Archives for posts with tag: 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.