John Denver: Nature Was His Stage Name

Full confession: I was a huge John Denver (1943-1997) fan at the height of his full John Denver-dom (the 1970s). I was a child at the time and I naturally disavowed all that later as a teenager, but now I’m back to owning it, and how. I can’t think of anyone who better embodies American pop culture of the mid 1970s, and I loved everything he represented, the love of nature and the American landscape especially. He was kind of like the mascot for the first wave of environmentalism. He even took the capital of Colorado for his stage name! I never even think of his name without seeing a picture of the Rocky Mountains in my head. (And I’ve been there and hiked ’em, so it’s a gorgeous picture indeed, though the one he painted in his songs was beautiful).

Denver was an air force brat; his real last name was Deutschendorf, a fact we knew as kids from press articles like the above one from TV Guide, and were much amused by. He was born in Roswell, New Mexico! But four years before the aliens are supposed to have landed, although I like the thought of John Denver meeting them as America’s representative. In his youth in the 60s he performed in folk trios. A song he wrote, “I’m Leaving on a Jet Plane” became Peter, Paul and Mary’s last hit in 1969 and allowed him to break out into a solo career. His own initial hits included “Take Me Home, Country Roads” (1971), and “Rocky Mountain High” (1972). “Sunshine on My Shoulders” went to #1 in 1973, and became the theme song for one of my favorite TV shows. I actually owned the single of his next #1, the treacly “Annie’s Song”, later ignominiously, and unamusingly defiled by Eric Idle. And then came “Back Home Again” (1974), “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” (1975), “I’m Sorry/Calypso” (1975 — a tribute to Jacques Cousteau!), and “Fly Away” (1975) a duet with Olivia Newton-John.

His songs are sort of kitsch-Americana of course. It’s easy to explain the craze. Denver was sort of post-folk, post-hippie…vaguely but not specifically counter-cultural (his catchphrase, if I remember correctly, was “Far Out!). And yet he was clean-living if not clean cut. He sang non-controversial music about universally beloved parts of America. Like President Jimmy Carter, who arrived nationally shortly thereafter, he was someone both sides could latch on to. It was a moment that only lasted a couple of years.

Not long after this, the public sort of maxed out on Denver. His songs started sliding down the charts. But at just that moment his career got a huge new boost when he co-starred in the movie Oh, God! (1977) with George Burns and naturally I was a fan of that too. I was so young then that I thought John Denver had been “over” forever — I look now and I see it had only been a few months.

Naturally, Denver never stopped being successful after that. He continued to record, and to star in TV movies, and was extremely popular in Las Vegas — wearing a tuxedo! John Denver with short hair, no Lennon specs, and a tuxedo, singing in Las Vegas. That was not for me.

And yet when died suddenly in 1997 I was flabbergasted. For Denver perished in the most unexpected, dashing way — flying his own experimental aircraft! How surprising. Of course it all makes much more sense when you know that his father was a decorated, record-setting air force pilot. Somehow, like the deaths of Will Rogers, Buddy Holly, and others, it adds a bit of poetry to his story, a sort of closing bookend, though a sad one. At any rate, at the present moment, I don’t think the idea of having someone on the cultural scene who actually manages to bring people together is so contemptible.