“If a bomb hits this building today, John Denver’s back on top.”
Paul Simon, during the recording of “We Are the World,” January 28th, 1985
Paul Simon was with the most popular artists of the day, recording a song that would raise millions of dollars to support efforts to feed the hungry in Africa. Paul joined other artists such as Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Lionel Richie, Willie Nelson, Dionne Warwick, Cyndi Lauper, Ray Charles and many, many more to record “We Are the World.” John Denver was not there. He was not invited. What a loss. His voice would have been the ceiling to Bruce Springsteen’s floor.
In 1985, John Denver was no longer the huge celebrity he once was. During the 1970’s, Denver’s songs reached the top of the charts. His concerts were major events, he was on TV, and he even acted (quite well) in the movie “Oh, God” along with George Burns.
Over time though, Denver fell out of favor. His innocent, cherubic face along paired with ever optimistic and cheery lyrics and country music twang made him both a joke and a punchline. He could not keep up with the dark broodiness of bands like The Eagles, or the sincere gentleness of artists like James Taylor. He wasn’t even invited sing on “We Are the World.”
It’s too bad, because John Denver was a great musician. Make fun of me if you will, but I stand by it. His guitar playing was intricate and gentle, and his voice was transcendent. His singing soared above everything else, and yet was quiet and intimate. He wrote about the things he loved. Nature, mountains, music and love.
Was it that he was just too innocent? Too naive? That he ignored the pain and suffering of the world? Did he appear on too many 1970’s era television variety shows? For whatever reason, the respect he so richly deserved was elusive. To get to the center of what Denver was all about, and what made him such a master, we need to go no further than “Rocky Mountain High,” perhaps his most popular song.
The entire song is rich and textural, but a full and complete story is told in the very first two lines of the song. Sometimes we hear a song so often, we don’t even listen to the words any more, we don’t let the story speak to us. Maybe we’ve barely noticed this great story that’s been sung to us now for decades.
“He was born in the summer of his 27th year
Comin’ home to a place he’d never been before.”
We never really learn very much about who “He” is, or what brought him to the mountains, and yet we can all relate to such a moment of self-discovery and reflection. A moment of realization and wonder. A moment of awe. In only 19 words…two lines of lyrics…we can imagine a person, who he is, where he is, and how he got there.
The poetry continues.
“He climbed cathedral mountains, he saw silver clouds below
He saw everything as far as you can see
And they say that he got crazy once and he tried to touch the sun
And he lost a friend but kept the memory”
There are no major plot points in this song. There is no real story to advance. Yet Denver speaks to us with sincerity and curiosity. We learn about a person who loses himself to the mountains, and through Denver, we appreciate the gifts of the world around us.
“Now his life is full of wonder but his heart still knows some fear
Of a simple thing he cannot comprehend
Why they try to tear the mountains down to bring in a couple more
More people, more scars upon the land”
Is the song kinda hokey? Yeah. Are there any hard edges, or challenging notions? Nope. Any possible suggestion of drug use hinted by the title of the song is immediately lost to the innocence and earnestness of the beautiful, shimmering music. Every moment is shiny, bright and lovely.
Years after “We Are the World,” John Denver was asked if he was still upset that he hadn’t been invited to participate. Ever the bright, cherubic, optimistic and perhaps naive artist of his time, Denver replied that any anger he had “was overwhelmingly diminished by the size of my admiration for what they did.”
He should have been there.
“Rocky Mountain High”
Written by John Denver and Mike Taylor
Performed by John Denver
Released August 30, 1972