15 years ago this month, John Denver died in a flying accident.
The first record I ever bought was John Denver's Sunshine on My Shoulders. I probably was in fifth grade or so, and more than thirty-five years later I clearly remember the sleeve. It featured a close-up of a smiling round-face man wearing wire-rim glasses in some sun-lit meadow and holding a hat on his head with one hand. I don't know how I became a fan -- maybe it was because my older sister sang "Country Roads" as part of a high school talent show -- but this was the first of many Denver records I would purchase. I also watched his TV specials, saw Oh God!, and did a book report on his biography. I still remember presenting the shocking information to my classmates that John Denver was really born Henry John Deutschendorf Jr.
Decades before country became a self-consciously cool juggernaut, Denver was singing, "Thank God I'm a Country Boy." He did it with a goofy “aw shucks” manner rather than tight jeans and big hat macho attitude, but this too had a world-wide appeal. Denver was huge. I didn’t realize how popular he was until much later (or how much he had contributed to political and charitable causes).
For me, it wasn’t the country elements of his persona that were appealing, but the western ones. At the same time I was listening to "Rocky Mountain High," I was reading all of Louis L'Amour’s work and the biographers of mountain men. In my Indiana bedroom I would trace the rivers and mountain ranges and recite the names. Medicine Bow. Salmon. Snake. Sweetwater. I may have unconsciously realized that Denver offered a type of role model. I couldn't be a cowboy, trapper, scout, or mountain man, but I could wander around with a guitar. On his t.v. specials, he went all over the world, and he was (or seemed to be) just a regular guy. If he could do it, maybe I could.
Denver offered a sense of optimism and enjoyment. He was (or seemed to be) a non-drinking, non-island Jimmy Buffet. He wasn't angry or rebellious. Rock is supposed to appeal to teens because of its outlet for aggression, but as a pre-teen I wasn't aggressive. There was plenty of aggression around me; I was looking for something else. An alternative. Denver was safe, even sterile and bland, and maybe that was comforting, but he also suggested the possibilities of a larger world.
On one album, Denver sang about a boy "who never learned to read or write so well/but he could play a guitar just like a ringing a bell." Naive about cover songs, when I later heard Chuck Berry doing "Johnny B. Goode," I first thought, "Hey, he stole John's song," and I probably didn’t like this “new” version. Most people would laugh at a Denver cover of Chuck Berry. It's a joke like Pat Boone singing heavy metal tunes or John Wayne playing Genghis Kahn. It's a man not knowing his limitations. Yet, in a way, this also was appealing. Denver sang what he wanted. When he sang "Johnny B. Goode" he wasn't trying to be bad-ass. He liked the song. On Denver albums, I heard the work of John Prine, Kris Kristofferson, Lennon and McCartney, Tom Paxton, in short, great song-writers, and those songs ended up going deep. I still know all the words to “Blow Up Your TV” and “Casey’s Last Ride.”
Denver definitely wasn't cool or edgy. Years ago, one on-going joke in Gary Trudeau's Doonesbury was the fact that Duke, the cartoon persona modeled on Hunter S. Thompson, lived next to Denver in Aspen. The ironic twist was that the drug-taking, violence-addicted, immoral Duke was enraged by Denver's presence. The clean-cut singer was toxic to him and brought the property values down. Being close to Denver damaged your reputation. And so my relationship with Denver had to end by high school when I replaced his albums with edgier, hard-rocking ones, by Styx and Journey. In college, I moved on to Steely Dan, B.B. King, and the Rolling Stones. I discovered soul and blues. I began to value music for its complexity or authenticity or rawness or sophistication or almost any element that Denver didn’t have.
I certainly didn’t talk about Denver in my later years. My early admiration, even adoration, of him was childish. It would be like pointing out that at one point you needed training wheels or were forced to wear water-wings. First loves are often embarrassing, but even more so when the object seems so inconsequential. The teen-age girls screaming for Sinatra or Elvis or The Beatles might be a little ashamed at their behavior later, the fainting and hysteria, but they still must feel, "I was a part of something. I recognized how special they were." No one looks back smugly at singing "Leaving on a Jet Plane" with a twelve year old passion.
And yet, early loves shape us in elemental ways whether we admit it or not.
I began to get a sense of Denver’s importance to me recently when I rewatched Oh God, the film he made with George Burns. Denver's acting is like his singing. Unforced. Casual. Likeable. He isn't trying to be Marlon Brando. He isn't trying to be cool or emoting for an Oscar. And yet, Oh God explores some fundamental questions. Is there a God? How do we know? If you saw him, how could you convince others? What is true spirituality? Denver's character is a grocery store manager to whom God decides to reveal himself and ask to spread the world. No one believes him, and he finds himself frustrated, demoralized, and eventually sued by a televangelist.
Like Denver's music, the movie is not particularly edgy or intellectual. It is ... well-intentioned. At the end, Denver's character has tried to do what is right. He, at least, has forged a personal relationship with God, and, in a reversal, God testifies for him at a trial.
Oh God offers a simple humanism. A statement of responsibility. A plea against hypocrisy, self-righteousness. It also deals with scale. We’re not Moses or Jesus or a president or “great”; we’re average people trying to do what's right.
And that first album that I bought offered a fairly simple world view as well. Sunshine can feel good or make you cry depending on where it touches you. It sounds ridiculous, naïve, sentimental, and it is. But it insists on the importance of the physical body and its relationship to the physical world. It’s a hymn to corporeality, to this world.
In Hi Fidelity, the narrator Rob Fleming wonders, “Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?” For me, it was the opposite. Did I listen to Denver because, despite my seemingly cynical exterior, I’m fundamentally an optimist? Or am I optimistic because I listened to this music.
Sure Denver may offer a faux wonder at how gosh-darn far-out the world is, but there’s a real wonder there as well. And, it’s an attitude and music that I still carry in my head, and, frankly, in my heart.