Johnny Harper, Pt. 1

Johnny Harper makes music for human liberation.

I'm just gonna let that stand for a minute while I give you some backstory.

Finding Sanctuary

In 1988, I was lost. (Again.) I'd landed in the Bay Area a couple years earlier, but hadn't gotten a foothold. I was adrift and alone. All I had really figured out by then was that I was, in fact, however tenuously, connected to something worthwhile in the world: American music. I'd finally fit together enough of the pieces to realize that the music that moved me had come from a rich tradition, and that my compulsion to write songs, no matter how infrequently or obscurely, legitimately connected me to that tradition.

So this much I knew. And somehow, lost as I was, I came up with the conclusion that, since this was the one true thing I knew in life, I ought to somehow pursue it, follow it, strengthen that connection. Maybe by playing my songs in front of other people.

But I had two problems: I was a shitty guitar player, and I was a shitty singer. Setting aside the second problem, I decided to take guitar lessons. So I opened up to the back of the East Bay Express, looked through the classifieds for guitar lessons, and picked one that sounded good. "Unique instruction method focused on what you want to learn."

The voice on the other end of the line was impressive. Deep and resonant.

The man who answered the door of the little house in East Oakland was impressive. Tall, dressed in a black shirt, black jeans, black shoes, with a big, square head and a shaggy mane of gray hair.

But Johnny was warm and welcoming, with intelligent eyes, an amused smile, and a down-home accent, as he let me into the room that would become like a sanctuary to me: his living room, and studio, with a couple guitars hanging on the walls, a baby grand (his live-in girlfriend, Jennifer Jolly, was a piano player), and shelves full of books about music. In the middle were two simple chairs with a little table between them. That was where the teaching took place.

The Teaching and The Teacher

That first day, Johnny asked me where I was coming from and I had figured out enough to point to Hank Williams and Robert Johnson as, I suppose, my ancestors of choice. And we pretty quickly turned up Dylan. From there, as the months went on, my visits to the sanctuary included the teachings of Bob (Dylan), Robbie (Robertson), and Robert (Johnson), as well as Hank, Chuck, Keith, Bruce, John & Paul, and Van.

(Johnny turned me around on Bruce, whom I'd rejected on the grounds of ubiquity. He also, significantly, hipped me to The Band, who'd mostly flown under my radar, having broken up just as I was getting into rock as a teen.)

Johnny didn't just teach me folk, rock, country, and blues guitar styles, and he didn't just teach me history. He also taught me songwriting. He urged me to bring my songs in, so I did, shaking as I sang them, shittily. But he listened - he listened! He really, deeply, listened to my songs, which right there was worth gold.

And then he picked them apart. I was not expecting this. He would say, "Yeah, this is good, but you've got this line right here, and it's kind of bullshit." And I would be, like, "What? The song's done." And I'd defend the line, and explain myself, and then finally admit that it was kind of bullshit and I knew it.

So he'd send me away to rewrite it, which sucked, because I had already written it once. But shortly before the next lesson I would sit down and make myself rewrite it, and it was better. Every time.

Johnny would get really picky, too - not just a line, but a word. Hey, nobody's gonna notice if one word is a little off, right? But Johnny Harper taught me the most important thing about making a song, or making anything: you create an overall impression through an accumulation of details. So get the details right.

And if they're not right the first time, rewrite. And if they're still not right, rewrite.

Stay tuned for Pt. 2, where I'll talk more about Johnny's music, his production of my 1999 CD, American Stray, and more...

Order a copy of Johnny's new CD, Light of a New Day, directly from Johnny - and tell him Phillips sentcha! $15 (including shipping).  Send your check or money order to Johnny Harper, 16051 Marcella St., San Leandro CA 94578

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