Sunday, March 8, 2009

Celebrity Matters- A Tribute to John Denver

Uploading my favourite music to the new ipod, my extensive John Denver collection takes pride of place. More than a decade after his tragic death, Denver’s unique music has proven timeless and more soul-stirring than ever.
His countless feel-good country songs have been elevated to the status of classics and absorbed into the popular culture of the 20th century and the psyche of millions of 70s teenagers like myself; the Baby Boomer generation. In our recent travels around the States, John Denver was our constant companion, capturing the grandeur of the Rockies, the freedom of the open road, the joy of horse riding through the forest and the cosiness of our country cabin in Montana.

The iconic singer-songwriter died at age 53 in a light plane crash off the coast of Monterey, California on October 12, 1997. The collective shock was compounded as the world was still reeling from the tragic death of Princess Diana on August 31. Denver was an irrepressible adventurer and accomplished pilot and he loved to fly. His small, experimental aircraft apparently ran out of fuel and dropped into the ocean and he died instantly.

Denver left behind two ex-wives, Annie, then 50 and Cassy, then 34 and three children, Zach, then 22, Anna Kate, then 20 and Jesse Belle, then eight. Our daughter Justine was nine at the time so I empathised strongly with little Jesse’s loss of her hero dad. The loss for his family, close friends, fellow musicians and activists was immeasurable and for his legions of fans, the grief was also deep and real.

The boy born Henry John Deutschendorf Jr, the son of a US Airforce officer of German descent, was a phenomenal success. In a career spanning more than 30 years, he produced 30 albums, including 14 gold albums and eight platinum albums in the US. John Denver’s Greatest Hits is still one of the largest selling albums with sales of over 20 million worldwide. His concerts reached millions of people in countries around the world including Russia and China.
As a crusader for peace, humanitarian causes and environmental care, his inspirational idealism lives on. His spirit will never die.

I wrote this personal reflection and tribute to John Denver which was published in the Sunshine Coast Sunday on October 26, 1997.

John Denver: Hope for an Intense Young Girl
MY friend and I had met up with two boys and went back to their barren little flat, the fea­ture of which was the massive stereo system and monster speakers spread across the en­tire length of one wall. As we hunched over the record collection, the gangling youth proudly pulled out an album and said: "Have you heard this guy?"

The start of a love affair
As I pored over the artistic cover with happy snaps of smiling friends glowing with the simple pleasures of coun­try life, the strains of a beauti­ful male voice filled that little flat and touched a chord in my heart I didn't know existed and set my spirit soaring above Rocky Mountains and down dusty country roads. The year was 1974. I was 17 and that was my introduction to John Denver and the start of my love affair with him.

I went through 20 tissues, drenched both sleeves and stained my cheeks with incon­solable tears through the dying scenes of the movie Sunshine, made all the more agonising than Love Story by the heart ­wrenching pathos of Denver's hit song, Sunshine on My Shoulders.

If my first hearing of Denver brought pure joy, my second unleashed pure grief. Such was the power of the man's magnificent tenor voice, his superb song writing skills and musicianship.

Tapping Deep Emotions
He had the rare talent of ar­ticulating deep emotions and ideals and wrapping them in unforgettable melodies that weave their way into your heart.

As a teenager I bought all his records. Along with Bob Dylan, Me­lanie, Simon and Garfunkel, Joan Baez and Donovan, they helped to give hope to an in­tense young girl worried about the state of the world.

Denver was not only a star of the 70s, his brilliance con­tinued throughout the 80s and 90s. As an avid fan, I can tell you Denver produced some of his finest and most sensitive songs in the 80s. His CDs Higher Ground and Different Directions are mas­terpieces in my opinion. And I should know because I've heard each track hundreds of times driving along singing at the top of my lungs!

Earth Songs, Human Songs
John Denver was also a great environmentalist, founding the Windstar organi­sation in 1976, a non-profit en­vironmental education and re­search centre. His earth songs celebrate the beauty of the natural world and shift human con­sciousness towards apprecia­tion and preservation. What an achievement; to in­fluence people for the better on a worldwide scale.

He was also a great humani­tarian, helping to found The Hunger Project and was the first American singer to perform in the Soviet Union and China, healing East-West tensions and helping the cause of world peace.

In 1992, though stricken with the flu, I dragged myself off to the Brisbane Entertain­ment Centre and thrilled to the sight of my idol in the flesh.

John Denver was never a stingy performer. He gave a long, full concert, serving up old favourites balanced with new songs and talking warmly to his audi­ence as if we were sitting around a campfire. Sparked by the warm glow of that concert, I went all country that year; strutting around in my denims and new boots and heading for the bush every chance I got.

Christmas 1994, Andrew gave me a copy of Denver's autobiography and I devoured every word. In 1995 we went to another Denver concert and I sat right up the front with my binocu­lars in Seventh Heaven.

After the show I was amazed that John, though ob­viously exhausted, showed in­credible stamina and dedica­tion, sitting for over two hours in the foyer signing auto­graphs for an endless queue of fans.
A Smitten Fan
I sent a fan letter and copy of my book to John that year expressing all the love and ad­miration in my heart. And I harboured a secret dream of meeting him when we travel to Colorado in a year or so.

The other Monday I was sorting out the noticeboard in my office, removing out-dated snapshots and postcards. I readjusted the pin-up pho­to of my John, smiling and patting him and adding an ex­tra drawing pin to hold him secure. I would never consider taking him down. He's my in­spiration.

That night Andrew and I came home giggly after seeing the British comedy The Full Monty and my son told me John Denver had been killed in a plane crash.

I said "You're joking, aren't you?" because my kids are al­ways teasing me about John Denver. But it wasn't a joke. It was tragically true. Like the devastating news just a month earlier about Princess Diana, it is impossi­ble to accept.

It was fitting that this mag­nificent, passionate man, who wrote about the euphoric free­dom of flight should die doing what he loved. But it's far too soon. He had too much life ahead.
His beautiful little daughter Jesse Belle is just a year youn­ger than my Justine and still needs her Dad.

We all need John Denver in our lives. His positive, uplifting music is a force for good in a destructive and violent world. Thankfully the spirit of John Denver will never die. His music will live on for generations.

At every family sing-along and whenever you're on the road and feeling lonely his timeless classics like Take Me Home Country Roads, Annie's Song and Back Home Again will guide you home.

Windstar Foundation
The Hunger Project

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