Archives for posts with tag: Johnny Harper

After our Saturday night date on June 1, 2013 I started researching Al-Anon, reading about it online, looking up meeting schedules. I knew that Al-Anon was a 12-step program for friends and family of alcoholics. I wasn’t enthusiastic about going to a meeting, but I also knew that I had reached the end of my coping strategies: nine months with Johnny hadn’t taught me how to deal with his drinking. He still drank; I got upset that he drank.

Tuesday evening found me catching the bus to a beginner’s meeting at a North Berkeley church. I walked across the path that bisected the green lawn and entered the building, climbing the stairs to a hallway with doors on either side.

I found myself in a white room with rows of folding chairs in a semicircle, facing a small podium and the door. A wall of hopper windows at the back of the room tilted open to let in the late spring air. I took a seat near the end of a row and watched as the room filled with people. A woman went to the podium and began to read a welcome. She said that people who had lived with the problem of alcoholism could understand others who lived with it.

That seemed reasonable to me: I hadn’t known what I was up against with Johnny until I saw him slide from punctual, reliable, good-humored Johnny to a sarcastic man who did not bother to eat, shower or change his clothes and could not keep track of time.

The speaker went on to say that we could find contentment whether the alcoholics in our lives were drinking or not. I found this harder to accept: I wasn’t happy at all with the changes in Johnny’s behavior and condition. But when she said “living with an alcoholic is too much for most of us” I said a silent (“Yes!”). Then she read “Al-Anon has but one purpose: to help families of alcoholics. We do this by practicing the Twelve Steps, by welcoming and giving comfort to families of alcoholics, and by giving understanding and encouragement to the alcoholic.”

The speaker left the podium, walked to the end of the row and handed a printed copy of the twelve steps to the person sitting there. That person read aloud: “One. We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable.”

“Really?” I thought. “I’m not powerless over alcohol. I can take it or leave it. Johnny has a problem with alcohol and I have a problem with Johnny.”

The reader passed the paper to the next person, who read “Two. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”

“Wait. I’m insane now? I’m not insane. I have a real problem. Never mind ‘Power greater than ourselves’”

“Three. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”

“Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. I’m not turning over anything. I don’t believe in God.”

I had spent part of my childhood and teenage years in the Episcopal Church, drawn there by an opportunity to sing in the junior choir. I went through a fervent religious phase in tandem with singing the music of Byrd, Vittoria, Bach, Handel, hymns, Gregorian chant and service music by Healey Willan, augmented with stained glass windows and the poetic language of the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. But when I was nineteen my atheist father died and the church offered me no answers for what would happen to him now. I began to leave out sections of the creeds when I recited them, doubting many things I had once believed. Plus, I had been curious about sex and wanting to find a love other than God’s love, which seemed completely out of reach.

Now here I was in a plain room without the music, poetry and stained glass, hearing people talk about turning their lives over to God. They continued rolling through the steps. “Seven. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.”

“Why is this about me? Now if God wanted to remove Johnny’s shortcomings we might have something to talk about.”

The next two people read steps eight and nine about making amends.

“Unclear on the concept,” said the voice in my head. “I am the victim here. I am the one who has been harmed.” But underneath that I knew that I did not always use what Buddhists call “skillful means” — I suspected there might be better ways to respond to Johnny’s behavior than what came naturally to me: blaming, accusing, judging. When I thought I had made a mild suggestion that Johnny come up with a better way to handle his stress, he said “That’s some cold shit, baby.”

“Ten. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.”

“Uh-oh. Do you know what happens in my family if you ever admit you are wrong? Ridicule. Punishment. No thanks. It is not safe to admit you are wrong. People are out to get you.”

“Eleven. Sought through prayer and meditation…”

“Okay. Meditation. I’m down with that. Meditation is helpful. I can do that. Maybe I should go back to sitting everyday.”

“Twelve. Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps we tried to carry this message to others and to practice these principles in all our affairs.”

“Geez, Louise. How is this going to help me with Johnny. This sounds like a cult…”

Someone began to pass around a second sheet in plastic. This one was called “The Twelve Traditions.” Someone read out number six, the designated tradition for the month of June, something about cooperating with A.A.

After the communal readings, the moderator said, “The meeting is open for sharing.”

A man raised his hand and received a nod. “Hi, My name is Bob…”

The entire population of the room except me chorused “Hi Bob” before he could finish a sentence. We were back in full cult territory.

I had a sudden flashback to an evening in high school when a girl I liked invited me to an est or Erhard Seminars Training meeting. Est looked like a cult, smelled like a cult, rows of people gave rapt attention to the speaker, repeating whatever words he asked them to repeat.

The “sharing” continued, each time with the same formulaic call and response between the sharer and the group: “Hi, my name is ex,” followed by “Hi ex!”

I found this pattern unnerving and longed for someone to say, “Please don’t do that.” But I tried to listen to the stories people told, hoping that I would find a clue to dealing with Johnny in one of them.

I don’t. People talk about gratitude and letting go. People talk about their Higher Power. People talk and talk, the beginning of each story punctuated by the ridiculous echo of the speaker’s name.

When the time for sharing ends, the moderator reminds us that the meeting needs to be self-supporting. I dig in my jeans for a couple of quarters when the money basket goes around. “This is like church,” I think.

The moderator chooses someone to read the closing statement. It contains a message to newcomers like myself: “A few special words to those who haven’t been with us long: whatever your problems, there are those among us who have had them too.”

The meeting closes with the serenity prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.” People join hands before they recite it and when it ends they squeeze hands and say “Keep coming back. It works.”

I do not know if it will work. I do not know what to hope for. Without speaking to anyone, I walk out the door. No one notices because most people are staying for another meeting. I walk down the hall, down the stairs, up a block and across the street to the nearest bus stop where I wait for the last bus home. But I don’t have anything else to do, no bright ideas of my own for solving my problems with Johnny so I get up the next morning and catch another bus at 6:40 AM to go to another meeting, taking my guitar with me so that I can go straight to my busking shift.

Before I leave for the second Al-Anon meeting of my life I write Johnny a long email before six in the morning. He has sent an email at 3 AM while I am sleeping. He is still angry that I refused to speak to him when he called me from a bar. He is angry that I wrote to him asking him how he would like me to endorse a check repaying him the loan for my air fare to France. He is angry that I closed that email with “Sincerely” rather than “Love.” He is angry to learn that I have gone to an Al-Anon meeting where he imagines I have talked about him, that I have called him “an alcoholic” and “a rock musician.”

I tell him I did not break up with him, that we are in this together until one of us says that we want or need to break up. I tell him I will call him after my morning shift if he wants me to. I tell him I love him and, this time, I sign the email “Love, Sharyn.”

On the afternoon of June 1, 2013 I leave a singing session in Albany, cadging a lift to the North Berkeley BART station to begin my journey out to Johnny’s house in San Leandro. I borrow a friend’s cell phone to dial Johnny’s number. Johnny does not answer, so I leave him a message that I am en route to North Berkeley BART and I’ll see him in an hour or so. I call him again from the BART station and again from Bay Fair BART when I arrive in San Leandro. Still no answer.

Perhaps Johnny has fallen asleep — he works hard and is often up both late and early. I stop at the Walgreen’s on East 14th Street to pick up a pint of half and half for my morning coffee and then continue up the hill to Marcella Street, turn right and walk to Johnny’s house.

When I arrive at 6:35 the drapes are pulled shut and the front door is closed with the security door locked. The doorbell does not work. I knock on the window and call out to Johnny. When he does not appear I think perhaps he’s gone to BART thinking to meet me, or perhaps he’s gone to the grocery store to pick up a last-minute item. Johnny almost always has his cell phone with him, but I do not have a cell phone of my own with which to call him. Surely he’ll be back soon, I think. I sit on the front lawn underneath the redwood tree and wait for him to come back.

I wait. I read. I write in a notebook. I listen to birds and watch them fly. I see a seagull and a couple of dark birds with white bellies. I see a man in a billed cap push an ice cream cart down the street. I see him push it back on the sidewalk several minutes later.

About every half hour I knock on the living room window and call to Johnny. I can see a light and a fan turning in one room, probably the bedroom that I have never been in. Finally, I get up and walk up and down Marcella Street for awhile. I am looking for someone in their yard with a cell phone so that I can ask to borrow it to phone Johnny again. I don’t spot anyone and return to his yard. I am beginning to wonder if I can find somewhere to use the bathroom. I get up and knock on the window again at 8:00 PM.

A disheveled Johnny opens the door. He looks like he has been drinking and one living room chair holds a third of a six-pack of beer and a pint of whiskey. Uh-oh.

“I just woke up,” he says.
“I need to use your bathroom,” I say.

I do that. I go into his kitchen. I put my half and half in his fridge where the pint I bought last time I came over is still rotting. One small counter by the stove is covered with empty bottles. Passing back through the hallway to the living room I see that the floor of his office is similarly festooned. One lone bottle rolls next to the love seat in the living room.

When I come back and sit on a chair to remove my shoes and socks, Johnny asks me “What are you doing here?”

“It’s Saturday night,” I say. “I’m supposed to be here.”

“I didn’t know if it was night or morning,” he says.

I take a good look at him, at his dirty hair and rumpled clothes. I breathe in the smell of sweat and stale beer. “You are not in a fit condition to receive a visitor,” I tell him. I start to put my shoes and socks back on and begin to pack up to go home again.

Johnny takes exception to that: he says he is sad and he doesn’t want me to go home.

We talk for awhile. I do not want to fight — I just want to go home and not deal with him when he has been drinking. He has not showered or changed his clothes — he usually cleans up for me — and he makes no offer to do that.

I am tired and sunburned from my Farmers’ Market shift that morning and from waiting outside in the yard earlier and, now, sad: I don’t like to be around people who have been drinking. I do not want to fight. If I even mention his drinking he gets hostile and accusatory, blaming me — he likes to say I give him shit.

Making a real effort not to fight and not to leave, I go into the kitchen and start cleaning the counters, washing glasses and plates, wiping away coffee rings and grounds, wiping up moldy containers with a sponge soaked with dishwashing liquid. At one point I ask him if he has a clean dish towel because I’m not able to stack more things in the dish drainer, which is small. He tells me to use paper towels. I hate paper towels (so wasteful), but I do not complain about them. I tear them off the roll and set them on the parts of the counter I have just cleaned and set more clean glasses on them.

“Stop doing dishes,” Johnny says.

“I’m trying to do something positive,” I say. (There’s no point in conversing with drunks).

Johnny acquiesces. He proceeds to stand and tell me long rambling music stories while I work. He could have pitched in, but no, he is recounting incidents, leading to his playing me a Fats Domino record. All of his conversation is about what he has heard, what he has seen, what he has done.

“Johnny, have you had dinner?”

“I haven’t eaten anything in twenty-four hours.”

“Honey, that’s not taking good care of yourself.”

Johnny blows up at me (I’ve blanked out the details). Then he says, “I thought we’d go out to dinner.”

It is 9:30 at night. I am not going anywhere with this man in this condition. I am not hungry — I just want to curl up and go to bed.

Johnny makes no move to eat anything. He wants to play another record but his turntable locks up and won’t play. He curses at it: “Fucking piece of shit.”

“Johnny, my turntable has a security mechanism on the bottom. You use it to lock it when you are going to move it.”

I’m thinking he has accidentally triggered the mechanism. He looks, but he can’t find anything.

“Do you have the manual?” I ask, thinking I might be able to figure out what’s wrong.

“No,” he says.

“Sometimes you can find them online.”

I go off to brush my teeth. Johnny goes off to his office to use his computer. I hear the sound of bottles being opened, or rather the sound of bottle caps hitting the office floor.

“Johnny, can I move some chairs?” I call to him.

“You can do whatever you want.”

I wish. If only I had a magic wand. I would erase this evening, take a time-turner and turn it back. Instead I stack up a couple of chairs in the hallway and drag Johnny’s single futon out onto the edge of the living room floor. This is where we sleep when I come over — God knows when that will change.

I lie on the futon, covering my eyes with my dress because Johnny leaves lights on all night and I need to sleep in a dark, quiet room. I lie there for perhaps an hour, breathing, unable to sleep. Then I get up and go to him and ask if there is anything I can do.

He says, “You could try to comfort me.”

I tell him I’m sorry he is having a hard time and sorry he is under stress. I massage his neck and shoulders for awhile. But then I ask him how he is going to work with the stress and he acts like I have just stabbed him in the back.

I think it is a fair question: he isn’t handling things well. After awhile I tell him I need to get off my feet.

“I’m going to lie down,” I say. “You can hang out with me if you want.”

I lie down again, but I do not fall asleep.

Eventually, Johnny comes into the living room and turns on the T.V. I get up again and reach for my ear plugs, throw my dress around my head again, grab the blanket and put my head under the covers. I can hear him laughing and moving.

I try to sleep and can’t. Finally, I ask him, from my muffled corner, “What are you watching?”

He takes that as an occasion to recite half the movie plot. Then he says, “When you move in with me I won’t watch T.V. in the middle of the night. I just need to wind down.”

I need to sleep. I put my ear plugs back in and keep trying, watching my breath, in and out. I get up a few times to use the bathroom and finally fall asleep for awhile until Johnny wakes me up to talk to me about his dreams. By now I want to kill him for sulking and raging and rambling and keeping me up most of the night.

The next time I wake up he is gone. I do not know where he is. I try to go back to sleep, stay in bed for another half an hour. Then I get up to find him wandering around the house stark naked.

“I’m going to make coffee,” I say. “Do you want some?”

“I don’t know,” he says. “I thought we would go out to breakfast and I could have coffee then. Do you want to go out to breakfast?”

“I don’t know,” I say. “I want to have my coffee.”

I make myself some coffee and sit on his couch drinking it. We start talking again. He talks about how much stress he is under. I finish my coffee while he embarks on another long story and I get up to fix myself a second cup (I was prescient enough to bring enough beans for two cups). I enjoy sipping my coffee, but I do not enjoy being around Johnny who had taken a slug of whiskey some time after he had gotten up. I could smell it on his breath when I hugged him good morning.

We talk a little more and he is getting accusatory and blaming and I say “I find it hard to take care of myself in this house.”

Which is true — there is no clean, orderly, serene space I can retreat to when Johnny is causing trouble, nowhere I can sleep peacefully, no food in the cupboards that meets my standards unless I bring it over myself. There is only a coffee set up because Mom gave him an old coffee grinder and I gave him a coffee spoon. He had a filter and a measuring cup and some mugs. I brought him two pounds of coffee and a few paper filters. He bought himself some more filters after he ran out. There are bottles everywhere and bags that match the one that came from the liquor store — I stacked up perhaps twenty of them, picking them up from the kitchen floor. I stacked up a few grocery bags, too, and I predict that the next time I go over there it will be back to the filthy state it was in last night. I put his butter on a plate and put it in the refrigerator because it was melting all over a leather stool that he uses as an auxiliary counter. I put the lid on the peanut butter and put it back on top of the refrigerator where he keeps it. I washed the mold off the side of the dishpan. I wish I had had a gallon of bleach. It is not that bad, but it is bad enough and I don’t want to live like this, face messes like this, which I have never made in my life, and I am not a clean freak, white-glove-type.

I talk to him about his conspicuous lack of empathy for me last night. He goes into an exaggerated riff about what a bad person he was.

I tell him I did not say that.

Finally, as a peace offering, I ask him if he still wants to go out for breakfast. I pack and rearrange my stuff while he gets ready, which consists of putting on his clothes from yesterday and combing his hair and calling a cab to take us to the restaurant. I am so upset, I find myself ransacking my backpack for my hat, which is on my head. When I discover that I start to laugh and then I start to cry. Johnny comes over to me, says he is sorry, strokes my arm.

We go off to breakfast where we have a moderately good time. He is still telling stories about a 1984 tour in Montana. He has an attack of reflux (or perhaps alcoholic gastritis) and has to leave the table. When he comes back he is able to eat.

Johnny pays the bill and calls a cab. He will ride with me to Bay Fair BART. Then he will go home, shower, shave, change his clothes and go to a recording session.

It takes me a few days, but, on June 4th, reflecting on my Saturday night with Johnny, I read some Al-Anon literature online and think about going to my first meeting. He calls me that afternoon from a bar. “I’m not doing well,” he says. “I haven’t eaten for a day and a half.”

“Please don’t call me from a bar,” I say. “I’ll talk to you later. I’m going to hang up now.”

The phone begins to ring immediately. I let it ring. He leaves me two messages: first a sarcastic comment about the fact that I have no cell phone and then a message suggesting that I have broken up with him and he will not call me, that I can call him if I want.

I do not plan to call him right away. Instead I will eat dinner and catch the bus to that Al-Anon meeting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His email reflects this:


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

I answer by return email:

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

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

Sharynxo of Opinions-R-US”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of the things that I am trying to figure out in my relationship with Johnny is how to compromise: when should I compromise and when should I stick to my own inclinations. When I take up with Johnny it has been many years since I have been in a committed relationship (and my last serious relationship ended because we could not create a compromise in how/where to live). I don’t know how people learn the skills they need in relationships: compromise was not big in my family of origin, which was authoritarian in nature. Previous rounds of couples therapy with prior partners had not taught me either. Johnny could be both easygoing and flexible and utterly uncompromising. Perhaps that is true of me, too — after all, we were twelve years apart (plus four days) and shared a sun sign and a Chinese zodiac animal.

After Johnny’s successful blues gig at the Point Reyes Station House, the next thing on his plate was a Carnival gig featuring the music of The Band just six days later. He would cram in a movie, another memorial gathering, and three rehearsals before the gig. He wanted me to go to the movie and the memorial gathering, which I did.

Just two days after our luxurious dinner at the Station House, Johnny asks me if I will make soup for sixty people for his next gig. He remembers that I made two pots of soup in December for a caroling party at my house. Unlike Johnny, I know the difference between feeding a dozen people and feeding sixty. I start to demur and he says, “You can just make one pot of soup.”

Johnny will reimburse me for the soup costs. And, because he has a cushion from his brother’s insurance money, he offers to front me some money for an airline ticket to France (I have been singing extra shifts at BART for months to save the air fare, but the prices keep rising). I have saved $1000 and fares are now running about $1600.

I think I have two days off for the weekend — I have no Farmers’ Market shift — and I have been imagining reading, writing, resting, lounging around and only rousing myself to go to Johnny’s gig on Sunday afternoon. But Johnny is helping me out with airfare, so I will cook: Sunday morning finds me stirring up two pots of the simplest soup I make, a Mexican corn soup concocted of frozen corn, fresh lime juice, cilantro and jarred salsa. I have to chop the cilantro and squeeze the limes, but the rest of the preparation is dump and stir and heat. Then I puree half of the mixture in a blender and I am done: I have made soup for thirty, rather than sixty.

I am supposed to buy disposable bowls for the soup, but I am so used to avoiding the disposable aisle I forget to get them, although we have discussed it twice. I kick the bowl task back to Johnny. I do, however, buy baguettes to slice to go with the soup.

I arrive at Avonova in Oakland, a concert space built into a private home. I arrive before the show starts and Jimmy, the club owner, shows me the mezzanine kitchen overlooking the seats and stage. I admire some handleless conical measuring cups — I have never seen anything like them. Jimmy tells me they belonged to his grandmother.

The seats fill up as the crowd comes in. The band takes the stage. Johnny straps on his red Telecaster. The bass player and the keyboard player sing harmony to Johnny’s lead. They play “The Weight” and “ Up on Cripple Creek,” but also the rarely-sung parable “Daniel and the Sacred Harp.” The volume is a problem for me: the venue offers foam ear plugs, which I use, but they do not reduce the volume enough for me. I go up to the kitchen before intermission to reheat soup and slice baguettes. People line up and I ladle soup into bowls for them.

Johnny buys my airline ticket on his debit card as promised. I want to pay him what I have immediately, but he urges me to wait until I have the entire sum. A neighbor gives me a nylon-strung guitar, which I sell on consignment for $140.00. Every little bit helps.

The following Saturday, Johnny plays another gig at a private party. Although there is plenty of delicious catered food, I observe Johnny drinking and not eating. It looks to me like he is chasing a high. Someone else packs up a plate of food for him and I put it aside. First I ask him if he has eaten. Then I tell him he ought to eat. . He summons me to look at his lip to see if it is bleeding. It isn’t, but I guess he has seen a chip on the edge of a beer bottle.

The next night at my house we discuss the party. I tell him about chasing the high. He tells me, “The high was from music.”

Fair enough, but then it looks like the alcohol was to keep the high going when the music was over. I like listening to Johnny play gigs, but I get anxious when I see him drinking, schmoozing, drinking some more.

“Johnny, maybe I shouldn’t come to your gigs. Then I won’t have to watch you drink.”

Johnny says, “That is unacceptable. You need to have a different standard for my drinking than other people’s drinking.”

There it is. The old “I am not like other people.”

I don’t know what to do. When Johnny drinks — when Johnny seems to be focused on drinking — I feel anxious and scared. That is my problem, really: they are my feelings. I cannot rely on Johnny to ameliorate them because his behavior triggers them for me. If I cannot absent myself when he drinks, what options do I have? I can’t always find a friend to go to the gig with me, which would at least give me someone to talk to or check in with. I can’t drink with him: I have liver damage from mononucleosis and a family history of alcoholism. Drinking gives me insomnia even if I chase a drink with a lot of water. Also, I practice Buddhism and one of the precepts is not to use substances that cloud the mind, reminding me to be mindful of the occasions when I choose to drink. I already have the habit, developed in childhood, of watching when drinkers drink and how much they drink and what they do and say when they drink.

Johnny and I talk and we listen to each other. We make efforts for each other. He does not promise not to drink or to drink less. I do not promise not to have the feelings I have. I thank him for talking and listening and spending time with me.

The next morning he has booked a 9 AM meeting at the Berkeley BART station so he comes busking with me, singing and playing on my shift. This makes it a lot more fun for me than playing solo. I hope it will make a nice change for the commuters. Many nod and smile and some say “Beautiful,” but this does not translate to tips. This disgruntles Johnny, who mutters, “If it’s beautiful, drop a dollar.”

I am surprised that Johnny and I do not do better singing together — he is so good — but I am used to the world of busking where you can sing beautifully some days and gain nothing and you can stumble and falter and stop to tune or burst into tears and the passers-by throw money in your guitar case.

Before I continue the dark tale of my life with Johnny in 2013, I’d like to address a question I sometimes hear, especially from people who did not know Johnny and who are only meeting him in these blog posts. What drew me to Johnny? What did I like about him? One of my writing friends recently quipped, “It was all about the music.”

It was partly about the music. Johnny and I met at a musical gathering. He attended for two years before he and I got together as a couple. Johnny came alive around music he loved or even liked: he had acute hearing and when one of us sang in the ballad group he focused his entire attention on the song. I noticed his rapt focus right away. “This man listens,” I thought. He also listened to discussions around the ballad table, some of which were about music, and participated in those conversations. He did not have the annoying habit some guitar-players have of noodling in the background while waiting for their next chance to play and he never played on songs unless someone asked him to do so.

In those ballad-table conversations I picked up a few other bits of information that I stowed for future reference. One time Johnny was telling a story of his experiences in the Navy during the Viet Nam war. He mentioned shore leaves where his shipmates would go whoring and he would hie himself to the nearest record store to listen to the latest music because he was sweet on a gal at home. “Faithful,” my mind ticked off my imaginary checklist of the qualities of a good man.

Also, Johnny was good-natured, good-humored. I would have called him sunny. He would have talked about “positive energy.” Most times when I saw Johnny he smiled, seemed relaxed, said nice things to other people, laughed at amusing moments. Because I had grown up with a hot-tempered brother and an erratic father I enjoyed Johnny’s temperment. And when Johnny played and sang he radiated positive energy, pulsed with life.

He was also romantic and affectionate. He liked to hold hands. He liked to spoon in bed, or let me lay my head on his chest. He’d tell me I looked beautiful in something I was wearing. He printed red hearts after my name on his schedules and on file folders with my name on them.

Johnny was generous: I saw this first in the comments he made about other people’s songs and singing. He always praised a version he liked, or told someone their singing was beautiful or wonderful. When I came to know him better, he told me that if he had a dedicated student who had hit a financial snag and wanted to come for lessons he would teach for free, as his grandmother had done during the Depression. He did this, despite the fact that he himself was often short of money. I saw him take care of his band members financially, paying them first even if he had to short his own share. And, once we became a couple, Johnny took me out on birthdays, Valentine’s Day and our anniversary without fail, although we went Dutch on other occasions. When we moved in together (twice), he paid the moving expenses and, when I said I couldn’t afford to pay rent, he said, “I’m paying the rent anyway. Just move in.”

Johnny and I both wanted a real partnership, which, to both of us, looked like appearing in public as a couple and, eventually, living in the same house and sharing daily life. When we decided to become a couple, after a two-year acquaintance in the ballad group, Johnny was good about introducing me to friends and family and bringing me to parties, friends’ gatherings and family events. He wrote to friends to tell them he had met me. He met friends of mine as well and started spending Christmas and Thanksgiving Day with my family.

I had lived with one man back in the early ‘80s and had wanted to live with the man who was my partner in the early ‘90s. Johnny and I talked of getting married — he was not opposed to it, sometimes said he wanted to marry me — but I had some legal and financial reasons not to marry him as things stood, so we began our daily life together by sharing his house.

Some time after I moved in, seeing how hard I worked, how much time I put into busking shifts, planting and tending a garden, cooking nourishing breakfasts and dinners for us each day, and seeing that I sometimes earned under ten dollars a day, Johnny instituted the practice of giving me “Johnny money.” “Johnny money” was a twenty-dollar cash infusion only to be used for specific things: I could use it for cab rides, BART tickets or other emergency transportation, or to buy coffee. I carried the twenty in my wallet until I had to spend it and, once I had spent part of it, I would say, “Honey, I spent seven dollars on a cab” and he would top it up again. This was Johnny’s way of seeing that I never got stranded somewhere without a way to get home or the means to get a cup of coffee. I honored our agreement about Johnny money and if I really wanted to spend some of it on another item, I would call and ask permission to buy something for the house or a food item for cooking (in general, I was restricted from using Johnny money on groceries).

When we had a common goal, Johnny and I could work together, whether it was boxing up the kitchen to protect our kitchen goods and food during cockroach spraying (more about that later), packing the refrigerator with groceries, or planning how to get out of the house in time to get to a movie, party or concert.

Johnny was better than I at getting things done, specifically about making decisions. I admired his ability to look at a situation, decide what to do and move into action while I was still weighing the pros and cons. He was used to improvising, thinking quickly on his feet, but he was also good at planning things, working out what steps to take. He used this in his teaching to help students to get from one skill level to the next. We were both good at deciding what we were going to do and sticking to it: I went out busking five or six days a week at the same time, played a two or two-and-a-half hour shift, closed my case, counted my money and went home. I played in rain or shine, day after day, unless I was sick or unduly tired from a few late nights in a row. Johnny had routines, too, from checking his bank balance first thing each morning, to typing and printing a daily schedule to work from each day.

Johnny and I were both articulate, verbally adept people. We had similar vocabularies and facility with grammar, spelling and English usage. We both liked to read. He turned me on to Walter Mosley’s Leonid McGill series and Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe novels (He had shelves of them). He and I made up little songs about my cat Fiona — he wrote “Fiona’s Lullaby” (based on Emmett’s Lullaby), which became part of our bedtime ritual: Fiona would settle on the bed and Johnny and I would sing to her:

“Lullaby and good night, be a sweet little kitty,
Lullaby and good night, don’t fuss and don’t bite!
Go to sleep, go to sleep and don’t make a peep
Go to sleep now and rest and don’t be a pest.”

Johnny met my needs for a smart, committed, loving partner. Except when he didn’t. But isn’t that the story of all relationships?

When Johnny and I arrived back in the Bay Area from our trip for his brother David’s funeral I was still trying to process the sights of Johnny vomiting in public and drinking whiskey at seven in the morning. Although my father and brothers were all alcoholics I had never seen them vomit from drinking or drink before early afternoon. My childhood gave me a baseline for how drinkers behaved, but Johnny did not adhere to conventions such as drinking only at proscribed times and he had shown no embarrassment at losing his dinner in a restaurant while servers scurried to clean the floor.

During our first post-trip night together, soon after I closed the bedroom door, I set to re-stringing my guitar, struggling to loosen stubborn bridge pins and pricking a finger on sharp lead wires. Johnny offered to change strings for me but I said no, feeling it was good practice for me to do it myself. Johnny pulled a bottle of whiskey from his omnipresent black satchel. I went silent. He drank and played aggressively with my cat. I let him put on the last two strings after my pricked finger started bleeding.

I do not know how to talk to Johnny about his drinking without resorting to blaming and judgments. I know I don’t know how to talk to him about it. When I say his drinking makes me sad he calls me “mopey.” When I say that “regular” people don’t drink in the morning, he says he is not a regular person. He tells me he accepts everything about me (poverty, cerebral palsy, my living at home) and he wants the same acceptance from me (but he does not accept my discomfort over his drinking, which he thinks I should get over).

I consider reading the AA Big Book. I consider attending Al-Anon meetings, although I never cared for Adult Children of Alcoholics meetings I attended in the past. I write him an unsent letter that begins “Dear One, I can’t handle your drinking” and ends “I do not like it when you are belting whiskey morning and night and I do not like it when you turn on me and make it my fault. You keep saying you are being charged with another man’s crimes, but I am talking about your drinking, not my father’s drinking or my brothers’ drinking or anyone’s else.”

Johnny has gigs in March and April 2013 — he’s playing a private party in late March, and appearing at an April 1st benefit for fiddler Sue Draheim. He and I will play our second duet gig at The Arlington cafe on April 5th and he has a blues gig scheduled for April 15th in Marin County and a band gig on April 21st in Oakland.

Johnny and I rehearse for our gig. We enjoy running through our songs on April 3rd and 4th, fine-tuning our arrangements and laughing as he drills me on the pronunciation of “one” in “My One Desire.” He pronounces it “wun,” reminding me of a movie gangster who says “dese” and “dose.” We take in The Good Ol’ Persons reunion show at Freight and Salvage on the third as well.

After we play The Arlington I need to get down to the annual business of preparing my tax returns. I dread doing my taxes every year because I am a self-employed sole proprietor with no business background: I dutifully slog through IRS publications and forms for the creative pursuits that produce my tiny income, counting CD sales, gig money, painting sales and writing consultations. I do not earn enough to pay someone else to prepare my returns and my record keeping is idiosyncratic to say the least. I tackle my returns with a mixture of confusion and resignation: I will get them done (I always do). I live in fear of an audit: I am scrupulously honest, but I am afraid my documentation might not pass muster.

On Sunday night April 7th, just as I am about to start my taxes, filmmaker Les Blank dies of cancer. Johnny stays up half the night writing a five-page obituary for his friend and mentor and emails it to me. I read it and inform Johnny of a discrepancy in the titles of two films in the piece (like me, Johnny is a stickler for accuracy), but I don’t fully take in the meaning that Les’s life, art and philosophy had for Johnny. The obituary lays this out beautifully and yet I don’t absorb just how important Les was to Johnny (Later Johnny will request that he himself be buried in Sunset View Cemetery as close to Les’s grave as possible). I do register that Les’s death is a second loss for Johnny, closely following the death of his brother David.

On Tuesday morning of tax week, Johnny emails me to say that he’s been invited to a gathering to remember Les, organized by Les’s ex-wife Chris Simon. Johnny wants me to go with him. I have told him I can only do three things during tax week: talk to him, work at my day job and do my tax returns. I answer that I do not want to go to the memorial, that I did not know Les well, that I would go if it weren’t tax week or if I had finished my tax returns.

Johnny fires back an email telling me how he would handle my tax returns (skip work until I get them done or file an extension). He tells me that it is important to him that I appear as his partner. And then he writes this paragraph, in which he criticizes me for taking a two-hour break from tax prep to watch an episode of “American Idol.”

“I know how stressful this week is for you,” he writes. “And of course you need to relax sometimes. Still, you were okay with taking two hours last night to watch a T.V. show starting at 8:00. And my impression is that you actually stopped working on your tax stuff at least a little before that hour. I hope making this appearance with me could be given at least this much time.”

The morning of the Les Blank memorial, Johnny receives notice that Sue Draheim has died — death #3 in the space of less than two months. I agree to attend the Les Blank gathering and Johnny agrees to spend the night with me following the get-together. He tells me he will pick me up at 5:30 PM for the 6:00 PM party in the Berkeley hills near my home.

Unbeknownst to me, Johnny has passed out at his home in San Leandro that evening while I sit, dressed and ready to go, anticipating a ride or a phone call informing me of a change of plans. Johnny’s driver cannot rouse him until 7:30 PM, at which point they drive to my house where I have been waiting for two and a half hours. Johnny’s driver has not cleared space in his station wagon for me to sit, so I perch on Johnny’s lap in the passenger seat for the ride to Les’s house.

Unwinding myself gingerly at the curb, I pick my way over a grassy strip, turning at the sidewalk to see Johnny lurching his way across the grass, barely able to remain upright.

We enter the house. Johnny introduces me to a few people, including the hostess, and accepts the first drink on offer. In no time at all, he has vomited mucus on a leather chair and part of the hardwood floor. I speed to the kitchen for paper towels to clean up the mess and a woman I don’t know says to me “He shouldn’t drink.”

I shrug my shoulders. Does she think I am responsible for him? How is it my job to control his drinking?

Meanwhile, Johnny, feeling better after vomiting, has grabbed another beer. I drink a ceremonial champagne toast with a couple of musicians I know, raising a glass to Les’s memory, and then I am ready to go home. Johnny, however, wants to have a long conversation with each person remaining at the party.

We got back to my mother’s house around midnight and got into bed. I began to cry. I could not fathom how someone could be too sick to eat, throw up the contents of his stomach and then open another beer: when I vomit, I rest and take cautious sips of ginger ale. I considered breaking up with Johnny that night, doubting whether I could sustain a commitment to him, having visions of being dragged to more parties where I knew few people, could not participate in music beyond my skill level, and got stuck listening to the all-afternoon or late-night drinkers rambling on to one another.

By the next morning, after little sleep, Johnny was his kind and loving self again. He ate a hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs with cheese and salsa, toast and butter. Later on he sent me a sweet email: “Thinking of you with love, honey. Good luck with everything today. XXX JH.”

I finish my tax returns on April 14th, and mail them on April 15th before Johnny whisks me off to his evening gig at the Station House in Point Reyes. He calls me up to the stage to sing “Sitting on Top of the World.” I get polite applause for that and sit down again. He calls me up again to sing “Clueless,” my own song about the mishaps of our courtship, and the crowd loves it. In fact, every single musician there makes a point of telling me how much they enjoy it.

Johnny and I sing “New Love Thing” together. One couple gets up to dance and some people sing along. Also, Johnny and I get to sit down to a delicious dinner on the house: I eat skirt steak and broccolini and half of Johnny’s bread pudding. He orders a rich, cream-based oyster stew. I am happy to have an elegant meal and a relaxing evening. The drummer plays tastefully. The bass is not overloud. And the piano player is smokin’.

In 2013 Johnny and I are discussing moving in together, but I have still not stayed a night at his house. My mother starts to complain again about Johnny’s visits to her house, although we follow the rules about no consecutive overnights. She says she wants to spend her old age in peace.

Meanwhile, both Johnny and I have financial challenges: the guitar student trade has dips and ebbs and my busking income is tiny. I am advertising regularly for writing practice students on Craigslist, which usually brings in complaints that I don’t teach for free or people wanting to rent me writing space. Counting my pennies and trying to save for a retreat with my teacher Natalie Goldberg in France, I decide I will do an extra busking shift five days a week: after I play two hours in the Berkeley BART station in the morning I will return to either Downtown Berkeley or Ashby in the afternoon and play another hour. To make the afternoon shift more palatable I decide that I will only play the songs I most want to play during my second shift. Things are slow enough for Johnny that he muses about busking himself and goes so far as to make a busking set list. He says that if he busks he will make a large sign informing people that he teaches guitar.

On February 22nd, 2013 Johnny’s brother David has multiple cardiac arrests and lands in the hospital in Boston. His doctors sedate him, put him on a ventilator and chill him down to protect his organs. Members of his church come to sit with him and pray over him while Johnny and I sit in California.

Johnny and I both have late February birthdays. I ask Johnny if he wants to forgo celebrating because of his brother’s condition and he tells me no, that we are alive and need to celebrate. Earlier in the month we have gone to hear both Alan Toussaint and Dr. John at Yoshi’s as they pass through town on tour. Toussaint is particularly engaging, interpolating Mozart’s death march into “St. James Infirmary” and leading the audience in a sing-along of “City of New Orleans,” assuring us that “All white people know this song,” and turning his mic toward us as we sing.

I buy Johnny a card for his 67th birthday and bake him a pear tarte tatin. His birthday falls on Super Bowl Sunday, so I come out to San Leandro for awhile to see him and to avoid the Super Bowl at my house. Three days after that, on February 27th, Johnny’s brother David dies and, the next day, Johnny treats me to dinner at my favorite Indian restaurant in Berkeley.

I wake up sick the following day, no doubt stressed by David’s illness and death. I stay home from work for a few days, trying to get well before a road trip to Seattle for David’s funeral. Johnny and I will be traveling by car with his niece Lucy and her husband Adam. I sort out black clothes, shoes and raincoat for the service. I cannot find a black beret, so I decide to pack tights and a hat in Lenten purple. Since Johnny’s entire wardrobe is black, he will have no trouble dressing for the funeral where he will sing a few folk hymns.

Lucy and Adam propose camping in Ashland for the first night of the trip, but I look at a forecast showing 90% chance of rain and Johnny books us motel rooms for the night. By then we know that David’s estate will cover our expenses for the funeral trip: meals, lodging, etc., including a couple of nights in Seattle.

Johnny’s family gather at David’s Seattle house for a few hours. Someone brings in some beer for that occasion, but there is no food, no ceremony. We sit in the living room of a house that has been closed-up for months, talking of Johnny’s parents who used to live there. We gather again at a cemetery in the rain for prayers and songs. Those who wish to can use a spade to throw dirt on David’s coffin. We gather that night for a salmon dinner at Ivar’s, a restaurant that has been in Seattle since 1938 and then we go our separate ways.

Johnny is drinking heavily. He gets sick in the car and again in Ashland when we go out to have dinner. At least once during the trip I wake up to see him swigging whiskey from a pint bottle first thing in the morning.


“Whiskey before breakfast?” I ask.
“A good old Irish tradition,” he answers.

I do not say anything else about Johnny’s drinking right then because his beloved brother has just died: he is grieving and does not need extra pressure from me. And I am still trying to figure out whether Johnny is merely someone who drinks heavily on occasion or whether he has a true addiction to alcohol.

"Clueless" CD "Paris" CD breakfast dishes busking butternut squash cookbooks Daring Bakers desserts eggs feta cheese food paintings food photos fruit trees gluten-free recipes Johnny Harper leeks Natalie Goldberg pasta peaches pears pen and ink sketches philosophy pie crust polenta relationships salads seasonal cooking seasonal recipes Sharyn Dimmick Sharyn Dimmick — art Sharyn Dimmick — recordings soup substitutions summer recipes Thai flavors The Kale Chronicles The Lauren Project tomatoes travel vegetable gardening vinaigrette watercolor paintings Work With What You Got writing practice yeast breads

"Clueless" CD "Paris" CD breakfast dishes busking butternut squash cookbooks Daring Bakers desserts eggs feta cheese food paintings food photos fruit trees gluten-free recipes Johnny Harper leeks Natalie Goldberg pasta peaches pears pen and ink sketches philosophy pie crust polenta relationships salads seasonal cooking seasonal recipes Sharyn Dimmick Sharyn Dimmick — art Sharyn Dimmick — recordings soup substitutions summer recipes Thai flavors The Kale Chronicles The Lauren Project tomatoes travel vegetable gardening vinaigrette watercolor paintings Work With What You Got writing practice yeast breads

From the time Johnny and I got together in 2012 we spent our dutifully-spaced nights together at my mother’s house where I lived, with occasional overnights at friends’ houses when we played an out-of-town gig or went to a party far from home.

In December 2012 we made our one and only appearance as a couple at Camp Harmony, a multi-day New Year’s camp-out put on by the San Francisco Folk Music Club. I had been a club member for decades and often spent five days at camp in late December and early January.

One of the features of Camp Harmony was a swing dance or rock and roll dance that took place in a rotation of contra dances, French dances and other dances during the week. In 2012 somehow I got wind of the fact that some of the people who had traditionally led, managed and played for the Swing Dance would not be attending camp. This gave Johnny an opportunity to put himself forward as the bandleader/organizer for a Rock and Roll Dance (I wanted Johnny to go to camp with me and I knew it would sweeten the pot if he got to bring his Telecaster and amp and lead the band, a volunteer group of musicians — you never knew who would show up to play keyboards or bass, to sing back-up, to lead a song).

Johnny corresponded with the powers that be, collectively known as Ralph, and convinced them to give him a try. He hired his friend Sunnia Eastwood to bring us and our gear to camp. I gave him a rundown on how camp usually functioned. We bunked in a cabin with friends from the Ballad group and Joe Offer from the Mudcat Cafe, who had been a kitchen crew buddy of mine in years past.

Johnny threw himself into the job of managing the rock and roll band, as he always did, recruiting players he knew that were on site. I don’t remember too much about the actual dance except that Bob Reid and Art Peterson sang back-up parts on “The Weight” and Johnny and I reprised our duet on Springsteen’s “Fire.” People danced and sang and played and Johnny helped people have a good time and kept things moving.

Sunnia came to pick us up from camp after our two nights there. She was to take us to another party for the night, but just as we left camp we got into a car accident. Air bags deployed, gear moved about, and all three of us got thrown around and battered. Johnny’s friend Dale came to get us, to take us to his house for his party and to bring us back to camp the next day. At that point, my long-time friend Deborah, who was leaving camp to attend a choir rehearsal, offered to drive Johnny and me back to Kensington. I called ahead to tell Mom we had been in an accident and were shaken up and she kindly allowed us to stay the night on New Year’s Eve, the night before her birthday.

We did not stay up until midnight to ring in the New Year: I retreated to the bathtub to soak my bruises and scrapes from the accident after setting Johnny up at my computer to check his email. We did, however, begin to talk about the coming year, during which we planned to move in together. I thought I would move during the summer after I got back from a meditation retreat in France, while Johnny advocated for my moving in in February, our mutual birth month. I pointed out that, although I had been to his house, usually for rehearsals, that I had never seen the bedroom or stayed overnight there: whenever I had been to Marcella St. the door to the bedroom was closed and I had taken to referring to it as “The Forbidden Zone.” He assured me, as he often did, “Soon come,” saying he thought the bedroom would be ready for me to visit in February 2013. I didn’t think I would be able to begin visiting and move in the same month — we had Valentine’s Day and two birthdays to celebrate, there was a President’s Day holiday as well, and it was the shortest month of the year besides. It turned out that neither of our predictions were correct: it would be January 2014 before I moved to Johnny’s house.

Recently I started singing transatlantic duets with my friend David, who lives in Yorkshire. He mentioned “Scarlet Town” by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings and I was keen to try it. David sent me some lyrics which didn’t jibe with how I heard the song, so I listened to the recorded track from “The Harrow and the Harvest,” running it back a few times to check particular words or phrases.

When I had done the best I could, I emailed a new version of the lyrics to David. Then I hunted up live performances by Welch and Rawlings on YouTube and watched Welch’s mouth, trying to lip-read as well as listen: was she singing “Cairo on a bet?” or “Cairo on a bend?” And was it “holly on the mountainside?” or “Polly on the mountainside?” Although I could hear no clear “n” or “t,” I put my trust in “on a bend.” Just to be sure, I listened to several other performers sing the song and found support for “on a bend” and “Polly.” Along the way I heard several clear enunciations of another phrase “a lean old time,” which I had heard as “leavin’ town” and David had heard as “a little town.” Welch and Rawlings do not include their lyrics in their liner notes or on their website so listening and comparing is the only way to approximate their songs.

In the folk world, misheard words are called “mondegreens” because someone once heard “They have slain the Earl of Murray and Lady Mondegreen” for “They have slain the Earl of Murray and laid him on the green.” Johnny, whose hearing for both words and chords was better than mine, laughed at some of my “mondegreens” in songs by The Eagles. I had interpreted “Life in the Fast Lane” as “I do the best thing” (I only ever heard it on the radio on a poor stereo system) and thought the phrase “a heartache tonight” was “a party tonight” under the same conditions.

When Johnny was alive, no matter what was going on between us I could ask him, “Hey, Johnny, what do you think Gillian Welch is singing here?” I could also ask him “What is that chord progression? I can’t figure out the third chord.” I could ask him, “What is Tracy Chapman playing in the intro to ‘All That You Have Is Your Soul?’” I could ask him to listen to any song and come up with a credible version that I could play, tailored to my skill-level as a guitarist. I marveled that he could listen to a recording and determine whether the guitar-player was using a capo or playing in an alternative tuning and also identify each version of each chord used. He had honed his skills by listening to music and teaching himself to play anything he wanted to play, playing along with recordings until his ears told him he matched a part note for note.

Within the first six months we were together, Johnny showed me how he drew a box chart for an arrangement of a song: each 4-beat measure got a box with a chord written in it. If the chord changed on the third beat, he drew a diagonal line from the upper right corner to the lower left corner and put one chord in each half of the box. Sometimes Johnny would draw groups of musical notes, quarter notes and dotted eighths, for example, and write the letters of the notes above them: he wrote out the introduction for Richard Thompson’s “Just the Motion” for me in this way and used blank spaces on the page to draw chord symbols for “Fsus2” and “Gsus4” before I learned how to count up the scale and create my own suspended chords. I responded to the chart with enthusiasm, writing him to say that having the chart made practicing fun rather than frustrating because it mapped how to get where I wanted.

Before I met Johnny, I devised most of my accompaniments impressionistically: for simple songs I could hear the chords, or hear chords that would do — chords that would go with the melody. I didn’t try to copy the arrangement on a record: what I did was learn the song by singing along with the record repeatedly, then singing the song as I walked around and went about my day and then finally picking up my guitar and fitting chords to the song I had now learned. For some things — like Joni Mitchell songs — I consulted songbooks, which featured tortured chord changes in standard tuning. None of this is necessary now: you can often find specific lessons for playing particular songs on YouTube where the guitarist breaks the whole arrangement down for you, and you can find a list of songs in each of Joni’s custom tunings on her website, but when Johnny and I started to play in the ‘50s and ‘60s the internet did not exist. I approached songs as a singer rather than as a guitarist (Feel free to insert derogatory music jokes here).

If I had met Johnny in my youth, I might be a better guitar-player today. By the time I met him I had my own ways of doing things; specific cheats for getting around barre chords, for example, and idiosyncratic chord changes to a few well-known songs. I had just a few formal lessons in some basic arpeggios, a few tips from other players. Although I started out playing exclusively in standard tuning without a capo, I soon employed a capo to move any song into a singable key with easy chords. My hands were never strong enough to master a full barre chord, except for a blurred-sounding F# minor. A fall I took in my fifties broke my left hand in two places below the index and ring fingers, temporarily destroying what hand strength I had and forever impairing my reach. I went to hand therapy, did every exercise I was given, wore strange contraptions of wire and rubber bands designed to stretch my bent ring finger, brought my guitar in to show the hand therapist what I would need to do in order to play. When I started busking shortly after Johnny and I got together, my left hand would sometimes cramp while I was playing, leaving me unsure whether I could make the next chord change.

I tried guitar lessons with Johnny a few times, but they frustrated both of us: with forty-some years of playing behind me I was not a beginner, but I was not a conventional player either. Eventually, we figured out that it worked better for me to consult him when I wanted to learn a specific lick or skill or “the right chords” to something. Johnny always obliged these requests from me no matter what the state of our relationship was and I always honored his skill and generosity in doing so. I miss his ears today as I forage forward on my own.

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?