I owe John Denver a debt of gratitude, and not just because he did us all a favor when he accidentally killed himself in a plane crash.
No, wait. That’s entirely too snarky and cynical, even for me. Denver was an amazing songwriter, musician and performer; really he was. Let’s just say my relationship with him was a bit rocky1 for a few years.
Our story begins with Denver’s birth: John Denver was his stage name; his given name was Henry John Deutschendorf Jr., and he was allegedly born in 1943, in Roswell, New Mexico.
Based on his given name and place of birth, there are only two possible conclusions that can be drawn:
- He was a Nazi, and smart enough to get out of Germany a few years before his compatriots, change his name, get a fake birth certificate, but not hide in South America, or
- He was an alien who got stranded on Earth, like E.T.
I’m firmly in the alien camp, and here’s why: No Nazi could release 33 albums of award-winning music without a single tuba or accordion appearing in any of his songs.
And maybe he died in a plane crash. Or maybe it’s like Elvis in Men in Black, and he just went back home.
But as further proof I offer his album covers. About half of them were, I believe, coded distress signals to his home planet. He was trying to “phone home,” to coin a phrase.
No, really. Check out these highlights:
John Denver Sings, 1966:
Looks like a collage of Most Wanted mug shots. But Denver was still learning how to mimic humans; it’s possible he thought Most Wanted meant Most Popular.
Take Me to Tomorrow, 1970:
What’s he doing here, stalking the Unabomber? It sure looks like he’s peeking into the Unabomber’s cabin. And that soulless, blank stare could have belonged to Jeffrey Dahmer.
But the title’s the clincher: Take Me to Tomorrow. Yeah; that’s an alien asking the Unabomber if he can build a time machine or maybe a warp drive engine.
Whose Garden Was This, 1970
Some people can get away with bare-chested portraits. John Denver was not one of them. Especially not when his scrawny, pale geek chest was superimposed over some ancient relic looking a lot like the alien ship in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
Denver cuddles with his pet vulture and watches the sunrise. He appears to be shirtless again.
Or given the album title, maybe it’s an eagle and they’re sitting in the eagle’s nest. Which would make Denver an eaglet.
This is getting creepy.
Farewell Andromeda, 1973
Definitely a cry for help. He’s staring off into space with a bunch of ghost animals sitting on his hat, and somewhere along the way he stole Kirk Douglas’ chin.
But now we at least know which galaxy he was from.
Denver released some new material over the next ten years or so, but mostly he coasted on greatest hits and holiday albums, until…
One World, 1986
Neptune’s nose nuggets! What the hell is he doing? Standing on the surface of the Sun?
(Now we know where James Cameron got the idea to kill both Terminators in a bathtub of melted steel at the end of T2: Judgement Day.)
Having now proven John Denver was an alien, lemme loop back to the part about how I owe him a debt of gratitude.
In September 1975, Denver released Windsong, the cover art of which looks mostly human. The tracks did include a couple of alien hints, such as “Looking for Space” and “Fly Away.”
In Windsong, Denver also sang a song to a boat. Not a song about a boat; a song to a boat. It was titled “Calypso,” which was also the name of a boat owned by famous oceanographer Jacques Cousteau (not to be confused with the bumbling detective in the Pink Panther movies).
Yep—“Calypso” was a love song to the boat of the same name, complete with nautical sound effects: seagulls, waves, bells ringing, cabin boys getting buggered, crew members puking over the rail; all that fun stuff.
First Sister and Mom had both been hopelessly in love with Denver ever since he released Rocky Mountain High, but Mom went thoroughly insane over “Calypso.” She wanted to listen to “Calypso” All. The. Time.
I can’t criticize her for that; we’ve all gotten obsessed with a song or album and played it around the clock. It’s easier when you’re stoned, but still. I was 12 that fall; I liked John Denver too, but not quite at the Beatlemania level Mom and First Sister did. Thing 1 and Thing 2 liked him too, but without any screaming or fainting.
Mom had bought the album, but she also bought the single for “Calypso.” It was the B side of “I’m Sorry,” which you should consider dramatic foreshadowing.
And every morning when Mom rousted us all out of bed to get ready for school, “Calypso” was already on the record player in the living room. (Remember the huge TV-radio-record-player consoles popular at the time?)
She would put the single on the turntable, put the little arm doohickey in the middle so the record player played the single over and over, wake us all up, then bustle around like a Stepford wife, humming and singing and fixing breakfast so cheerfully it tempted me to stick a finger down my throat, barf on my breakfast, and claim I was sick so I could go back to bed.
It wasn’t just the abominable cheer, though. It was “Calypso.” I liked the song at first. But it usually took everyone about 45 minutes to get up, have breakfast, apply teethbreesh and get out the door. During which time “Calypso” played at least a dozen times.
After a couple days of this, I hated waking up, I hated “Calypso,” I hated John Denver, I hated Jacques Cousteau, I hated Jacques Cousteau’s stupid boat, I hated the record player, and I hated breakfast. My sisters didn’t seem to mind the song, but I have the attention span of a squirrel on crack, so it didn’t take long for me to get tired of “Calypso.” I didn’t want to ruin it for everyone else, so I didn’t say anything.
I’m not sure how many days we breakfasted to “Calypso”; maybe four or five. But one morning, 10 minutes into yet another “Calypso” marathon, Dad got up, went into the living room, opened the record player lid, and scuttled “Calypso” with that glorious teeth-on-edge SKVRRRRYK! sound of a record being terminated with extreme prejudice.2
Dad came back into the kitchen, grabbed his lunch box, kissed Mom and wished us all a good day, and left for work as my sisters and I sat openmouthed in shock.
Mom and Dad weren’t perfect; they disagreed or argued occasionally. They never had any serious drama or the kind of fights that make the kids hide under their beds. If anyone had said they wanted to listen to something else, Mom would have been happy to put on something else. She isn’t the selfish type of person who wants what they want, but doesn’t care about anyone else. She loved “Calypso” and found it joyful and uplifting and she wanted everyone else to feel joyful.
And Dad rarely raised his voice, much less lost his temper or started breaking things. He’d obviously had his fill of “Calypso,” but I think he was just being ornery and silly when he stopped the record.
I do know he didn’t scare any of us; we were just gobsmacked, and it took about 3 minutes for the incident to become a family joke: Someone would turn on the TV or ask Mom or Dad permission to play a record; the rest of us would yell, “Not ‘Calypso’!”
So yeah, John Denver got a lot of airtime in our house.
A few years before The Calypso Incident, a song on one of Denver’s alien-art albums caught my attention: It was Farewell Andromeda, and the song title was “Please, Daddy (Don’t Get Drunk This Christmas).”
It’s from the perspective of a little boy whose Christmas memories were of Daddy coming home at midnight Christmas Eve and passing out under the tree, or his mom smiling bravely and shooing the little boy upstairs as his dad arrived home, laughing and hollering drunkenly; the implication being Daddy’s going to be smacking Mommy around a bit.
Here’s an odd thing: I thought the song was hilarious. I was 10 and when the song played I thought it meant Daddy was up too late assembling gifts and fell asleep under the tree. I pictured Daddy as a lovable doofus, not a violent alcoholic.
There’s an old saying, rumored to be a Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.” It almost sounds like a blessing until you think about it. Thanks to World War II, for example, the 1940s are far more interesting than the 1950s.
I had no frame of reference with which to understand “Please, Daddy (Don’t Get Drunk This Christmas)” because my childhood was not interesting—no violence, no alcoholics, no abuse. Nothing interesting at all.
I’m boring, but that’s not a bad thing. Sometimes boring is good.
I guess it’s not John Denver who deserves that debt of gratitude.
I still wonder if he was an alien, though, what with all his bare-chested weird album cover art.
There’s a posthumous collection of his best music that came out in 2004, 7 years after his fatal plane crash. It’s even titled as such: John Denver: Definitive All-Time Greatest Hits.
This offered a priceless opportunity to define his body of work and career, to shape his legacy once and for all, so here’s hoping they chose cover art that avoids the weirdness of some of his earlier albums, and—
Oh for fuck’s sake! Really?