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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.



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.

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?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We never sang it again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


Johnny taught guitar lessons in his living room.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

Clueless  CD  CoverJohnny made the first move: he called me from the hospital on the evening on October 6 to say that the silence between us was over. Two days later he expressed the hope that we could become friends. I spoke about my sadness at this idea and asked for a little time to process it. Then I went to see him in the hospital the next day after little sleep, many tears and several conversations with friends. We did not discuss our relationship that day, but talked about songs and such.

I was afraid that I would suffer from unfulfilled longings if I tried to become friends with Johnny. In our next long conversation I asked if he would share with me his reasons for deciding we weren’t right for each other. He did so and we talked about each one in turn, not trying to resolve things, but discussing his concerns.

As time passed I became less afraid: I reminded myself I didn’t control outcomes, that all I could do was be honest and present. I adopted the attitude that I could just take things a day at a time, see what happened each day, take responsibility for my part in present and past interactions.

Johnny and I continued to talk every day. One night we had a deep conversation about the distressing events of the summer, from my moving out to his health crisis and hospitalization. We both cried on the phone. I remembered a saying I had heard from a contemplative nun: “The truth will make you free, but first it will make you miserable.”

Then one night I called Johnny to ask for some advice about sequencing the three songs on my upcoming “Clueless” CD. I had chosen the songs, arranged them and practiced them for a couple of months preparatory to going into the recording studio. I had made a painting for the front cover, featuring a self-portrait with two-tone hair and a portrait of Johnny. Johnny gave me his opinion about the order of the songs, all of which I had written in 2012 when I was falling in love with him (My personal notation for them is “sweet song,””scary song,””funny song” and, collectively, “The Johnny Songs”). Later I decided to put them in a different order and he told me he had independently come to the same conclusion.

Checking in as I went, I continued to discuss the music project with Johnny. I called him right after I left the recording studio the first day to tell him that we had gotten two takes of each song in an hour and a half. He asked me to play them for him over the phone, so I turned my computer speakers way up and held my cell phone to a speaker. Johnny listened and made comments, telling me which tracks he preferred and why. He also identified several potential problem notes in one song and I wrote them down to check with my recording engineer the next day. When I completed the recording and mixing I felt frustrated that I couldn’t play the master for Johnny, but I had come down with a slight virus and needed to rest.

Our many conversations revealed to us how much we cared for each other. Working on my music project together reminded us how well we could work together as a team. It is not that we are in a hundred percent agreement with each other, but we listen and genuinely want the best for ourselves and for each other. Johnny, who had felt torn between his attachment to me and his objections to certain behaviors and traits of mine, came to choose our great affection for one another over his objections. He said that he let go of his concerns about our differences and found more room to love me. I had let go of him earlier in the summer, but it did not affect my love for him, only the form that that love might have taken: I am grateful that he opened up the conversation again, which allowed us to come back together. We announced the renewal of our commitment to one another in classic modern fashion — by changing our Facebook status. One lesson I learned along the way is that the relationship I have with Johnny is between me and Johnny: I can ask other people for opinions, but no one else casts a vote in the relationship.

As I say in the song, “Clueless”: “You might be a clueless woman. You might be a clueless man. ‘Cause love has been confusing ever since the world began.” Love has been confusing and difficult, even wounding, but love finds its way through life’s obstacles if we apply enough patience and self-awareness, and loving, after all, is what we are here to do.

Yesterday I went out to see Johnny and paid a visit to my former vegetable garden, which has only gotten wilder. When I looked out the back door I saw a field of tomato blossoms covering the entire paved area. Buried in the understory were a whole colander’s worth of Principe Borghese and Sun Gold tomatoes. The tepee of Scarlet Runner beans was still standing and the pods were dry — I picked all that I could find. I carted home more butternut squash of varying sizes, leaving green ones and blossoms still on the vines that took up the other half of the yard. Chard had reseeded itself and the kale had never died. I picked leaves from both plants. I have plans to make a butternut squash lasagna with bechamel, perhaps this weekend. The bounty reminds me of the harvest festival aspect of Thanksgiving and the crazy weather in California that has squash and tomatoes blossoming in November.

As December approaches my new E.P., “Clueless,” is at the manufacturer’s, awaiting the final draft of the cover and CD art. When I receive the discs I will make a special announcement here. You will be able to order CDs from CD Baby or from Down Home Music in El Cerrito or from me directly or from the Liberated Life Project Marketplace. The Marketplace will operate for a limited time from November 30 2014 through January 2015 and will feature gifts and services by a diverse selection of artists, musicians and other professionals. Look for cards, metal sculpture, a book about happiness, coaching sessions, classes and more. Buying gifts or services in the Marketplace supports independent artists like me and people who are aligning their lives and their values to offer you the best that they’ve got. Check it out.

I am thankful every week and every month and every day for those of you who continue to read The Kale Chronicles as it transforms itself again and again.