April 13, 2010

John Denver - An Appreciation


By Kurt Brokaw, Culture Editor

Of all the artists I worked with at RCA Records as creative director of advertising and sales promotion in the late 60s and early 70s, John Denver was the nicest. Whenever he came in to RCA's headquarters on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan, he came in without an attitude and without a laundry list of gimme's.

He was a newcomer--the poems-prayers-and-promises kid--and sitting across from me on the big pillows we'd replaced my office furniture with, he was totally without guile. I believed in him, and I believed in his music, because he really was concerned and serious about keeping those Rocky Mountains (and increasingly many of the world's most endangered environs) pure and clean. Living in Aspen, John was surely the only singer/songwriter of the era who could title a song "Rocky Mountain High" and tell the adult world with a straight face that he was writing about a natural and not a drug-induced high.


In fact, that's what he had to do. In 1985 the Federal Communications Commission briefly investigated radio stations broadcasting lyrics that promoted or exalted drug use. John testified before Congress in the Parents Music Resource Center hearings, stating that he was writing about "the (wondrous) Perseids meteor shower on a moonless, cloudless night, when there are so many stars that you have a shadow from the starlight," and other, natural celebrations of life. For years "Rocky Mountain High" was known as Colorado's unofficial state song, and two months ago the Colorado General Assembly made it one of two official state songs, sharing the honor with "Where the Columbines Grow." What a sad irony, one John would have recognized and certainly honored.

It's a measure of how much I valued John Denver's music that when Mona and I married in 1980 on the lawn of the Bird and Bottle Inn up in Garrison, I tasked a close friend to sing John's tender ballad, "Annie's Song," to us and our guests. Like many poets on the pop scene, John was a confessional writer, and you could follow his life's triumphs and defeats, his victories and sadnesses, in his music. "Let me die in your arms," was his wish to Annie, and while his death would eventually come in the small plane he owned, piloted and lost control of, the wish hasn't lost its resonance for those of us who are partly stuck in earlier, simpler eras.


One of the ads I wrote for John was for his "Aerie" album, For the headline, we used a lyric, "Reach for the heavens and hope for the future and all that we can be and not what we are." The copy talks about John's collaborations with Bill Danoff his covers on work by John Prine and Kris Kristofferson, his lovely "Friends With You," "All of My Memories" and the exquisite "Starwood in Aspen." There's a hoo-hah delight called "Blow Up Your TV" and there's even a 60-second jingle for a bank. Denver was a purist, but he had a country boy's sly sense of humor, too.

"Hope, and truth well told," the copy concludes. That was my take on this guy over three decades ago, and today it holds stronger than ever.


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