Almost Heaven (Once)

Bird feathers were found commingled in the recovered wreckage. The curator of the local Museum of Natural History was asked to view the feathers during the wreckage examination. A seat cushion determined to be from the airplane was found torn open. According to the cushion material tag, it was filled with goose feathers; however, the curator also found duck feathers in the cushion. The cushion feathers matched the ones found commingled with the wreckage.[from the National Transportation Safety Board’s inquiry into the flight in which John Denver was killed.]

It really is a pity that the National Transportation Safety Board was forced to cite the goose and the duck (rather than the eagle and the hawk) as possible explanations for John Denver’s death. Symbolic raptors were commingled with Denver’s lifeblood, and their theme song became the melodic crescendo of his career. In any case, birds had nothing to do with the tragic crash: it was either an awkward full turn in his pilot seat (this is what the NTSB concluded), or — as many still believe — a poetic suicide attempt. Denver’s career was launched skyward by “Leaving on a Jet Plane”, and he was gliding airborne through the ’70s, but he plunged into irrelevance and a lake of firewater in the ’80s and ’90s, until, at the very end, drowning was second nature for this former mountaintop skygazer. But let’s weep later: Denver himself probably would have looked at the NTSB report, grinned, and tossed off that eternal line from his concerts: “Life ain’t nothing but a funny, funny riddle”.

Eight years after his death, we get reissues. No, his music hasn’t returned to relevance, nor has any neofolkie cited Denver as a seminal influence. These remastered CDs have arrived for that recurring reason: they were sitting in the back catalog, and surely an audience remains. Me, I come not to praise Denver, but to bury him: after many hours listening and relistening to these CDs I have to conclude that his work is now irrelevant and timebound. Even still, he did record one of the greatest singles in the history of recorded sound, and that alone gives him a singular place in my heart. Our hearts.

Referenced records:
John Denver
Rhymes & Reasons
Original US Release Date: October 1969
US Reissue Date: 7 June 2005

John Denver’s Greatest Hits
Original US Release Date: November 1973
US Reissue Date: 7 June 2005

Back Home Again
Original US Release Date: June 1974
US Reissue Date: 7 June 2005

The saga of Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr. has been oft retold: air force brat becomes folkie, changes name, joins the Chad Mitchell Trio, goes solo, pens smash hit, and soon the world is at his fingertips. If the late ’60s were a time of phony and deluded innocence, well then that’s what Denver was selling, and he kept on shoveling it at us through the ’70s until the Muppets and God (played by George Burns) cast him into irrelevance, again.

Granted there were others like him: Cat Stevens, Gordon Lightfoot, Melissa Manchester, James Taylor – a whole goddamn stormfront of twinkletoe tumbleweeds who wanted to be superstars. But Denver was different. For one thing, his fetish for nearly blank symbols (mountains, airplanes, water, eagles, being “high”) meant that he craved a mass audience from day one. He loved melody, but the melodies that defined him (“Annie’s Song”, “Leaving on a Jet Plane”) sound utterly childlike, more Raffi than Neil Young, and therefore ripe for parody.

And let’s not forget that the man was a throbbing bag of neuroses and male chauvinism. He was, essentially, a rigid, clenched singer whose normal-sized heart he wore on an over-sized sleeve. You could see the strain in that odd, pinched half-smile and unbending straight-legged performance posture. A song like “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” requires that one’s knees be yanked above the chest and a hoedown thereby commence, but all Denver did was break out a fiddle and sorta stand there like a dazed Henny Youngman, singing and grinning the song. There was something off about it all, something phony and calculated.

In fact, the Raffi comparison grows with time: both artists were adept at composing or stumbling upon these silly intoxicating escapist tunes which stop your brain cold and start autohypnotic singing. Me, I’ll take Raffi’s “Willoughby Wallaby Woo” over “Grandma’s Feather Bed” any day, but the communion between them — both in attitude and attack — should impress future historians of ’70s birdbrain folk (a genre that I think only includes Denver).

Rhymes & Reason
Denver’s solo debut, Rhymes & Reason, hit the racks in October 1969, and stayed there. Barely grazing the Billboard Top 200 for about three weeks, few people heard the album at the time, and only diehard fans would bother to seek it out later. Really, it’s a mediocre thicket of minstrelsy; it’s trapped in time and unintentionally funny. Cue up “Catch Another Butterfly” or “Today is the First Day of the Rest of My Life (Sugacity)” and you will hear a record that captures a silly — and quickly extinguished — dweeb-folkie aesthetic, and that’s all you get.

The highlights are “Leaving on a Jet Plane”, a weenie nimbus of codependence and preflight jitters (covered in a saner, superior version by Peter, Paul, and Mary later that year) and “Daydream”, showcasing his future talent for ostentatious melody. The losers are a hiccupping cover of “When I’m Sixty-Four” and the title track. There are no mountains yet, nor any of that getting “high” or Gerald Ford (though Spiro and Tricky Dick make appearances in the track list) or Annie or Cousteau or any cultural references of the time that would turn Denver into an important entertainer. The best part about the record, actually, is his uncanny resemblance to Austin Powers International Man of Mystery on the sleeve. If you’re a devoted fan, buy it, otherwise this reissue is just unnecessary.

Sunshine on My Hippocampus
After Rhymes and Reasons, Denver recorded five more albums in five years and scored a handful of Top 40 hits. John Denver’s Greatest Hits — originally released in late 1973 — still seemed a tad premature. And in fact, this CD reissue is a bit nonsensical, unless you factor in historical value. The year of Watergate and the End of Vietnam was also the Year of John Denver in many ways, and this early compilation secured his brief reign at the top of the singer-songwriter pile. None of his peers — not James Taylor, nor Carole King, not Gordon Lightfoot (but maybe Cat Stevens) — could have cobbled together an early collection with this level of tune density.

And we gotta factor in revisionism: most of the tracks were rerecorded for this collection in order to focus in on Denver’s new, improved voice and Lee Holdridge’s string arrangements. Now, I don’t have the stomach to go back and compare all the tracks here with the originals, though I will report that “Leaving on a Jet Plane” sounds marginally less neurotic here, as if he’s stepped back from it as a “personal” song and is now just filtering a classic through his stadium-ready larynx. The rest of the songs, well you know them well.

“Sunshine on My Shoulders” gets the post-Vietnam mood just right, because it’s a total downer for such an upbeat theme. “Rocky Mountain High” is stoner heaven, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Sure, the opening guitar lick is much more fascinating than the fact that “the shadow from the starlight is softer than a lullaby”, but just try to get it out of your baked skull. “The Eagle and the Hawk” has to be the most ostentatious melody of Denver’s career, and that’s saying something. It’s comforting to hear him offer blood on the hawk’s feathers in order to undercut the overall banal symbolism, but banality is what surging string arrangements are made for. Most of the tracks here are dated and a little bit funny, but only one track is unforgivable: “Follow Me” might sound like the worst kind of male chauvinism (“Make it part of you to be a part of me”, etc.), but it’s also, again, the product of a deeply insecure mind. And that saccharine melody is sonic psoriasis, an itch that won’t disappear and rips you until you bleed if you think about it. If any John Denver song needs expunging from his canon, “Follow Me” is it.

Almost Heaven
Nice melodies, interesting neuroses, death-defying symbols. But the reason to buy John Denver’s Greatest Hits is that it contains the man’s single greatest contribution to civilization. And he didn’t even write it. Denver crooned a lot of earworm sap in his time, most of it thankfully rotted on the vine, but “Take Me Home, Country Roads” is a rare example of communal genius conjured up by a coupla softies. The song is a shared dream, like that little twist in your stomach as you shake off the sleep and grip your face with pain at how far you’ve strayed. “Driving down the road I get a feelin’ that I shoulda been home yesterday”, and those muddy voices — all of ’em — have grabbed your four chambers and mushed up your hippocampus all in one verse, which means this song can never sink into the background. You can thank Bill Danoff and Terry Nivert (future masterminds behind “Afternoon Delight”) for writing it and singing in the background, and you can thank folkie mastermind Milt Okun (who rarely gets thanks these days) for the ghostly canary-in-the-coalshaft production. But Denver should get props for subsuming his considerable ego in a singalong where you can barely tell he’s there. Yeah, that’s his voice alright, but its sober anonymity serves the song.

Let it be said that neither Danoff nor Denver had ever visited West Virginia, and that their creation of this inadvertent state anthem was something of a calculated accident. Two folkies working the D.C. circuit and aiming for that fake authenticity, they ended up with one of America’s rare eternal songs, a tune that rivals “This Land is Your Land” as the definitive 20th century hardscrabble anthem. It is apolitical, sure, but it’s also strangely grounded in a sense of poverty and wandering that applies to all contexts. Yes, it’s a shame John Denver became such a joke over time, because this track seems to have become smothered in his saccharine reputation, and it deserves so much more. Listen to it again (this version: the well-meaning covers by folks like Johnny Cash and Toots kinda miss the point), and be surprised.

Come Fill Me Again
OK, here I’ve been listening to John Denver for days, and only after I listened to his 1974 classic post-Greatest Hits follow-up Back Home Again over and over did I realize that at the time Denver was singing, he appealed to a need for optimism from a largely hippie-composed audience. Nowadays, his home of Aspen, Colorado, rivals Marin County for its wrongheaded elitism. The “home” Denver sings of in this album does not mean Roswell, New Mexico, where he was born (he was three when the UFO crashed).

Alas, this album heard in today’s context is, well, drippy and dippy and yucky. Start with the front sleeve, where John Denver’s relationship with his wife Annie (to whom the record is dedicated) is demonstrated in this awkward pose where he’s kinda half-turned away from her with his left hand dangling near his crotch, while she leans in with a worried smile and claps her hand on his thigh. It is a sad photo of an obviously doomed couple, and the big hit herein, “Annie’s Song” (composed on a ski lift) just sounds like a comical overproduced sham when you’re staring at that picture. “Let me drown in your laughter, let me die in your arms”, now what the hell would a hard-working wife today make of that crazy couplet? And I’m not even going to address the horror of pea brained lullabies such as “The Music is You” and “Eclipse”.

There are a couple groovy tunes to be had, though. “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” tops the short list, and thank writer John Martin Sommers for the eternal line. “Life ain’t nothing but a funny funny riddle”. I also dig “Cool an’ Green an’ Shady” despite the crap ’70s vibe. But even “Grandma’s Feather Bed” is weirdly attenuated and not very funny in this staid studio version. And “Matthew” is just a lie: “joy was just a thing he was raised on” doesn’t ring true for what appears to be a farm kid who had to work his ass off behind a mule once dad let him off his shoulders.

After Back Home Again Denver recorded lots more albums with asymptotic-to-zero chart trends, and he had a couple more hits (the Jacques Cousteau homage “Calypso” the silliest of them all), showed up for some great Muppets collaborations, which prompted him to attempt an acting career. He’d also testify, along with Dee Snider and Frank Zappa, at the PMRC-instigated Senate hearings about obscenity in music. Then there was drinking, lots of it, and what appeared to be a sad downward spiral, the details of which I’ll leave for dishier commentators. When he died I think a lot of us had forgotten Denver existed, and the twinge that came when we heard about his fatal nosedive into the Pacific was not just pity but a forgotten nostalgia for that fake, bright, sunny decade, the ’70s.

Today, John Denver is a minstrel shade wandering the grim caverns of Hades, and I guarantee that his eternal “Take Me Home, Country Roads” still causes hearts to crumple even in that unreachable, unspeakable place. “Almost heaven”, that’s what the old fans call that song. And for them, it always will be.

RATING 2 / 10