Wednesday, March 26, 2014

John Denver in L.A. and YouTube

As a teenager in the early 1970s I often strolled Hollywood Boulevard.  I would shyly pop into a record store, and the boulevard had quite a few record stores.  I bought my first and only John Denver album - it was probably in the bargain bin - Whose Garden Was This.  I was a young airhead, but I understood the environmental message behind the album title song.


Aside from this record and all the radio play for his hit songs, I never delved into his music beyond this point, nor did I ever attend his concert.  When I learned the news of his death in 1997, I am sure I took pause with some sadness. 

Christmas 2013 I received an iPhone 5.  It has very good Internet connection.  I had been for a long while holding onto an iTunes gift card, so one of the first songs I bought was "Fly Away" because of the appealing duet with Olivia Newton-John.  (I remember viewing the TV special when it was broadcast - as he sang she stood receded to the back of the stage - I took curious notice, because at the time she had numerous hit songs, yet she humbly sang like a back-up singer - I am not sure she was even given an introduction.)

The audio and visual clarity of the iPhone plus the reliable web connection corraled my attention-deficit.  One night I decided to find John Denver on YouTube.  One of the first entries to pop up is a very recent, complete documentary "John Denver:  Country Boy" by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) on Denver's life - released and coinciding with his 70th birth anniversary on December 31, 2013.  After viewing the entire documentary, I began to remember his talent. 

My renewed appreciation and interest is quenched by the abundance of YouTube videos.  His body of work was huge.  Available for viewing are his television specials; Tonight Show guest host appearances; concerts of course; interviews; Grammy host segments; his early music career as a member of the Chad Mitchell Trio; Muppets appearances; singing to audiences in Russia and China; segments of his live show in England; and a wonderful Earth Day tribute concert hosted by Newton-John in 2011.  I heard Denver's varying versions of his own songs; I listened to him articulate on causes he supported; I listened to him disclose bits of his personal life and how he came to write "Annie's Song".  I watched the American and international news segments resulting from his plane crash; I saw the older, mature Denver enjoying fly-fishing in Alaska and New Zealand.

One can easily follow his career on the Web from the early years into the later years; one can see the metamorphosis from a young, enthusiastic, ball-juggling newbie, basking in the limelight, towards the mature, more stoic persona, hardened by the critics, detractors and the price of fame; one can see the changing features in his appearance - the distinct hair/granny glasses and slender frame then went to short hair that revealed his eyes and ears to the sometimes mustache and dark beard and thicker waistline of a 50-year-old man with a great hairline.

I suppose these post-death pursuits could be compared to the fans seeking Elvis, Michael, Whitney, and others.  John Denver, though, had designs on many humanitarian projects, including his own Windstar Foundation - a website like YouTube enables so many facets of the diamond that was John Denver to shine on.

In the years that followed his death, we were in store for major technological advances as well as jarring world events:  the World Wide Web and personal computers would evolve into ubiquity; 9/11 would occur (John Denver the aviator would have been appalled); massacres would take place in Denver's home state at Columbine and Aurora; heartbreak would not be denied by the murders at Sandy Hook school in Connecticut.

Had Denver been meant to be alive in his 70th year, I am sure he would have been performing at the New Forum in Inglewood, California, which featured The Eagles in the first concerts at venue's January re-opening.  Denver performed at the original Forum for five concerts (three dates back-to-back in May, 1975 and two dates in May, 1978).  A compilation of his concerts by Barbara Hoehn is posted on the John Denver fan club of Spain.  As his popularity began to escalate, the first big L.A. concert was at the Greek Theatre (four shows in September, 1972).  He then had seven shows back-to-back at the Universal Amphitheatre in July, 1973, and he returned the following summer for another seven shows).  Then the Amphitheatre was a very new concert hall; later re-named the Gibson Amphitheatre, the building was demolished last September.

While his commercial successes waned in the 1980s and 1990s, he was stellar performer.  His classic appeal drew his fans to at least 12 concerts during these decades: nine shows at the Greek Theatre (two shows in May, 1984, three shows in October, 1988; two shows in September, 1990, and two shows in late July-early August, 1992.)  He always maintained a heavy concert schedule, and his final three shows in Los Angeles were at the Hollywood Bowl with the L.A. Philharmonic Orchestra in July, 1996.

Denver came to L.A. in the mid-1960s and gained decent employment in the folk music scene.  He performed at Ledbetter's beginning in Fall, 1964, at 20 years old.  As a teen living in Fort Worth, Texas, he ran away from home, actually drove away, by hitting the open roads to Los Angeles.  His plan was to find shelter with family friends, but he got mixed up on the fact that they lived in Long Beach, not L.A.  His dad took him back home.

Only a finite amount of information on Denver can be found on the Internet; I visited the Whittier Public Library to check out his autobiography Take Me Home where I found revelations about his family, his youth, his personal life, his dislike of confrontations, and his paramount desire to touch the world with his lyrics and songs.

I often read on the Internet that he had the ability to render a large audience to silence with just his voice and his guitar.  His aspiration was achieved a hundredfold before his life concluded.

On YouTube a matured Denver singing "The Wings That Fly Us Home" is very moving - his voice and delivery is far from the description of early critics labeling him sappy and the Mickey Mouse of Rock & Roll.  Music historians out there - correct me if I am wrong - Denver made a lot of "firsts" artistically - collaborating outside of his genre (opera artist Placido Domingo), recording duets with other big name singers (Newton-John), and touring China as the first Western singer to do so.  He may have been an early innovator in blending orchestral arrangements with his folksy-country-soft-rock ballads.

Today there continues to be John Denver festivals in Colorado, particularly in October, to commemorate the anniversary of his death.  Tribute concerts are not uncommon in American cities.  Numerous tribute singers seem to genuinely keep his music out there.  The pianist for the band, talented Chris Nole, released "Fly Away, Piano Perspectives - The Music of John Denver" in 2007, and the compositions are exquisite.  In 2013, a CD release "The Music is You" showcases his music by a variety of respected musicians in the industry.  A wallpaper image is available for download from johndenver.com:
Earlier this month the state of West Virginia moved to establish "Take Me Home Country Roads" as the its official song.

In 2007 "Rocky Mountain High" became legally sanctioned as a state song for Colorado.

The photography of Denver is on exhibit in a Denver, Colorado gallery.

An archival trove of radio recordings and interviews have been made available on a website called BigO.  They were made during the Skip Weshner Show in Los Angeles, 1970.  (The BigO webpage found by the above-mentioned link also mentions another show from 1971 for which a request needs to be made to the website in order to get the tracks.)

To my knowledge there are no landmarks or commemoratives in L.A. to the late artist.  He was once invited to have a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, but he never followed through with that honor.  There is not any radio air play in L.A. for Denver's former hits today - for such a diverse and creative city, the city's music stations have very boring, dull formulas for what they air.

I am getting ready to plunk down the $9.99 to buy my copy of "Oh God" on iTunes soon.  I will enjoy it.

[Far Out! L.A. and Hollywood will make a huge redeeming leap this Friday, October 24th, 2014 when a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame will be presented posthumously to John Denver!  Woo hoo!]


October 24, 2014

JD's star is about half a block east of La Brea Avenue, not far from this monument below.

 
Before the event began, his songs could be heard along the boulevard. (If your screen here is blank, it might mean that you can only view the video below on a desktop computer.  I cannot see it on my tablet...)
 
  video
 
Shown below before the ceremony is daughter Jesse Belle Denver, and the gentleman seated in the dark sports jacket is probably Ron Deutschendorf, JD's younger brother.  Son Zak was present, but not shown here.
 
 
As the ceremony moved along, Jesse Belle Denver and Joe Henry shared the stage momentarily.
 
 
Jesse was emotional in a tribute speech about her father.  Also present in the audience was her mom, Cassandra Delaney.  You can see the entire ceremony on YouTube, on Variety's channel.
 
Photograph Exhibit on View
 
A few miles south of Hollywood Boulevard is a month-long exhibition of JD's photographic works at the Substrate Gallery, a couple of blocks from Paramount Studios.
 
A billboard seen from Melrose Avenue