John Denver: An environmental legacy remembered
Special to the Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN – Back when the Hyman Avenue Mall was dirt and the check-in gate at the Aspen airport looked more like a casting call for one of Bob Rafelson’s movies, Aspen was rife with dreamers, renegades, drop-outs, PhD taxi drivers, artists and vision seekers. They came for the love of the landscape, if not freedom from corporate America, and they spoke of change and environment and how to improve the world.
John Denver and his two buddies, Tom Crum and Bruce Gordon, were three such kindred spirits. Denver was singing at the Leather Jug in Snowmass when Crum pulled into town, having left behind the “security” of being a systems analyst in Denver. He was heading to Jackson, Wyo. They met one evening in a funky A-frame house across the street from the Weinerstube restaurant, where Denver was in the back of room, guitar in hand. Another guy was there, a pilot by the name of Bruce Gordon, and by the end of the night, they were outside laughing, trying to “stuff” Gordon’s dog into his back pack for his motorcycle ride home.
Crum never made it to Jackson. “He was like a brother,” said Crum of the friendship that spanned nearly three decades before Denver’s death on Oct. 12, 1997, when the experimental plane he was flying crashed into Monterey Bay.
What began with Denver learning Transcendental Meditation from Crum later turned into years of touring.
“It was the first time that any entertainer of his caliber was in front of such crowds,” recalled Crum. “Madison Square Garden. Two shows a night. 40,000 people. John would be on a revolving stage that wasn’t very high. People could get at him at all angles. He said, I need somebody to keep my head together and take care of all the security.”
Denver was persistent: “Just give me three weeks,” he said. “It’s not a lifetime.”
Three weeks turned into six years.
By the mid-1970s, Denver became the biggest-selling singer in the world. In 1973 he sold more than a million copies of the single, “I’d Rather be a Cowboy.”
“It wasn’t just, let’s be rock stars. It was more like let’s take care of ourselves,” said Crum. “John wanted to make a difference; to be a compassionate human being. And he was incredibly generous. He had an amazing creative spirit. Boundless energy. He really wanted the world to work,” he said.
Late-night sessions about the state of the world, the Arctic refuge, global hunger, AIDS, poverty, anti-weapons; space, ocean conservation. “We talked about how the world needs a place that can be a demonstration center and an education center; a place where people could come and dialogue. John always wanted deep thinkers to come together and talk about major issues,” said Crum.
Serendipity favors the dreamer. The Snowmass Monastery was in financial hard times and there was a piece of land for sale – 1,000 acres.
“We walked the land. It was magical. From an aerial view, it was shaped like a whale,” recalled Crum. “There was this immediate identification because of John’s relationship with Jacques Cousteau. That was the catalytic moment for him.”
It was 1976. The Windstar Foundation was born, giving co-founders Denver and Crum the ideal venue to attract the world’s most fascinating and powerful people to promote sustainable living and discuss ways to help solve the world’s problems.
Ecological-design researchers such as Buckminster Fuller and Amory Lovins, the Cousteaus, and Ted Turner. For many years, seminars were held. Lives changed. Buckminster Fuller once said, “Find what it is that is needed and wanted and go do it.”
Denver took heed.
“He was extremely brave and courageous,” said Crum. “He would be at a hearing in Washington D.C. over something like the Alaska oil spill and he might not have all the facts. Even though he might not be the person to best articulate his position, he would stand up and speak from the heart.”
Not only was Denver committed to preserving the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, he was committed to world hunger, helping found the World Hunger Project in 1977. Other focuses included the AIDS crisis in Africa, homelessness, the Chernobyl disaster. He was steeped in environmental conservation projects with the Cousteaus, space exploration. Denver was the first person to introduce the idea of sending a citizen up in space. In 1986, he passed NASA’s taxing physical exam and was in line to be the first citizen on the space shuttle until President Reagan decided to send a teacher instead.
After the Challenger disaster with teacher Christa McAuliffe aboard, John dedicated his song “Flying for Me” to all astronauts.
His passion and commitment took him all over the world, to Africa, Russia; China. “He was ahead of the curve,” said Crum. “John really was an environmentalist before there was a word for that,” said Ron Deutschendorf, Denver’s brother.
“John loved being able to associate with people who could make a difference,” said Crum. “He was never as happy as when he was onto a project when significant numbers could be influenced in a powerful way. That’s where he had a lot of juice. That magic continued through the ’80s but everything has its run. The spin-off effects are still there.”
But being human, cast into the role of a megastar with 14 gold albums (eight platinum), being “famous” wasn’t easy.
“Being a celebrity you get caught up in that lifestyle,” Crum said. “John was an artist with great highs and great lows. He’d go through those lows. It’s also where he got motivated to write music. It’s interesting that sometimes artists get caught in that conscious pattern of thinking they need the low in order to get creative again. That’s different. John lived an amazing life and died doing what he wanted to do.”
John Denver learned to fly from his father, who was the consummate pilot, an Air Force lieutenant colonel, and who set three speed records flying a B-58.
“Flying brought us together, we shared a love for it,” said Bruce Gordon, who founded Aspen’s EcoFlight, an organization that has been flying to protect America’s public lands for more than 25 years. He has logged more than 2,500 miles flying in more than 10 countries around the world, while offering clients a bird’s-eye view of the state of the planet.
“John learned how to fly small planes, then experimental planes; aerobatic planes. He was talented with everything. He was an excellent stick,” Gordon said. “John and I did an aerial educational tour of the forests of the Pacific Northwest; Vancouver Island where enormous clear-cutting was going on,” said Gordon. “We did it in his Learjet. We put the flaps down and flew very slowly with some notable dignitaries, which enlightened everyone to how rampant the clear-cutting was. The aerial perspective puts it all together. It lets the land speak for itself. That’s what got John so motivated to help out.”
The plane Denver flew on this last flight was an experimental plane.
“He had just gotten the plane a day or two before,” said Gordon. “He should have filled the tanks at the start because he didn’t know the plane well enough,” he said.
Fourteen years after his tragic death, his friends can only muse.
“He was a major voice for the environment,” said Gordon. “Right now Congress is in the process of dismantling laws that we’ve had since the ’90s that are a network for clean health, clean air and clean water. We need a voice like John’s because there’s nobody carrying that banner right now.”
“You don’t have to be all that special to do something very special,” said Crum. You just have to find something you love and live a life that shows it. “John found music. He turned it into a vehicle to make a huge difference.”
Crum and Gordon still live in Aspen. Crum is an author and teacher, traveling the country teaching his Aikido principles for conflict resolution, managerial development, and sports performance. Gordon just returned from his annual “Flight Across America” program, where he took students on an aerial tour over national parks in Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah to learn about the environmental pressures being imposed upon them, such as the air-quality degradation caused by the adjacent San Juan and Four Corners coal-fired power plants – two of the most polluting coal power plants in the country – and natural gas drilling of the San Juan Basin.
Gordon and Crum have their memories. Each laughs when recalling Denver’s childlike, boundless enthusiasm for life.
Years ago, Gordon was invited on a trip with the band in Puerta Vallarta. They were having dinner at a restaurant perched on a cliff.
“We’re having a couple of beers and the next thing you know, John appears in his bathing suit, gets up to the edge. The whole band freaks out and he lays out a perfect swan dive. Nobody even knew he could do that,” he smiles. “That was cool.”
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