He appears to have been a man who never quite shook the insecurities of his youth, and the soaring trajectory of his career looks remarkably like the flight of Icarus, who as legend has it … “got crazy once and tried to touch the sun.”
If, like me, you were rather fond of his music back in the day, it meant bucking the tide to embrace a wildly popular singer/song-writer who, no matter their genre, was looked upon with scorn by many of the music industry’s more “authentic” troubadours.
Sometimes such derision was displayed in a big way, as when Charlie Rich, the presenter of 1975’s Country Music Entertainer of the Year Award set fire to the envelope after reading his name. Then there was the time in 1985 when he was “disinvited” to participate in the “We Are the World” music video, for fear that his image would hurt the song’s credibility.
Granted, his visage in those years was rather Muppet-centric, but the USA for Africa crowd’s gesture remains breathtakingly ironic. Not only was he already an outspoken proponent for AIDS relief in Africa, he was also a key supporter of Save the Children, a spokesman for UNICEF, and a co-founder of the World Hunger Project who’d personally been appointed by Jimmy Cater to a Presidential Commission on World and Domestic Hunger. In fact, before 1985 was over he’d also been presented with the Presidential World Without Hunger Award by Ronald Reagan.
A spirited environmental activist, he was a major supporter of Friends of the Earth, the Cousteau Society, and was co-founder of the Windstar Foundation for wildlife preservation. All of which led to his becoming one of only ten recipients – ever – of the Albert Schweitzer Music Award for Humanitarianism. The other nine being: violinist, Isaac Stern; dancer/choreographer, Katherine Dunham; pianist, Van Cliburn; opera singers José Carreras, Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti, and Anna Moffo; and Maestros Mstislav Rostropovich and Leonard Bernstein. Not bad for a man with an image problem.
Born Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr. on New Year’s Eve, 1943 in Roswell, New Mexico, his no-nonsense father was an acclaimed Air Force pilot whose name is now enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame.
As noted in a previous posting: Shy, rather introverted and ever the “new kid” (as a military brat) Henry, Jr had a difficult time making friends. Recognizing this, his grandmother presented the (then) eleven year old with a well-worn guitar, to help him to focus his attention on something he might enjoy, and just maybe to help him to fit in … https://thisrightbrain.com/2012/03/20/i-guess-it-broke-her-heart/
Clearly it helped. By the time he was a Fort Worth high school student it was his fervent desire to make it as a musician, which led him to take his father’s car and drive to L.A. to begin his career. This in turn led Henry, Sr. to fly in on borrowed a jet to convince his son to come home and finish school.
Back in L.A. a few years later, and performing as John Denver (in honor of his favorite state), he began to land gigs on the folk circuit. His first big break came in 1965, when he joined the popular Chad Mitchell Trio, who performed on university campuses throughout the country. This included Gustavaus Adolphus College in Minnesota, where he met sophomore, Annie Martell. Married the following year, they bought a house in Aspen.
By the time he’d written “Annie’s Song” (composed for his wife in 10 minutes, while on an Aspen ski lift) in 1974, John Denver was one of the most successful and recognizable recording artists on the planet, whom the Governor of Colorado had officially proclaimed as the state’s poet laureate. And in the years that followed he seemed to be everywhere, starring in TV specials, hosting the Grammy Awards (five times), acting in films, and even standing in for Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show (15 times).
An avid skier, he served as a skiing commentator for ABC at the 1984 Winter Olympic games in Sarajevo, for which he also composed the theme song. And after a rigorous selection process he was a finalist for NASA’s first citizen trip on the Space Shuttle, a seat ominously taken by schoolteacher, Christa McAuliffe.
Although deeply affected by the Challenger disaster, aviation remained an abiding passion. Echoing his father, he too became an accomplished pilot with ratings that ranged from jets to bi-planes to gliders The man whose first hit song (as sung by Peter, Paul & Mary) was “Leaving on a Jet Plane” preferred to fly his own.
Yet now approaching his 50s, his career was in free fall. While the humanitarian work continued, the music was melting away, and his personal life unraveling.
There were bouts of depression, tales of infidelity and domestic discord. He and Annie parted ways. He remarried. It didn’t last. “Before our short-lived marriage ended in divorce, she managed to make a fool of me from one end of the valley to the other,” he said of his second wife.
There was a DUI charge, then another, which involved wrapping his Porsche around a tree. And so it went until that fateful day in ’97 when John Denver plummeted into the sea and perished.
“A lot of people write him off as lightweight, but he articulated a kind of optimism, and he brought acoustic music to the forefront, bridging folk, pop, and country in a fresh way… People forget how huge he was worldwide,” said country/blue grass performer Kathy Mattea in an Entertainment Weekly interview.
All tolled John Denver recorded and released nearly 300 songs, having written around 200 of them himself. While some have fallen by the wayside, others have stood the test of time – and they’re not necessarily his biggest hits. Take this one, for instance. When it was released as a duet with Placid Domingo (on Domingo’s album of the same title in 1981) there were many among us who found it pretentious, overblown and unlistenable.
But then, to mark the 10th anniversary of his death, in 2007, Denver’s family released Live in the USSR, a set of “unplugged” recordings from a number of 1985 concert performances in the Soviet Union (he would return a few years later to perform in aid – of couse – of the victims of the Chernobyl disaster).
Written for his wife, Annie after their separation, she later reflected that while she “felt blessed by ‘Annie’s Song,’” this was her favorite song of all.
Perhaps love is like a resting place
A shelter from the storm
It exists to give you comfort
It is there to keep you warm
And in those times of trouble
When you are most alone
The memory of love will bring you home
Perhaps love is like a window
Perhaps an open door
It invites you to come close
It wants to show you more
And even if you lose yourself
And don’t know what to do
The memory of love will see you through
Oh, love to some is like a cloud
To some as strong as steel
For some a way of living
For some a way to feel
And some say love is holding on
And some say letting go
And some say love is everything
And some say they don’t know
Perhaps love is like the ocean
Full of conflict, full of change
Like a fire when its cold outside
Or thunder when it rains
If I should live forever
And all my dreams come true
My memories of love will be of you