Tag 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.

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.

come on, I know white people have rhythm!: music at the Democratic National Convention

Denver, where I live, is swarming with people here for the Democratic Convention.  Fifty thousand or so, say the papers.  It’s like a big party out there, even the protesters and cops smiling until they got into the pepper spray.  Booths selling Obama dolls (made to look suspiciously nappy-headed) and Arbonne Cosmetics and sno-cones and of course lots of T-shirts, buttons, stickers, banners. It’s like going to the State Fair without the cows and where everyone is pretty much like you.  White is mostly the color of the day here (from skin to t-shirts), and the attire ranges anywhere from suits and pantsuits (for Hillary supporters) to the kind of casual almost boho attire that relatively hip older people like me like to don.  Once in awhile I passed someone dressed as a donkey.  Once I passed a girl in a pink Playboy Club type outfit riding a bicycle.  Secret Service people are everywhere, although they try to come up with disguises sometimes (you can see it in their eyes–steely, just like in the movies–and they usually don’t move from position).  I saw one skinny guy in full jogger attire, carrying a huge jar of protein mix, and could never decide if he was real or undercover.  With the crowd, though, there was not much jogging to be had.  The real attention grabbers were  the riot police driving down our usually quiet Denver streets in tanks.  They are everywhere: huddling in the shade, when they can find some, or perched on the tanks, or just leaning against buildings.  A lot of them smile at you, like they’re in the spirit of the whole thing themselves.  Hey, it’s my job, don’t worry.  But they have weapons.  They have riot helmets.  As a kid, I was obsessed with Kent State.  Obsessed with, curious about the Sixties, would stare at the photos of the hippies and the soldiers for hours, the kids coming up the hill, the kids laying face down on the ground.  I’m not trying to be melodramatic here, but I couldn’t shake it out of my mind.  Even though the bystanders,

Susan, Lawrence, self & Paige touristing at the DNC

Susan, Lawrence, self & Paige touristing at the DNC

the tourists, the media, far outnumbered the 100 or so protesters who we soon glimpsed, I was paranoid.  Things just happen–as they did last night, when a group surrounded by officers and pepper sprayed.  They’re saying it’s going to be worse as the convention goes on.  But you know, I’m going to go watch it all this afternoon anyway.  There’s an excitement to that kind of fear.  Everyone is enjoying it, this party, just as people in Denver always seem to enjoy themselves.  Anyway, it’s Obama, everyone is happy.

 

Surreal.  I know this has nothing to do with music yet.  So let’s throw some in.  Most of the music events are by special invitation.  No surprise.  Not being any kind of official press, I didn’t even try to get a pass.  Anyway, there’s nobody here I’d really want to see, to tell you truth.  But I do walk down the packed streets and I did go to a concert last night at Red Rocks.  Let me tell you quickly about the Red Rocks affair, which, in the terminology of the young, COMPLETELY SUCKED.

It was sadly disorganized.  Or, well, it was organized, as in it was done in proper order and timing.  But the music selections didn’t work for the crowd and the thing wasn’t well advertised.  Being at Red Rocks, an enormous outdoor mountain ampitheatre, when no one is there is just depressing.  The sound bounces around the rocks and makes for some kind of sucking void of guitar distortion.  In brief, a sad spare  crowd, average age about 50, exceedingly white, are greeted with a folk singer (Jill Sobule, who was sweet and entertaining), a boring DJ doing dance mixes of 60s and 70s song, a young rap singer named Murs (who tried so hard to no response that I felt sorry for him)…by the time Apples in Stereo came out, the crowd was in a state of depression, no doubt thinking that if they were actually important Democrats they’d be at the convention itself watching Michelle Obama’s speech.  Poor Apples in Stereo were predictably poppy and sunny and silly to the point of being oppressively whimsical, but good, you know, and fun, and would have been fun to see in a bar.  “We LOVE Obama!” they’d occasionally trot out, to crowd cheers, but they made their love sound a little like mushy love, like they wanted to ask him out on a chaste date, complete with roses and a meaningful hand touch at the door.  Sigh.

The best song of the evening: Jill Sobule and her mother singing Nelly’s “It’s Getting Hot in Here.”  Seriously.  And Mom could sing.  Most painful note by rapper Murs-the-Seventh-Wonder:  “Sing along with me, people–when I say Hustle, you say Hustle!” Cringifying.  Although hilarious to see about 200 middle aged white folks imagining drive bys in West LA while yelling  Hustle in unison.

Okkervil River, who were billed, apparently didn’t show–or at least hadn’t by the time we left, after 3 hours of boredom.

My husband, sitting beside me, was just pissed.  “Fucking Democrats can’t organize themselves out of their own asses,” he said, or something to that effect.  He made a list of what they needed to do to arrange the event and get the trains to run on time.  He began the list by insisting that the event NOT be a Red Rocks, a giant wall of rock that is miles outside of Denver.  Even though the musicians loved being there (as in “I LOVE being at Red Rocks!” and “I finally get to play at Red Rocks!”), nobody else did.  

Once when I escaped to  the bathroom, I saw melancholy women wearily washing their hands: “Well, at least we couldn’t have asked for a better sky!”

After all this, they were to show 10 short winning films on democracy.  But by the time they got around to it, everyone had left.

Divahn–an all female band playing all Middle Eastern Jewish music

I got an email from a friend with a Denver University connection.  She’s involved in many things Jewish and helped to bring to Denver the musical group Divahn: all women, playing Middle Eastern music on authentic instruments.  Knowing my interest in world music, she thought it would be one for me.cd_s.jpg I think it was–although I got the impression that my husband & I, being gentile, were not really the intended audience.  Although Galeet Dardashti, the group’s lead singer, occasionally made asides for those “few who might not be Jewish here,” I still felt that she  didn’t realize that this was a show open to the general public.  I’m sure this was because the event was organized by DU’s Center of Judaic Studies, but still–it took place at the Oriental Theater, a funky Northwest Denver venue that generally caters to black-clad defiant punker kids and old rockers who have some Grateful Dead affiliation.  And be aware that it wasn’t the music that made me feel a bit of an outcast–I’ve listened to enough world music in general, and Middle Eastern music in particular, that I don’t pay much attention to whether  I’m the general audience for the sound.  I assume that I am not.  But I think with all of  Dardashti’s references to personal emails begging her to come, and to songs that we sing on the Sabbat, etc., and how I probably ought to know the words to join in….Well, never mind.  The singer seemed a bit put out by the whole event, which probably had something to do with academic politics and confusion, since Dardashti is an ethnomusicologist at the University of Texas. galeet-dardashti-and-divahn.jpgAll of this aside: the musicians in Divahn were a joy to watch.  Divahn means a collection of songs or poems, and the collection of musicians here created a meaningful whole.   The lyrics mix Hebrew, Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and Judeo-Spanish, something that I particularly enjoyed.  The mixing of languages is becoming more and more popular across world music, particularly that which is aimed toward a wider audience.  Marketing considerations aside, I like the utopian implications of blending the words of many cultures, with the emphasis on unity over division.  A violinist, cellist, tabla player, multi-percussionist worked beautifully together.  When they sang harmony, the results were nearly eerie.  And Galeet Dardashti herself had a transfixing strong voice that carried in it that haunting sense of the minor key.  (Sometimes her voice was too strong, drowning out the band members, but this may have been the way she was mic-ed.)  The tabla player in particular was fascinating, as I had never seen one perform live before.  She was always smiling, in the moment, one hand working the complex rhythms while the other used the palm to place the underlying line….Every player was accomplished, professional, seemingly in sync with one another.  Each of their solos was impressive, particularly the long interlude by Sejal Kukadia.  The audience was rapt; there were few shout-outs and no cell phone cameras among this crew–no jumping up and dancing or any of that funny stuff.  I’m sure it’s one of the most staid situations ever experienced at the Oriental.  Perhaps they were simply transported, as there were times that the music was extraordinarily lovely.  Knowing the words, singing along, really means nothing when you witness that blending of sounds that clearly shows that the music is spiritual in intent and tradition.  (The work of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is similar in this regard; a hymn, a prayer, is just that, in any language.)The two most memorable songs, for me, were the ones that seemed to depart from the familiar: a new-ish song, Vashti, and  an acapella group vocal arrangement (the title of which I was unable to catch).  All of the songs, though, were fascinating–not so much because they were unusual (because, honestly, I have heard similar arrangements and approaches to Middle Eastern music), but because the musicianship was so strikingly good.  And it was simply refreshing to see a group of serious female musicians up there following their path.  The musician’s bios can be found on the group’s web site at http://www.divahn.com.  You can also purchase their CD or download (purchased) songs.  All of the musicians appear to be Western-trained.  I had the impression from their biographies that most had been born in the United States and were seeking and studying their ancestral homelands (although it is actually hard to be certain of this).”So, are you glad you went?” my friend asked, as we pulled on our coats.  Of course.