Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Famous Family Friend May 10, 1974

My stepmother, Sam, once dated John Denver. At the time Peter Paul and Mary had recorded his "Leaving on a Jet Plane", John visited Sam and Dad in Iowa. We have home movies. He played some songs ( Leonard Cohen's "Sisters of Mercy", The Beatles's "When I'm 64", "Mr Bojangles" and an original or two). They had lunch. He rode his first horse --a shetland pony. It was 1967 and Dad was the more successful of Sam's men.
By 1974 that had all changed. Dad's latest novel, The Great Dethriffe, hadn't sold well and John Denver was at the peak of his fame. His 1974 tour would be recorded for the best selling "Evening With John Denver". John sent our family press box seats but only Sam went backstage to visit John.
With its comparisons to Nazi Germany, Dad's letter is a fun read. More fun, I think, with the back story filled in a little.

Dear John:
Your concert in New Haven was stupendous! My God, when you came on stage that first moment and the Coliseum roared...it must be an extraordinary sensation, rather frightening, rather pleasing, rather contemptible even. I mean how is it possible not to react with something approaching scorn at the animal that gets unleashed. There is that crowd aura, that same frenzied grip that politicians strive for, that Hitler achieved ( he, too, had at Nuremberg that astonishingly staged and managed show which created a crowd frenzy). I don't mean to compare you to Hitler, my friend, all I mean is you have achieved that same quality of having crowds react to you but that, unlike Hitler, of course you deserve it.

You gave the impression of being perfectly at ease, in control and professional all of which you are, but it came across. And I think your music--that is, the songs you write, are getting more and more beautiful and lyrical. I think "Sunshine on My Shoulder" (sic) is one of the loveliest songs I've heard in years. Very simple, very true like all good writing must be. And "Goodbye Again" is lovely too. Of course "Rocky Mountain High"--the title suddenly for the first time struck me as perfect for a high school in Denver. Wonderful idea, the little girl saying "I'm at Rocky Mountain High" and the other responding "I'll say..."--anyway , Rocky Mountain High is such a pleasing song and a nice thought.

I remember once being on acid at Vale (sic) and suddenly thinking I'd been dropped into a Nazi pre World War II training camp, getting nervous about it, knowing I was on acid, thinking if only I could piss it out of me I'd be all right. But every time I'd head for the can, I'd have to pass the wooden beamed staircase and all the ski boots clomping up and down would make me think I'd fallen into Gestapo Headquarters and I'd flee in a panic for the outside, terrified that someone would speak to me and find out I couldn't speak German. Which, of course, 50% of the people around me were speaking. It was German week or something. It was funny in retrospect and scary at the time.

The New Haven Coliseum->

Still, back to the concert, the children loved it. Little Amanda bobbed up and down, boogaloo'd, my 9 year old daughter, Lansing, ( who somehow managed to pass the word to her school that you were spending the weekend with us) is starstruck, smarmy with love for you and my 10 year old son thinks you sing okay.
Thank you for your kindness and especially for calling. As the man who led Sam back out to meet us said, "He's a star now." You earned it.

Can't say I ever heard the Vail story before reading this letter.The next year John came through town we all went backstage. I saw his ping pong table. He'd play before a show to work out all the nervous energy. We shook hands.

Twenty years later , as a reporter/ photographer in Colorado, I had to shoot John walking into court for a drunk driving trial. He stopped to pick up litter on the side of the street.
He had no idea who I was of course. I said I was sorry I had to shoot this and he said that I should then put my camera down. Which, of course, I couldn't do. You don't have to sell millions of records to live near Aspen but you do have earn some money.
I always thought he should have recorded an album like the ones Johnny Cash did at the end of his life. Just John and his guitar. His "Sisters of Mercy" is truly something worth hearing.

By the way, the home movie and John's version of "When I'm 64" can be seen in an April 1, 2011 post.
Posted April 1st, 2011.


  1. Thanks again, Saint. If he had lived longer, perhaps he would have recorded something like Johnny Cash did, which was wonderful. I would love to hear his version of Leonard Cohen, too.

    I spent the summer of 1985 in Leningrad (St Petersburg now) and he played there. I'm fairly certain that me and a few fellow students were the only Americans in the audience. Afterwards, we waited at the stage door with a few of our Russian friends and he came out and posed for photos and autographs. He could not have been more gracious, nor a more lovely cultural ambassador from the US as the cold war was winding down. They even gave us a ride on their tour bus back into central Leningrad. Lovely man, lovely concert. If I you are interested, I'd dredge out the photos and send you a scan, but no worries if you're not. Cheers.

  2. p.s. Vail acid stories must be quite interesting for you as well...

  3. Hi Rebecca
    If there is a way I can post John Denver singing "Sisters of Mercy" without it being downloaded I'll do it.
    Maybe this weekend.
    After I get rid of about four tons of leaves.

  4. By the way, I did find use some of that home movie for a short story on my show. Here it is.


  5. I guess I was with you "the next year" and when "John came through town we all went backstage."