John Denver: His Rocky Mountain Highness
John Denver is an enigma in a myth wrapped in sunbeams. Bringer of light and happiness, seeker of truth, discoverer of the basic musical common denominator, he also manages to sell records; seven gold albums thus far. One’s first encounter with him comes in the form of a bubbly voice at the other end of a transcontinental telephone line. Yes, he has decided that he will break his self-imposed ban on doing interviews and will meet me a week hence in New York. He has but one request: Could the interview begin in Central Park, as the trees and the…vibrant greenness would be more conducive than an office or some hotel room? Agreed. “Have a nice day,” he advises encouragingly as the conversation is terminated.
Nine a.m. on a gray, stone-chilled Tuesday in Manhattan. There will be no sunshine this day unless Denver brought a few kilowatts in from Aspen. He is nonetheless undaunted as we meet in the lobby of the Hotel Pierre. He is not dressed for Gotham’s chill: a denim suit, high-topped moccasins, a flower-print shirt and a silver eagle around his neck. Uncannily, we look enough alike to be brothers. Also, we find, as we cut through the early-morning traffic on Fifth Avenue on the way to the park, we are the same age and in fact were at rival high schools in Fort Worth, Texas, and even used to haunt the same dank, pee smelly honky-tonk there where Jimmy Reed fronted the house band. That, as Denver remarks, is “far out.” What a heritage: Two average guys from a bland All-American city where high school football is king and where, after the big game, one goes to drink illegal beer at Jimmy Reed’s knee.
“Far out,” says John as we angle down a path toward the zoo. His name back then in high school was John Deutschendorf. Classmates of his I’ve talked to described him as “Mister Nice Guy, Mister Average.” He’s still Mister Nice Guy, it seems, and enthusiasm is infectious, so much so that I almost do not notice the mugger who is stalking a nervous businessman 100 yards away. Central Park does not really get “safe” until later in the day but I do not mention this to John, who is exclaiming about the beauty of our surroundings. “What building is that, the new one behind the plaza? To see all of that coming out of the trees is far out.”
He changed his stage name to Denver after once catching a glimpse of the Mile-High City and zeroing in on the trees and the mountains and things. I want to find a windbreak somewhere, so we hunker down between some giant gray boulders above Wollman Rink, where a few early-morning skaters trace desultory figure eights in the ice.
After an hour or so of talking, the cold and the fine mist gets to be too much even for John — “Colorado cold isn’t like this, it’s dry. Right now in Aspen we could be wearing T-shirts” — so we strike out in search of breakfast. We decide on the Pierre’s Yellowbird Room and are promptly thrown out for not wearing ties in what is obviously a very proper coffee shop. I was irritated; Denver became almost testy as he mentioned the affair to the desk clerk but still concluded with “Have a nice day.” So we adjourn to his seventh-floor suite where his wife Annie is bundling up their baby, Zach, who they’re in the process of adopting, for a shopping trip out on the Avenues.
Over breakfast (room service does not require a tie) we finally have a chance to study each other. Denver is indisputably the most composed, most self-confident public figure I have ever encountered. In fact, we trifle away half an hour discoursing on that very subject. In the parlance of today’s liberationists, we find that he is “very much in touch with himself,” as a result of years of struggling to achieve the musical success that he knew was rightfully his, his self-discovery in Colorado and his association with est founder Werner Erhard. It’s also partially due to his rebellion against his father, a career military officer; and to his association with Jerry Weintraub, a brash, confident promoter who has handled Sinatra, Elvis, Zeppelin, and who has kept Denver as a client for six years, nourishing him through the lean years because they sort of believe in each other.
I’m still not sure what to make of Denver, what to think of someone who takes a Pulsar watch and has it built into an antique-style hand tooled silver pocket watch. His music is…pleasant, it touches millions of lives. He seems to be the quintessential television personality of the Seventies; true family entertainment. His specials draw consistently high ratings and he’s now planning his movie entree: He will out-Jimmy Stewart Jimmy Stewart in a remake of ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.’ He’s a Nice Guy.
Let’s start on some common ground, which would be high school in Fort Worth.
High school was…it seems awfully far away now. My dad was in the Air Force and we traveled around a lot. I was born in Roswell, New Mexico, and then Dad was in Tucson for a while and then it was back to Oklahoma where both Mom and Dad are from, and then we went to Japan for three or four years and then back to Oklahoma and then Tucson and from there to Montgomery, Alabama, for one year. I started ninth grade a week after everybody else had started and I didn’t know anybody. I was in a chorus class and they asked me to bring my guitar to school one day which I did and all of a sudden people knew me…in the halls people would start saying hello. Music is what opened the door for me.
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