John Denver – Love Songs of Oceans and Mountains

We should live as one with nature and its every being.
We should do our very best to eradicate hunger from this world.
I dedicate my life and music for that world peace.
- John Denver

It is sheer coincidence that many of my favourite musicians from different eras were named John. From western classical music geniuses of past centuries like Johann Sebastian Bach, Johannes Pachelbel and Johannes Brahms to the Pop Music icons of twentieth century like John Lennon and Johny Cash. Elton John and John Mellencamp are my favourites. There are many more Johns like John Legend, an Afro American singer in his thirties now, John Meyer, the young Guitar legend and Olivia Newton John, one of the most beautiful looking female singers I have come across. But among all Johns I am emotionally closest to the American Folk and Country composer, lyricist and singer John Denver.

It may be that he was the artiste who consoled me with his emotional songs when in a sensitive moment I felt lost and wrecked by a failed love. Or it may be the many surprising facts of his life that I came to know of in my teens. It was an emotional attachment which started with a tremor experienced in my native village.

It was a forenoon. I was sitting in the grocery shop of a friend. Suddenly the whole building was shaken by a strong tremor. Groceries on the shelves fell down and scattered. I sprang out into the street even before I knew what was happening. On the street I watched people stampeding out of buildings and houses in terror. An earthquake of high intensity had taken place. People had experienced the tremor and were shivering in fright. Nobody had died but many buildings had cracks to show. There was considerable material loss. Though our district was accustomed to slight tremors on a regular basis that was the first time I experienced an earthquake.

It was at this time that I met a John who had nothing to do with music. Peruvanthanam John was addressing a street corner meeting with nobody to listen to him. One or two persons were sitting on the chairs placed on the pavement. John, short and slightly built, was speaking in front of the mike. He might have been around 25. His was a lacklustre speech. But when I realized that he was speaking on the frequent tremors taking place in our district, I listened. He was an environmentalist and an agitator for the cause.

Our District had Asia’s biggest Arch Dam at Idukki and including the ever controversial Mullapperiyar Dam, over ten dams and their associate water reservoirs. John was explaining how the pressure exerted by such reservoirs over a large area of sensitive tectonic plate spread over Western Ghats was the cause of tremors in the valleys and areas around reservoirs. He illustrated this citing the example of Koyna earthquake in Maharashtra where Koyna Dam was its cause and casualty.

Koyna Dam was built in 1963, 200 kms. South east of Mumbai. The area around the dam experienced a quake measured 7.00 on the Richter scale, early morning at 4.20 AM on December 11 of 1967. The floods caused by consequent dam-burst took 200 lives. 3000 were injured and over 5000 lost their homes.

John’s speech stressed on the need to conserve and protect the rivers and forests that remained. I was shocked into awareness of the need to conserve. I spoke to John after the meeting when he explained to me about the potential dangers that our area faced. In that moment in my life, I became an aware conservationist and environmentally aware citizen. Government of Kerala had grandiose plans to dam all the remaining rivers in Kerala. I felt the need to do something immediately. I joined John’s group of agitators and traveled to different parts of Kerala addressing public meetings and initiating struggles against construction of dams.

John had a big collection of books and literature on environmental problems in different parts of the world. I learnt about John Denver from them for the first time. He was the first music super star to have spoken and actively participated in the struggles for conservation of environment. He had actively participated in humanitarian causes like A World without Hunger. But apart from his identity as an American music star, those books did not have anything on his contributions to music. I had this yearning to listen to his music right then, but I had no means of doing it.

Many years later, I had the occasion to hear Denver’s tapes when I was living in Hyderabad. As I was listening to them I had this uncanny feeling that I was listening to a music I was acquainted with all along. As I listened, I realized how important he was as a singer and music artiste to the world of music. His guitar’s resonance was the best acoustic guitar sound I had heard in popular music. He lived among the seventies generation steeped in disco and step dance music with a fast beat. But he never ever attempted to create the fast music dedicated solely to dance. There were those who would satirize his creations as slow blues. But his music stands tall well past all the movements of dance music of three decades.

Even though his was melodies that filled the heart rather than moving the feet, John Denver was to seventies what Frank Sinatra was to the forties, Elvis Presley was to fifties and John Lennon’s Beatles was to sixties. His were albums that sold most world-wide after Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson and Frank Sinatra. His albums had sold 120 million copies till last year. John Denver achieved all these heights without following any of the contemporary trends in music but just on the strength of his melodies.

In spite of being generally classified as a Folk and Country music artiste, his is a music that defies such facile classifications of easy-going critics. His music is a unique acoustic expression with a blend of country and western music with touches of rock without electric or electronic instrumentation. Soulful rendering steeped in melodic compositions was his appeal. His music had deep expressions of love, but it reflected social consciousness on an emotional platform more intensively and insistently. In the early sixties he had expressed his higher goals through his empathetic and purposeful music. His music wa totally devoid of violence.

John Denver’s was a personality with a rare blend of successful life-long roles as Composer, lyricist, singer, actor, active environmentalist and vanguard of humanitarian causes. His songs, woven with compassion, brought life to tired minds. Many of his numbers openly spoke of his love of nature and of pure life lived in consonance with nature. His songs were in praise of nature’s bounty and the beauty of its giving.

Let us look at his song ‘I'd Rather be a Cowboy’. The girl he loves insists on their going to the city. But he bids good bye to the girl telling her that he would rather stay in his mountain hamlet. The song goes like this:
….I think I'd rather be a cowboy
I'd rather live on the side of a mountain
Than wander through canyons of concrete and steel
I'd rather laugh with the rain and sun shine
And lay down my sundown in some starry field...

All his great hit songs like ‘Rocky Mountain Highs’, ‘Sunshine On My Shoulders’, ‘Take Me Home Country Roads’, ‘Thank God I’m a Country Boy’, ‘Wild Montana Skies’, ‘Back Home Again’ and ‘Mother Nature’s Son’ declare his unbounded love of nature. Even his famous love song ‘Annie’s Song’ proclaims:
…..You fill up my senses
Like a night in the forest
Like the mountains in springtime
Like a walk in the hill rain
Like a storm in the desert
Like a sleepy blue ocean
You fill up my senses
Come fill me again….

John Denver’s real surname Deutschendorf stands for ‘A German Village’. He was given this surname as his father was of German origin and his mother had a mixed Scottish-Irish-German lineage. He was born in 1943 in the town of Roswell in New Mexico. His father was a pilot in Air Force. Because of his father’s frequent transfer postings he had stayed in many different states of United States of America and even in Japan for a few years. Since he did not stay in any one place for long John grew up as a lonely person without any long standing friend.

He had frequent arguments with his father who did not know how to show affection to children. He was happier staying at his mother’s place. He heard the country music of the period there. His maternal grandmother not only fostered and guided his musical bent of mind but also gifted her Gibson guitar of 40 years vintage to him. John was 11 years old then. John’s father hated music. He insisted that John earn his keep by working in the farm instead of wasting time on pastimes like music. Arguments grew till one day John ran away from their then home in Texas, driving away in his father’s car to California at the age of sixteen. John had expected that their family friends in California will help him to pursue music as career. But his father flew in there ahead of John and literally dragged him back by the scruff of his neck to admit him back in school.

A few years later in 1964 he went back to California leaving his study of architecture midway. It was a time when country music and Rock music trends were growing fast in California. It was there that he dropped his difficult to pronounce surname Deutschendorff and adopted Denver, the capital city of his favourite mountain state of Colorado, as his surname. The name John Denver testified to his attraction towards the mountainous west of America.

He composed and sang in the night clubs and in the company of small music bands. He got a chance to audition his voice to join the famous music troupe of Chad Mitchel Trio of Washington after two years of struggle. In those days Chad Mitchel Trio was famous performing troupe on College campuses and restaurants circle. John was selected to join this troupe from among 250 singers. After the founder and lead singer Chad Mitchel left the troupe, John Denver became the lead singer of the band also playing both Banjo and Guitar. He spent two years with them honing his talent and learning the ways of the stage. This was the seminal moment of his life when he wrote the lyrics and composed music for his famous maiden song ‘Leaving on a Jet Plane’.

With meager savings from his earnings as the singer of the troupe, he recorded his first music album. He made 250 copies and mailed it to all the addresses he knew. He personally presented copies to people he knew to be music lovers. A famous folk band trio of New York named Peter, Paul and Mary heard the album and loved the song ‘Leaving on a Jet Plane’. When they recorded the song and released it, it topped the chart of the famous Billboards list. It was the time of Vietnam War and many saw the song as the song of soldiers bidding goodbye as they emplaned to go to war in Vietnam. Though his song touched the emotional chord of America, for John Denver success was still a distant dream.

He fell deeply in love with a beautiful student, Annie Martell, during a music show in a college campus. They got married the following year. He immortalized his wife, whom he wooed and wed, with his famous love song ‘Annie’s Song’. He left Chad Mitchel Trio and embarked on his music journey as a solo artiste. After many a struggle, he secured a contract of Recording from RCA, who had released the songs of Elvis Presley. He released his first album named ‘Rhymes and Reasons’. It had all his compositions till date along with the original version of his famous ‘Leaving on a Jet Plane’ song.

However, RCA did not market the album with stage shows or advertisements like it would have done for the albums of famous artistes. Denver was aware that the commercial failure of his first album will blow away his music journey even before it had started. He went on a music journey on his own to the American Mid West to popularize his songs through stage shows. On the way he stayed in small towns and cities and offered to do free music shows on the stages of every music organisation and every club. Many took him on his offer when he introduced himself as the former singer of Chad Mitchel Trio and as the lyricist and composer of ‘Leaving on a Jet Plane’. He played the guitar and sang in schools, colleges and hotels. He himself went around pasting the publicity posters of his evening shows on the walls of the towns during the day. He tried his hand at selling copies of his album during intervals and after the shows.

He went with his guitar to every local radio station on the way and got his interviews broadcast. He, on occasions, even had the opportunity of giving live music performance on the radio. A few months of such continued efforts ensured sufficient sales of his album to get RCA to extend his contract. Fans multiplied and financial status changed for the better. Increased wealth enabled him to settle in his dream city of Aspen, Colorado with a house of his own. His house was surrounded by mountains that he had always romanced.

In 1971 his number ‘Take Me Home Country Roads’ busted all charts and became long-time topper. From then on, he never looked back whether it was fame or wealth. One after the other, all his songs reached the highs of popularity. Countless music tours to most nations of the world, enviable international fame, every sign of success followed him. The state of Colorado proclaimed him its poet laureate. He was equally popular with both fans of pop and fans of country music. Country music traditionalists faulted his music for not being in pure country music tradition. In 1975 he was awarded the title of The Best Country Musician.

He was never accepted by Pop music critics as their singer of choice. They said his songs were too emotional and excessively sweet. At the height of his fame, his appearance on stage with unruly mop of hair, round grandma spectacles and simple gait were all dubbed to be at least fifteen years behind his time. His calm reply to his critics was: “Some of my songs may be about small things of life. But those small things of life look very meaningful to me. I am sure that there are many in the world for whom my songs are important in some way or the other.” Many wrote that he served his audience very simple music. Fact is that his songs infused people with hope. He promoted purely acoustic music. He fused folk, country, and soft rock music in novel ways. And this mix of music is what took him to the heights he reached all over the world.

Nature and wilderness were the inspiration for many of his songs. He worked indefatigably to conserve Nature that he adored so well and started his Windstar Trust for the purpose. He was a humanitarian above all and he was the inspiration behind The World without Hunger Project. The then President of U.S.A., Jimmy Carter appointed him as his Special Representative to sit in the council of World without Hunger. Apart from Protection of natural forest cover and Wildlife conservation he was actively involved in many programs to eradicate hunger and worldwide activities of UNICEF. He worked untiringly for child welfare programs and supported all peaceful struggles against nuclear proliferation.

John was a supporter of Democrats. But that did not prevent him from working with Republican Presidents like the much criticized Nixon and Reagan for the sake of causes dear to his heart. In 1987 he was given the World without Hunger award by President Reagan. In 1993 he won the Albert Schweitzer Music Award for his humanitarian work through music. This is an award that is normally given to only Classical musicians. Therefore, it is all the more remarkable that a non-Classical musician like John Denver was thought fit to be honored with the award. He was the first American Singer to have toured Soviet Union. He created the song ‘What Are We Making Weapons For?’ for playing on this tour. He staged there a music show to help the victims of Chernobyl Atomic Reactor accident. In 1992 he traveled to Communist China, too.

Even at the height of fame, his domestic life was less than a happy one. A physiological deficiency left him incapable of fathering an own child. Therefore, he adopted first a boy child and then a girl child of different racial lineages. The family life, which brightened after the arrival of children, again started descending into uncertainty. Constant tours and the loneliness that haunted him from childhood led him to drinking excesses, drug addiction and sex capers with other women.

He had wanted his wife to be with him on all his music tours. But Annie hated travels and chose to spend her time at home hosting parties all the time. There were frequent expressions of differences of opinion between John and Annie. Living apart became frequent. On one such occasion John learnt of Annie chopping down some long-standing trees in the backyard. John was a lover of trees and had taken great care to ensure that not a scratch fell on his beloved trees in all the bustle of constructing his house. Hurt to the core by Annie’s insensitive act, he questioned her. She replied with a deadpan expression that the trees were obstructing the magnificent view of the house and that she wanted the wood for some exquisite household furniture.

The reply only added salt to the injury. He shouted at Annie, “You should have asked me before doing this. This is my house, too.” Annie’s disdainful reply only angered John even more. He almost strangled her before pushing her away. He took an electric saw and cut every household article made from the cut trees into useless pieces before walking out of the house. Later he would write: “It was only then that I realized that I am capable for such terrible violence.”

John Denver was dangerously honest. He never hid anything either from his wife or the press. When quizzed by an Australian journalist about his drug addiction, he said he was drowning in it, in a very matter of fact manner. He openly admitted the medical fact that he was not capable of fathering a biological offspring. Once he said: “People are shocked when I admit that I cannot father a child.” Among all the autobiographies that I read his Take Me Home is the most honest one. He has bared his all in it. He has gone to the extent of detailing how he had pursued his fans and even prostitutes to alleviate his loneliness and satisfy his lust.

Annie sought divorce from him. She did not want to continue her life as Ms. Denver. They had both separated many times before this. It was on one such separation that he had written his famous number ‘Annie’s Song’........
…. Come let me love you
Let me give my life to you
Let me drown in your laughter
Let me die in your arms
Let me lay down beside you
Let me always be with you
Come let me love you
Come love me again.

These lines indicate how he loved Annie beyond all his extra-marital life. So he could not bring himself to accept a complete divorce. He contemplated suicide by jumping down from the heights of a hotel with his guitar for company. But he found the strength within himself to renew his life’s journey.

Later he married a twenty-years-old Australian, Cassandra Delaney who was trying to find her feet as a singer and actress. The second marriage saw the birth of a daughter, Jessy Bell. He believed that when science and medicine gave up on him, he was miraculously cured by Reiki treatment. When John courted Cassandra, she was already seeing another boy friend. John Denver was not keen on a legal relationship with her. But Cassandra persevered. She must have planned on leveraging Denver’s name and influence to further her career in music and films. Denver wrote in his autobiography: “Cassandra fooled me in every which way.”

John loved all his three children deeply. He lavished all that he could on them. He spent all the time he could with them. He was a highly emotional, considerate and kind person. But amidst all his triumphs, he felt himself to be completely alone. Nobody had understood the natural self of the man named John Deutschendorf. He was an intense person buffeted by uncontrollable emotions. He had often said that he had experienced both the Rocky Mountain Highs and Sleepy Blue Ocean depths in his life. He had remarked: “Whenever I felt depressed, the thought that my life is meaningless assailed me”.

John had always loved flying. In his heart, he had wanted to be a pilot like his father. He felt that flying in the boundless sky over the vast spread of greenery had a calming effect on his mind. He felt greatly comforted when flying became his main hobby. His long-estranged father visited him and trained him to maintain and fly a plane. This togetherness with his father after many long years resurrected their lost relationship. Very quickly, John Denver became a well trained flyer. He piloted alone his plane over long distance journeys. He bought a two-seater plane of his own.

On 12th of October in 1997 after playing golf with his friends, he left on his plane on an hour’s flight over the sea in the vicinity of California’s Monterey Bay. Later in the afternoon some people reported seeing John Denver’s small plane diving into the sea as a fireball. The loving singer of Rocky Mountains plunged to the depths of a Sleepy Blue Ocean in the flicker of a moment. John Denver became his own song when he has left on a Jet Plane for ever.

All my bags are packed I'm ready to go
I hate to wake you up to say goodbye
But the dawn is breakin' it's early morn
Already I'm so lonesome I could die
So kiss me and smile for me
Tell me that you'll wait for me
Hold me like you'll never let me go
Cause I'm leavin' on a jet plane
Don't know when I'll be back again…..