Her name was Jean Mullen, but she called herself Green Bean Jean. She played bars in the small California mountain town where I lived at the time, and I first saw her on a night out with some of my mule-packer cowboy friends.
She was either skinny and gawky or model-thin and infinitely elegant — it was a time in my earlier life when I was between opinions on women — they might be little girls or alluring goddesses, either one. Eventually, I came down on the side of the goddess.
She sat on a tall stool, played a guitar and sang. She had an incredibly broad vocal range, from deeper-than-deep to glasses-shivering-on-the-table high. Four and a half octaves — does that sound right? It’s what I remember, but I could easily be wrong, this many years after.
I came night after night to see her, sat down quietly at a table and blew out the candle, and there in the dark was touched by her presence and her music. On braver nights, I’d sit in front and request some of her songs.
Live music has always had a profound effect on me. Put a song on the radio or CD player and I might sing along in my broken voice or slap the table in syncopation, jig around in my chair or car seat and become one with the music. But put me in front of live musicians and I sit there frozen and slack-jawed, banjaxed, perpetually astonished that, right here and now, these people are creating music.
As for Green Bean Jean, I was in love with her.
She never knew it. I was too shy at the time to even think about telling her, and besides she was a goddess and I was a little nothing-special cowboy, a comparative toad.
But for a time, in the lonely way of barfly music fans, I came in from the cold, huddled up to the warmth of her voice, and had her for my very own.
She spoke often of her music. “This is a song from my fictitious album,” she’d say, and launch into Owens River Symphony, or Sierra Minstrel, or Daddy.
She’d had offers, she told us, but they always came with strings. She was waiting for the real offer to make that first album. And we all knew, if that break ever came, she’d rocket to the top.
Even looking back on it so many years later, I’m absolutely certain that her presence, her elegant beauty, her incredible voice would have placed her in short order at superstar level. Really. I can’t think of anyone she couldn’t have equaled for talent, for stage presence, for beauty.
The offer came.
She drove east with the band she’d gathered together.
She recorded the vocal tracks.
She started back.
And somewhere out on the interstate, far from home, she died in a car wreck.
I didn’t have the money to afford one, but I borrowed one from friends, and listened to it many times over the years.
In my head, I have perfect pitch. Even without the record, I can still hear the vivid tones of her incredible voice. Thirty years dissolve away, her voice peals out in perfect clarity, in piercing high notes and soul-touching lows, and she sings for me.
My Green Bean Jean, my Sierra Minstrel, my once-upon-a-time Secret Love.