Words in a Row

Spelling and grammer and all that stuff--supposibly its like, real important!

John Denver Was an Alien and He Killed Himself and All I Got Out Of it Was This Boring Childhood

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:

  1. 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
  2. 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.

Aerie, 1971

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.

Like this, except uglier.

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?

  1. See what I did there?
  2. Don’t you miss slam­ming the hand­set down to hang up a phone? Or vio­lent­ly turn­ing off a record? It’s no fun to just poke at your phone to turn it off.

    Get off my lawn.

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