This blog is officially "retired," but my other blog,
"The Lair of the Silver Fox," is still open for business!

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Goodbye Again

Hang on tight, people! This evening's post threatens to be even more self-indulgent than usual!

If John Denver were still alive, today would be his 65th birthday.

It fell upon Howard Stern to inform me of Mr. Denver's death. (No, I didn't get a personal phone call, silly!) I was a regular listener to Stern's show at that time, and during the show, Stern very casually commented "John Denver is dead" -- evidently not the first time he'd said it during that broadcast, but the first time I'd heard it -- with about as much emotion as someone would use announcing that they'd fed their dog before leaving for work that day.

Denver died in the crash of a small airplane on October 12, 1997. Details were pretty gruesome. Identification was next to impossible, and there are several parts of the man's body that are forever missing.

On my drive home -- which is when I would listen to Stern's radio program -- I couldn't help thinking back to the mid-1970s, when John Denver had not only been at the height of his popularity, but was the best-selling recording artist in the USA. His predominantly mellow music was a hybrid of styles. It was folk music... kinda. It was country & western... sorta. It was pop music as well. And it struck a chord -- pun intended -- with an America that was more laid back than its 1960s counterpart.

The Mitchell Trio, sans Mitchell, on The Mike Douglas Show, 1968

I'd first heard of John Denver when I was an eleven-year-old kid. One afternoon in July of 1968, I was watching a syndicated talk show called The Mike Douglas Show. Among that day's guests were three young gents performing as The Mitchell Trio.

In 1968, my knowledge of folk musicians was limited to Arlo Guthrie, Pete Seeger, The Smothers Brothers, the trio of Peter, Paul, and Mary, and some guy named Dylan (before he went electric). So I neither knew nor cared that The Mitchell Trio was originally The Chad Mitchell Trio. They'd kept the "Mitchell" but dropped the "Chad" at about the time that Chad himself left the group in 1965.

Mitchell had been replaced by a guy who was born Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr., but had changed his stage name to John Denver. Not sure why...

By their 1968 appearance on Mike Douglas' show, The Mitchell Trio no longer had any of its original members. On that very show, John Denver announced that the group had re-named itself after the three current members, David Boise, Michael Johnson, and Denver himself. The new name was "Denver, Boise, and Johnson." Mr. Douglas ended the segment with some encouraging statement like "I'm sure we'll be hearing a lot of that name in the years to come."

Well... as it happened... not so much.

The trio of Denver, Boise, and Johnson did do some recording and touring, but nothing that ever caught my eye... or ear... worldly little cuss that I was.

But when Peter, Paul, and Mary had a 1969 hit with "Leaving on a Jet Plane," label-reading me glanced at the credits for their 1967 LP, "Album 1700," and saw that the song had been written by a certain John Denver. Hey, that's that young guy with the glasses! thought I.


I found this little 1969 gem on the 'net: John Denver "helping" Peter, Paul,
and Mary perform the song that he wrote! (And don'tcha just love the way
some absolute butt-head inserted an advertisement into the performance?)

I next saw Denver performing the Beatles' song "Let It Be" on the This Is Tom Jones! program in 1971. This was about the time when "Take Me Home, Country Roads" -- the first huge hit for Denver -- was released. (Both appeared on the same album, "Poems, Prayers, & Promises.")

John Denver was no longer "my" little secret.

Follow-up hits like "Rocky Mountain High" and "Sunshine on my Shoulders" insured that Denver was a huge success by the time my high school years neared their end. I attended a concert of his in Boston -- my first ever -- during my senior year. I bought his new albums as they came out, and purchased several of his earlier efforts as well. I was pleasantly surprised by the interesting and offbeat album cuts I encountered, such as "The Box," "Junk," "Wooden Indian," "Tools" (about a baby rabbit), "Blow Up Your TV," and "Readjustment Blues."

And only John Denver could have gotten away with songs like "Grandma's Feather Bed."

I was a big fan, perhaps because his songs spoke to me at an age when I hadn't yet surrendered my own idealism. It inspired the frame of mind which convinced me to drive my very first car -- an incredibly rusty, beat-up 1964 Plymouth Belvedere -- all the way to, and through, New Hampshire's White Mountains. And back again, although I'll never know how the old Plymouth made it.

(And this was when the "Old Man of the Mountains," also known as "The Great Stone Face," still protruded proudly from Cannon Mountain!)

Yep. I was a big fan. I suppose that it didn't hurt that I was easily able to mimic Denver's clear, high-pitched voice, an imitation which often impressed those either listening to me singing along with his records, or those who heard me singing his songs on my own. And this was years before I ever sang professionally.

Denver's "gee-golly-gosh" upbeat attitude and old-fashioned manners -- notice, if you will, how he calls Johnny Carson "sir" in the following clip from 1974 -- were easy enough to parody. (Actually, in his case, "Far out!" was Denver's catch-phrase.) However, much like someone similarly teased (namely, Fred "Mister Rogers" Rogers), Denver's easy-going, optimistic persona was authentic.



As the '70s gave way to the '80s, Denver altered his appearance somewhat, as well as the public "persona" I mentioned. He did away with his trademarked Dutch Boy hairstyle, and traded the "granny glasses" for contact lenses. His outward attitude was slightly less happy-go-lucky. Perhaps he wanted to project a more serious image, in accordance with his increasing involvement in various social and political causes. (Or, hell, perhaps it's just because he was getting older. So it goes.)

(In a small aside here, I have to admit that I was absolutely delighted when, in 1985, Denver sided with the likes of Frank Zappa and Twisted Sister's Dee Snider in opposing the aims of "Tipper" Gore and the censorship-happy Parents Music Resource Center. The PMRC was expecting Denver to be just as affronted by so-called "offensive" music lyrics as they were. Not so. Denver was adamantly against censorship of any kind, unlike some hypocrites who defend their own output while throwing others to the proverbial wolves. Class act, Mr. D.)

I was quite stunned upon hearing of his death. On my way home, in a very strange, paradoxical way of coping -- perhaps inspired by Howard Stern's irreverence toward most subjects, not just Denver's death -- I composed a morbid version of "Take Me Home, Country Roads" (well... one verse and two choruses, anyway), an admittedly offensive song that would justifiably arouse the ire of any who profess to be a John Denver fan, and...

What?

What?

No! I'm not going to write those lyrics here. Not now, certainly.

So... I suppose this is as good a time as any to...

Thank you for your time.


9 comments:

bacon ace said...

The post was too long, I'll read it tomorrow. Happy New Year Davey!

David'Z RantZ said...

I agree! There are much better things to be doing at this time of night on New Year's Eve than sit in front of a computer, reading...

Umm...

Never mind.

Happy New Year 2009. Cake says it's going to be better than 2008. She'd better be right, or else!

Redbeard76 said...

From Super Troopers:

Farva: In 1974 the great Charlie Rich won country musician of the year award, in 1975 he had to pass that award on and do you know to who? Mr. Sunshine on my god damn shoulders, John Denver, yeah can you believe it replaced by John ****ing Denver. I'll be damned if Mr. Rich didn't take out his lighter and light that award on fire in front of everybody right there ...

Ishat's Fire and Ice said...

Very nice tribute.

I was a wee one when he was on The Muppet Show.

You are right, the age was perfect for his attitude.

And what was wrong with Grandma's Feather Bed? I vaguely remember him doing it on the Muppets. Seemed innocent enough.

Sparkle Plenty said...

No time to comment at the moment, but: HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!

Sparkle Plenty said...

Damn. I just commented, huh? Liar pants on fi-yar.

David'Z RantZ said...

Sparkle: Back atcha, cutie-pie. And if it's not a good year, we all get to blame Cake.

Ishat: Thanks. In the month of December, we lost, like, 47 celebrities, and I do a tribute to a guy who died eleven years ago! Priorities...

You're right, "Grandma's Feather Bed" was innocent. Almost too innocent, if that's possible, and that was what I meant by saying that only Denver "could have gotten away with" a song like that. I mean, who the hell would even want to hear a song about a bunch of little kids -- and "four hound dogs and a piggy" -- cavorting on a huge feather bed? John Denver fans, that's who!

Redbeard! Welcome back! Yeah, that Charlie Rich incident was pretty controversial at the time. Some say it was less of a slur against Denver personally as it was a statement about how C&W was being corrupted by a lot of pop crossover stuff... although Rich was no one to talk, since he'd had his share of some really cool crossover songs himself by that time. I never really considered Denver to be a country artist, but by the time he hit the peak of his popularity, the whole "folk music" label had pretty much fallen by the wayside (kinda like the awkward feeling I get whenever someone refers to a recent dance tune as a "disco" song).

And speaking of Charlie Rich... He's the guy who stole my "Silver Fox" title! And he had the nerve to steal it from me more than thirty years before I even started using it! (Sooner or later, you just know I'm gonna use a photo of him as my ever-changing profile pic, right?)

Anonymous said...

I before e except after c.

David'Z RantZ said...

Tell that to Einstein.

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