johnny says, “Leave it alone.” Dream Sharyn says, “I am going to slip in the water and fall, I need to clean it up.”

I am angry to realize that I would not want to follow AA’s solution to the problem of alcoholism with it’s “God this” and “God that.” If I would not want to do it, how can I expect Johnny to embrace a 12-step recovery program? I meditate. I go to 12-step meetings. I read spiritual literature and the Big Book and I feel like nothing is getting better. I post an oblique message on Facebook, telling my friends I feel angry and hopeless.

Some of them answer me. A friend in recovery calls me and I feel better hearing her voice. Then I go to see a movie I have run across, a documentary about back-up singers. I buy myself a dollar ice cream cone before paying for my ticket and settling into a cushy seat at the Landmark Shattuck.

Johnny would have loved the movie, would have known every singer and every band, would have followed each frame avidly, would have told me stories about the singers and bands later. He would have lapped up the interviews with Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger and Sting. Even without Johnny’s presence I feel lighter for having taken a break from my troubles.

The next morning the jukebox in my head plays “The First Nowell.” WTF? It follows that with “Puff the Magic Dragon.” There is usually a message for me in the song selections, but I cannot decipher today’s bulletins from the unconscious. I learned both songs way back in childhood, around the piano at Christmas, and from the Magic Drawing Board on “Captain Kangaroo.” I do not understand what they are saying to me now. I am still shaking, crying and thinking about Johnny as I meditate.

I get up from my cushion and go downstairs for breakfast. Just as I am about to leave for my busking shift, at the time when I used to call him each morning, Johnny calls me.

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

Two days before Johnny Harper’s memorial service at Freight and Salvage I began to have a meltdown, touched off by our single rehearsal for the event. We met, masked, in a practice room at the Jazz School with a quarter-grand piano, a separate keyboard, a full drum kit, basses, guitars, two saxophones and a trumpet. Although the band quickly got into their groove, the singers could not hear themselves or the other singers, even though we were all singing on mics. At least two of us strained our voices trying to be heard.

I had wanted to be part of the ensemble for the final two numbers, “The Weight” and “They All Ax’d For You,” both songs Johnny and I loved. He related to “The Weight” as the story of a man taxed with the burdens of others, and gloried in the pure, playful fun of “They All Ax’d For You,” which he used to close many band shows. I had written a verse shortly after Johnny died where the unruly denizens of heaven and hell called for a bandleader and I wanted to sing it:

Went on over to the other side and the all ax’d for you.
The heavenly host was out of hand and they needed somebody to lead the band
Went on over to the other side and they all ax’d for you
The devils ax’d and the angels ax’d and Saint Peter ax’d me, too.

What I hadn’t counted on in my imagination was the keys chosen for these numbers: “They All Ax’d” called for the second lowest note I can sing and “The Weight,” too, sat in my low range. I have a typical soprano fondness for my high range and mid range — they’re my comfort zones as a singer. Singing low takes more breath than singing high, and more breath still to produce volume.

Although I enjoyed hearing the band play Johnny Harper classics, such as “Loafin’ on the Water,” getting to hear the horn section, and the general camaraderie of the reunion rehearsal after months of Covid-induced isolation, I started to obsess about how bad I sounded, how little vocal power I had, etc. Over the next few hours that morphed into my personal nemesis, the old refrain of “I am not good enough,” with its corollaries, “I didn’t practice enough. I didn’t warm up enough. I should have learned to read charts properly by now. Johnny was right, I don’t belong on a stage. I feel like a bad singer.”

I wrote separately to two other friends and singers who had been at the rehearsal, wondering if I should back out of the ensemble numbers. One said he heard me struggling for power on “The Weight” and suggested that any number of people could sing it, but that I should sing my verse on “They All Ax’d.” He later posted on my Facebook page: “You are more than good enough. You are great!!,” addressing my demons directly. My other friend said I belonged in the ensemble.

Monday, August 22nd, I cried all day after teaching a writing class. I also arranged to meet another friend on Zoom, a singer with a beautiful low range, to ask for advice. We spent over an hour together, discussing vocal exercises, melodic variation, visualizations, head positioning, mic technique, attitude and ego. She was warm and supportive and helped bolster me to give the songs another try.

Ironically, the song I expected to shine on, an original love song called “Ingenue,” that I had written for Johnny when I fell in love with him, also fell apart in rehearsal. I had asked one of Johnny’s piano players to accompany me, which he did, but we didn’t set up a guitar mic for me. He couldn’t hear the guitar, watched my hands for the chord changes. We were not in sync. I didn’t know what to do, so I said nothing, hoped for the best and feared the worst.

The day of the show yet another friend spontaneously recommended some vocal warm-ups. I did those. I practiced my low solos. I played through “Ingenue” a couple of times. I bathed, dressed in dark red chiffon, packed a sandwich, two granola bars, an arsenal of spare masks, water, Kleenex, lipstick and dress shoes, picked up my guitar and walked to the bus stop. I got off the bus at the top of University Avenue and walked slowly to Freight and Salvage in mid afternoon heat, arriving well before my call.

I watched the sound techs set up from a seat in the front row. Friends began to trickle in: Abby Dees with two guitars, Jerry White and his wife Sally, who began to set up an array of snacks in the green room and immediately offered me a delicious blackberry soda. When our music director arrived I found out that I was supposed to have made signs for the dressing rooms (Oops, I thought I was just supposed to tape them up), so I took my one spare piece of paper and lettered a quick sign.

When sound check started, I threaded my way through cables and instruments to reach the microphones at the far side of the stage. I practiced bending mics down to my lips, being several inches shorter than every other singer. I missed my entrance on “The Weight,” having misread the notes on the arrangement. Fortunately, the sound was good and I could hear myself. We went through part of “They All Ax’d For You” and I retired to the green room to eat half a sandwich, grab a water bottle and apply lipstick under my mask (when you sing in public during the pandemic you wear a mask whenever you are not onstage, but you need lipstick so that your mouth will show up on video). Then I went off to greet attendees in the lobby. Meanwhile the sound check continued behind the closed doors of the concert hall.

The doors finally opened to a slide show of photos of Johnny played over three of his songs. When the last note ended, a procession of horns, snare drum and tambourine began to snake through the aisles of the Freight in a cheerful New Orleans-style second line. People fell in line, danced in their seats, waved scarves. The M.C.s grooved onstage before the last note ended and they spoke their words of welcome to Johnny’s family and friends.

We settled down to speeches. Speeches — you never know what you are going to get. We were treated to a glimpse of young Johnny in military maneuvers at private school, getting a perfect score on his SATs and paying a backstage visit to Hoyt Axton. Larry Miller gave us a beautifully-worded account of Johnny’s nonmusical passions, including Paladin and Nero Wolfe, with thoughtful reflections on Johnny as the good guy fighting the good fight, unable to ask for help. His remarks reminded me of a line Johnny often quoted from “The Right Stuff”: “Do you wish to declare state of emergency?” The answer was always no.

Dale Geist gave us a portrait of guitar lessons with Johnny, whom he credited with “saving his life.” Jennifer Jolly gave us another list of things Johnny loved, including Star Trek and vanilla ice cream. People touched on Johnny’s flaws (perfectionism, arrogance, stubbornness), but spoke of his vision, his generosity, his breadth and depth of knowledge. His beloved niece, Lucy Lumsdaine, crowned the speeches with a testimony to Johnny’s deep love for her, his ferocious pursuit of ethics, and her own call for all those present to extend our compassion and care to one another.

At some point during the speeches pianist Ben Shemuel whispered, “Can we talk?”

He beckoned me into the backstage hallway.

“Can you stand so that I can see your hands when you play?”

He said I was his source for the rhythm or pulse of my tune.

“I’ll try,” I said.

When I took the stage to sing I explained that I needed to angle toward my accompanist. I played the intro. Ben came in along with my voice and we moved through five verses about falling in love: a roller coaster ride, a free fall, a siren song that nevertheless makes your heart sing with joy and hope.

To be continued…

The day before the rehearsal for Johnny’s memorial I finish sorting and filing miscellaneous papers, except for the small pile that I cannot figure out what to do with. I am doing this because I have left divided stacks of things on my bedroom floor and I am afraid I will fall over them. When I have put the final unfiled stack in a folder I move on to my next task: changing the strings on my guitar. I consider changing the strings on Johnny’s guitar, too, but I decide that one string change is enough for the day.

Out come sharp scissors to cut open the string packet, dykes to cut string ends, a rag to clean off accumulated dust on the peg head and near the bridge. I sit on the bed with the guitar beside me and slacken the three lowest strings one at a time, loosening the tension until I can unwind each string from its tuning peg. I pry up the wooden bridge pins to detach each string from the guitar: as I remove each string I wind it into a circle and stow it in the used string packet. I run a red garage rag over half of the peg head and next to the bridge, swiping it over the pick guard as well.

I begin to replace the three lowest strings, one at a time, uncoiling a new string from its envelope, securing it with a bridge pin, running it through the groove in the nut. You wind low strings counterclockwise and I am in the habit of wrapping the string once around the base of the tuning peg before running the lead wire into the hole in the peg to secure the string. Then begins the painstaking process of tightening the string, turning the peg away from me. I turn the peg until the string in it is taut and straight, no longer curving, and then I begin to check for pitch. Tightening strings is scary business — there is always the possibility that one will snap and hit you in the eye. This has never happened to me, but the ends of strings are sharp enough to prick the ends of calloused fingers and I usually have a few bleeds doing this task.

After the three lower strings are on, I reverse the direction to remove and add the higher strings: wind the strings on the pegs clockwise, turn the pegs toward me to tighten, bending the strings sideways to stretch them periodically. Generally, you tighten them slowly and, inevitably some of them slip back suddenly, losing pitch — sometimes a bridge pin pops up, allowing the string to loosen. You push it back in and begin raising the pitch again.

Eventually, I activate my tuner and start bringing all six strings to standard pitch. I like to do this fairly slowly — I feel tension in my body as the tension in the strings rises, but I manage to gain the correct pitches without mishap. Once the guitar is in tune, I cut the loose ends of the strings with diagonal pliers, gather the string ends for the trash and stow the dykes back in my guitar case.

I put a capo on fifth fret and run through the melody of “Ingenue” on the strings, not singing, just picking out the tune. I will be singing this song, which I wrote about falling in love with Johnny, at his memorial concert on Tuesday evening. Completing the first run-through, I begin again, singing this time: “Open mind/open heart/It’s hard to live in the world when you’re letting it fall apart/Nothing to hold on to…”

My voice is true. I remember all the words. The chords come back under my fingers. When I hit the penultimate line of the last verse, “But my heart is singing like an ingenue,” my voice breaks and fades because I am starting to cry. I finish the song in a broken whisper. I hope I will be able to sing it on Tuesday without faltering, but there are no guarantees.

Returning the guitar to its stand, I check my email and find an email from our music director, telling me that the piano player who was to accompany me may not be at the rehearsal or the memorial. She gives no reason, so I send him a short email asking if he is alright and I send her an email thanking her for informing me and stating “The show must go on.” She sends me a thumbs up symbol in reply. I realize I feel entirely alone: although I’ve sung solo more often than not, I feel the emotional weight of this upcoming performance.

I call Patrick, one of Johnny’s bass players in his band Carnival, to ask him for a ride to tomorrow’s rehearsal. He leaves a message for me while I am at lunch, watching the Star Trek movie, “Nemesis,” which is playing on the Movie Channel. Johnny introduced me to Star Trek The Next Generation. (I scorned the original series, which my brothers watched during my childhood, and I had never wanted to watch Star Trek again). Johnny told me I was a snob and watched episodes with me, introducing me to various characters. I got quite fond of Data and Q.

I call Patrick back during a commercial. He will give me a ride. I give him my address and we agree to leave my house at 11:20. I tell him that I am singing with the band for the last two numbers, “The Weight” and “They All Ax’d for You,” so we have to be at rehearsal at the same time. I say I’m glad that he is singing in the show as well as playing bass.

We talk for awhile. I learn that he only met Johnny in 2009, around the same time that I did. I tell him I thought he had known him a lot longer because they were playing in a band together when Johnny and I got together in 2012. I would have asked a few more questions, but Patrick says we can continue the conversation tomorrow, so I thank him and hang up. He calls me “Kiddo.”

I have lost the story line of the Star Trek movie as I sit mending a thin cotton shirt. The movie will play again on Wednesday evening after the memorial is over. My mother turns the T.V. off and I go to check my email. This time I find a forwarded email from 2020: Johnny had sent his friend Dale his notes for a planned album. I knew about the album, but I had not seen Johnny’s notes on the songs for it. Johnny always had big plans: he mentioned wanting to write a third album of original songs. Dale’s list includes a song Johnny wrote called “Too Late to Reconsider.” I have never heard it.

In the last three months of his life, Johnny did not invite me to gigs or send me links to his live streams after the first one, which I attended. (I thought he had stopped doing them). We still talked on the phone occasionally or emailed each other. The last time I called him I called to see how his last gig had gone. He was disappointed by a lower turnout than he had expected but he said he gave a good show that made the audience happy. I saw some footage of that show after his death: I thought he looked weak and tired, his voice subdued, the man a fraction of his former self. It was sad for me to see him that way, as it is sad for me to live without him now — I miss his former vigor, liveliness, intelligence and empathy as well as much of the music he used to play.

I’m updating this Monday night Pacific Time: if any of you want to watch the memorial live-streamed in real time or later after it is archived, here are links to the live stream and the program:

New Live Stream Link:

The event begins at 6:45 PM Pacific Daylight Time (or UTC-0700 for you international types.) 

Event Program Link:

https://tinyurl.com/JHMemorialProgram

When Johnny did not return my first emails and calls after my return from France I went back to Al-Anon. I also initiated conversations with some trusted friends of mine, including a professional therapist, and with friends of Johnny’s. Before I left, Johnny’s younger brother Peter and I had been talking about the possibility of a formal intervention to confront Johnny on his drinking and to offer him help. Everyone agreed that it would be useful to have a professional and that it was necessary for Johnny’s brother to be present.

Three days after I returned Johnny called me. He was still holed up and drinking and largely incommunicado. He said he was “depressed.” He said he was calling me “out of respect.” He returned to the theme that his deceased brother David knew what to do and what to say to him and that I didn’t. He mentioned that David would call him fifteen times a day and I wouldn’t. Damn straight — who wants to call someone fifteen times a day? When I invited him to talk about his depression he said not a word. When I said “I love you,” he said “That’s what you say.”

As soon as I told Peter that Johnny had called me, Peter reneged on coming down to take part in an intervention, rendering an intervention useless.

On July first BART goes on strike, so I have more time off work and no income: with no commuters coming through the station there is no one to sing to. There is no one to sing to for tips, but I make it to a singing session five days later. When I arrive the hostess asks after Johnny and I tell her there is no news. Then a few others come in and start singing drinking songs. I refuse to sing songs in praise of drink at this particular juncture and I do not want to talk to one of the singers, my ex-fiance, about what is going on with Johnny. In order to avoid my uncomfortable feelings, which I don’t feel I can express at the session, I start eating chips. I sing and chat and joke with the others. I don’t know if anyone notices how much I am eating. I am not savoring each chip carefully and slowly, enjoying each taste — I am eating in an effort to swallow my feelings. I am vaguely aware that my eating has a compulsive quality and I think at least once that I should stop, but I do not want to stop.

After I return home I start to practice the other compulsion I suffer from, that of scratching off scabs. When I have a small scab I run my fingernails underneath its edges, trying to loosen only the dry scab over the healed skin, trying not to trigger bleeding of the unhealed wound beneath. If I cannot tolerate a feeling or a thought or a situation and I happen to have a scab, watch out — I will worry it. Although I have moments when I will stop, when I will wash the wounds with soap and water, I will go back to picking the scabs again eventually.

I investigate my compulsions in my writing over the next two days, turning my attention to them, telling what I understand about them. Mostly I know that these self-destructive habits surface during times of trouble. I am somewhat surprised to see them appear when I have been meditating, attending Al-Anon meetings, calling friends, learning new songs, reading spiritual literature. All I can say is that these compulsive habits emerge during times of deep trouble when every healthy thing I know how to do is not enough. Perhaps this is how Johnny feels — he may have, somewhere inside, a sense that his drinking and isolating is bad for him, but may also feel that he has no alternative, that nothing else is working to help him deal with uncomfortable feelings. I do not know that this is his internal experience — I’m just speculating that his experience may be somewhat similar to mine.

The next day, a friend calls me and starts telling me, unasked, what I should do about Johnny and his drinking, from giving him an ultimatum on the phone to removing myself from his life entirely. I have not asked her for advice. Sure enough, during our conversation I start scratching the wounds I have just cleaned. Here it is again: uncomfortable feelings and compulsive behavior. Agitation and conflict with people I care about trigger the behavior. When I get off the phone I note that I need to slow down and breathe and get peaceful again, using writing or sitting meditation to settle myself down. And I continue to struggle with my own behavior over the next day.

Two days after the singing session and spending some time with my compulsions the BART strike ends on Monday morning and I go back to busking in downtown Berkeley. I also hear from Johnny’s brother who wants to do something, but still doesn’t want to come down to the Bay Area. Instead he calls various friends of Johnny’s: he wants someone to go out to check on Johnny. I am still holding the line, saying I will not go out to Johnny’s alone, but I will go if someone goes with me.

By Thursday Johnny’s old friend Eric has agreed to drive out to San Leandro. He says he’ll take me to find out if Johnny is alive. I meet Eric at his house and we drive to Johnny’s.

Eric parks the car. He and I approach the Marcella St. house. The living room curtains are drawn, but I can hear the sound of a television.

I knock on the living room window and call, “Johnny.”

“Who is it?,” he calls back.

“Sharyn and Eric,” I say.

We hear the sound of bottles hitting the floor as Johnny gets up from the love seat under the window. Clink, clink, clink. Eric and I look at each other. Clink, clink, clink. It sounds like sixty bottles falling; perhaps it is only twenty, perhaps it is nearer to a hundred like the song my Dad used to sing, “Ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall, Ninety-nine bottles of beer, If one of those bottles should happen to fall, ninety-eight bottles of beer on the wall.”

Johnny shuffles into view. He has opened the wooden inner door, but leaves the metal security door in place. The metal is closely woven, like some outdoor tables. Through it we can see that Johnny is dressed. He has some facial hair, but not six-days growth. I forget to look at his feet to see if he is wearing shoes. He reeks of beer, or the house does, or both.

“You can’t just come over here,” he says.

Well, we did, didn’t we?

I say, “Johnny, no one could reach you. We came to see if you were alive. Lots of people care about you.”

“I’m alive,” he says.

“I see that,” I say. “That’s a good thing.”

Eric retreats to his car to wait for me.

“I’m depressed,” Johnny says. “I talk to Deborah every day.”

Deborah is his “therapist.” She used to be his therapist for real. Now she is a friend. I am completely mystified that she doesn’t seem to confront his drinking. I think, “At least he has a lifeline. Better a defective lifeline than no lifeline at all.”

I say to Johnny, “I feel like part of you wants me to rescue you. I can’t rescue you.”

“I don’t want you to rescue me,” he says. “I have to do this myself.”

“You need some help, Johnny. I’m glad you have Deborah.”

“You were depending on me,” he says. “I let you down. I’m sorry.”

I don’t say anything. What could I say? If I agree that he let me down, he might feel worse. I can’t say he hadn’t let me down. So I say, “I’m sorry you’re having a hard time. I love you.”

At some point Johnny refers to my decision not to call him every day because it breaks my heart. It seems to bug him that I won’t call him every day because he does not answer his phone, which makes me anxious.

His temper flares in response to something I say. “Now we’re covering the same ground,” he says.

I just look at him.

We stand there in silence. I have nothing more to say. Then I rescue him, asking “Do you want me to go?”

He says “Yes,” so I leave.

On the way home, Eric and I discuss the visit, “He didn’t tell us to fuck off,” I say. “And he thanked us for coming. Thank you for driving out here. At least we know he’s alive.”

Eric drops me off at my house in Kensington. I thank him again. He tells me to take care. Then he leaves.

I feel much better knowing that Johnny is alive, that he hasn’t died alone in his house.

I call his brother, who isn’t home, so I relay what happened to his brother’s wife. She tells me she feels encouraged because Johnny wasn’t as savage as he could have been. She says they continue to pray for him.

“Maybe your prayers are making a difference. He’s still alive and he managed to be civil.”


On June 12, 2013 I leave California for a meditation retreat in France with my zen teacher, Natalie Goldberg and a number of students I know. And, on June 16, 2013 Johnny crawls out of his house and shows up to play at the memorial for Les Blank.

What we do on retreats with Natalie is spend a week in noble silence, speaking only during question and answer periods, or to give or receive instructions during work periods, or in dokusan, brief group interviews with Natalie late in the week. We sit zazen, write in our notebooks, eat in silence. We study assigned books (memoirs, novels) and read aloud from those books and from our own notebooks.

We study our minds: sitting on chairs or makeshift cushions in the converted barn at Villefavard we focus on our breath, following it all the way in or all the way out, or focus on sound: church bells ringing, rain falling on stone, birds calling, cows lowing, the low hum of cars on the road. We also study our minds as our thoughts, emotions and memories spool out through our hands and arms, inked on the blank pages of our notebooks.

Natalie gives us topics. Or her assistants give us topics. We start out with “What is your material?” We quickly move to “What is your ‘Fuck-It’ List?” My anger spews out quickly: “What kind of a hell of a choice is this? Resign myself to a life as a drinking man’s wife, a drinking man’s girlfriend, grateful for the crumbs of the days when he is only drinking moderately, highly functioning, sweet and funny — and doing what during the other times? Going home to mother? Going to meditation retreats and Al-Anon meetings. Blech. And what is the alternative — excuse me, the fucking alternative — giving up the man I love entirely because he will not give up drinking, who will not even see the slightest possibility that he might have a drinking problem… Give up my love or suffer the consequences of his drinking. Fuck it, fuck it, fuck it — what kind of a choice is that?…Fuck it all — it does not need to be fucked — it’s already about as fucked up as a situation can get.”

Natalie sometimes calls herself good Natalie and stinky Natalie. Using that polarity leads to this pair of portraits:

Good Johnny follows instructions in the kitchen. Tells me he loves me. Looks at me with soft eyes. Snuggles up to me in bed. Says he’s lucky to have found me. Dresses in clean clothes, shaves and showers before he comes to see me. Looks forward to seeing me and spending time together. Laughs. Listens well. Tells stories. Is sensitive to my feelings, aware of how I’m feeling, reassures me. Good Johnny talks about telling the truth.

Stinky Johnny passes out, calls me from a bar. Doesn’t call or email for eight days. Doesn’t shower, shave or change his clothes. Flips bottle caps on the floor. Leaves bottles all over the house. Is argumentative. Challenges me. Cooks up dramas (example: soul music debacle). Evades (calls two D.U.I.s “traffic tickets”). Doesn’t show any awareness of my feelings or needs. Stinky Johnny says “What are you doing here?” when I come over for a date.

And then there is “How we find ourselves”:

“We find ourselves in a jam. We said we loved each other. We said we were committed to each other. Being committed to Johnny is like being committed to an insane asylum, being committed to rows and rows of unwashed bottles, being committed to a lover who does not answer the door when I come to see him, being committed to a week of silence, hard variety, silently worrying about him while he doesn’t answer emails and his phone gets full, when his brother confides that he has been suicidal in the past (Big deal, so have I, but it’s just another thing to worry about). Being committed to an actively-drinking alcoholic is marrying the drinking bouts, the holing up, the isolating, the disorder, the accusations, the undermining of perceptions. I find myself facing all of this in a sweet man that I really like when he is only drinking his daily maintenance dose, whatever that is (I have no idea).”

Later, we take on “What I brought with me”:

“I brought with me the weight of Johnny and his drinking, all of those beer bottles in the living room, stirring up my retreat, the open jar of peanut butter and the butter melting on the kitchen stool in the heat, the sound of a bottle cap hitting a hardwood floor, the moldy dishes in the sink, the bloodshot-ness of his eyes, the greasiness of his hair and him trying to be jovial and jocular as he sank into an alcohol-induced depression and called out from it that I was cold and unfeeling.

I brought with me the weight of my childhood in an alcoholic house in an alcoholic family — it’s a wonder that they let me get on the plane with all that. I brought my not knowing what to do about any of this.”

On and on we go. I keep wanting an answer: what should I do about Johnny and my relationship with him? I am angry and sad and frustrated by our situation, sarcastic by turns, then a little compassionate toward him. And then in the first sitting period of the day on the third day of the retreat, what to say to Johnny appears in my head:

“You can have what you want — the happy marriage, the fantastic record. You can have all that, but you cannot have it if you are drinking. The flourishing student trade, all of it. You can have what you want, but you can’t drink and have it…I’m going to ask him to make a choice between alcohol and me because I can’t live with Johnny’s drinking.”

Decision made, I settle down. I write about meditation retreats. I write about a Jungian doll class I took. I write about childhood punishments. I write a description of the zendo and its furnishings.

When the retreat ends I travel back to Paris with another retreatant. Paris hotels are full. I have not made a reservation; she has. We talk the desk clerk into letting me stay in her room. He agrees as long as I am gone before the 6:00 AM shift change.

I clear out early in the morning, find my way back to the Gare du Nord, have a six Euro breakfast at a cafe, go to the Metro where I buy a bottle of water to get change for a ticket machine. I get on the RER train to Charles DeGaulle, where the flight is delayed. I use my last few Euros to buy a muffin, hoping they will give us real food on the plane: fruit, vegetables, some kind of protein. It is 2 AM California time. I want nothing more than to buckle myself into my airplane seat and sleep.

I arrive back in California late in the evening, too late to take the bus home. I take BART instead to an El Cerrito station. I am dead tired. When I get home I do not open my email or check my phone messages, but, when I do, there is nothing from Johnny.

Over the next few days I call, leaving messages like “I’m back from France. I’m wondering how you are doing. I hope you are feeling better. I love you.”

Johnny does not respond, even when I call to ask if he can just leave me a message to say he is alive. Welcome home. Apparently not much has changed since I left.


At my second Al-Anon meeting someone gives me a bookmark, or I purchase one, that says “Just for Today.” Below the title the following text is printed:

Just for today I will try to live through this day only and not tackle my whole life problem all at once. I can do something for twelve hours that would appall me if I felt that I had to keep it up for a lifetime.

Just for today I will be happy. Most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be.

Just for today I will adjust myself to what is, and not try to adjust everything to my own desires. I will take my ‘luck’ as it comes and fit myself to it.

Just for today I will try to strengthen my mind. I will study. I will learn something useful. I will not be a mental loafer. I will read something that requires effort, thought and concentration.

Just for today I will exercise my soul in three ways: I will do somebody a good turn and not get found out: if anybody knows of it, it will not count. I will do at least two things I don’t want to do — just for exercise. I will not show anyone that my feelings are hurt; they may be hurt, but today I will not show it.

Just for today I will be agreeable. I will look as well as I can, dress becomingly, talk low, act courteously, criticize not one bit, nor find fault with anything and try not to improve or regulate anybody except myself.

Just for today I will have a program. I may not follow it exactly, but I will have it. I will save myself from two pests: hurry and indecision.

Just for today I will have a quiet half hour all by myself and relax. During this half hour, sometime, I will try to get a better perspective of my life.

Just for today I will be unafraid. Especially I will not be afraid to enjoy what is beautiful, and to believe that as I give to the world, so the world will give to me. *

(* This material comes from the literature of various 12-step programs. I am not the copyright holder.)

This list of aspirations or intentions helps remind me not to criticize Johnny, but to be aware of my own tendency to be critical. It instructs me to focus on being pleasant and courteous myself rather than on focusing on how others are treating me. It emphasizes things I can do. Apart from not criticizing and fault-finding, I find it challenging not to show my hurt feelings when I am hurt: I have the kind of face that shows every feeling I have and I don’t relish the idea of covering up how I feel, but I don’t have to dwell on my hurt feelings or broadcast them.

When I get home after the Al-Anon meeting and my busking shift I find an email apology from Johnny for the events of Saturday night. He apologizes for being sarcastic, for being unkempt, for criticizing my sleeping posture, for talking too much about the movie he was watching. He says he is having a hard time. He points out that he is often considerate, compassionate, polite and generous, which he is when he is at his best. He also points out “in the past you have overreacted to me having a few drinks.” He closes with “I still love you.”

I write back to tell him “This is a beautiful letter.” I talk about how I react to the smell of stale alcohol, to the sight of lots of bottles, to any sign of anger in a person who has been drinking. I promise not to make trouble for him at this stressful time. I tell him I want him to succeed and that I love him.

Johnny does not answer my email, nor does he call me. I do hear from his bass player that afternoon. He has not heard from Johnny for three days and they have a rehearsal that afternoon for a double CD-release party for the clients Johnny has been working with for months. The bass player tells me he will hold the rehearsal without Johnny but they need him on the gig. I tell the bass player that Johnny and I have been fighting about his drinking, but that we are not fighting now and I am going to Al-Anon for help in dealing with my feelings. He tells me Johnny does have a drinking problem, says he is worried about Johnny’s health. I tell him I will call him if I hear from Johnny.

I don’t hear from Johnny. When I call to leave messages I discover that his voicemail is full. I send him an email each day, keeping them cheerful and positive: “I love you. Never doubt it. Many others love you, too.”

By Saturday morning I am wondering how to get in touch with Johnny’s younger brother: I send a Facebook message to his niece, asking for her father’s email address or phone number. I play a shift at the Berkeley Farmers’ Market and then go to Down Home Music in El Cerrito to the first of two CD-release events. The bass player holds the musicians together, Johnny’s clients sing an entertaining duet of Hank Williams’ “Move It On Over” that Johnny had arranged for them, plus cuts from their new CDs. Johnny does not show up at all.

I leave that show uncertain about whether I will attend the evening show: I’ll need to find a ride and money is tight — I’ll be leaving for France in four days. In the end I stay home and have a phone conversation with Johnny’s younger brother Peter. It comes out in our conversation that Johnny received two tickets for driving under the influence of alcohol, that Johnny has previously expressed suicidal ideation and discussed means of suicide. Peter tells me that Johnny has a pattern of falling apart when he has an important gig or other important project.

That night I email the bass player to see if he wants to go out to Johnny’s the next day to check on Johnny. I do not hear back from him. I do hear from Peter by email: he thinks I should find somebody to take over for Johnny for the June 16th memorial for Les Blank. He is concerned how Johnny’s being a potential no-show will affect Johnny’s career and his standing in the community.

I tell Peter I can’t begin to find a sub for Johnny, that I don’t know who to ask, don’t know who is on the committee for the memorial, have no contact information for either the musicians or organizers. I remind him that I am flying to France in two day’s time.

Next I hear from a filmmaker, a colleague of Les Blank’s. She wonders what is up with Johnny. I tell her he has experienced a lot of recent losses, that he has been drinking and incommunicado and that he has just blown off a gig that was months in the making. She tells me one of Les Blank’s sons will go to check on Johnny. We email back and forth and somehow I hear that Johnny has phoned his brother Peter. I give the filmmaker my contact information and tell her I will be away until June 26th, on silent retreat in France.

At an Al-Anon meeting on Monday someone suggests that I do not have to make any decisions if I am not ready to make them. This is helpful: I decide not to decide anything until I return from France. I also decide to stop calling and emailing Johnny — enough is enough: I leave in two days. I must do laundry, pack, exchange dollars for Euros, check in with my airline, mail a check to Johnny.

I get all of that done on Tuesday. I am just settling down to write about how hurt I feel that Johnny has not called me before I leave for France when the phone rings.

It’s Johnny.

“Hi Sharyn. I wanted to call you before you left for France.”

We talk for about an hour. Most of the conversation is about how much he misses his brother David who “always knew the right things to say” to him. I am grateful to hear from him and manage to remain calm. We do not talk about his drinking. I do not talk about my hurt feelings. He is sad and shaky.

“Call me when you get back,” he says.