Category Archives: Denver

Rocky Mountain High

I’m not saying I’m a John Denver fan. Really. I’m not. When I hear that nasal whine, I really want to duck and cover. Sort of. Look, I live in Denver now. He’s our native son, the naive train that smacks into the tree; he crops up in the most peculiar places. A hip coffee shop, a road sign, the park in Aspen. John Denver’s mom died today, I read in the Denver paper—actually, John Deutschendorf’s mother died—and it turned out she’d gone to a nearby Presbyterian church and of course did all the things that nice middle class women do in Denver. The paper said she was “feisty,” right in the headline. She liked to drive 90 miles an hour. She liked pecan rolls and tacos. She lived in Aurora, a Southern suburb gone a bit to seed. I imagine I ran into her at Whole Foods, for instance, or sat with her while entertaining a guest at India’s Pearl. This got me to thinking about what I really felt about John Denver—trying not to care about what others might think of my opinions.

Hard to do. There are always those performers we hear at a certain young age and love a little, only to find later, and with more musical and urban knowledge, that they are sappy schmoes. We all have these people tucked in the dark pockets in our hearts. I know, Post-Modern Professor, that at your deathbed you will utter…”Barry…Barry Manilow….croon Mandy, one more timmmmeeeeee.” Your final words. Scary, isn’t it. I have quite a few of such people in my secret past, and some of them actually are good and some of them are worth artistic justification. I’m not going to do that here. I’m talking here about pure sentimentality, about meaning and identification that comes long before rational judgment. Back before you have that real basis of comparison.

I first heard John Denver back in the 1970’s, when he had a string of big sappy hits. (Actually, I heard his song first, we all did, sung instead by Peter, Paul and Mary: “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” Come on, you’ve heard it: “All my bags are packed I’m ready to go/I’m standing here outside your door”….moving on to that kind of lame chorus: “ I’m leaving on a jet plane/ don’t know when I’ll be back again/oh babe, I hate to go..oh….” Maybe it’s me, but I still hate the way that chorus trails off, like a car with a radiator leak coming to a full stop and at all dramatically.) I really hated some of his hits, even then—they were played to death on the radio, which, guess what, was my only access to music at that time. You heard what you heard. You loved, shrugged, and hated, but as the radio is a stream, there was no ability to cut off that stream of song other than to turn off the machine. There were no one thousand channel options. There were maybe three if the reception was clear, and the other two were a country station and a talk radio channel playing a lot of Paul Harvey and Swap Shop. On a crystal day, we might pick up WGN in Chicago or KXOK in St. Louis, both to be greatly desired, but only found if the radio was just so, cocked to the window like a half deaf dog. So across a few summers, it was John Denver, crossing over on both rock and country. This song he did that finally turned me against him forever: “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.” Pure sugar shtick and not good, either—and worse, it was so damned clear that the guy had never lived in the country, him with his “old fiddle” and his farm that was “kinda laid back.” Farms are not laid back, fella. Farms are places where people work their asses off. If he had lived where I lived, he’d be slipping in more negatives, like the real country singers did. But John Denver caught me on this other damned country song. I loved this song then, and when I hear it now, I don’t love it, but this little hinge kind of swings open and I go, “Goddamn it.” This song is “Take Me Home, Country Road.” It’s a paean to West Virginia, and the middle section is really pretty—”I hear her voice in the morning hours she calls me/ the radio reminds me of my home far away/and riding down the road I get a feeling that I should have been home yesterday/yester-day-yay”—and I didn’t have to look up those lyrics. I know them all. I learned to play them on the piano, in fact, and I could probably sit at the piano and play that song even now. The song is a homesick song, and for John Denver, it’s pretty restrained. I think he really did want be taken home by country roads to the place he belonged, West Virginia. Except apparently as a kid John Deutschendorf belonged nowhere. He was a military kid, bouncing from Roswell, New Mexico, to Tucson, to Montgomery Alabama to, sadly, Fort Worth, where he ran away with his Gibson guitar while still in high school. He called himself Denver because, well, he loved Denver best, and look at his real name. He loved the mythical West Virginia best until he got stoned on a mountaintop in the 27th year, on the road to a place he’d never been before—when he got his Rocky Mountain high.

I know what that Muppet-looking mop-head meant. (An aside: John Denver looks like a stuffed toy with a wide mouth and big 70s glasses. I recommend the movie he did with George Burns, “Oh, God,” to get the full impression is how almost cute and downright ugly John Denver nee Dusseldorf actually could be. Or watch The Muppet Show. There was a reason he was regular.) I was homesick for country roads even when I lived on them (hell, I wanted John Denver’s, not mine; his had more trees and less Illinois corn). And when I moved to Colorado I caught the high, even though I don’t walk down to the neighborhood medical marijuana shops and purchase the wares. The mountains trump all. Coloradans love John Denver’s tribute to the mountains; “Rocky Mountain High” is officially our state song, and we like to think he is high on life as well as the ever-present weed because when you’re up there, you can see nearly everything. John Denver is not faking his love in this song and when you hear it slipping into some song mix in some mountain town, you know it. Even if you don’t really like the song, like me, you can’t help but feel in that sub-logic part of your mind that he nailed it. “He was born in the summer of his 27th year/ on the road to a place he’d never been before/ he left yesterday behind him, you might say he was born again, you might say he’d found a key to every door” (okay, say what you will, but that last long line is really cool, even sung in Denver’s piercing tenor—because he nailed the conversational rhythm, he’s getting ready to tell us a story over, say, a sub sandwich in that dive)….And then there’s the chorus, heard ad nauseum all over Colorado: “And the Colorado Rocky Mountain high/ I’ve seen it rain and fire in the sky/ Friends around the campfire and everybody’s high-yi-yi” (dogs wail at this final note)…Rocky Mountain High, Coloradohhhhhhh.” Enough? Okay. The thing is, it does rain and fire in the sky. When you’re in the mountains you are close to the sky. You can kiss the sky, of course, although it’s likely that the sky will smack you in the mouth then and knock you down the mountain. The sky in the mountains is so close that you are subject to electrocution during a sudden storm, knocked over by wind, burned by a sun that is shockingly close to you (I never get used to that). It is not benevolent but something odd happens to humans there. In packs, we get kinda mellow. We feel really good. We are kind and we walk big dogs, and even mountain bikers say hello on the way down. Strangers tell you what’s around the next turn. We are really high.

Poor John Denver was killed flying a small plane. I always respected that. Of course, it’s the fall that gets you, but that’s not the point. It’s how high you got. Everyone in Colorado, even the conservative ones, know that John Dusseldorf went into the clouds. We don’t really care if he was any good or not. That’s not the point.

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on the mall at the Democratic National Convention: “come on out and buy some product!”IHa

Having no special tickets to get me into the “special musical events” for the “special” people at the Democratic Convention (the conventioneers and those who are connected to them and those who donated lots of money or those who are just paying close attention to the parties), I didn’t see Sheryl Crow or Stevie Wonder or the Drive-By Truckers playing for the Montana party or any of the other people who performed in the exclusive events.  But I didn’t really want to…much.  I was even too tired to try for the Rage Against the Machine tickets, in part because I think the band is imitative and strident and NOT FUNNY (the best of the older punkers had a sense of humor, remember?).  But I kind of wish I had, since there was a big protest afterwards, and it would have been fun to see that.  But by then I had already spent hours walking around the 16th Street Mall, a ten block downtown area that was packed with people throughout the convention. (Oh, it seems so empty and lonely now.)  I went to hang out, to watch, to just sit and listen.  I heard some music in the protester’s park and I heard some musical snippets of conversation.  I’ll try to give you a sense of what it was really like at the convention, from someone who was not Important:

On the way to the mall, walking through Denver’s strip of parking lots and office buildings–one lot attendant to another: “The guy got a replacement eyeball and he said he never wanted to  see the person it was  coming from.  He said it just kept lookin at him.”

This set the tone.

The mall is crammed with people.  Not the kinds you’d necessarily imagine.  Some were delegates, easy enough to spot in their suits and conspicuous nametags and their happy grins.  Some were tourists, all ages (especially teenagers) from all over the city, all ethnic types, all shapes, all weaving through and seeming to have a good time.  It is very carnivalesque; a lot of people are drinking from cups, people drinking liquor in the sidewalk cafes, people laughing.  While there is an armed brigade of police in riot gear on every corner, in the middle of every street, literally everywhere, it doesn’t diminish the generally gleeful mood.  People are really happy about the Obama thing.  (Sure the press is full of accounts of disgruntled Hillary people, but they weren’t very obvious about it.  I saw very few Hillary signs, saw very few people looking angry.  Maybe the press assumes that all middle aged women are Hillary supporters?–because there were many middle aged women around, particularly among the delegates, all of them exceedingly well groomed.)  There was a guy on stilts and an Uncle Sam outfit carrying his signs, and a random T-shirt booth trying to pass off the Hillary gear, but other than that….It felt all about unity, man.  Progression, all that good stuff.  The glee was apparent at night when people would stumble out of the clubs, trying to figure out how to find a taxi in North Denver.  It actually did have a feeling of hope.  

Though hope was not particularly apparent in the music that I heard that day.  The street musicians were singing folky songs, but nothing that would offend–nothing that you wouldn’t hear from any standard street musician in any given city.  Like the pan flute–oh, yes, we had one.  And a guy with a clown nose playing Dylan on a harmonica.  You couldn’t really hear the 5 piece doo wop group who sat against a downtown wall that entire day, collecting money for independent musicians (according to their sign).  They were mostly drowned out by the anti-abortion protesters not far from them, who were rather vocal in their disapproval of the Democratic party.  They were the most obnoxious and obtrusive of all the protesters I saw on the street during the convention.  They positioned themselves at an intersection and proceeded to block the sidewalk so that it was nearly impossible to get around them, and thus were forced to actually listen to them.   Another vocal protester was the nutjub who walked down the street chanting “Democrats are Crybabies!!”  He was engaged in vociferous debate with a tidy young man until a police officer strode over to add his views on the matter.  Also drowned out were the clipclops of the horses ridden by some of the officers, who mostly hang out in groups and talked about their horses.  The token German Shepherd was also led around by riot police looking for drugs? bombs?  Once the dog started fiercely barking, sounding like he was tearing off someone’s leg; when I walked past, the officer told another, “I love this dog’s bark, it sounds so ferocious.”  And the dog was just hanging out, not looking particularly threatening, but looking rather German nevertheless.  Occasonally, too, you’d hear the rev of a group of cops racing their motorcycles down the center of the mall (causing consternation among the crowd, who scrambled to grab their children).  Also bullhorns blasting out views of various varieties, most of them conservative, actually.  

“This place has a bad vibe, man,” I heard one teenager say.  

But I did spent quite a lot of time at the center of radical activity, the Civic Center park.  This was where the hippies, the protesters, the rowdy professorial types, the media, the curious set up shop.  Ther e were booths promoting the legalization of pot, booths against the war (of course), booths for animal rights (veganism, anyone), booths selling tshirts and buttons and such of course–maybe 12, 20 booths in all, scattered around the periphery of the park.  There was a bus for Rock the Vote (which never garnered a bit of attention the whole time I was there).  It all felt very sixties and early seventies, as in the days when I went to college at the hippie school (Sangamon State in Illinois) and there would be protests emanating from some of the residents of the nearly communes and from radical faculty and such.  People even dressed the same, had the same beards, but they were young, and so that was strange, that was quite timewarpish.  You’d think that they’d have some new styles, something other than the long hair and braids and peasant skirts, but maybe it’s just that “back to the earth” thing.  I liked the face paint.  Anyway, they were all very quiet, these people, sitting in their little roped off areas playing guitars and singing folk songs and (maybe?) getting high (though with the police presence, maybe not).  They looked a little bored, a little disappointed, because really,  not a lot of protesting was happening, and there weren’t that many of them.  It felt a little lonely somehow.

So I saw a band there.  I’d tell you their name, but I don’t know it, because I didn’t get there at the beginning of the set and they weren’t exactly handing out programs.  These were the free concerts, “for the people,” and they performed in this well area where the acoustics aren’t too bad.  The band was, I believe, a Puerto Rican-American hip hop band from Chicago.  Five or so people who played instruments and sang along with their rapping. And they were pretty good.  They added some flavor, and while I thought I was just observing, I actually got into them.  The listening crowd was pretty sparse–maybe 50 people up front paying close attention and a lot of scattered observers–and so their chants about liberation and the murdering pigs kind of fell flat.  The murdering pigs, by the way, were there, but they stayed far back from the action, hanging out on their bicycles and talking about their lives.  They seemed to be pretty amused by the whole thing, and didn’t rise to the bait.  “You have to be willing to DIE for your beliefs!”  Right.  And it’s true.  Unfortunately, they were being ignored by the authorities at the time, even though I never shook that sense that we were all being watched.  Because we were, and having our pictures taken, too.  I walked around the park area while they were playing, taking in the scene, and I’m posting a few pictures of what I observed there.  Despite my own cynicism, I was taken in by the feel of the thing; it felt important that it be there and people be allowed to say what they felt.  Maybe it was that old sixties laid back feel of optimism and community that I was trying to find.  They were lucky to find it so simple.

The media did outnumber everyone else there.  And I have to say, I found that exciting.  The documentary crews (announced by their shirts, which said Documentary Crew).  The CNN, MsNBC, Associated Press, the unidentified, it was interesting to watch the interplay between them and the people being observed.  It added to the sense of it all being staged, right down to the peace & love (although I know that the kids were sincere).  It felt like something I was watching from a distance.

I left when a performance poet, a really bad one, came on–preceeded by an announcer who said:

“Come to the liberation source!”  (And just where was that again?)

“Art is not free!”  Which was a lead in to:  “Come on out and buy some product!”

Hmm.  You mean over at that Free Trade Booth?

It’s hot as hell and my feet hurt.  It’s starting to get dark and the police are looking ancy; they start challenging some of the people working in a booth; someone, I hear, gets robbed.  Everyone is drooping.  On the way back, a man carrying a Hillary sign is laughed at uproariously by a man in shades sitting in a sidewalk cafe–Hillary guy starts yelling “Chill out!  Chill out, man!”  And the guy laughs louder and louder as the crowd looks at the Hillary guy runs away.  

Even so, it is mostly quiet.  “Freedom ain’t no joke, ya’ll” were the last words I heard from the performance poet.  Mexican workers begin carrying in chairs from the middle of the mall.  The shops begin to close.  The mall empties as people head to the speeches, to the parties, to the food.  I think I even saw Angelina Jolie throwing out her lemonade.