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.