Category Archives: memoir

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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the spin of the platter (music memoir one)

My brother turned into a radio patter rock jockey whenever he was talking into a Hot Wheels car.  Later, once we got the microphone to the tape player, he laid it all down even better.  My voice overs weren’t nearly to par–though, being older, I started it all.  I became the spinner, the one who pulled the scratched 45s onto the turntable and cued up the beginning of that tune pulled off the radio and taped onto the tan casette deck.  As kids in the middle of the cornfields in the sixties, we didn’t exactly have the equipment.  We didn’t really need it, though surely I wanted it.

In the beginning, my brother mostly sat there while I took those scratched up discs and popped them onto the old 45 kids’ turntable.  I didn’t need tapes then–it was all a live broadcast, straight from the breezeway to nobody’s homes nationwide.  Old singles my mom had held onto, good stuff, too, the Little Richard and Elvis and, hell, even that crappy Pat Boone, they all had their moments as spinning discs.  Singles I’d eaked out allowance money to buy, the Carpenters, the Doors, the Monkees, Aretha, Sly & the Family Stone, as I got older more added to the spindle of possibilities.  Playing DJ, it didn’t matter what was on there, because  it wasn’t the music then, it was the words, the game being the voice that led the oblivious listener down the pathway of song.

You always assumed whoever was out there was paying no attention.  My brother knew that to do it right, you had to be loud, you had to be full of insanity and in their face, you had to drop and raise that tone til it sounded like a racecar going around a track.  You had to have a low voice, a guy voice (I’d never heard a female DJ, not once, as a kid), and you had to turn it into a production. 

So as he got older and I did, too, and as I fell out of the game, he kept it going.  He got a setup, he got two friends who’d get in it with him.  They made a studio in the basement with microphones and decks and albums now, not 45s, and they played the hard driving stuff, no pussy music for them, but heavy metal, man, and they cranked up the volume.  His friends were geeky, one with his horn rimmed glasses and lonely life and vaguely threatening eyes, rejected by family and my brother his only friend, and the other guy an in your face used car salesman bullshitter who never stopped talking, ever.  They spun platters, they did slices and cuts, fades and volumes, they put together new music from the old, and, you know, I missed most of that.  I hated their music.  I was pretty out of the house, in a new life, while they spread equipment across that dank basement.  Turned out street kids across America were doing the same stuff, with different music, swapping it with friends, no marketing deals, they did it for fun, while here were these kids in the basement in a place where nobody but they would ever hear it, nobody would be breakdancing to their beats. But none of that mattered because it was the creating it, the moment, and then that playing it back, hearing just how good they sounded over those thumping beats and guitar screams.  Oh well.

I still played the radio while all that was going on, made tapes.  In my room now,  knowing better than to do any silly voice overs.  I had an elaborate taping system, each song carefully pulled from the airwaves and stored, to be pulled and played again.  To capture the song, you had to put up with that voice, that stupid DJ voice, the one that intruded on the beginnings of “Hot Fun in the Summer Time,” insisting that yes, it was HOT HOT HOT and it was SUMMER SUMMER as in FUN like the FUN you find at Joe Malone’s USED CARS.  Try as you might to cut it off the tape, the voice would still slip in, and the bastard would cut off the end, the fade,  so I could never find the ending. The songs truncated into the GUY again just when I desperately needed them to resolve.  My sixties, my high school seventies, were on the airwaves, every hippie party grasped by the scream of Grace Slick’s voice or the Grateful Dead’s guitar and I was so desperately trying to understand, but, you know, there was always the SHOPPING at KMART and the THAT WAS THE JEFFERSON AIRPLANE!!!!!  And when my brother did it in the basement I had to smile because he was so good at it, so much better than JOE in the MORNING.  I was sure he’d be a DJ, if he could just get out.

But that’s the thing about basements.  They encourage the kind of growth done by mold on boxes.  It’s cozy down there in the dark, and it’s easy to forget about anything other than what’s in your head.  My brother had an ability to filter out whatever was around him.  He would look at the ground and sing to himself, would spin a toy in his hands, would take a coffee can lid and turn it into a jet wheel, and he could do this anytime, any place, and  did.  Not even as a tune-out mechanism–he just went there.  It was kind of cool, really, that nothing seemed to touch him, that he could make up entire comic scripts without a break unless someone punched him in the head, which did happen.  It was annoying to be around that all day.  That patter, he ran it without the music, without the tapes, he went to other countries that I’ve never visited, even today.  He used to get beat up at school until he got so big that he could slug people back.  Even I couldn’t tease him anymore.  His head was a land of absolute freedom.

The tapes got put away late.  His buddies and he worked on them past high school, putting together sophisticated cut and paste concept albums, for chrissake, during which time my brother and the vaguely scary friend got jobs at KMart and his motormouth salesman pal went to junior college and became, in reality, a DJ.  The tapes went on until my brother got himself married and almost immediately after was forced to join the service, having no other options.  (Someone with a constant stream of patter doesn’t make a very good stock shelver.  There are too many games to play with windshield wiper boxes and vinyl shoes.)  The equipment got left behind.  The albums, too,were stored in boxes which in time got hit by the river flood and the covers came off in your hands.  My cherished 45s had been decimated already by constant play until their skips became parts of the songs and were finally thrown away by my father in some moment of grand house cleaning.  

Even when my brother was in high school, I tried to get him to be a real DJ. I carried on the argument for  years. I tried to explain to my mother that there were ways of doing this, since he was not thinking at all about the world outside the house.  My dad believed all along he should join the service.  My brother himself had long been obsessed by planes, flying them accompanied by accurate whooshing noises and sonic booms.   I argued hard against the military, having been influenced by Warm San Francisco Nights, Stop Children Watch that Sound, and all those family war stories.  Be a DJ, why not, just do it, and he would look at me, and he would tell me there was no money in it.  You don’t make money now, I pointed out.  He would tell me that there was no way to start.  Your friend did it, I’d say, that Mark, you’re better than Mark.  I couldn’t really go in, he would say.  Go to college, get a degree.  I hate school, he would say.  There were all of those reasons.  Really, none of us knew how to begin, none of us knew that world out there, which was, my brother was right, not a world of cassette decks lovingly cued in otherwise silent rooms.  We knew nobody out there, we had no way of connecting, no language but the sounds themselves.  And  nothing is as pure as sound, be it everso overproduced, overpracticed and sold, we only knew it as what came in when nothing else could.

Once he got married, there was no reason to listen.  The single path presented itself as as a signature on a line.  Letting go was as inevitable as a baby.  Endings are created in a click.