Monday, October 15, 2012

John Denver

This past weekend was the 15th anniversary of John Denver’s death in a plane crash. I can still recall being home from work for the Columbus Day holiday and IMing (ah, those  AOL days!) with a friend about the news. It was jarring to learn, even though I really hadn’t thought about John Denver or his music in years and years.

But certain artists, like certain songs, are imprinted in you, as Scott recently wrote. And once the imprinting takes hold, it very seldom lets go.

[That sound you just heard was Scott doing a Victorian swoon and falling to the floor, unconscious. So stunned to learn that yes, I actually read his posts.]

But with John Denver there was certainly a connection that went way, way back to well before my musical tastes were even formed. It goes back to the early 70s and being barely 6 or 7 years old and hearing his music play in the house. Our house was a split level, with the TV room (we called it the family room) downstairs and the formal living room, sans TV but with stereo speakers, upstairs.

My dad had a pretty expansive stereo system back then and it was also housed in the family room—I recall it being seven different pieces, not including large speakers up in said living room and smaller speakers up on shelves in the family room. But there was a custom-made cherry-wood stereo cabinet that was the size of a couch and maybe four feet high, and in it it held my dad’s turntable, receiver, dual-casette deck and 8-track player (yes, Virginia, it was the 70s), along with separate equalizer and Dolby system components as well as an old reel-to-reel tape player my dad had from, I am guessing, dating back to the 60s. The cabinet also held his entire cassette, 8-track and record collection—there were easily a few hundred of them in there.

But with the speakers upstairs and down, and the general openness of the split level design, a record or tape being played on my dad’s stereo system would be heard throughout the entire house, even up in the bedrooms on the top floor. Easily. If music was on, everyone heard it.

And this is where John Denver (and others) crept into my subconscious, where he still resides today. My parents were big fans of his and his music would play throughout the house on Saturdays and Sundays, or maybe during family events or holidays. And sure, by the time I was 10 I was ready to never hear him again.

But as it is with music, time brings with it revisited and reclaimed appreciation. The same way we can hear, say, “Free Bird” or “Won’t Get Fooled Again” today and recognize them for the sheer musical masterpieces they are (whereas when they played non-stop on FM radio 25 years ago we grew dead tired of them and wouldn’t have minded if we never heard them again), so too can the music of our childhood become desirable again.

The truth is John Denver was a fine songwriter with a very nice, clear voice and a wonderful sense of melody. He didn’t write angry or confrontational and he met no one's definition of dangerous or edgy, but his songs—particularly his love songs—always came through with a sharp sense of confidence, a singer-songwriter in command of his material. His was a decidedly American sound and, born out of the American folk movement as he was, it certainly sounds like it belongs to an American era of the past. But play the songs today and they interestingly enough do not sound dated. That’s impressive in itself.

Case in point—maybe his finest song.

Sure, it’s sentimental and makes a play for the heartstrings. But it’s also honest and on-point, and it possesses such a damn lovely guitar lead and gently moving vocal line that it’s easy to forgive any melodrama that may come with it. And it stays inside you for a long time—it did with me anyway. And the main reason? It’s not necessarily rooted in Pavlovian conditioning or even subdural trickery. It’s way simpler.

It stays with us because it’s good, sweet music. Period. That’s something Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr. left as a lasting legacy. And imprinted, I am guessing, in many, many of us.

Thanks for that, sir. Greatly ‘preciated.

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