I was devastated when Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr crashed the experimental aircraft he was piloting and died in 1997. Better known as John Denver, his life and songs were deeply meaningful to me, for a range of reasons. How my wife picked out a place for us to stay that is so close to the place he died is eerily appropriate; looking out on the bay outside our window, I can almost imagine the day as if I were there.
I first encountered John Denver when I discovered my parents’ collection of vinyl albums next to our old (even then) stereo. I still remember looking down at the smiling face of this Country Boy, who I recognized, even then, as someone like me.
Listening to the music, I loved the upbeat music, but I loved the stories even more. Jumping on Grandma’s Feather Bed, driving home on Country Roads that Take Me Home, and standing in a field with Sunshine on My Shoulder” really did make me happy. They were images and stories a rural kid with long blond hair could envision and imagine meeting.
Reading down the list of songs, I was especially intrigued by one called Annie’s Song. Our family member, Annie, the dog-child my parents had before me, was in many ways my best friend. I identified this as her song. Listening to this music, my heart ached to hear how John describes Annie, filling up his senses, like “a night in the forest”, “a mountain in springtime”, or “walk in the rain”. All of these were vividly tangible memories of mine, evoking just those tingling feelings of the outdoors. It was magical.
As soon as the song ended, I would jump up from my place on the shag carpeting, carefully lift the arm of the stylus off the record groves, avoiding the horrible scrrenchhhh from a slip, and try to set it down oh-so-gently on the wider groove at the beginning of the song. It was magical.
Following my freshman year at Hononegah High, I was horrified when my parents announced we were moving to Springfield, Illinois right after the school year ended. I couldn’t imagine living anywhere other than Roscoe, IL, now best known as the hometown of the race car driver Danica Patrick. So we moved almost as soon as school ended, and my brother and I were stuck in our new house, on a dead-end street, with no friends and nothing to do much of the time.
I decided to reteach myself how to play the piano.
One of the first songs I taught myself was, of course, Annie’s Song. It reminded me of those days out in the fields across the street from our house at 8046 Harvest Hill, chasing butterflies with Annie. I made it through that summer, in large part, because I had John to help. I still feel a debt of gratitude to him for his assistance that summer.
I love the muppets, another childhood. My favorites were Beaker, the unfortunate, exploding scientist; Animal, the insane, incomprehensible drummer; and Kermit the Frog. It only further endeared John to me that he was a regular guest of their show, and including the creation of a beloved Christmas TV Movie together. How can one not enjoy, especially during the holidays, his touching rendition of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas with Rowlf the Dog? Among all the guests of Jim Henning’s brilliant cast, John always seemed the most at home to me. How big a leap is it, from the flora and fauna of the outdoors he sang about to the animated animals of The Muppet Show?
Tributes — Life is for Living
I’m now in my 50th year on the planet. John Denver died in the plane crash at the age of 53. On the drive up from LA, we passed another memorial, to James Dean, who died in a car crash at the age of 24. My close friend and colleague Arti Hurria just died in a car accident at the age of 48, something my friend Supriya and are still coming to grips with. I’m reminded of just how tenuous our grip is on this world, how much we all need to appreciate the opportunity we have, and to use our time wisely, as all of these remarkable individuals did. It was nice to be reminded of this seeing the memorial to John, an acknowledgement of one of those people who had a profound impact on me, and reminding me of my colleague Arti, and to remain committed to those people and projects that mean the most to me.