Posts Tagged ‘John Denver’

Saturday Single No. 145

May 14, 2022

Originally posted August 15, 2009

Fifteen years ago, I was covering sports and human interest stories in the affluent Minneapolis suburb of Eden Prairie. From that vantage point, I watched the national media and concert goers descending on upstate New York for Woodstock ’94, a music festival celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the original Woodstock festival in 1969. That original festival, as we’ve had slathered on us increasingly thickly during the last week or so, took place forty years ago this weekend (not at Woodstock itself, but on Max Yasgur’s farm outside the small town of Bethel, N.Y.)

During that summer of 1994, always looking for a hook for a story, I asked around among my friends and contacts in the Eden Prairie schools and learned that one of the guidance counselors at the high school had been at the original Woodstock. He told some good tales, many of them familiar: the crowded roads; he and his friends abandoning their car somewhere short of Yasgur’s farm and walking on; the camaraderie among the multitudes at the festival; bathing in a lake; going hungry; his distance from the mammoth stage (which nevertheless didn’t keep him from hearing at least some of the music fairly well); and the utter and absolute mess left behind by the estimated 4000,000 people who were at the festival.

As familiar as they were, they were good tales, and what made them more interesting for my readers in Eden Prairie is that they were told by someone they knew. Connecting my readers to the people around them and to the events in the larger world is, to me, the goal of a community newspaper, whether it’s a weekly or a small daily. If just one reader looked at that story that week and was, first, intrigued by the fact that someone from their community had been at Woodstock and, second, came away from the story knowing a little more about either that community member or what it was like to be at Woodstock, then I did my job.

That’s the only time in my life, I think, I’ve ever written about Woodstock. I suppose I might have crafted a column about the festival in 1979, ten years after, but I don’t think I did. And I guess I’ve not written about it because I don’t have much to say unless I have a hook to hang it on, which is what the Eden Prairie guidance counselor provided in 1994. Over the years, I’ve read a few books about the original 1969 festival, I’ve seen the 1970 documentary film several times (and written about it at least once), and as each anniversary passes, I’ve seen and read memoirs and commentaries about what Woodstock meant to those who were there, about Woodstock as a cultural milestone and all that.

But as aware as I am of what happened on Yasgur’s farm forty years ago, and as intriguing as some of those memoirs and analyses sometimes are, I find myself not particularly interested in writing about those things. And I imagine that might seem odd. Readers might expect that to be an attractive pool for me to wade into. Why won’t I? Because Woodstock – and I mean all things Woodstock: the festival, the music, the generation, the myth – is like a cultural Rorschach test. Each of us will see something different in the happenings forty years ago this weekend, especially those of us who weren’t there.

Me? I see the lawnmower I was pushing around the side yard on the morning of August 18, 1969, the morning that Jimi Hendrix closed the festival. I’d seen news coverage of Woodstock on television over the weekend, and I was pondering what I’d seen, wondering what it had really been like, and wishing I could have been there to find out.

But I was fifteen, and wanting to be somewhere other than mowing the lawn was a pretty frequent state. The fact that it was Woodstock that I had in my mind as my alternate location is the only thing that’s kept that particular August morning present in my memory. So the only thing I truly know about Woodstock is that I thought it would have been more fun than mowing the lawn.

Here’s John Denver with “I Wish I Could Have Been There (Woodstock),” the best song I’ve ever heard about wanting to have been at Woodstock. It’s from his 1970 album Whose Garden Was This, and it’s your Saturday Single.

From A Muscle To The Junkyard

June 12, 2011

Originally posted February 22, 2008

As some cliché writer once said, there’s a first time for everything. I’m still not sold on the “everything” in that, but I do seem to have cataloged a “first time” that I don’t believe I’ve ever thought about.

I’ve been fighting a cold for a couple of days, and last evening, while sneezing, I pulled a muscle in my ribcage. I never knew one could do that. But I did, and one of the results is that I’m not very comfortable writing. So I’m not going to do much of that today, beyond a short introduction and some comments about some of the songs that pop up.

Several of the online outlets where I buy CDs have had sales and promotions lately, so there is an appreciable pile of CDs waiting to be logged into our collection here. Most of them are albums from the 1960s and 1970s, as I continue to fill gaps. In an effort to fill one such empty space, I finally picked up last week Wanted, the first album by the country-rock group Mason Proffit. So we’ll start today’s walk through the junkyard with “Two Hangmen,” the Vietnam-era protest song dressed up as a Western morality play. In the year it came out, I used to hear it through whispers of static on KAAY in Little Rock.

A Walk Through the Junkyard
“Two Hangmen” by Mason Proffit from Wanted, 1969

“Kid Charlemagne” by Steely Dan from The Royal Scam, 1976

“Wolves In The Kitchen” by John Stewart from Lonesome Picker Rides Again, 1971

“Hurt So Bad” by El Chicano from Viva Tirado, 1970

“Everything Is Gonna Be OK” by Dino Valente from Dino Valente, 1968

“Stranger Than Dreams” by Lowen & Navarro from Scratch at the Door, 1998

“Keeping the Faith” by Billy Joel from An Innocent Man, 1983

“I Just Want To Make Love To You” by Muddy Waters, Chess single 1571, 1954

“Poems, Prayers & Promises” by John Denver, RCA single 0445, 1971

“So Easy” by Aztec Two-Step from Aztec Two-Step, 1972

“Love at the Five & Dime” by Nanci Griffith from Last of the True Believers, 1986

“That Girl Could Sing” by Jackson Browne from Hold Out, 1980

“One Fine Day” by Carole King, Capitol single 4864, 1980

“Out In The Country” by Three Dog Night from It Ain’t Easy, 1970

“Moses” by the Navarros, GNP Crescendo single 351, 1965

A few notes:

I’ve learned from conversations and correspondence with radio folks that “Two Hangmen” is one of those songs that brings a buzz when it is aired: The phones light up as listeners have questions, comments and just plain gratitude for being able to hear the song one more time.

Steely Dan’s sound was unique and so consistent from album to album that sometimes the group’s body of work can blend into a whole. While the Dan never released a truly bad album, there were a couple that weren’t as good, and I think The Royal Scam was one of those.

I’m not sure if Lowen & Navarro were as popular elsewhere in the 1990s as they seemed to be in Minnesota. Every two or three months, it seemed, the duo would stop by Cities 97 for a live-in-studio performance. Their acoustic folk-pop was well-done, and I enjoy the couple of CDs I have, but there never seemed to be much change or growth: the songs on 1998’s Scratch at the Door could easily have fit into Walking On A Wire, the duo’s 1991 debut CD.

I have seven LPs and three CDs of Billy Joel’s work in my collection. I’m not sure I need that much. That said, An Innocent Man is a good album, and if “Keeping the Faith” isn’t the best track on the record – I think that title goes to “Uptown Girl” – it’s nevertheless a good one. Maybe someday I’ll write a post examining why I’m not all that fond of Joel and his work, and maybe by the time I’m finished with that post, I’ll understand the ambivalence he brings out in me.

Aztec Two-Step was a folk-rock duo that released four albums during the 1970s and a few more sporadically since then, including 2004’s Days of Horses. Their self-titled debut in 1972 created some buzz, but by the time the duo recorded 1975’s Second Step, folk-rock was falling out of favor. The first album is the best, though all of their work is pleasant.

I’ve noticed that whenever I post a Nanci Griffith song among either a Baker’s Dozen or a Junkyard, it almost always has fewer hits than the other tracks posted that day. Do yourself a favor: Listen to “Love at the Five & Dime.” I think that if I were to make a list of the one hundred best songs in my mp3 collection – which now numbers around 23,600 – “Love at the Five & Dime” would be one of them. I know that Nanci Griffith is not as well known as other artists whose recordings are posted here. I know that her delivery can be quirky. But the woman can write a song, and this one is most likely her best, from where I listen.

The Carole King track was the single pulled from Pearls: Songs of Goffin and King, a 1980 record for which King recorded some of the songs she and her then-husband, Gerry Goffin crafted during the Brill Building days in the early 1960s. I’d call the album a must-have.

The Navarros’ “Moses” is not quite a novelty record, but it comes close. I almost skipped over it when it popped up at the tail end this morning, but then I decided it’s a good day for a little bit of a chuckle.

John Denver With Olives & Mushrooms

May 11, 2011

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
Mr. Bojangles
I Wish I Could Have Been There
Whose Garden Was This
The Game Is Over
Eleanor Rigby
Old Folks
Golden Slumbers/Sweet, Sweet Life/Tremble If You Must
Jingle Bells

John Denver – Whose Garden Was This [1970]

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.