John Michael

Life Is a Sweet, Tender Bruise XVIII

John Michael continues his series Life Is a Sweet, Tender Bruise, reflecting on life and people encountered, with two new stories about Woody Guthrie and karaoke bars.



I had a dreamy vision this morning as I was pulling myself up out of sleep. A friend of mine gave me a harmonica a while back and, in the dream, I picked it up and was caught between using it and putting it back on the shelf.

Not long ago, I discovered a Billy Bragg & Wilco song, “California Stars,” that I just absolutely fell in love with. Talk about dreamy and romantic, very simple lyrics that allow the imagination to roam. A song about a guy who wants maybe a simple life, or maybe just a long rest from the things this world puts us through. And a hand to hold.

I went down to the library today to get a copy of the lyrics off the computer there and was surprised and delighted to see that the song was actually written by a hero of mine, Woody Guthrie. The Guthrie Foundation commissioned both Wilco and Billy Bragg to record the song.

Guthrie is best known for “This Land Is Your Land” a song that will always be a part of the American Songbook. I fell in love with his songs through the album Folkways: A Vision Shared. It came out in 1988 and featured modern artists such as Bob Dylan, John Mellencamp, Bruce Springsteen, and U2 doing their renditions of Guthrie’s songs. The album also featured songs from a black folk hero Lead Belly, being covered by the likes of Little Richard, Sweet Honey in the Rock, and Taj Mahal.


With all the emotional healing I have been doing since coming off the streets, I am ready for some risk, adventure, and play.


I used to say I was risk-averse and maybe that is true, looking back I think I was willing to take risks at times but just with a whole bunch of fear and anxiety attached. Guthrie lived in Oklahoma and wrote songs about bankers stealing land and the plight that capitalism, practiced with utmost greed, puts families and communities in. If I am honest, he documented family and community destruction.

I don’t want to make this a political creed, but Guthrie was a foremost social justice type with a sticker on his guitar that read: “THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS.”

With all the emotional healing I have been doing since coming off the streets, I am ready for some risk, adventure, and play. I am not ashamed to say that I am still weighing my options, which may include mountain hermit, married fella, filmmaker, bartender, homeless advocate, architect, etc.

But I do have a bunch of songs written, both from when I was on the streets and off, and many I consider in the social justice genre, but like Guthrie many are playful. He also has a damn fine children’s album available.

I have had the good luck of playing a few of my songs with local musicians, but for many reasons finding a musician to work with consistently has not worked out. So, with harmonica in hand, I venture forth into a new horizon. The goal is simply to make an album of my songs. The dream: to have a song or two added to the American Songbook.


Notes from a Bar

I woke up in a panic yesterday, took me quite a while to catch my breath; despite those feelings, I had the thought, I am full of love for people. I still doubt that some, but I rarely feel hate or rage anymore.

I went down to a local watering hole to sing karaoke and commune with that lovely community. I guess you could call this: Notes from a Bar.

Women, even the ones who know they are pretty, have no idea how lovely they are. I was wondering what that sort of wanton ache they create in my heart is about. I think it is simply to get an occasional glimpse of the feminine soul behind all that beauty she puts into motion and to have them treat me with some affection.

Those tatted-up Mexicans cruising in a low-riding Honda have no chance with that table of pretty girls they have set themselves down next to. But the girls pretend like they do, until the moment of truth and the boys roll out as they came in. But, hell, I would have little chance at that table myself; they would have no trouble blowing me off right away.

The bar plays some dance music in between karaoke rounds and I am out there dancing by myself, which is how I have played it for quite some time. I find it emotionally easier than getting turned down by women with their “as-if” smiles. I am a little self-conscious, but not so much that I can’t try out some new dance steps.

I add a Jell-O shot to the whiskeys I have been sipping and start to feel the alcohol. I think I am clinging to my past, my exes, and to a self that makes me safe because it is the self of my heritage, my culture, my growing up, and how I sifted through it all to label myself this and that.

I am sure there is more to me than this, to us all, and I will explore it in due time, but at the moment I am happy to try and keep up with the karaoke machine as it leads my drunk ass through, “When Love Comes to Town.”


I accidentally catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror and think, Hell, I am beautiful too.


Then, magically, there they are on the bar TV, Springsteen, U2, Mellencamp, and Petty at some awards show, mirroring the me I am trying to be at that moment. Chronicle of all things hobo, and of the American heart, mixed with a little of God’s mercy.

Every once in a while, God swoops in and pulls me out of myself and my drunkenness and back into my peace. And all awkwardness of me trying to expose my authentic self to all these folks around me dissolves into the mist. I accidentally catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror and think, Hell, I am beautiful too.

As the aggression has left me, it has left this bar as well. Sure, there are small tensions now and again, and bouts of ego. Like the rail-thin stoic fella who comes in with his sassy, pretty, plump outgoing girlfriend. I am sure he would like to reel her in and attach her right to his hip, but there ain’t no way that can happen. He has not a kind word or look for any other man in the bar. I feel for him as I know that jealousy from a more insecure time in my life.

Closing time and everyone just seems completely comfortable with themselves and where they are. Now, they may be angry, sad, shy, depressed, or hungover tomorrow, full of guilt and shame, but right now laughter is everywhere. Bartenders can let down their guard and have a drink or two after last call.

“This is who I am,” the lead bartender sings as she slides a lime Jell-O shot into her mouth.

Me too, sister, this is who I am.


John Michael

Hello, good people. I am rarely sure how to describe myself. If I say I am a Christian, many things may arise in your mind that ain't necessarily so. I was homeless for seven years and learned more about myself in that stretch of time than in any other segment of my life. I read the Bible a lot out there and came across a passage in Proverbs that has shaped my approach to life: "A man's pursuit is his kindness." I am well educated with a Master of Social Work degree and have worked a wide variety of jobs in my 52 years. None have lasted too long however. When I was homeless, the beauty of Texas wildflowers made me decide to want to live again. Along with kindness, beauty, play, and self-expression are life-guiding ideas. My shadow contains things like feeling sorry for myself, a truckload of defiance, a desperate need to please women, and no small amount of cruelty. A quote from Luke also has had a lasting effect on me: "For God is kind to the ungrateful and the evil." When I read that I thought, "Hell, I have got a fighting chance." I am here to tell you, you have a fighting chance as well. Besides Christianity, practicing Buddhist and Shamanic techniques inform my relationship to God and the world.

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