I was surfing YouTube the other night, and I came across the one celebrity over whose death I wept. Tuesday, October 12 marks the 24th anniversary of the death of John Denver. He passed away on a Saturday afternoon in a terrible plane crash over the Pacific Ocean—why do so many song artists die that way? I poured a glass of Glenlivet Scotch, sat down in my rocking chair, put on some John Denver tunes and cried like a baby.
You’re probably wondering why or are at least a little surprised. After all, his struggle with the bottle and his ofttimes shattered personal life were the fodder for tabloids. But he was so much more than his frailties, and I want to tell you why.
Why John Denver Was A Great Musician
Before I do, it’s worth remembering that he has been gone from us for as many years as he was a famous recording star. He flashed onto the music scene as a superstar when I was a high school junior in 1972 and held that position through the ‘70s. Superstardom never lasts long, but he remained an active composer and singer up until his death. I remember seeing him several times in concert—more about that later. His death was major news, and many grieved his loss. So, what was so great about him that I raised a glass at his passing and shed some tears? Here’s what I know:
- His early songs were fun, with more than a hint of country. His favorite early saying, “Far out!” was the last clarion call of the ‘60s generation. The mystical bent of his hit “Rocky Mountain High” gave a hint of how his music would later mature. He sold millions of records and looked goofy with his mop of straw-colored hair and huge glasses that made him appear like one of your friends who was the class nerd. He was just one of us when he appeared as the supermarket manager who happened to meet the Creator, played by George Burns, in the hit comedy film, Oh God!
- As his popularity died down, his music grew up. Themes of love and nature continued but deepened. There was a sadness that crept in but also a growing awe of the power of the environment and the cosmos. If Robert Frost was the poet of nature, and Ansel Adams the photographer of landscape beauty, then Denver was the troubadour of the environment, singing about mountains, space, sea, forests and the creatures that inhabit our planet, especially the fascinating humans he met. His mature music could lift heart and soul and become a true spiritual experience.
- Except that he was not appreciated by the intelligentsia who always thought him rather naïve and not really belonging to them. To this day, you seldom hear his music on the airwaves though his songs continue to sell and be popular among ordinary people. His music lives with families, with car trips, in bars and wherever people gather. Write something on YouTube or Facebook about Denver and hundreds of people will chime in touched by his memory and moved by his work.
- Even if the powers that be didn’t appreciate him, he still managed to win awards. He won two Grammys, an Emmy, had 15 platinum albums, had 4 number one songs and 3 number one albums, had “Rocky Mountain High” named as the Colorado State Song, had “Take Me Home Country Roads” named the state song of West Virginia, and later in life was named Poet Laureate of Colorado. All those honors were done by the sweat of his brow, not by the accolades of the music critics.
- What made him great was his simplicity and innocence in his music compositions—in other words, he had a positive and optimistic outlook on the human race. What made him great was his naturally good voice—never autotuned like so many modern performers, and his giftedness as a musician and a performer. He had a way of connecting with an audience, staying on stage for hours without taking a break. If you went to a John Denver concert, you sang, you clapped, you laughed and you left with the feeling that despite the darkness sometimes present, all was right with the world.
- While not professing any particular religious denomination, he was none the less Christian in his values. Primarily he was a spiritual person, moved to recognize God through nature. Perhaps we should call him a spiritual humanist.
John Denver May Be Gone, But His Songs Live Forever
Maybe you are wondering why I am bothering to write this on the anniversary of his death. I write because he should be remembered and his life celebrated and his music performed for many years to come. I miss him. When he died, part of music died as well and no one has really taken his place. Looking back, I see he really was a superstar, a giant and genius in the type of music that sticks with people, the type of music you sing around a campfire, or at a wedding, or in the car, or with a bottle of beer with your buds at the bar. I guess I write about him because I am a better person for having experienced him and his music.
John Denver was an old soul already at age 53 when he passed away. One of his later songs really expresses this well. It’s called “Whispering Jesse” and it’s about an old cowboy reminiscing on his life. He’s dying in the city, which, for Denver, always stands for the blindness and lack of love that often inflicts humanity. The old cowboy says:
I often have wandered in deep contemplation
It seems that the mind runs wild when you’re all alone.
The ways that it could be, the ways that it should be,
The things I’d do differently if I could do them again.
He has the cowboy say:
I sleep in the city now, away from my mountains
Away from the cabin we always called home.
And then in one of the most heart-wrenching verses Denver ever wrote, he has the cowboy reminisce about the woman he once loved and who loved him:
I dreamed that I left there, on an old Palomino,
And Whispering Jesse rode right by my side.
I longed to hold her, to hear her soft breathing
The touch of her cool hands on my fevered brow.
Finally, as only John Denver could do, he redeems that sadness with a joy in the heart of the dying cowboy:
Still rides in the mountains
She still sings in the canyons,
Still lives in my heart.
Ah, Johnny we hardly knew ye’. Rest in peace. May you be remembered by many and forgotten by few. And may the music you created always live in our hearts.