Tuesday, December 31, 2013

John Denver's 70th Birthday

"Heck, I'm no Henry Mancini or Michel Legrand. I just play the guitar and write songs."

John Denver (1943–1997)

If I had to name one popular recording artist who embodied the '70s, I would have to pick John Denver.

I'm sure there are '70s musical artists who were more commercially successful than Denver — Elton John, perhaps, or the Bee Gees or the Eagles — and any would probably be better representatives of the decade.

But Denver has always been the '70s to me. It's not so much his music — although that is part of it. It is more his fresh–faced, innocent (almost naive) look, I suppose.

That may be at odds with your mental image of the '70s, but that's the thing that people, especially those who weren't around then, need to understand. The '70s were contradictory years.

They were full of vulgar musical acts, the spiritual fathers of heavy metal, grunge and other extremist variations. They also had more innocent–appearing, wholesome performers than any decade other than the '50s.

John Denver was part of the latter. He wore his hair long, yes, but it was always combed and fashionable. He wore blue jeans like many of his contemporaries, but they were clean and fashionable. He wore colorful shirts, but they, too, were stylish. My grandmother couldn't tolerate most of the musicians I liked — she thought they were "scraggly" — but she had no objection to John Denver. As far as she was concerned, he was a good–looking young guy with a nice voice who needed a haircut.

And, unlike most of the groups I liked, my grandmother could understand what Denver was singing.

My mother really liked Denver's music, and I acquired my fondness for his recordings from her. I guess you could describe much of his music as "folk music" — he started his professional career playing with folk groups in the 1960s — but that wasn't his only genre. He also wrote and played pop songs. He did perform mostly acoustic guitar — power guitar wasn't his style.

It didn't surprise me that Mom gravitated to Denver's music. Mom liked folk music. I think of Simon and Garfunkel most when I think of her — they were her favorites — but I also think of John Denver and Don McLean. In fact, I often listen to Simon and Garfunkel when I go to the cemetery to visit Mom's grave, but I listened to John Denver the last time I went there. It seemed appropriate, given that his 70th birthday was coming up.

And now it is here.

Born Henry John Deutschendorf Jr. in Roswell, N.M., his first hit composition, "Leaving on a Jet Plane," actually was a hit for Peter, Paul and Mary, who made it the #1 hit on Billboard's Hot 100.

Most of his solo career was in the 1970s. That's when he released his biggest hits — "Take Me Home, Country Roads," "Rocky Mountain High," "Sunshine on My Shoulders."

In fact, John Denver was one of the first recording artists I ever saw perform in concert.

I've seen many concerts since. I wish could say that it was the greatest thing I ever saw, but, really, the only thing that was memorable about that concert for me was that it was one of my first.

My memory is that it was a low–key concert. No fireworks or explosions or anything like that. Modern concertgoers probably would be disappointed. I don't think there was even a big screen behind him showing images that were relevant to the songs he sang.

Just Denver playing the guitar and singing with the background musicians and singers making their contributions but never taking the spotlight unless invited to do so by Denver. It was Denver's show.

That makes it sound like he might have been some kind of micro manager or an obsessive type, doesn't it? I don't mean to imply that. I don't know what kind of personality he had. I never got the sense that Denver was a control freak or anything like that.

(At one time in my life, my favorite album was Denver's two–record concert album, "An Evening With John Denver." I have it now on CD — thanks to CD technology, it is even better with the addition of half a dozen tracks. It's a pretty good example of what Denver's concerts were like around the time I saw him.

(Speaking to the audience in that album, he encouraged them to "go wherever the music takes you — any time you feel like singing along, as always you're welcome to do that — please limit yourselves to the choruses of the songs and let me do the verses!")

It was well known that he was committed to humanitarian causes, which suggests a generous spirit. It was also known, although perhaps not as widely, that he had had problems with alcohol, which led to other problems in his life.

For some reason — and I don't know why this is so — I got the impression that the dovetailing of his career in the 1980s was connected to his alcohol abuse. Perhaps I read an article that said that.

But that may not have been the case. Perhaps, for whatever reason, people stopped paying attention to him. I know I did, but I don't think it had anything to do with his drinking. My interests changed.

It is true that Denver's best–known songs were recorded and released in the 1970s, but I thought that many of his most thoughtful, most insightful, most meaningful songs were products of the 1980s, when the spotlight seemed to have passed him by — songs like "Perhaps Love," which he recorded with Spanish tenor Placido Domingo, and "Love Again," which he recorded with French singer Sylvie Vartan.

In those later years, after both of his marriages had ended in divorce, including the one that had inspired the phenomenally popular ballad "Annie's Song" at the height of his popularity, his music seemed to speak of his yearning for love and his desire to understand it.

That's a pretty tall order for most of us.

On a Sunday in October in 1997, Denver perished when the private airplane he was piloting crashed in the Pacific Ocean.

(There is, in hindsight, a poignant moment early in that concert album in which Denver speaks of arriving in Los Angeles prior to the concert and going to the beach. "I felt very good," he says, "about being with the ocean again." Since his death, I have often wondered if he felt that same sense of exhilaration in the moments before he died.)

What would he have done in these last 16 years? I don't know. I imagine he would have continued to compose and record. Perhaps he would have found the love of his life and retreated into a comfortable retirement.

Just speculation, of course. Today is merely the 70th anniversary of Denver's birth. He isn't celebrating his birthday. He is no longer living.

But it is beyond dispute that his influence continues to be felt. A few years ago, the Colorado legislature made "Rocky Mountain High" one of two state songs.

And I still hear his music on the radio. Not as often as I once did but more often than you might think.

Perhaps, in a way, he does still live.