Tuesday, October 16, 2007
My Rocky Mountain High
We human beings are a complex lot. So many components go into the mix that makes us the individuals we become. One ingredient in my life that shaped my personality was my torrid affair with John Denver.
Well, we actually never met. And before you start labeling me with words like stalker or obsessive, listen to my tale. You’ll understand that what Henry John Deutschendorf Jr. (his real name) and I shared was real…kind of.
In the early seventies my best buddy Darla and I began to sing for fun and hire. In our tiny town of Van Horn Texas, people would pay us actual money, and sometimes dinner, to sing duets at banquets, weddings, etc. We sang at our church for free and we sang around our pianos just for the joy of it. She was a great harmonizer and I could carry my share of the melody. At the time, we were enamored with the beginnings of Christian rock. We loved Petra, Honeytree and the Imperials when Russ Taff was explosive on stage. These were our peeps. In the secular market, we ate up everything the Carpenters and Linda Ronstadt gave us.
And then I met John. Okay, once again I never actually met him. But when I heard his voice, a mixture of lilting sun and down home truth, I fell in love. I introduced him to Darla and we began practicing and practicing his songs. My piano teacher, Mrs. Lovelady, allowed me to learn some of his tunes as long as I kept up on the classical ones. No problem. I memorized “Grandma’s Feather Bed” and “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” and felt complete joy as I let my fingers fly over the ivories.
“Sunshine on my Shoulders” took me to a place of haunting beauty, so sad and so piercingly bright. “Back Home Again,” one of my favorites, made me proud to be a small town Texas gal. “Take Me Home, Country Roads” was the tune Darla and I did the most often and received the most praise for. My mom made me watch all the Jacque Cousteau specials on TV. I didn’t really enjoy them, until John sang “Ay Calypso.” I sat alone in my room and listened to “Like a Sad Song” and “Rhyme and Reason” and “Fly Away” over and over. I took hours and learned to play “This Old Guitar” on my dad’s Martin. It was a blissful time, hanging out with my best friend Darla and singing the songs of my adolescent love John.
John Denver followed me to college but life happened. When he and Annie, for whom he penned “Annie’s Song,” got a divorce, I was devastated. I always pictured the two of them together around a campfire up in the mountains of Colorado perfectly happy. And yes, sometimes in my fantasy I was sitting among their friends, John laughing easily with me and asking me to sing along with him.
But after the divorce, John changed. He became more political and less, well free. I guess we just kind of fell apart. I officially broke up with John after I went to one of his concerts in 1986 in Dallas, Texas. He wasn’t the young man who dared me to dream of freedom and love and joy. He was an adult who ranted about politics and the environment and EST – his form of spirituality, but who did it with an undertone of bitterness. And he had dropped those beloved round wire rim glasses and gotten contacts. The nerve.
After the concert I told him good-bye. I wasn’t angry. I was just hurt. And I still thanked him for the absolute joy he had given me every time I had sung or listened to his music.
Eleven years after that concert I was living in San Diego, California married and teaching. On October 13, 1997, I got up, dressed and drove to Horizon High School. A very normal Monday morning. But the radio gave me news that made the day anything but. John Denver had died the night before in a plane accident up the coast of California off Monterey.
In the parking lot of that high school, I sat and cried. Teacher’s meeting was about to begin but I couldn’t move. Honest to goodness real grief poured out. John Denver, a great memory and a part of what made me Robbie, was dead.
I felt silly crying over someone I had never actually conversed with, but at the same time I validated every feeling with a simple truth. His music and all those songs were the musical score to my junior high and high school existence. He made a difference in my life. With his twelve string guitar playing in the background, I learned to dream. Seriously.
My friend Darla was in a boating accident when she was twenty and suffered a horrible injury to her brain stem. She lost her memory. I have seen Darla several times over the years, but she never knows my name or who I am. But you know what? She remembers every single word to those John Denver songs we sang.
That says something.
This week is the tenth anniversary of his passing. I now live in Colorado and will some day make the three and half hour pilgrimage to Aspen and tour the John Denver Sanctuary. I’ll play his songs all the way there and I will allow myself the pleasure of simple nostalgia and real grief. Our torrid affair is long over, but the memories of him, like mental photographs of old loves, are sweet and clear like the Colorado night sky.