Sharps and Flats

In an era when everyone is cool, "sadcore" musicians rewrite the pathetic story of tortured soul John Denver.

Published May 5, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

John Denver was never cool. Throughout his career he tried to reign in a piece of the Zeitgeist -- and he usually failed miserably. He attempted to write "Blowin' in the Wind" and got "Follow Me." He anticipated the environmental movements of the '70s, but instead of staging "No Nukes" he wrote creepy songs about eagles and hawks. His contribution to the sexual revolution? He put out the Starland Vocal Band's "Afternoon Delight" on his own record label. Eeesh.

And what did he get for his efforts? A stage turn with Miss Piggy, a role with George Burns in "Oh, God!" and a build-your-own Fiberglas plane kit out of the back of a comic book. In 1997, minor folly turned into tragic misfortune and that plane crashed into the Pacific. Denver's legacy: a blazing drunk-driving history and a television movie of the week starring Chad Lowe. Somewhere, sometime, there was a cosmic lottery of cool, and John Denver lost. Big time.

Oh, the shame. Because really, deep inside, John Denver was a tortured soul, a repressed beast of rock-'n'-roll poetry, popping antidepressants, swerving down country roads and arguing with his wife. How would you feel if the world had you pegged as Fred Rogers when really, beneath that whole Kingston Trio facade, you knew that you were James fucking Brown? You'd feel pretty shitty -- especially when so much of your work seemed to sabotage itself into a cascading mudslide of niceness.

All of this depression, humiliation and confusion, in the service of Denver's primary message: This might suck right now, but it's gonna be OK sooner or later. Really. So feel good, like you knew that you could.

Consider "Fly Away," which he had a hit with in 1975. It's easily as tripped-out and badass as anything Syd Barrett ever wrote, a wicked psycho paean to getting fucked-up out of your mind. Even the seemingly saccharine "Leaving on a Jet Plane," which Peter, Paul & Mary took to No. 1, had the same tinge of "Hey Joe" that made Glen Campbell's "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" an instant standard. And "Annie's Song" -- the one that goes, "You fill up my senses ..." -- was easily the most druggily erotic song of its time.

John Denver could have held you close and never let you go, but to what end? People -- you and him both -- were just too complicated; he'd just as soon have you kiss him and smile, just knowing that the lingering pain of loss is really the most important part. What a rock 'n' roll lover. Elliott Smith, are you taking notes?

Fast forward to the here-and-now, and all of our John Denvers are cool. Because now, everyone is cool; because pop culture has dipped into and borrowed from every subculture; some element of every nerdy, weird, insular person/thing you can think of has been drafted into the Everyone Is Cool Revolution. We now live in a world where a departed sad sack like Jeff Buckley is a saint and bands that would have been as un-jiggy as the Association (who've yet to get their due, by the way) in another time have their records anticipated with bated breath; where instead of having self-consciously with-it names like Peter, Paul & Mary or the Four Freshman, they have arty names like Red House Painters, Mojave 3 and Low. They even get their own micro-genre: sadcore.

And these are the people who 'fess up to their all-encompassing whiteness and at long last pay tribute to the memory -- rewritten, as we speak -- of John Denver on the tribute compilation "Take Me Home."

What would Denver have thought of all this? That he's being revised into a tortured genius like Alex Chilton; that he nearly unwittingly left a body of work that hipster indie bands would be dying to "interpret." Moreover, how would John Denver live in a world where it is nearly impossible to not be cool?

You know what? He would have loved it. Because "Take Me Home" hasn't a drop of the snideness you'd expect of an indie-rock tribute to John Denver. Nor is it sappy, silly or -- another staple characteristic of almost all tribute comps -- sucky. In fact, "Take Me Home" works more like a single-group album with a large cast. Bonnie Prince Billy's (aka Will Oldham) appropriately scary a cappella rendition of "The Eagle and the Hawk" flows perfectly into the Innocence Mission's sweetly folksy rendition of "Follow Me." Just as easily, the Red House Painters turn "Fly Away" into an instrumental, abandoning the song's original, lazy hook in a housefire of electric guitars and drums. James Hindle turns "Whispering Jesse" into a lo-fi gem that sounds like it was written last week.

Each group, handpicked by head House Painter Mark Kozelek, comes to this record with a sense of what the best John Denver songs were about: everyone being free and easy, with each other, with themselves, with the people they are, the people they are growing to be and perhaps most importantly, the people they no longer are.

As dorky as all that sounds, there's more: "Take Me Home" is even a triumphant record, a discovery -- a friggin' revelation as to how wrong an image can be. In the best of these songs, there's a grace and charm that's not merely the bands' reading into the songs, even though all the players are clearly enamored of the source. The charm is the kind that record critics usually call naive. That's wrong. If John Denver was a sentimental fool -- and after spending time with this, his reinterpreted legacy, I'd have to say that the jury is still out -- he was the best kind: witty, self-aware and always, always a country boy. Thank God.

By Joey Sweeney

Joey Sweeney is a contributing editor at Philadelphia Weekly.

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