Originally posted September 28, 2007
If John Denver were alive today, he’d owe me half a pizza.
Denver, the singer-songwriter/country-folk performer/megastar of the 1970s, died ten years ago next month. When he died in the crash of a hobby aircraft, he was still popular enough to have a busy recording and performing career. But he was nowhere near as popular as he had been in the mid- to late 1970s and early 1980s when nearly every idea he had turned into a hit record.
And some of those ideas were not necessarily good ones. His list of hit singles from the last half of the 1970s and the first half of the 1980s includes such clinkers as “Like A Sad Song,” “My Sweet Lady,” “Some Days Are Diamonds (Some Days Are Stone),” “I’m Sorry,” “Calypso” and “Fly Away.” Obviously, millions of people did not agree with my assessments of those songs and the albums that surrounded them. Each of those tunes made the Top 40, and many of his albums did as well.
The rate of sales, of course, is no guarantee of quality. But neither does being popular automatically equate with mediocrity. I think that’s an attitude that one finds more prevalent in the world of novels and literature, the idea that a truly popular writer cannot possibly be a great writer. It’s a silly and elitist construct wherever its pops up its ugly little head, as is the less frequent musical corollary, that a popular performer cannot be a great performer. There can be a gap between critical acclaim and mass acceptance, of course, and many bands and performers have found one and not the other. But it is possible to have both, and the examples are numerous. A very short list, roughly chronological, of those who reached the top of both lists would include the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, James Taylor, Bruce Springsteen, Prince, U2 and Nirvana, at least.
(The above list does not include any 1950s performers because critical acclaim – in the sense of widespread acceptance and admiration – at the time of their emergence was unthinkable. The adult world at large was at best unimpressed with rock ’n’ roll as it emerged as a mass phenomenon in the 1950s, and critical thinking about the music and its descendants did not really develop – as I read the history – until the late 1960s with the emergence of Rolling Stone magazine and its coterie of reviewers, along with writers like Dave Marsh, Greil Marcus and John Laundau. I know I’m missing some, but I’m wandering far afield from what I had thought I was going to be writing about, and I’m winging it here.)
There was, quite honestly, a brief time when I thought that John Denver had a chance to be on that list that closes the paragraph before last. He came out of the Chad Mitchell trio in 1969 with Rhymes & Reasons, a pretty decent folk/folk-rock album that All-Music Guide notes was “released . . . to a nearly empty room.”
In the fall of 1969, Peter, Paul & Mary plucked Denver’s song “Leaving On A Jet Plane” from Rhymes & Reasons and released it as a single. It went to No. 1, providing Denver with the break that all songwriters and performers long for. He was levelheaded about his success, if his patter at a 1971 concert at St. Cloud State was any clue. About an hour into a two-hour performance, Denver – wearing a very cool fringed jacket, if my memory serves me – paused for a moment after the applause faded. He looked the crowd over and then said, “Now, I’d like to do a medley of my hit.” The crowd roared with laughter and Denver joined in, and then he performed the best version of “Leaving On A Jet Plane” I ever heard.
His second album, Take Me To Tomorrow, was released in 1970 and had a slightly tougher sound, especially lyrically, and his second release of 1970, Whose Garden Was This, was alternately gloomy and nostalgic but still worth a number of listens. The latter was one of the albums that my sister owned, and I listened to it frequently, probably far more often than she did. I not only liked it a lot, but I had a gut feeling – never really translated into words – that if he kept producing albums like that one, he could be a star and an important musician.
The mix of covers and originals on Whose Garden Was This was compelling. I especially liked “I Wish I Could Have Been There,” Denver’s tribute to Woodstock, and “The Game Is Over,” credited to Denver along with writers named Bourtayre and Bouchety. He also does a pretty fair job with the title song, a Tom Paxton composition. But his take on “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” just doesn’t work. In retrospect, if Denver’s own songs seemed a little naïve, well, he was placing them next to songs by Tom Paxton, Robbie Robertson, Jerry Jeff Walker and John Lennon & Paul McCartney. Whose songs wouldn’t be a little overshadowed?
Of course, I didn’t articulate all those ideas at the time. But those were my gut feelings. And I didn’t really back off from the idea that Denver seemed to have a lot of promise as he released the overlooked Aerie and then Poems, Prayers & Promises, with its single, “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” which reached No. 2.
Now, I wasn’t breathlessly waiting for each new album and then running out to Musicland with my wallet in my hand. But I heard enough at gatherings of friends and on the radio to stay current with Denver’s career. “Rocky Mountain High,” from 1973, was a No. 9 hit and a song I’ve never much cared for. But I thought it was lyrically interesting. And then Denver hit No. 1 in early 1974 with “Sunshine On My Shoulders.” Now, 1974 wasn’t a great year for music, but the only song on the charts I can think of from that year that’s more insipid is Terry Jacks’ “Seasons in the Sun.” John Denver was selling a lot of records, yeah, but I pretty much wrote him off as a sell-out at that point.
A couple more hits followed as 1974 turned into 1975. Then, late in 1975 – and here we finally get around to the pizza – my lady friend of the time and I stopped off at a St. Cloud pizza joint called Tomlyano’s. We ordered a large sausage pizza with mushrooms and green olives – still my favorite combo – and ate about half of it, agreeing to leave the rest for our separate breakfasts. We sat talking and sipping our beverages: Coke for her and a dark tap beer for me. The jukebox in the booth provided a soundtrack: “Fly, Robin, Fly,” “My Little Town,” “All By Myself,” maybe even “Convoy.”
And then from the jukebox came the strains of “Thank God I’m A Country Boy.” We looked at each other and rolled our eyes. “Ready?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I said.
We grabbed our coats and headed out into the early winter evening, leaving half a pizza there. So wherever he is, John Denver owes me.
And here’s his 1970 album, Whose Garden Was This, one that I still enjoy hearing. It seems to be available on CD only as a Japanese import, and even the vinyl – though available – is a little bit scarce.
Tremble If You Must
Sail Away Home
The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
I Wish I Could Have Been There
Whose Garden Was This
The Game Is Over
Golden Slumbers/Sweet, Sweet Life/Tremble If You Must
John Denver – Whose Garden Was This 
I got an email yesterday asking which Allman Brothers Band album contains the version of “Goin’ Down Slow” I posted here Tuesday. I neglected to point out in the post that the track is included on Duane Allman: An Anthology, the first of the two collections released after Duane’s death.
Tags: John Denver