I would like to take a minute to talk about a man who would have turned 70 today had he lived, a man whose iconic bowl cut and moon pie face conjured up earthenware pots of apple-cinnamon oatmeal in whole milk all across America and beyond. A man born into this life on Dec. 31, 1943 as Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr, and better known to the world as John Denver.
John Denver turned out to be a surprisingly polarizing figure in his time, the butt of countless jokes and subject of visceral, often graphic contempt, at least to my memory.
Apparently, his crime was being a pie-faced man-child who wrote campfire songs that did well in the charts. But the punishment was for a crime more severe.
You see, in 1974 singer-songwriters were supposed to look like Jim Croce, not Cousin Oliver.
John Denver resembled the wrong guy at the wrong time.
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The early 70s must have been a particularly trying time for young adults. The Summer of Love and Woodstock were just a few years old, but already gone forever. This was now the Watergate era. America had its first lousy economy since the Great Depression, and gas lines at a time when cars couldn’t get any bigger.
They may have phased out the military draft, but the Roman orgy of the Sixties was over, and Seventies America had been conscripted to clean up the mess and work off the bill.
Facing these grim tasks, you wanted better field hollers than “Annie’s Song” to get you through the livelong day. And you had every expectation of getting them.
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The net benefits of the Sixties revolution might not yet have been apparent on the streets of 1974, but the music on the radio remained liberated. The early 70s had a great soundtrack if you liked acoustic guitar ballads with edifying, redemptive lyrics. Songs like “City of New Orleans,” “Heart of Gold,” “Fire and Rain,” “Tangled Up in Blue,” “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” “If I Were A Carpenter,” “Taxi,” “Cat’s In The Cradle.”
By the time the early 70s rolled around, Nixon had won the White House by a landslide, Bob Hope was still hamming it up for the troops in prime time, and Coca-Cola was taking credit for teaching the world to sing in perfect harmony. Meanwhile, King, the Kennedys, the Kent State students, Janis, Jim, and Jimi, were still dead.
If the Sixties were a great leap forward for society, at the dawn of the 70s they still felt like two steps back.
Except for the music.
Music was the one organ that the youth movement and the counterculture had successfully seized for their own, and FM radio was its temple.
Maybe that’s where the John Denver bashing kicks in.
Even if the rest of the world was up the creek in 1974, the singer-songwriter element of rock succeeded in injecting a bit of counterculture into the mainstream.
The post-Folk era wellspring of truth-telling that managed to survive the Summer of Intravenous Drugs and Altamont was channeled into the 70s as singer-songwriters, with Neil Young being the prototype. There was even a crossover with country singers: Hoyt Axton, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, to name a few.
A new consensus was being created. Outlaw country was mixing it up with rock and roll. Edgy folksingers, marginalized after the implosion of the Greenwich Village scene, were finding a place in the mainstream again. CB radio was about to burst onto the scene, with an appeal that undoubtedly stemmed in part from its workingman, breaking-the-law connotations.
“Paranoid” seemed to be a word that entered everyday usage about that time. And people were paranoid alright. They were paranoid that Nixon and Coca-Cola would conspire to successfully co-opt the music like they did everything else. Either that or some agent provocateur from their own side would enter the tent and destroy it from within, like at the 1968 Democratic Convention.
So people were already on edge when John Denver showed up on the scene, and his uncanny ability to send schmaltz up the charts began setting off alarm bells.
Alright, fine. If “Take Me Home, Country Roads” became a surprise hit for a few weeks in 1971, no biggie. It’s a nice song. But after “Country Roads” came a new album with a No. 1 song, and another one, and another one, and even another one. Four No. 1 songs in a row. All of a sudden, old moon face is everywhere, and he’s not going away anytime soon. If anyone’s going to teach the world to sing in mainstream harmony, it’s going to be John Denver, and you’re going to have to get used to it.
The fear was that the mainstream would end up taking over one of the few things the counterculture still owned: The singer-songwriter, whose radio singles could give everyone the feeling of being liberated off the grid and out of the system for a few minutes, even if they were stuck in traffic or a gas line.
The system was still trying to worm its way in on the action. Always trying. It would do so by subtle infiltration. First John Denver, then Pat Boone in denim on the Lawrence Welk Show singing about his own country roads. That was the fear.
For the paranoid, Denver-phobia may have been justifiable, but there were others who jumped on the hate wagon for no other reason than they’re bullies and he’s vulnerable. He’s bespectacled, soft-spoken, and non-confrontational, and their instinctivve response to somebody so non-threatening is to seize the advantage and go for the jugular.
“Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy
Sunshine in my eyes can make me cry
Sunshine on the water looks so lovely
Sunshine almost always makes me high.”
Almost always makes me high. That parsimony is John Denver in a nutshell. It’s not ‘cocaine and groupies always get me off,’ it’s sunshine usually brings me mirth. In a sceneful of Hawkeyes and Trappers, John Denver was Radar O’Reilly.
Robert Plant stuck his bulge in your face, flipped back his hair and belted out falsetto mating calls to the barely legal. John Denver had a bowl-cut, wire-rimmed spectacles, and he wanted to make an honest woman out of your daughter and give you wholesome grandchildren. He became the prototype for the post-Woodstock college boy, the kind you could trust. He may have had a little hippie in him, but he was a Habitat for Humanity hippie, not the kind who drove a van with quadrophonic speakers and ceiling mirrors. John Denver was to radio what John Boy was to TV.
As the Seventies plodded on, the nation fell into a sort of malingering truce. Vietnam was over and the war between fathers and sons ebbed. Long hair and short hair wasn’t worth fighting over any more, and neither was John Denver.
In fact, John Denver began branching out. 1977 was a particularly good year for blockbuster films, and John Denver starred in one of the year’s best, not to mention highest grossing, movies.
Denver starred alongside George Burns in “Oh, God!” He plays Jerry Landers, a quiet, unassuming supermarket manager who is visited by God in the person of George Burns. Everybody, especially his wife, thinks Jerry’s crazy as he informs them that God has chosen him to be his messenger. Jerry loses his job and his dignity, but hangs in there throughout all his tribulations, accepting his fate stoically.
Here’s what Roger Ebert said in his very favorable review that mostly praised George Burns and the writers: “John Denver, too, is well-cast: Sincere, believable, with that face so open and goofy.”
He was in fact very sincere and believable as this hard luck character. But even Ebert can’t resist closing with a one-liner about his looks.
* * *
Flight had been a leitmotif throughout the life of John Denver. He was born to a U.S. Army Air Corps lieutenant who later served in the Air Force. His father, with whom he had a Great Santini-like relationship, taught him how to fly in 1976, an act credited with helping to heal the father-son rift. With his song royalty money, Denver began collecting and flying planes of all sorts.
A space enthusiast, Denver was awarded the NASA Public Service Medal in 1985 for helping to increase global awareness of space exploration. In 1988, he expressed interest in flying aboard a Soviet spacecraft, though their proposed fee of $10 million for the privilege cooled his enthusiasm for the project (the Russian government did end up sending millionaires into space in the 2000s).
From his first breakthrough single as a songwriter, “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” to the titles of subsequent albums, songs, and lyrical content, the theme of flight is everywhere throughout John Denver’s body of music.
Over the course of his lengthy aviary career, which included logging more than 2,700 hours of flight time, Denver had a small number of close calls and controversies. In 1989, he bounced a landing and went completely off the runway before coming to a stop in soft ground and walking away from the incident uninjured. In 1994, he taxied into a parked Cessna.
In 1993 there had been a couple of drunk driving arrests, which threatened Denver’s pilot’s license, but he was allowed to continue flying as long as he completely abstained from alcohol, which he apparently didn’t do for long.
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On Oct. 12 1997, John Denver was trying out a new experimental plane he had recently purchased called a Rutan Long-EZ which, if you ask me, sounds more like a tax form than an aircraft.
The Rutan Long-EZ is a small one-seater less than eight feet tall and 17 feet long, weighing 710 lbs. and with a fuel capacity of 52 gallons, a number that would come into play on Denver’s final flight.
John Denver was making a series of touch and go landings that day at the Monterey Peninsula Airport, when his plane suddenly nose-dived offshore into the Pacific Ocean, killing Denver and disfiguring his body so badly that it could be positively identified only by the fingerprints.
A review of the accident indicated that John Denver had opted to take off without adding fuel to the plane’s dual fuel tanks, which appeared to be 1/4 full and 1/2 full respectively at the start of the flying session. He decided to switch from the emptier tank to the fuller one in mid-flight, which was a problematic maneuver on this aircraft because the previous owner had moved the fuel selector valve switch to a place that could not be reached when the pilot was strapped into the seat. The conclusion was that while trying to manually turn the selector valve, Denver’s foot inadvertently hit a rudder pedal as he tried to secure leverage, causing the aircraft to pitch out of control.
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When I sat down to write this piece I lamented that when the Great Santini did it they called him a hero, but when John Denver did it they made Denver omelet jokes. However, as I examined the research material for this story, I came to realize that John Denver actually has a huge and loyal fan base that far outnumbers and outlasts the cynics.
* * *
“It turns me on to think of growing old.” (from Poems, Prayers, and Promises c. 1971).
John Denver would have turned 70 today. It’s hard not to think that he would have had a lot more to give the world had he had the chance to grow old in it.
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