I have a confession to make. I like John Denver’s music.
In fact, I like him so much, I want to resurrect his music in popular culture today. There should be a tribute album to him, featuring the most popular alternative and country musicians, each picking a John Denver song and making it their own.
Last week was my birthday, and my wife Robin bought me The Very Best of John Denver, mostly so that I’d listen to it in my car, in exchange for not singing his songs in the house. Yet I’m still scared to publicly reveal my secret admiration for John Denver’s songs, for fear that I will be exposed as sappy and sentimental. In the U.K. they’d call it treacle-y, after that super sweet thick molasses goop they pour on their desserts. It’s a sweet black glue that if you get it on your fingers, clothes, or table tops, you can’t get it off, no matter how much rubbing and sponging you do. When I hum one of his tunes in the check-out line people roll their eyes and step back from me, afraid that the sweet melody will create a sticky spot in their brain and stay there all day.
He is considered one of the greatest American songwriters of the 20th Century, but he has fallen out of favor. Now is the time to revive his reputation and look upon him with fresh eyes.
His songs have stood the test of time and are still being sung today. Granted, they are not being recorded; instead, they’re being sung at summer camps, and in church social halls and temple sing-a-longs. But that’s the whole point. Someone asked Pete Seeger what makes a good folk song, and he said, “when it’s a song that folks can sing.” Folks can sing John Denver songs, and they can play them easily on the guitar. It’s damn hard to write a good simple song that’s easy to sing and easy to play. When a gaggle of kids are sitting around the song leader, they all can sing “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” or “Sunshine on My Shoulders,” and you can see on their faces how excited they are that they know both the tune and the words (I know this one!). And even when half the kids are out of key the song still works, and when you look towards the back of the room a few of the parents are mouthing the words too.
Our family listened to him when I was growing up and I have fond memories of him playing on the radio and on cassette during long family trips. Many of his songs are about leaving home, being on the road, and then returning, so they’re well suited for traveling. We all feel that pang to get away followed by the desire to get back. My mother has a melancholy fondness for “Sunshine on My Shoulders” because it’s a song about one transitory moment that you wish you could bottle and then open again later -- but that is a wonderful idea that can never be. For her, that was a sun-filled moment when my grandparents and our family were walking on a beach together, and she knew that the three generations would probably never all be together again...and we weren’t.
That was it, that was the moment.
My father loved “Annie’s Song,” which is waltz, and while my parents were driving down an empty winter road in the flats of Idaho, that song came on and my father stopped the car and my parents danced in a frozen wheat field with the doors open and the stereo blaring. Now he’s gone too, but that’s the story my mother still tells when that song comes on.
Unfortunately, John Denver has not only fallen out of favor, he’s gotten a bad rap. When he peaked in the mid-70s, he was one of the last singer/songwriters without irony. He was earnest and guileless. I remember him being a regular on The Muppets, and in retrospect he was a perfect fit on that show. With his dorky goofy grin he was like a Muppet himself, a Polly-Anndy trying so gosh darn hard to put on a good show. Then David Letterman arrived and brought a wave of wry ironic humor, and earnestness was ripe for parody. Garry Trudeau began skewering John Denver in his Doonesbury comic strips, with fellow Aspen resident Uncle Duke shooting guns at his pop music neighbor. The drug-addled Duke was a thinly veiled Hunter S. Thompson, whose Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail captured a truth about America deeper than any hokey song. I remember being young and reading Thompson’s books and the Doonesbury strips and then tossing my affection for Denver aside in my efforts to be an adult. The Sex Pistols, The Clash, and early angry Elvis Costello were my music.
Artists sometimes tried to go back to that earlier era, with limited success. I remember Patti Smith singing “You Light Up My Life” in the punk era. She meant it, but no one believed her. In the 90s there was a tribute album to the music of The Carpenters, called If I Were A Carpenter. Both efforts seemed genuine, but anomalies.
But does his music speak to this current era? Or does it belong withMichael Row Your Boat Ashore? I think his music remains worthwhile when you consider the actual man, and not his public persona.
If you know his life, you can find a message for today. It’s buried in the orchestra strings, voice over-dubbing and rising harmonies that was at the end of every hit song in the 70s. In truth, he seems to have been a restless man, ceaselessly searching, and always haunted.
He had an unhappy childhood. He was born Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr., and his father was distant and difficult. John was an Army brat who grew up in a half dozen different regions of the country, never fitting in anywhere. He wrote “Annie’s Song,” for his wife when they reconciled after their first separation, but they later divorced. When they finally split up he almost choked her, and then took a chain saw to their marriage bed. He had a very bitter split from his best friend and manager Jerry Weintraub. His second marriage failed, and he battled against alcohol addiction and depression. He was an experienced pilot, but died when he crashed a new experimental plane he’d been testing.
As a child he resented that his family was always moving and that he was a perpetual outsider, yet he ended up in a similar life where he was constantly on the road. His songs are full of the regret about leaving home, yet he feels a compulsion to leave, nontheless. His songs are full of ecstatic moments (I found it! I found myself! I’m happy!) but the moments seem brief and transitory. He also writes songs about coming home again, and how wonderful that is, but the imagery is just perfect enough that it feels like he wrote them while he was still traveling, wishing he had such a home to which he could return. These “returning” songs are full of nostalgia for a time and place that maybe wasn’t really ever there, yet the ache for them is.
Here are some of the lyrics I now can hear, which passed me by in youth:
GOOD BYE AGAIN
Why do we always fight when I have to go
Have to go and see some friends of mine, some that I don't know
Some who aren't familiar with my name,
It's something that's inside of me not hard to understand
It's anyone who listens to me sing
ROCKY MOUNTAIN HIGH
When he first came to the mountains, his life was far away on the road and hanging by a song.
But the strings already broken and he doesn't really care,
it keeps changing fast, and it don't last for long.
Lost and alone on some forgotten highway, traveled by many, remembered by few.
Looking for something that I can believe in,
looking for something that I'd like to do with my life.
SUNSHINE ON MY SHOULDERS
If I had a day that I could give you, I'd give to you the day just like today.
If I had a song that I could sing for you, I'd sing a song to make you feel this way.
(Sappy as this song sounds, it’s actually about a man who is alone, singing to someone who isn’t there anymore. Either he’s left that person, or she has left him, and that person has passed away, and he wishes that he could have them back for just one more day...but that’s impossible.)
For many years I was like him. There was a part of me that was always restless, always wanting change, yet regretting and resenting that need to move on. I wanted to find a place where I could fit in and feel like I belonged there, yet when I found such places, I never trusted them. Most of us have felt this way, at some time or another. I feel our whole country is on a restless search for itself right now.
Thus, it is time. Get rid of the 70‘s orchestration. Get Rick Rubin. Find the alt and emo and country stars who can take a guitar and a mandolin and make his songs their own. They’ll find the pain in between the joy, and he’ll have his second chapter.
My editor, Candace Escobar, writes this addendum:
This post makes me think about Norman Rockwell.
In junior college I had a philosophy teacher who once told me about how much he loved Norman Rockwell. "I love that shit," he said. I was surprised and a little stumped at his revelation. "REALLY??" I said. "Thats so sappy for you I'd think….kinda generic and earnest."
But he said it was exactly the opposite. He began to tell me that he loved Rockwell's work so much because of the effect it had on almost everyone who looked at it. The notion, the romantic idea of a time or memory or place-----and it was always something that every person in this country could relate too in some way. That common thread was so thick and tightly woven into our consciousness ----- that he could have been painting our memories and most people probably felt like he was --- which is why The Saturday Evening Post was so important and now iconic.
"But his stuff is so perfect." I said. "Even the subject matter itself is always a perfectly captured perfect moment."
He smiled. “But the flip side of that is-----how often do you think those perfect moments actually happen-----exactly that way----to any of us? Rockwell didn't paint life as it was, as it happened. I believe he painted life as he wanted it to be, the way he would choose to remember it. And that resonated with our country. And I think thats what makes his work just as important or modern or stunning as any Picasso or Van Gogh.”