Rocky Mountain Slide

Twelve steps that led John Denver from firsthand commercial success to secondhand experimental aircrafts

I have come not only to mourn John Denver's passing but to castigate his stinkin' rotten legion of desertin' fans.

A few years back, Goldmine Magazine did a listing of albums most likely to turn up at Salvation Army or Goodwill stores. Amazingly, that listing just about holds true today. Walk into any thrift store, and you're still guaranteed a reserved copy or two of such dustbin durables as The First Family (comedian Vaughn Meader's 1962 spoof of the Kennedy clan that stopped being funny faster than you can say "grassy knoll") and the entire Herb Alpert catalogue, whose sales precipitously dropped off once Alpert started crooning.

Lately another evergreen flexed its scratchy vinyl muscles with alarming frequency, and it never even made it on the original Goldmine list: John Denver's Greatest Hits. Reputed to have sold more than 10 million copies worldwide, it seems now every copy has come home to roost in St. Vincent de Paul shops all over Phoenix. First you'd see maybe one or two, but that snowballed to six and seven in one location. People are turning 'em in, but ain't nobody snapping 'em up!

Hoo ha, you say! That means nothing. Old biddies who bought Denver's albums must've passed away and left his discs with the bulk of the Christmas albums. Maybe some of his Seventies followers flaked on him around the same time they realized granola was fattening and earth shoes looked like footwear Gepetto might design for a dress-casual Pinocchio. Whatever. Somewhere along the way, a large chunk of Denver's following dropped him faster than that experimental aircraft ever did. And I'm sitting here with all the Billboard books and charts, wondering Oh, God! Oh, God!, why have y'all abandoned him?

In the span of 18 months, from 1974 to 1975, Denver had four No. 1 hits. Yet before the Bicentennial year ended, he'd placed his last song in the Pop Top 20. In essence, his career as a megaselling recording artist was dead shortly before Elvis, that other big-selling RCA recording artist, curled his lip one last time.

Like most recording artists, Denver had his share of fair-weather fans who'd rush out to buy a Greatest Hits or a Greatest Hits Live collection but avoided an album that was 100 percent hit-free. Boo to you, I say. Boo for abandoning a simple, wholesome guy when his "aw shucks" optimism and sunshine clashed with your wardrobe. Bet you're feeling mighty bad for ignoring those countless albums he kept churning out after Windsong, all full of optimism, all hopeless flares fired from a distant island as the good ship platinum sailed away. Where were you when I Want to Live, Some Days Are Diamonds and JD were being stamped out at the factory? Doing the Shy Tuna to the B-52's, I'll bet! Can't remember when you stopped thanking God for this country boy? Lemme refresh your memory, ya Rocky Mountain Judases!

1. Work With Me, Annie! "Annie's Song" is popular at weddings. Denver fans ignored that he'd hung in the matrimonial stakes for 15 years, choosing instead to focus on that he divorced his wife Annie and was soon filling up his senses with the likes of Susan Anton.

2. The Muppet Connection! Take heed, Prince! Appear on TV too many times in the company of puppets, and people start thinking you're weirder than Michael Jackson.

3. Denver Divided the North and the South! In 1975, when the Country Music Association named Denver its Entertainer of the Year, a large segment of the CMA voiced its displeasure. Charlie Rich, after reading the contents of the winning envelope, promptly took out his butane lighter and set it aflame. Bitter? Sure! Probably because you Benedict Arnolds stopped buying his records the year before.

4. Gas Hog! At the height of the oil shortage, it was reported that Denver was hoarding gasoline for his snowmobiles. Anyone who waited on those interminable gas lines could be excused for killing someone if "Back Home Again" was playing on the radio. But you shoulda forgiven him, 'cause he named his next single:

5. "I'm Sorry"! Okay, maybe I'm with you backstabbers on this one. It's the first sign of weirdness in Denverland besides John replacing Chad Mitchell in the Chad Mitchell Trio and then not having the balls to change his name to Chad Mitchell. Our troubadour takes the apology song, a simple formula which catapulted Brenda Lee to stardom, and taints it by dragging politics into it. After apologizing to his lady love about the lies he told her and the things he didn't say, he mucks it all up by saying, "I'm sorry for the way things are in China." You immediately doubt his sincerity and expect him to launch into a litany of empty sorries, like, "I'm sorry the Broncos lost," or "I'm sorry Webster was canceled."

Most savvy DJs picked up on this Deutschendorf dichotomy and flipped over the single in favor of the cooler Jacques Cousteau flip, "Calypso." Later, after the hits stopped altogether, the only new Denver compositions you'd hear about were his topical songs about the Challenger disaster ("They Were Flying for Me") and the Valdez oil spill. Those of you barely paying attention at this point probably figured he's sorry for causing those, too.

6. Foisted the Starland Vocal Band on the World! Any list of the worst songs ever grunted by man, woman or their nearest food-chain cousin would seem naked unless it had "Afternoon Delight" somewhere near the top of it. Denver, friend of the environment, spewed this compost waste across the land of ours under the auspices of his Windsong record label. That's like owning the factory where napalm was made!

7. Too Closely Associated With est! Some may have been turned off because Denver was an outspoken advocate of est training. Anyone who has ever been subjected to recruitment tactics by Werner Ernhardt's disciples knows that any indoctrination which locks you in a closet and tells you not to shit or cry for an entire weekend sounds a little too much like fraternity hazing to be a healthful thing.

8. Replaced Andy Williams As the Host of the Grammy Awards! Sure, Andy's recording career was a cool cadaver by 1976. But people didn't begrudge Denver for beating an old sweater man out of a job so much as cringe to his wooden shuck 'n' jive renditions of "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?" and "Stayin' Alive." Imagine John Travolta loaded down with eight cans of Dutch Boy paint, and you have some idea of the carnage on display here.

9. "Perhaps Love"! In an attempt to counteract his accelerating unhip cachet, Denver agrees to duet on his song "Perhaps Love" with Placido Domingo, knowing full well that every time a tenor sings in the Queen's English, it's gonna sound oompah-oompah pompous, and that even being in proximity with this musical skin graft, Denver's gonna come out sounding more "with it"! Perhaps not.

10. Behind Round Eyes! Denver was born in Roswell, New Mexico, and his face started to take on an extraterrestrial quality when he ditched his trademark cousin-Oliver glasses for contact lenses. Must've creeped out a few fans who took the words to his "Looking for Space (to Find Out Who You Are)" all too literally. Not to mention his failed attempts to fly out to the Mir space station. But, hell, you cads stuck by Kenny Loggins even after he shaved his beard, cut his hair and revealed ears the size of watermelon slices.

11. Dreamland Express! At the same time Denver's "Fly Away" duet partner Olivia Newton-John was trying to undo her goody-goody image with her steamy ode to blowjobs, "Soul Kiss," Denver was also trying his darndest to "cross over" to a music-video leading man. Sadly, it wouldn't be the last experimental contraption he mounted that didn't fly! As KISS had its Music From "The Elder" and the Stones had Their Satanic Majesties Request, so Denver had his Dreamland Express!

Imagine a John Denver album with nary a love sonnet to nature, "All Night Long" rewrites right down to the crossing-guard whistles and saxophones that sound about as sexy as something you'd hear in a Safeway commercial. Denver's come-ons like "I'm in the Mood to Be Desired" sound like he's more concerned about containing the flames in the fireplace than the ones in his heart. A cover of the Everly Brothers' "Claudette" concludes with an unconvincing soul-man grunt "Good God!" from jive-talkin' John. But it's nowhere near as bad as the one he lets rip in "The Harder They Fall." Denver proves he's mastered the disco idiom 10 years too late and still manages to invent Garth Brooks' sorry sound in the process.

Saturday-night fever in Aspen entails a lot of people afraid of being alone. Despite looking as dejected as Sinatra on the She Shot Me Down album cover and deliverin' lines like "Think about a bad time, can't get much worse/Think about a hard line, take it to the wall," doggonit if Denver doesn't sound as cheerful as when he yelped, "Thank God I'm a country boy."

12. The Drunker You Drive: Not even Tim Allen on a bender got as much press as Denver did every time he got toasted behind the wheel of an automobile. One hopes Denver didn't become an aviation enthusiast simply because the Department of Motor Vehicles took away his license to fly too close to the ground. (Actually, the Department of Aviation took away his pilot license, too, so he died breaking the law. Well, there goes my copy of John Denver's Greatest Hits!)

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