Here’s the thing about Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr. (aka John Denver), America’s late troubadour of the Great Outdoors: I’m not convinced he was human. Not only was he born in Roswell, New Mexico, that Mecca of alien conspiracy theorists, but he tried his damndest to become the first citizen on the ill-fated space shuttle, I suspect because he intended to commandeer said shuttle and steer it back to his homeland in some far-flung galaxy. And just look at him; that bowl-cut, those granny glasses, that ageless and innocent face—no way was this perpetual man-child one of us. He was a Muppet from a distant solar system.
Then again, Denver ‘fessed up to an affection for pot, cocaine, and LSD, got busted twice for DUIs, and during a particularly acrimonious divorce grabbed the chainsaw from the garage, headed straight for the bedroom, and sawed the marital bed in half. That’s not alien behavior. They’re too rational. When aliens get pissed, they simply shoot a high-voltage pulse of electricity out their index finger and turn you into a ball of fire.
Human or not, it behooves us all to recall that once upon a time John Denver was America’s highest selling performer. He may be hipster kryptonite, but during the seventies he put out a whole shitload of songs that lots of people love. And contrary to popular opinion, not all of them are schlock. Some, such as “Rocky Mountain High,” are great, so great that even I, a fan of the Great Indoors, love them.
I can tell you in a nutshell what I like about John Denver; he could get high on anything. The Rocky Mountains, sunshine on his shoulders, sailing on the crest of the wild raging storm. He may have indulged in substances both legal and illicit, but his favorite buzz was Mother Nature. Like it or not he’s America’s pop poet laureate of the wonders of the wild, which I personally avoid because I have zero interest in getting mauled by a grizzly bear, attacked by rabid chipmunks, or falling off a cliff and breaking both my legs, then slowly starving to death as vultures circle menacingly, mockingly overhead.
Denver got his real start in music as a member of the Chad Mitchell Trio, or the Mitchell Trio as they called themselves after Chad jumped ship. After recording three LPs with the trio Denver went the solo route, releasing his official debut LP Rhymes and Reasons in 1969. 1971’s Poems, Prayers, and Promises proved to be his big breakthrough, and over the next several years he achieved superstar status. I’m talking big hit singles, TV specials, films, No. 1 LPs, appearances with The Muppets—the whole shebang. None of these middle-of-the-road accomplishments won him any credibility with the critics—Robert Christgau dubbed him “the blandest pop singer in history,” and comparing him to James Taylor wrote, “If James is a wimp, John is a simp, and that’s even worse”—but who gives a flying fuck about the critics when you’re rich, sell a bazillion records, and own can fly your own Lear jet? If you listened very closely during those years, you could almost hear him laughing at his detractors from a height of 40,000 feet.
Denver was difficult to pigeonhole. Was he a pop singer-songwriter, a country musician, or as I suggested before, simply a talented alien? There was a child-like quality to his work (as in the total schmaltzification of “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” and “Grandma’s Feather Bed”) and a sexless quality too, because aliens don’t have sex. That said, it’s remarkable how well many of the songs on 1976’s Playlist: The Very Best of John Denver hold up. We can discount “Country Boy,” that catchy but inane shuck about the joys of country living, while taking small solace in the fact that at least he didn’t write the contemptible song. Because when it comes to the realities of the rustic life I think Warren Zevon got it right when he sang, “There ain’t much to country living/Sweat, piss, jizz, blood.” You can also write off “Sweet Surrender” and the schlockfest “Goodbye Again,” and wish (as I do) that Denver had shown some nerve by replacing them with “Two Shots” (an authentic honky-tonker!) and “Late Nite Radio,” both from 1975’s Windsong. I especially like “Late Nite Radio,” a paean to the “airwaves of the nation between midnight and the dawn,” because on it Denver actually admits his “attention turns to UFOs” (I told you!). As for the rest of the songs on Playlist, they all have something to offer, albeit not to the sensibilities of anyone with a low threshold for unadulterated saccharine.
Take “Baby, You Look Good Tonight.” Why, the goddamn thing is a bona fide high-quality country tune, of the sort Bob Dylan spent a couple of years writing. And it has the added advantage of being the only Denver song I know of where the prudish singer-songwriter actually demonstrates what could be described as a normal sex urge. Meanwhile, Denver’s cover of The Beatles’ “Mother Nature’s Son” features some nice pickin’ and grinnin’, to say nothing of a fetching melody and lots of humming, faux yodeling, and other examples of meaningless human vocalizations. As for “Take Me Home, Country Roads” it’s an in-the-flesh pop archetype thanks to its great shuffling rhythm, fancy acoustic playing, and wonderful melody. To say nothing of that great chorus, and the lines, “And driving down the road/I get a feeling I should have been home yesterday/Yesterday.”
“Leaving on a Jet Plane” (have you ever noticed that Denver’s songs tend to be about either leaving home or coming back?) is another pop archetype, even if has always struck me as shamelessly maudlin. That said, it kicks the ass of the version by Peter, Paul, and Mary, and I will defer to those people who think it’s a classic even if they are idiots. I prefer “Back Home Again,” a homespun tale of a trucker closing in on the old homestead after 10 days on the road. The chorus is catchy, the song rambles along like a good country tune should, and if it’s lacking in the sex department—the singer’s been on the road for 10 days, for Christ’s sake, so where’s the hard-on?—at least he can look forward to a good, home-cooked meal. As for “Sunshine on My Shoulders” it’s a sweet masterpiece actually improved by the sweeping strings and whatnot, possesses a beautiful melody, and will suck you in despite the fact that it’s every bit as maudlin as “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” Me, I’ve never gotten high on sunshine, unless you’re talking acid, but it almost makes me want to head for the mountains, and like the old advertising campaign suggests, for a Busch beer.
On “Calypso” we get Denver the Jacques Cousteau acolyte, and it’s not a bad song despite its over-orchestration because its chorus, and the sea-yodeling that follow, are the shit. You get the occasional ringing of a ship’s bell, a guiding dolphin, lots of cries of “Aye Calypso,” and a big climax that will make you want to strap on the old peg leg, attach a fake parrot to your shoulder, and let out a mighty “Yar!!” “I’m Sorry” finds Denver in the big bad city, exiled from his love. The song reminds me of Glen Campbell, and that’s not a bad thing, and includes one of the stranger choruses you’ll ever hear: “I’m sorry for the way things are in China/I’m sorry things ain’t what they used to be/More than anything else, I’m sorry for myself/Cause you’re not here with me.” Sorry for the way things are in China? What the hell is that supposed to mean? In any event, you have to give Denver kudos in the honesty department, for acknowledging that above all it’s self-pity he feels.
As for “Fly Away,” it has a pretty (too pretty in fact) melody and once again finds Denver separating from his beloved. I like the way Denver comes on like a one-man Khmer Rouge in his disgust for city living (“Life in the city can make you crazy for sounds of the sand and the sea/Life in a high-rise can make you hungry for things that you can’t even see”) and the accompanying vocals of Olivia Newton-John, but otherwise the tune doesn’t speak to me. Nor for that matter does “Annie’s Song,” one of Denver’s most-beloved tunes, although I’ll bet more guys got laid to this baby than you can count on the fingers of all the Venusian corpses hidden away at Area 51 at Roswell. To its credit “Annie’s Song” has a delicate beauty; it’s simply not the sort of delicate beauty I can appreciate. That said, how can you resist a song that Denver wrote in ten and a half minutes on a ski lift?
“Rocky Mountain High” is Denver’s masterpiece; its acoustic picking is great, it boasts a melody that is both lovely and powerful, and its chorus is flat-out brilliant. It tells the story of a man “born in the summer of his 27th year/Coming home to a place he’d never been before.” He becomes a kind of Grizzly Adams, wandering the mountains and talking to God, and sees it “raining fire in the sky.” In short he’s nuts, as is proved by the lines, “And they say that he got crazy once/And tried to touch the sun/And lost a friend/But kept a memory.” I’m not sure there’s ever been a better song about the wonders of nature, and while Grizzly (let’s call him Grizzly) is content to wander the lovely mountains all by his lonesome, he’s not opposed to sitting himself down with friends he never met before around a campfire, where “everybody’s high.” Which line (my God, it advocates drug use!) almost prevented “Rocky Mountain High” from being named one of Colorado’s two state songs (the other one is Killdozer’s “Grandma Smith Said a Curious Thing”).
Denver did much good in his lifetime, supporting a range of environmental causes, only to die on October 12, 1997 when his experimental Long-EZ canard plane plunged into Monterey Bay near Pacific Grove, California. With those DUIs under his belt he wasn’t even legally allowed to fly, but Denver, simp or not, did whatever the fuck he wanted, and personally I don’t think he bought that experimental plane to fly from here to there, but to adapt it for space travel, having experienced to the utmost the wonders of land and sea that planet Earth had to offer.
As I said previously, many of Denver’s songs are either about leaving or coming home, and I think he was at long last ready to do the latter. Country roads couldn’t take him home, so he did what he had to do, and I will always respect him for that, just as I’ll always respect him for his habit of mowing the lawn in the nude. He may be, as I said before, hipster kryptonite, but mowing your lawn while naked is one hip move. John, I hope you made it back to your home, wherever that home may be. And I hope you’re sitting ‘round the campfire, everybody high on Gorgon 12 or whatever it is aliens get high on, singing “Rocky Mountain High.” If you’re in the spirit sometime, and I’m not pressuring you, perhaps you could send me a hit or two sometime.
GRADED ON A CURVE: