Sunday, June 17, 2007

A reading from the gospel of John

That's right, you're looking at the cover of John Denver's album, Rocky Mountain High (1972).

Either you're astonished that someone as hip and with it as me could be listening to such retrograde pap [snort], or you're shaking your head at my complete and irrevocable descent into dagginess and moving to wipe me off your Bloglines/Google subscription list. OR, you could be shaking your fist in the air, saying YES! A PART OF EVERYTHING IS IN ME! And that means you know.

[O god, the cat curled up next to the heater behind me just farted, and that is something I never want in my nose, ever again. Ahem. What has that cat been eating? It's Padge, BTW.]

While side 1 of this album is great (but with supremely cheesy moments), it's side 2 that I really want to talk about today, and specifically 'The Season Suite'. If you've never heard it before, you may be able to hear it here if you have the right software. I don't, but I have the vinyl.

I used to wake up in the mid-to-late 70s to the sound of my father playing this as he did things around the house and singing along gustily. Yesterday I found myself doing the same thing. Co-incidentally, it's the same record. I slipped it into my gear about 15 years ago as I left the parental house. Yes, I know you read the blog, dad. Keep reading.

I'd got home from a freezingly early morning visit to the Farmer's markets and as usual put on a record, as I can get breakfast made during the listening of one side and can then wander off to eat it in bed without having to touch the stereo again.

As I spread dijonnaise on our lightly toasted bagels in preparation for the smoked lamb and fresh rocket, I found myself not only warbling gustily, but thinking about John Denver's active role in my (and possibly my father's) spiritual development.

Forgive me father, I know what I'm about to do will possibly make you embarrassed and grumpy, but... meh.

And oh I love the life within me
I feel a part of everything I see
And oh I love the life around me
A part of everything is here in me...

I started thinking about this celebration of the landscape and the seasons. It's not our landscape or our seasons that John Denver sings about, but Canberra and its surrounds are close enough. My father grew up in the heat and dust of inner Western Australia, and I don't think that area has any distinct seasonal variation. When he came over east to hang out with the military, he encountered all the glory of Canberra's four seasons, and also fell in love with its proximity to trout streams and beaches. He's still a keen fisherman, as the image in the last post attests. It was around the time that he came back from Vietnam that this album came out, and it was when we were living in Canberra again around 1975 that I remember this song suite being played a lot.

It's not preachy, it's extremely whimsical and it's got a touch of the humbles that makes me smile wryly every time:

It seems a shame to see September swallowed by the wind
And more than that it's oh so sad to see the summer end
And though the changing colors are a lovely thing to see
If it were mine to make the change I think I'd let it be...

...But I don't remember hearing anybody asking me.

And there's a little instrumental bit called 'Late Winter, Early Spring (when everybody goes to Mexico)' that really evokes sitting around watching snow melt. Not that we get much snow in Canberra anymore. There seemed to be a lot more 20 years ago, but John Howard is now the expert on that these days (you don't fool me, Mr H. I'm sending you down).

Anyway, another of the things I was thinking is that my dad gave up being a churchgoer when he met my pragmatic atheist (or agnostic? haven't discussed it lately) mother, but I reckon he worships something in the chapel of nature. Not sure if it's an organised god, but I feel closest to happiness and peace when I'm looking at the sea or a fantastically indigo sunset like tonight's, and I think so does dad, and so did Denver. And he found the words for it five times out of ten. I can forgive him all the cheesy bits* for those little sparkles.

Do you care what's happening around you
Do your senses know the changes when they come
Can you see yourself reflected in the seasons
Can you understand the need to carry on?


Are you still my friends?

* This is cheeky:

This is cheesy:

I got a bit sick of his music once he started taking it seriously. He was like the folk Croc Hunter.


phil said...

Nice stuff, Ms Duck. Like many muso-type people I know, I've been down on Denver since who knows when. But I have to say, singing Country Roads with the old 12-string twanging and a few voices in (more or less) unison is very, very rewarding.

Offspring no 1, who's a techno DJ most of the time, told me he once found himself driving down Canberra Ave in his old boss's car singing along to Help is on the way (LRB) at the top of his voice. He'd imbibed it subconsciously from me playing the record when he was little, he was amazed and a little contrite that he knew ALL the words.

There's far more goodness in nature and music than any religion, imho.

Anonymous said...

Oh, dear, you are brave...

No, seriously, what a great post. I haven't thought about JD in years...he was so eminently singable, at a time when one was first learning the words of 'adult' songs.

Anonymous said...

I wonder why it is so bad to admit to liking John Denver? I am just like you Ducky. My parents owned a number of his records, and I have distinct memories of listening to his music.

It really is beautiful in lyric and composition.

I did get a little turned off when I got older and realised how religious he was, but that was in my young atheist intolerant days. I am more spiritual nowadays and appreciate it more.

Thanks for the post :)

Anonymous said...

There are always JD fans lurking just below the surface!

A guy who plays in our band looks like JD (we joke that he's a JD cross-dresser), sings like JD, plays like JD, and as far as I can tell can play the entire repertoire as well. Apart from the occasional performance of the obligatory Country Roads, we let him do Rocky Mountain and a couple of obscure earlier pieces that you wouldn't pick as JD. And in really desperate circumstances we let him Thank God I'm a Country Boy if we're in a tight spot. His own endeavours include a JD tribute show, which I haven't seen, but packs them in.

For all the 'put down' of JD his songs are guaranteed crowd pleasers. Country Roads gets 'em every time, although I guess having a 5-string banjo player on board helps.

Ampersand Duck said...

I have to admit to loving a bit of banjo.

Funny how everyone loves the early stuff. I bet he never gets requests for 'Perhaps Love'. Fresh is best!

Mick, the early stuff is spiritual without being overtly religious, which is the charm of young Denver.

'Take me home, Country Roads' was killed for my generation by its inclusion in the 'Sing Sing Sing' radio show and books, which meant we had to sing it at school as if it were a frigging anthem.

And I'd hate to think what else is sneaking around my brain from childhood osmosis. I realised just the other day that my love of Glen Campbell stems from the same timeperiod. Dad was telling me that he used to play Glen from his large-format reel-to-reel player until the cat discovered how much fun brown tape could be.

Val said...

John Denver, John Schmenver, what I loved about this post was what I learnt about your father and your obviously good relationship with him. This is something to treasure.

The phrase "worships something in the chapel of nature" is one I'll file away, thank you.

Mindy said...

I have it on good authority that having this song played in a car with a genuine West Virginian really gives you a good understanding of what the song is all about. I wasn't there at the time, but the impression left on the story teller has impressed me.

meli said...

Thanks for sharing! It struck a chord with me. My dad used to sing Cat Steven's 'Morning has Broken' to similar effect.

Terry Grant said...

OK, I'm probably in your father's age group, but feel moved to share my John Denver story. We saw him in concert one winter night that just happened to be the night of the afternoon the cease fire was agreed upon bringing the end of our (US) involvement in VietNam, also my Dad's birthday. At his birthday dinner Dad dragged out a bottle of champagne, which he solemnly poured all around and raised his glass and toasted the end of the war in an emotion-choked voice. We hurried off to the Denver concert in a snow flurry. His sunny optimism perfectly suited our mood and at concerts end we walked out into a world of glittering white snow with a million stars twinkling above. It was one of the most perfectly perfect days of my life and I think of the feeling every time I hear John Denver.

Ampersand Duck said...

Terry, it's flushing out stories like yours that makes me love blogging. Thanks for sharing!

Anonymous said...

One of my favorite of Jenny Holzer's truisms is "much was decided before you were born". In my case, that was the influence of John Denver in my life. There are relatives whose fondest memory of me is the time when I was 2 and I danced on the kitchen table at a big family summer get-together in nothing but a diaper and played along to "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" on a harmonica. There is also 8mm film footage of this.

I don't remember any of this. I remember being about 5 and drifting between being awake and asleep, lying in the cargo area of my parents' Jeep wagoneer, on the way to my grandparents' house, and hearing... oh dear, I'm not as brave as you, I don't think I can repeat some of those lyrics that meant so much to my 5 year old self.

That said, I admire the guy's total conviction and sincerity, and wish I could go back there again.

Ariel said...

Are you sure we don't share a father? (Joke, obviously) My dad loved John Denver too, so much that I bought him a retrospective concert CD a few years ago for Christmas. I grew up with the vinyls being played in the background. And my dad reads my blog, too.

That comment about the folk Croc Hunter juxtaposed under that photograph is a laugh - my god, he even looks like him there.

genevieve said...

I'm even worse than the lot of you. I not only owned John Denver recordings on vinyl, I recently bought a CD for my son to listen to in bed :)

I gave up on him when he was uncool, but my God, what a voice. What tunes. It's a classic case of letting snobbery spoil a damn good thing. Mercifully this CD has perhaps his finest song on it, "Fly Away". Fabulous.
I think his version of "Leaving On A Jet Plane" was definitive. I do cackle about the story that he chopped up the bed he built for the famous Annie (yes, the sense-filler) with a chainsaw during a tiff, though.
And Duck, you can't go past Glen Campbell for voice again. Pure tacky gold, all of it.
We used to love "Dreams of the Everyday Housewife", "Phoenix" and a simply deadly cover he did of Jacques Brel's "If You Go Away(Ne Me Quitte Pas)".

the sublime cowgirl said...

JD IS retro cool you silly silly peoples!

Dont give up the faith!

Ampersand Duck said...

Oh, yee haa, indeed I won't.