Graded on a Curve:
John Denver,
An Evening with
John Denver

I met John Denver once. Wait, let me amend that. I met his ghost. Our meeting occurred in the summer of 2003, in the Rocky Mountains. I’m still not quite sure what I was doing there; I don’t much care for nature (like any good urban creature I would much sooner be mugged by a human than a grizzly bear), and suffer pangs of existential nausea whenever I find myself more than 100 yards from the nearest coffee shop.

There isn’t much to do in the mountains, and one dazzlingly dull day I did the unthinkable and took a hike. Between all that marching uphill and the thin air I was soon (I would say within 10 minutes) totally bushed, so I sat myself down for a smoke in a natural little woodland amphitheater lined with rocks.

Now I’d passed an “Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires” sign with Smokey Bear’s face on it just a couple of minutes before, but I’ll be damned if I’ll let a bear wearing a hat tell me how to conduct my business. There I was, eyes wide shut in a blissful nicotine-induced revery, when I got this uncanny feeling I wasn’t alone. So I opened my eyes to discover I was surrounded by chipmunks. Dozens upon dozens of chipmunks. At first I thought they were grinning at me. But on second glance I realized what I was looking at was a collective show of teeth.

I just had time to think “I’m about to be ripped apart by the cutest creatures on God’s green earth” when the ghost of John Denver strolled into that glade, acoustic guitar slung around his neck, and said, “Stand down, boys. he’s a newbie.”

“Holy Henry John Deutschendorf!” I exclaimed, recoiling in shock. “It’s the ghost of John Denver! What are you doing here?”

“Well, it’s a funny story” says John. “When I died in that plane and met God he wasn’t happy. In fact he told me I would have to spend a couple of thousand years in purgatory, largely on account of my consorting with Muppets. Turns out God hates the Muppets. Anyway, he said I could do my purgatory stint here or in West Virginia, and no way was I going to West Virginia. The whole state’s a polluted, redneck-infested shithole.”

“Well, you must love it here.”

“Are you kidding? I’m bored out of my gourd. I’d kill for a line of cocaine, but good luck scoring an eight-ball of blow off from a chipmunk.”

“What happened to the natural highs? Sunshine on your shoulder?”

“Sunshine on your shoulder won’t make you high. It’ll give you skin cancer.”

“I see. Well I have to say it’s an honor. I’m a huge fan of your music. As a teenager I fell in love with this little CYO girl and we’d sit around mooning at one another while listening to your albums. Ours was a love so pure we never kissed, and when “The Eagle and the Hawk” came on–”

“Jesus Christ. I am so dying from boredom just listening to you, and I’m already dead. I make myself visible to the occasional human being and they invariably make me sorry I did. You have any Bob Hope on you?”

“Bob Hope?”

“It’s Cockney rhyming slang for dope. Got any?”

“Sorry,” I said. “Pot doesn’t agree with me. I got high a year or so ago and had to drive to the local Wawa for smokes and it was the most nerve-wracking drive of my life. I mean I was just creeping along. The next thing I know there’s a cop knocking at my window, which is impossible because the car is moving. So I roll down the window to ask him if I’d failed to use a turn signal and he says are you kidding, buddy? I’ve been watching you for an hour now and you never left your parking space.”

“Lightweight,” said Denver, chuckling.

I let it go.

“What do you do all day?” I asked the baby-faced shadow king of commercial folk pop.

“Think about all my shitty life decisions. The Muppets, for one. And that damned movie with George Burns. You think God hates the Muppets? Don’t even get him started on George Burns. I don’t regret the songs; they were the best songs I could write and I think the best of them hold up. It’s all the other stuff. The Muppets, the TV specials, the awards shows. All the stupid shit I did when I got famous in order to become more famous. I lost sight of my music. The critics never liked me, but fuck them, people loved my songs. And I lost sight of that.

“I knew things were spiraling out of control even at the peak of my success. One night I had this vision. I was outside my house looking up at the stars–and, yeah I guess I was tripping–and I saw this comet come blazing out of the sky. And a voice–not my voice but the comet’s voice–said, “John, run while you have the chance. Give it all up. Go Glam Rock if you have to, but if you continue down this path you’re doomed.” I should have listened to that voice.

“Instead I played it safe and put out An Evening With John Denver and although the album was a hit it was my ruination. Suddenly the radio stations were playing “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” and “Grandma’s Feather Bed” and a while a certain segment of the American listening public loved those cornball numbers the rest of the listening public puked in its collective hat. And you know what the worst thing is? I didn’t even write ‘em.

“It wasn’t long before I was the squarest thing this side of Debbie Gibson. And I paid the price. The hits stopped coming, the albums stopped selling. And I lost it. I started drinking pretty heavily, my marriage went to pieces.

“Have you heard the story about the oak trees in my garden? My then-wife Annie–yeah, yeah, the one in the fucking song–had ‘em cut down when we were separated and I was living in the guest cabin behind the big house. When I saw what she’d done I grabbed a chainsaw and stormed into the house and proceeded to cut the kitchen table in half. I would have done the same thing to our marital bed if the blade hadn’t gotten tangled in the sheets.

“And that was it. Some artists get a big comeback. Not me. I went from the most beloved entertainer of my era to a has been. Remember “We Are the World”? Of course you remember “We Are the World.” Well I asked to participate and they turned me down. When get this, unlike a lot of those other fuckers I actually gave a shit about world hunger. Talk about being bitter.

“Here’s something you won’t read in a book. I play this benefit concert and there are all these old fucking ladies in the audience, right? And I’m drunk off my ass and they keep calling out for “Grandma’s Feather Bed” so I play it for ‘em, only I change the lyrics and turn the damn thing into granny porn. I mean, I was singing the filthiest shit I could think up. And all those old ladies are gasping and crying and sobbing “Oh, no Johnny, you didn’t!” and “Oh, dear God, make it stop!”

“Pretty damn punk of you, I have to say. Any other regrets?”

“Yeah,” said John. “This fucking haircut. I asked a guy in my touring band once why I never got any groupies, and he said, take a look in the mirror.”

“I don’t know. You ditched the haircut and the glasses on the cover on 1986’s One World, and you look like Jeffrey Dahmer. That album cover scares the shit out of me.”

“I look unhappy. I was unhappy. It’s not easy, going from superstardom to the point where you can hardly find a record label. What I should have done was destroy my whole image. Put out my own Metal Machine Music, go to the Rolling Stone and tell them the truth–I wrote “Rocky Mountain High” on LSD. Instead I wrote a lot of really angry songs I never had the balls to release. Songs with titles like “Fuck the Trees,” “Ted Nugent Is Right,” and “I Aimed for a Deer With My Car.” Another regret.”

“Could I hear a bit of “Ted Nugent Is Right”?

“Why not? (Singing): “Everything’s so lovely in the morning light/One of God’s great creatures in my rifle sights/Ted Nugent is right/Met a buck and I shot him dead/Two shots straight to the fucking head/Ted Nugent is right.”

“Yeah, you definitely should have released that one.”

“Look,” said the ghost of John Denver. I can either shoot the shit with you all day or sneak up on a couple of babes skinny-dipping in a cold mountain stream. Two guesses as to what I’m doing next.”

“One final question. What was the happiest moment of your life?”

“You probably won’t believe me, but my happiest moment was on October 12, 1997, when that experimental airplane I was in went down. Because I got the death I wanted. I didn’t want to die in the fucking woods. I wanted to go out like one of the greats: Buddy Holly, Otis Redding, Ronnie Fucking Van Zant. I wanted to come down out of a clear blue sky like a bolt of lightning and that’s exactly what happened. It was glorious.”

“Any last words?”

“Yeah. Life ain’t nothing but a funny, funny riddle. Then you hit Monterey Bay face-first at 300 mph and die.”

And with that John faded away. But I’m told by friends who have visited the Rocky Mountains that if you walk through the forest with a lit reefer at night a shade in a bowl haircut may materialize at your side and say, “Don’t bogart that joint, my friend.”

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B-

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