John Denver Returns
Certain sensations send you reeling back to a time when the world seemed simple and full of possibility: The pop of a cherry bursting between your teeth on a hot summer day, the heft of a snowball in a bare hand, the smell of spaghetti sauce burning on a stove, the weight of a wool quilt. And then there's that voice. You can still hear it late at night on AM radio when you drive across the state, drifting in through tinny speakers that no longer sound so tinny. You find yourself spinning back to a time when you first heard the voice - curled in half sleep in the backseat of your parent's station wagon, or stretched on your back on thick shag carpet as a record cracked and popped on your girlfriend's hi-fi. "Sunshine on my shoulders," the voice croons, "makes me happy." It is a warm voice, but one that belongs in another world. His is a voice made for records, with their rough cardboard covers and vinyl grooves, and not for the slick and plastic world of CDs. His is a voice that belongs to our past, not our present. But how does John Denver, the moppet-haired, perma-grinning, obdurate optimist, feel about that? "It's strange," he says during a phone call from his cabin on the slopes outside of Aspen, Colo., his voice so familiar it's eerie. "I've got five or six songs in every karaoke bar in the world; I've heard Chinese and Russian's singing "Leaving on a Jet Plane" in thick accents. When I was in Australia not too long ago, I received a package from The Heavy Denvers. "They wear overalls and no shirts and play punk-rock covers of all my songs. But here people have grown up listening to my music - it has become such a constant part of their life, so much a part of them, they forget, or they store it away, like memory. And they don't think about it unless something triggers it." At one time you couldn't avoid John Denver's music. During the '70s, songs such as "Rocky Mountain High," "Annie's Song," "Country Roads," and "Back Home Again" seemed permanently entrenched on the pop charts and airwaves. He ranks among the top five recording artists ever, right up their with Elvis and the Beatles. The difference is that Elvis and the Beatles aren't writing songs anymore. John Denver is, and his efforts for the most part, fall on deaf ears. "It's very frustrating," he sighs, and for a moment you can hear the pain that makes his voice so indelibly etched in our memories: "Sunshine on my shoulders/almost always makes me high." It's the 'almost' in that refrain that contains the power of Denver's voice and songwriting. In the midst of a powerfully simple and optimistic song, it opens up a world of other possibilities: regret, sadness, loss. "But it's a part of the business. I mean, at one time I was the biggest selling artist in the world. Most of the radio stations that play music like mine already have four or five of my songs on their playlists. They aren't interested in hearing anything new I have. Consequently, my audience doesn't know I have anything new out." Part of the frustration is that Denver feels he's at the apex of his career. "I'm writing better songs than I ever have, and I'm singing better than ever before. Great opera singers' voices start maturing in their 40s and 50s. Singing is the best thing I do. My voice is coming from a deeper place inside me, especially compared to the days when my songs were hits. When I hear those songs, my voice sounds flat and inexpressive." Anyone who has seen Denver's concerts in the last few years agrees. With new range and passion, he mines the emotional ore of his older songs and forges them into something new. His newest album, The Wildlife Concerts (Legacy/Sony), displays the new alloy: a double CD, live recording of songs stretching throughout his career, a sort of magnum-opus for the artist, the proceeds from which will go to the environmental charities and projects he has long supported. "This is the first time I've had a strong record company supporting my projects in a long time. I'd be lying if I said I didn't want to hear my new songs on the radio. That would be nice. But I still enjoy my life the way it is. I get to work everywhere in the world. I still have die-hard fan-base. I don't have to go on grueling non-stop tours - I just tour on the weekends. I get to enjoy my time at home in Colorado. But it's funny. As I'm saying this, I'm thinking to myself, 'So why are you working so hard to get the new album out?'" He answers his own question. "If you have a strong feeling about what you see, about what goes on in the world, you have to talk about it. The environment has informed my work for so long, I have to give back. It's a part of my life, my career, and I'll keep on doing it. I'm still a part of the '60s generation, thinking we can change the world. A lot of us forgot that. I haven't. I still believe it's possible." He chuckles. "I still have a bright vision of the world." It's reassuring to discover that John Denver is still an incurable optimist, but there is something in that laugh that's poignant and arresting. He knows the absurdity of the statement, that his vision in these days of cynicism and politics of hatred makes him just as anachronistic as his music, of a different era, a different time when things seemed simple and full of possibility. A cherry popping in your teeth, the heft of a snow ball melting.