Friends around the campfire … remembering John Denver
October 11, 2012
ASPEN – John Denver was a musician, and a very good one. Steve Weisberg, a member of Denver’s Aspen-based band in the mid-’70s, describes Denver’s guitar-playing as “like a freight train, with a sledge hammer beat.” It has been noted that Denver, when offstage, would show a knowledge of jazz progressions that had little in common with the folk songs he performed. His voice was clear and strong, and connected with people.But asked for specific memories of the late singer, his associates tended to recall not the artist, but the person, who showed respect for bandmates, crew members, the staff at venues. The person who knew great times and sad ones. The person who had a huge competitive streak.Denver, who died 15 years ago when the airplane he was flying crashed into Monterey Bay, will be honored by his colleagues with concerts Friday and Saturday at the Wheeler Opera House. Following are the moments with Denver that stand out.
We hadn’t been to Madison Square Garden in probably two years; John had a policy not to play the same venue within two years. John went to the stage manager and the stagehands and spoke to them all by name. Their jaws dropped, every one of them. I bet no one else had ever done that. He was totally invested in the human race at a time when most superstars were only involved in themselves. Every concert, he’d gather everyone working at the hall, seat them, thank them in advance, play a song for them.In a reception line, there could be 100 people and he’d remember 100 names. He’d remember them for two weeks. I asked him about that and he said, ‘Oh, that’s just something I do when I’m bored.’ He was a people person.If you think the music was too simple, I won’t argue. But don’t confuse that with the man being simple. He was complex. And profound. An uncommon man of depth and human involvement.
The thing about John that I experienced was his making sure everyone was good and taken care of. The Hard Travelers opened for him in Baltimore three weeks before he died. During sound-check we were going to rehearse “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” and I was blown away by his concern for our sound-check and what we were going to do together. I, of course, was intimidated realizing I was going to be sharing the stage with him. John said he was saving his voice for the show and asked Kenn Roberts to sing the lead. Kenn said he didn’t know the words, but that I did. John looked at me and said for me to sing for sound-check and he would sing for the show. I had this sense of complete full circle, so I sang my butt off. He then said we would split the verses. When his part of the show came, I stayed backstage in the wings so I could experience the evening as best I could. When the encore came, my heart was pounding. John sang the first part and then looked at me. I missed the first line and he jumped right in until I recovered. I appreciated his making me feel welcome on the song with him. I wish it could have happened again.
For 24 years, I put on charity concerts in Baltimore, and the one I’d been hoping to get for years was John Denver. We finally lassoed him in late September, 1997, and it happened to be the only time the Baltimore Orioles had a day game. We talked John into coming to the ballpark because for 35 years, during the seventh-inning stretch, they’ve done “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.” It’s like the “Star Spangled Banner” there. We had John up in a sky box and around the sixth inning we took him to the front row. They started “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” and John jumped up on the dugout and mimicked playing the fiddle. Forty-eight thousand people went absolutely crazy. John was elated; it was a time when things weren’t going great for him.After the game, he asked my band if we could do the song as the encore the show. That’s how I got to know his band and John. Two and a half weeks later, John was dead, and the picture of him on the dugout in his multi-colored sweater was all over the newspapers.That’s what led to all the memorial concerts. I would never have gotten to know all the guys in his band without that happening.I was at the Orioles game the other night and I could almost see John there on the dugout. It was so eerily reminiscent of that day.
We had a few days off between some shows when I was touring with John in the ’90’s. John decided that we would all head to Aspen for the break; he wanted to show us his cabin up in the mountains at Woods Lake. I was thrilled to be invited – John was a very gracious host on the road – but for him to invite us to his home and now to his cabin where he’d go to get away from it all, really impressed me in ways that I will never forget. As I remember it, shortly after we arrived, John announced that we would have a band fishing tournament at Woods Lake that day, a friendly gentleman’s competition. I chose to go with a lure rod opposed to a fly rod, mainly due to my pathetic fly cast. Well, on my second or third cast, I began pulling trout into my boat – lots of trout. It didn’t take long for John to notice my overwhelming lead in the fish count. In one way, I don’t think he was thrilled to see the fish-catching contest being dominated by his piano player (one of the new guys). But in another way, I believe he really enjoyed seeing his band have a great time hanging out and fishing together. What a great day!A few hours later it was dinner time; freshly caught trout was on the menu. John and Kris O’Connor prepared the fish, grilled it (with peaches), and served it. I couldn’t believe it – what humble hospitality from one of the world’s biggest musical icons. To top it off, afterwards, when I offered to do the dishes, John told me “Not in my house, buddy.” So we all sat around the kitchen table and chatted while John did the dishes! John Denver lived his life to the fullest, and he really enjoyed sharing good things with other people. I was one of the lucky ones who got to see this up close. Thank you, John.
I was there at Red Rocks, 8 a.m. on June 21, 1972 when John tapped me on the shoulder to help assemble mike stands. I didn’t turn around. I was going to be so adult and meeting my musical hero that day had me in power mode. “Thanks,” I said, “but these are John Denver’s mike stands, and I’ve got this down.” I turned to see John laughing his head off. I did the monitors that day. I was 16. I became his go-fer!John sang “Rocky Mountain High” for the first time in public at the sound-check that afternoon. It was his first Red Rocks show and it was off-the-charts cool. He was really happy and couldn’t have been nicer to all.I saw him again a few months later at the University of Nebraska at Omaha at the Milo Bail Student Union where he had been booked before his meteoric career took off. (He was a man of his word.) He remembered me with a huge hug and handshake.Over 25 years, I saw him probably 40 times in concert. I was lead singer in a band called Timberline; we always found a way to get near a show. We loaned them some of our equipment for places like the Dayton Arena where John sold out 18,000 seats. He did that all the time. For years.Onstage with me in places in Aspen like My Brother’s Bar, John would wait until it was perfect to add a vocal at odd times. I never knew he was going to sing “Darcy Farrow” with me until that face and voice were inches away. That used to scare the heck out of me.I was swimming laps at Meyers Pool in Arvada the day I heard he had died. I will never forget how sick I felt. I will never forget how sad I still am.I remember the Aspen ceremonies and Pete Huttlinger and Chris Nole playing. I didn’t know them at that time. They were incredible to have the strength to get through that service playing JD instrumentals. I remember the doves and the balloons and one old, tired hanger-on fan who I went to hug and he was so out of it he wouldn’t hug me back and it all seemed to go like that. Just awful.I was asked to sing “Rocky Mountain High” at the Colorado State Capitol on March 12, 2007. Senators Bob Hagedorn and Nancy Todd were the sponsors of the bill to make “Rocky Mountain High” the co-official state song of Colorado. In the last moments of debate, one Senator said, “I still don’t like it and believe the song is about drugs.” Another Senator quickly stood up, pointed to the projected bill on the screen and said, “Of course it is about drugs. It says right there that this is a joint resolution.”I think everyone should learn a John Denver song and teach it to someone young or old or in between. I will continue to sing the same John Denver songs I’ve been singing since I learned my first one in 1969 – “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” I believe in John’s music and his positive energy in the world. It won’t dim if we sing. I admire the way he didn’t let life’s speed bumps keep him from getting up and trying again.
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Everywhere we toured, after the show there’d be a restaurant held open for us, for John and the crew. He loved being with the band; it wasn’t just the usual thing of visiting with the manager and celebrities. He was very proud of the musicians he had working for him, took very good care of them. John loved to golf, and a lot of people he golfed with were the crew. Besides the star, he was one of the guys.And he loved to laugh. John had a great sense of humor. Because I’m from Puerto Rico, we’d always take his songs and sing them to each other in a Spanish style. He’d have a ball with that, trying to sing “Country Roads” the way I’d sing it – me and him, singing out like two crazy guys.
John was very competitive. You’d have to be competitive to be a star on that level.Once we were in Germany, in the hotel in Frankfurt, and decided to have the world cribbage championship. Me and Kris O’Connor against John and the bassist, Jerry Scheff. This was big stakes – five dollars. John and Jerry are drinking; K.O. and I are getting stoned. At one point, John or Jerry spilled a beer and John got pissed. He said, “You damn drug addicts!” Me and K.O. won the championship – which meant John lost. He stood up and said, “Jerry, give me five dollars.” John tore it in half, threw it at us and walked out.Next morning, John and I were in the lobby, playing cribbage again, and I was winning. His mind wandered when he was losing, so I threw away some good cards to let him win. He finally won, put down his hand and said, “That’s how you play cribbage!” and walked away.
We had this friendly singing competition since we were kids. When I got in his band, one day at rehearsal we were doing “The Eagle and the Hawk,” one of his big songs and the most difficult song to sing, a marathon. He holds this note as long as he can, throwing down the gauntlet, to see if I could hold it longer. We did that every night and I always let him win. He was the boss.
I have a lot of great memories of John. One of the first was in 1966 at Randy Sparks’ Ledbetters night club in L.A. I was rehearsing with the New Society and John burst in to our rehearsal saying he had great news. Peter, Paul & Mary were recording his song “Leaving On A Jet Plane!” He took off and I didn’t see him again for another ten years.My last memory of John was in March of 1997 when he and I were the entertainment for the Bryant Gumbel charity golf gala at Disneyworld. Walking with John after our day of golf, he seemed pretty alone and I asked him if he wanted to join Nita and I for dinner. He said no, he was just going to go back to his room and call his mom. I never saw him email@example.com