The other faces of country-boy Denver
Have you heard the one about John Denver and the Rastafarians?Almost certainly not. The story doesn’t fit in with the stock image of the late Aspen icon – the blonde-haired, mountain-loving, do-gooding folk singer. This episode features reggae music, questionable business practices and joints that resemble cigars, and takes place in the Florida heat.But such stories are the purpose behind John Denver’s Storytellers Unplugged, which kicks off a series of tributes to the late singer marking the 10th anniversary of his death. Most people – especially those in Aspen, where Denver lived virtually all of his adult life, and most especially those coming to Aspen to remember his life, music and activism – know the public Denver, who sang about peace and brotherhood, and spoke out on behalf of the natural world. Storytellers Unplugged, a benefit for Challenge Aspen, peeks behind the Granny glasses to give a fuller portrait. The event, Wednesday, Oct. 10, at the Wheeler Opera House, brings together four musicians and four friends and business associates who saw Denver from all sides, over a span of decades. The first half of the evening will feature musical partners: band members Jim Salestrom and Jim Horn; local fiddler John Sommers, who wrote “Thank God I’m a Country Boy”; and Bill Danoff, who met Denver in the mid-’60s at Washington’s Cellar Door folk club and co-wrote “I Guess He’d Rather Be in Colorado” and “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” The second half will present stories from four Aspen area residents: Barney Wyckoff, Tom Crum, Bruce Gordon and Michael Shore. The men had business ties with Denver: Wyckoff was a manager and record producer; Crum handled security on tour; and Shore was partners with Denver in the old Tower Restaurant in Snowmass Village. But they considered Denver more a friend than an employer or business acquaintance.”John would go out on the road, and he’d miss his buddies back home,” said Wyckoff, who accompanied Denver on the road from 1975-85. “I think he just wanted to bring his buddies along with him.”If the Wheeler event is anything like when these old buddies got together for this interview, the stories will be flying, with lots of laughs and few reservations. As soon as Wyckoff and Crum start the memory wheels turning, there are tales of softball games and pot-smoking sessions, of concerts in the old Soviet Union and parties in old Aspen, and of crashing cars – Wyckoff, Crum and Denver are united in having all crashed, in three separate episodes, Denver’s yellow 1964 Porsche convertible.Denver’s story will also be told in video. There will be a little-seen clip of a very young Denver on a British variety show. According to Crum, Denver’s manager wanted the singer to have a tryout on U.K. television before turning him loose on American tubes. Crum will also unveil footage of Denver with Jacques Cousteau, on Cousteau’s boat, the Calypso. It is an embryonic take on the activist in bloom.”You can see John taking in this stuff early on, his exuberance to learn, his excitement to make a difference,” said Crum, who met Denver in 1970 at a party in Aspen – Denver was the one in the corner, strumming a guitar – and instructed Denver in Aikido and mediation before becoming his head of tour security and then a partner in forming the Windstar Foundation. “You see John seeking out people who would mentor him. He wanted to hang out with these people. It might help him to sell albums, but what he really wanted was to make a difference.”Sure to come up in the making-a-difference segment of the Storytellers Unplugged are tales from the 1985 Soviet Union trip. Cultural exchange between the U.S. and the Soviets was a casualty of the U.S.S.R.’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. But Denver worked numerous angles to become the first American musician in years to appear behind the Iron Curtain, with concerts in Moscow and Leningrad.”He felt music could break down barriers, and that was one of the cracks in the Cold War wall,” said Wyckoff, who was along for the two-week tour. “He really believed we helped make that happen.”That’s the Denver that the world knows, the earnest folkie in pursuit of peace, expanded consciousness and a protected environment. But what Wyckoff, Crum and the rest of the storytellers are looking to present are the stories that haven’t been made public. They have designed the event so that the maximum number of facets are revealed. Moderator Denny Brooks, a member of Denver’s band, is planning to find people in the audience who have their own Denver memories to share. Those onstage aren’t doing much planning, but are expecting the stories to roll spontaneously off their tongues.”John loved the campfire, and if you sit around the campfire, you tell stories,” said Crum. “If you do that from a free-flowing place, you get a real sense of a composite of John. Because everybody’s got a John Denver story. John had much more texture than what you hear of him. He was fun; he had a crazy side.””John wasn’t afraid to laugh at himself,” added Wyckoff, who lived next door to Denver in 1971, in a part of Aspen they referred to as “Dog-Shit Flats.” “A lot of people back then were so self-serious. But his sense of humor, his being a dork, made him our friend, more than just an employer.”
Back to the Rastafarian encounter. In the early ’80s, Denver had the idea to record a reggae song, one with a strong message, and wrote “World Game,” to be included in the 1983 album, “It’s About Time.” When Wyckoff, who was producing the album, asked who would play the song, Denver responded that it would be his own band – a group grounded in country-folk and with no reggae on its résumé. When Wyckoff voiced his concern, Denver asked who he should use. “Like a dummy, I said, ‘Well, the Wailers are the best reggae band in the world,'” recalled Wyckoff. “He said, ‘OK, call them up and get them.'”It meant appearing in the States for the first time since the Wailers’ leader, Bob Marley, had died, but the band was agreeable to traveling to Ft. Lauderdale for the recording sessions. In Wyckoff’s view, the original motivation was purely financial: “They were thinking, ‘OK, John Denver, good paycheck,'” he said. But he played the song for them, and they were getting it. They liked the idea that the song made a difference. They were smoking spliffs together bigger than your arm.”Wyckoff bonded with the Wailers in a similar manner, but most of his attention was on business matters. “With them, the deal was never done,” he said. “It was always changing. I was getting onto the plane, and we’re still trying to finish the deal.” Wyckoff had planned to have Denver record two songs with the band – “But getting one was hard enough.”Denver’s relationship with the band was more about pleasure. “By the time they left, John was like a brother to the Wailers,” said Wyckoff. “He liked them; they liked him. John had a ball. He was flattered that they enjoyed his music so much.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
Friends With You – A Tribute to John Denver (concert)Wednesday, Oct. 10, at 7:30 p.m.Aspen Community ChurchJohn Denver Sanctuary Clean-upThursday, Oct. 11, at 9 a.m.”Alaska: America’s Child” (video screening, lunch and music)Thursday, Oct. 11, at 11 a.m.Pine Creek Cookhouse”Oh God” (film screening)Thursday, Oct. 11, at 7 p.m.Aspen Community ChurchTenth Annual John Denver Tribute ConcertsThursday through Saturday, Oct. 11-13, at 7:30 p.m.Wheeler Opera House
Peace Cloth ConcertFriday, Oct. 12, at 12:30 p.m.Mountain Chalet ballroomJohn Denver CampfireFriday, Oct. 12, at 5:30 p.m.WindstarWindstar – A Voice for the Future (concert)Saturday, Oct. 13, at 1 p.m. and 7 p.m.Harris HallJohn Adams’ Rocky Mountain High (concert)Sunday, Oct. 14, at 7 p.m.Wheeler Opera House
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