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Remembering John Denver

 John PEACE

Today is the 18th anniversary of the fatal air tragedy that took the life of popular American folklorist/singer/songwriter John Denver.  You can find a vast amount of information about John’s accident and his career on the internet.

I have also written about John Denver frequently on this blog.  A lifelong fan, I was led to an even deeper appreciation of his work during my recovery from acquired head trauma.

Please feel free to remember John by visiting any of the following links:

On Tributes, Love Letters, and Sentimentality: To John Denver from Aspen

On Writing It Down

Aspen In October 2012, Introduction, Part 1

(there are three posts that follow this):

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Talk About Opening Doors: A Tribute to Steve Weisberg

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This is Day 12 in the 31 Day Writing Challenge, 31 Days of Breaking Free from Fatigue

#write31days

© debra valentino, all rights reserved, www.firstlightofevening.com

On Tributes, Love Letters, and Sentimentality: To John Denver from Aspen

“Sentimentality is indulgence in emotion of its own sake, or expression of more emotion than an occasion warrants…. Sentimental literature is “tear-jerking” literature. It aims primarily at stimulating the emotions directly rather than at communicating experience truly and freshly; it depends on trite and well-tried formulas for exciting emotion; it revels in old oaken buckets, rocking chairs, mother love, and the pitter-patter of little feet; it oversimplifies; it is unfaithful to the full complexity of human experience.” — Laurence Perrine, from Sound and Sense

 

 

We love people for all sorts of reasons.  We love celebrities, it seems, for fewer reasons.  Sometimes it is their looks, but more often it is a celebrity’s talent that captures our attention.  We are fortunate when celebrities take up causes that we care about, and sometimes we care about the celebrity because they care about the same things we do.  John Denver’s interests in the beauty of nature, a sustainable environment, ending world hunger and attaining world peace are revered by so many that he has secured an audience of hundreds of thousands of faithful followers since the 1970s, most still active today, even though he’s been gone from this earth since 1997.

As a former college English instructor, I became interested in the history of a letter writing tradition that once took place during the annual John Denver Tribute Week in Aspen, Colorado.  It was difficult finding locals who knew of this event or who were wiling to discuss it.   Instead, I located representatives from Australia (where John has a huge fan base to this day) and Monterey, California, USA (where John’s experimental aircraft went down).  These affiliates very much wanted to see the tradition revived in Aspen.  When I was unsuccessful at securing interest or writers, I found a tribute radio show that would run live from Aspen that was willing to let the letters be read on air during the broadcast.  I gathered the letters written by fans in California and Australia, and when I couldn’t find anyone willing to write one from Aspen, composed one myself.  When it came time to read the letters on air, I looked for volunteers and found one woman visiting from Australia and one woman who used to live in California willing to fill in as readers — and I read my own letter.

How long has it been since you wrote a tribute to someone?  A love letter?  It’s an interesting exercise worth pursuing.  However, love letters are sentimental, and as such are off the radar of most English teachers, who are consumed with form, with style, with craft.  My training taught me to be self-conscious and dissatisfied by such sentimentality.  Yet given the kind of October I was having (stuck with an unusual and persistent cough that went on for six weeks, along with lingering grief from the loss of my mother the spring before), the opportunity to express such heartfelt sentiments seemed somewhat healing and oddly liberating.  Maybe expressing our love for something or someone–no matter how schmaltzy the end product turns out–isn’t such a bad idea after all.  Remember, in his songwriting, John Denver himself was often accused of this sort of simplicity by jealous critics and fellow artists who never reached the peak of popularity he still receives. There’s something inspired, it turns out, about writing straight from the heart.  At any rate, here is the text of the letter I wrote and read last October to the great spirit of John Denver:

 

Aspen, Colorado / October 11, 2013

Dear John,

It is hard to imagine all that this world lost when we lost you sixteen years ago. Not only did we lose a man we all felt close to, a man who just happened to be of incomparable talent and perspective, a man of keen wit and perception, but it seems even more evident than ever before that when we lost you, we also lost a treasured compass–our guide and our guru. We knew when we lost you that the road ahead would never be the same, but we never envisioned how we would carry on—what it actually meant to live without your remarkable influence.

All these years later, we lament that many of the causes you dedicated so much passion to continue to go unresolved. We haven’t ended poverty or world hunger. We are only marginally closer to non-polluting sources of energy independence. We continue to make weapons and feed the war machine, spilling untold billions of dollars and tens of thousands of human lives each year. Our economy has been suffering as you predicted it would, and we are probably more politically divided as a nation than in any time since the Civil War. Without your voice, we are left yearning for the kind of comfort, optimism, leadership, and direction your songs so triumphantly celebrate.

We want you to know that we continue to honor your memory. Inspired by your work, we have stayed close to your ideals. We care for our land in small ways and big. We walk and we ponder, and often we look anew with the eyes you taught us to use. We see the hawk and the eagle, and we continue to marvel at the wondrous skies and the beauty you saw and now we see in all of nature. In these ways, we are consoled, and yet we still grieve.

Every October on the days surrounding the anniversary of your death, many of us who love you most gather across the continents to pay tribute to the gifts you so lovingly shared with all of us. Here in Aspen, we visit your Sanctuary; we travel to Windstar to see Spirit and walk the land, which to our dismay was recently sold. We ride the gondolas up Aspen Mountain. We renew old friendships and make new ones with people from around the globe. We share stories, sing your songs together, hang out into the wee hours of the night at Mountain Chalet sing-alongs.  We laugh and we hug, grow closer, smile a lot, find the healing we seek, and say, “FAR OUT!,” and even occasionally “MAGOOMBA!!!” And sometimes we cry.

We attend concerts and campfires, go on hayrides, enjoy the fresh mountain air, and have a luncheon at the Cookhouse. The thing we want you most to know is that we have become a family. We call it, “Our John Denver Family.”

We know that you would be so pleased with the friendships we develop, and we feel a fulfilling sense of pride in all that you gave to us, not the least of which are these shared experiences. We remember that this level of recognition, this sense of community and at oneness is something you always wanted for yourself and for all of humankind.

In addition, because current times provide us with a wealth of resources such as text messaging and Facebook, we even manage to communicate with one another daily. You are always the main topic of conversation. On the internet, we also have access to your autobiography.  We have websites and Facebook groups dedicated to your memory. Nightly, we visit recordings of your concert performances, music videos, and television appearances. We feel incredibly fortunate to be your fans and your family. We feel lucky to have known you, to understand what you were all about.

Our dearest John, you gave us your energy, your talent, your spirit and your time, and we celebrate it all with unfaltering gratitude. We are the brothers and sisters your vision created. We are the world peace you sang for with all your heart. Your grand life was full of purpose, and it mattered to all of us and it continues to matter. We love you, we miss you, we appreciate you, and we thank you.

All rights reserved, © Debra A. Valentino

 

Talk About Opening Doors: A Tribute to Steve Weisberg

death is not rock

Steve Weisberg
November 14, 1949–May 22, 2014

John Denver fans from all over the world, affectionately known by many as the “John Denver Family” grieve today the passing Thursday evening of John’s lead guitarist from the 1970s, Steve Weisberg.  Steve was diagnosed in March 2013 with a lymphatic cancer he thought he’d beat.

For eighteen months, Steve rode the oscillating wave of cancer treatment, even while traveling to play in concerts across the country, most recently in Florida, Milwaukee, and Texas.  He had another concert scheduled just ahead, in early June.  Steve, lovingly known as “Pokey” to his friends in the music industry (for having shown up late one time to a recording session), was otherwise generous of time and spirit, a passionate man with a tender heart.  You might say he died as he lived, playing his famed guitar and expressing to the untimely end both love and gratitude for his friends, his life and talent, and all his many blessings.

young steve w.

Steve Weisberg, a boy with big dreams in the experimental decade of the musical ’70s, was a man who, in the end, seemed to have his head screwed on straight. He not only didn’t take himself too seriously, he found humor in most situations and he laughed readily and heartily.  His laughter was so infectious that whenever he laughed, you laughed, whether or not it was as funny as Steve seemed to find it.  Never oblivious to the ironic or to the facetious, his trademark saying–also attached in his email signature–was Steven Covey’s, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”

A liberal arts major in college and an accomplished songwriter in his own right, Pokey loved a good story, and he created them regularly, both out of ordinary experience and out of the extraordinary. He was in every way a lively and natural communicator, never hesitant to pick up the phone and call friends to share an idea or just connect.  Like his famed boss and band mate John Denver, Pokey was truly a people person, “invested in the human race.”  He made himself accessible to everyone he met and cared for–and if he met you, he generally cared for you.  So friendly was he that he even included a direct telephone number on his website.  In his way, he was a regular sort of guy, and in including the telephone number he likely figured, “How else are they going to find me?”  He frequently helped up-and-coming musicians by encouraging them, and even by playing with them in gigs and informal jams wherever life brought him.  It was in this way that he came to know personally many John Denver enthusiasts, who now remain “family” 17 years after Denver’s fatal plane crash in Monterey Bay, California.

About his condition, in a public Facebook post in May 2013, Weisberg wrote:

When I was referred to the oncologist 2 months ago I was ready for the worst. But what he told me was too good to be true: That my type is now so utterly and completely curable, I have a 98% chance of it being gone forever by July. This is not remission, which expects a return visit. This is…’gone forever after round one of chemo’. I’m now halfway through a very easy, uneventful treatment program. He said my optimism would let me handle this little ordeal much better than another person might. The optimism came from being 24 years in recovery, which led me to God. And getting to know God led me to the actual belief that everything (everything) will always, somehow, be okay.

They say we’re only as sick as our deepest secret, and I do believe this. This illness has brought me closer to God than anything I could have imagined. But trying to hide such a big secret has distanced me…from God, and from those who would help me celebrate the fact that I was spared the expected rigors and outcome of other forms of lymphoma. Mine is called Diffuse Large B-Cell lymphoma. It’s a laydown pussycat for today’s sophisticated chemos, unless it’s spread to the brain, or detected too late. Medical science has deduced that I do have a brain; that it is cancer-free; and that we detected this in time. The new look I’m sporting, as many of you guessed…was not optional.

Those of us in any type of 12 Step program know our illness became our greatest asset….once we had a little recovery under our belts. Life is sweeter than before that problem existed.

Recovery from cancer is an even bigger cause, for me, of celebration. I wish all others with the disease could be so lucky. Bizarre as it sounds, I have never had a more joyous experience being alive…..than right now.

Photos and tributes to Steve are being shared in abundance today on social media, as fellow musicians, friends and family express their shock at his passing and their gratitude for his many contributions.  In a correspondence with Shawn Garvey, Weisberg’s friend and a minister by trade, who recently performed in concert with Steve in February, he muses, “Pokey and I had a special friendship based upon things that ran very deep within us, and I’m profoundly blessed that was where our friendship resided.”

In his Facebook tribute, Pastor Garvey goes on to say:

By virtue of the kind of chemistry we had, and my vocation (I’m an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ), our friendship very quickly developed around matters of profound depth. Steve was a man on a journey, and he felt comfortable enough with me to share a very personal, spiritual side of himself that led us down all sorts of conversational pathways. I met him at a point in his life when he was re-discovering his love and spiritual connection with music–especially John’s; and he’s the first to admit that at the time it was all happening with John, he was too young to truly appreciate what that music was doing for people. In the time that I was blessed to know him, he got it.

He not only got it, he was profoundly appreciative for the genuine and miraculous gift that it was; to the millions it reached and to himself. He began to find more avenues and opportunities to share in his gift, and by the last few years he’d been able to do what we talked about at length for such a long time: go back to playing music full time as his vocation. I was so incredibly happy for him that he’d achieved that after such a long and complicated road since his days with John.

Garvey concludes:

I think what I’d share for those of you who primarily connected with Steve through the music was that he’d come to a very deep understanding of how the music touched all of you, and how there was great power, healing, joy and transformation inherent in that. John’s music and John’s personality continues to do that for people, and Steve came to a very special understanding not only of that reality, but that he played a part in it and continued to do so these last few years. This was something he regarded as a magnificent blessing.

He’d want all of you to know that – and that it meant the world to him.

In the video that follows below (linked “Sunshine on My Shoulders”), we find the two friends sharing in synch a song written by the beloved John Denver, whose music brought them together five years ago when Garvey reached out to Weisberg in a fashion similar to that which, many years before, Weisberg reached out to Denver. In both instances, Denver received Weisberg’s enthusiasm and talent as Weisberg received Garvey’s…and (to echo another famous John Denver song) this reception opened doors for both musicians.

Filmed in 2011 at Stanley Congregational Church in Chatham, NJ, it is also apparent in this video clip that Weisberg himself was inherently touched by the music he made (see link below).  In this example of one of Steve’s many musical encounters, this time with a fan who became his friend and spiritual confidant, we see clearly that Weisberg himself exuded the musical element.  With Garvey on vocals and Weisberg on lead, we see Weisberg “in the groove” he often referenced.  As he plays, we observe the guitar riff resonating in his body–so much so, that his fingerpicking becomes not just an accompaniment to the song, but seemingly a dance his body cannot contain. A beautiful dance of joy, a celebration.  We witness firsthand the music that lived gloriously in the man we now grieve.

Shawn Garvey and Steve Weisberg perform “Sunshine On My Shoulders”

RIP, Steve Weisberg


With permission.

All rights reserved, © Debra Valentino.

On Writing it Down

"Perhaps Love" lyrics

I’m just back from what has become my annual Mother’s Day excursion with my dearly beloved daughter Lia (pronounced /Lee’-a/, long “e”-schwa “e”).  My heart is full from the experience we shared (this time on our memorial trek to my mother, as introduced here). I’m still more or less “deplaning,” and during breaks, trying to catch up on the Facebook tributes to moms.  What a great thing when we can celebrate together across the miles through words and pictures.  We live in such extraordinary times.

Of course I can’t think about Mother’s Day without thinking of my own mother and grandmothers–all now gone, which in itself seems surreal.   It’s amazing how such losses change our perspective on just about everything.

As I was reading, this news clip on Sarah McLachlan gave me an insight.  Maybe resilience is not so remarkable after all; maybe it is our true character as humans.  To be strong and to overcome great misfortune, when you think of it, is something most of us do several times.  Sometimes, many times.  We find it amazing because on many levels it is remarkable to survive and to overcome tremendous physical suffering and emotional or psychological anguish–but maybe it is actually our natural composition.  “NBD” (“no big deal”), as my twenty-something daughter says.  The life force.  It gets us through.  It permits our healing.  That is, for those whose time has not yet come.

Mother’s Day and the life force.  A heady contemplation while still jet lagged.  But jets and Mother’s Day also always bring to my mind another great and favorite spirit (and through him, his own mother)–both also now gone.  That’s four grandmothers, four mothers, and one son/father/grandfather/husband/singer-songwriter-musician/ humanitarian/ environmentalist/activist.  “JS,” (just saying).

{Language moves through the generations like the fluent, flowing hands of a conductor.  “That’s money,” my anti-capitalistic twenty-something son says to mean, “That’s a good thing.”  I think.  Anyway, he says it ironically.  Or wait, not ironically.  I mean, it’s ironic because he seems to have very little interest at this point in money.  The root of all evil, you know.  And who am I to argue?  Anyway– (We are always first and foremost the roles we hold dearest).   Is anyone following me?  It’s okay if you’re not; I’m just writing.  Anyway–}

John Denver, who wrote some 300+ songs and performed all over the world, said he wrote “Perhaps Love” while thinking of his mother, Erma Deutschendorf, even as he was experiencing the heartache of separation and divorce.  “Perhaps Love” (also purportedly John’s first wife Annie’s favorite song of his) was performed live at the Metropolitan Opera Theater in Japan with Placido Domingo at a Mother’s Day concert in 1984 with John’s mother Erma in the audience.

John Denver was truly an inspired man.  He could stand on a mountain top and write a song (“Annie’s Song).  He could round the bend of a road and write a song (“Perhaps Love”).   He could pack a bag and write a song (“Leaving on a Jet Plane”).  He could return home and write a song (“Back Home Again”).

As a student of poetry, I can’t stop studying him.

He saw art in everything–in his life experiences, in nature, in injustice, in ideas, in what his heart felt.  His creative process seems so much like my own–he was always composing, always writing.  This is how I have lived all my life.  Must I be embarrassed to say that? I’m saying not only that I love his work and so many things about him, but that I identify with his artistry–even though the differences are vast and obvious.  I think we can identify with something vast and grand (and in John Denver’s case, wealthy and famous) and not be those things ourselves.  I think it is okay not to want to be any of those things, but simply to enjoy them, to experience them.  We can’t all talk at once.  Some of us just need to listen.  “Listening” is its own art.  Indeed, some people should be better at it than they are.

Anyway, as I was saying, I am not at all musical.  I don’t even play an instrument. Although my dream as a child was to play the piano.  John’s dream was to play the guitar, and his grandmother gave him her guitar when he was 12.  When I was 8 years old, I asked for a piano and got an organ.  Two keyboard levels and electronic.  I started writing poetry instead.  At 8.  But I almost never share my stuff with anyone.  To this day, when I have an opportunity to sit at a piano, I plunk out melodies I make up spontaneously.  They are there and then they are gone.

John shared readily and easily and generously.  There are a lot of things that go into such sharing–believe it or not, besides talent.  In fact, one of the things that develops talent is the actual sharing.  But anyway, I digress (again).

What I finally want to say is that I miss my mom.  I miss my grandmothers.  I miss John Denver and his work.  I am sure he is glad he wrote down that song and performed it in front of his mother at the Met.  I am also sure that she would have loved him just the same and ever as much even if he hadn’t.  Mothers love their sons no matter what, and that is a fact.

The point is to write it down.

And to be grateful.  No matter what.

Thanks, John.  Thanks, Erma.  Thanks, Mom.  Thanks, Nana and Grandma.  Thanks, kids.

Happy Mother’s Day to all.

 

 

Aspen in October 2012, Part 4: Leslie and John

‎”Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.  Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others.” — Pema Chondron

 Part 4,  Storytelling at the Mountain Chalet:  Leslie and John

Within moments of meeting, our eyes were locked, rapidly welling with great big John Denver love tears.

No one but the two of us had arrived yet, aside from our husbands who accompanied us. Both men sat sort of surreptitiously off to opposite sides, poised as the proverbial good guys that they are, not really knowing what to anticipate. We didn’t know what to anticipate either, but that didn’t seem to bother either of us.

The facilitator casually grouped us two women together, seemingly so she could tend to the crowd that never did appear (not while we were present, anyway).  For whatever reason, she didn’t seem all that interested in engaging us, but rather eager to cluster us together to free herself.  Perhaps she was tired, having already participated in many of the festivities and other storytelling sessions.  Regardless, her subtle complacency only underscored our shared enthusiasm.

As it turned out, in the lifelong friendship race, this match could surely set some sort of record.  You know simpatico when it arrives.  You know when you are with someone who actually makes it all so easy.  Someone who doesn’t put on aires.  Isn’t competitive, unduly complicated, suspicious, judgmental, self-absorbed, petty, or self-righteous.  You realize how important personality is, character.  Meetings like this are seamless.  It’s as if they started long before you were aware of them.  You can’t see any endings in sight.  You simply don’t expect acquaintanceships like this, because they are so rare.

With a set gaze and some help from her hands for emphasis, Leslie shared how she was a groupie — my word not hers; I’m pretty sure what she said was, “crazy in love with.”  She told in explicit detail how half a lifetime ago she met John Denver both backstage and at a lavish event she wasn’t even invited to.  How nice he was, how inordinately kind.  How, while everyone else was waiting in line to meet him, he thoughtfully took time out to fix her little camera when it jammed. “The last picture that camera took was of John Denver,” she reflected tenderly, as if knowing instinctively how much I would care.  She repeated that she was crazy about him, and told me that all three of her daughters grew up listening to his music.  Then, she  stopped to qualify that on that first meeting backstage, even though he fixed her camera, there was only a hug.

Whispering rather coquettishly, she continued — in a low, hand-curled-around-her-mouth voice, leaning decisively inward, “You’re going to think I’m terrible…”  Of course, her preface only piqued my curiosity.  Apparently, it wasn’t until that second meeting, in the cathedral of St. John The Divine in New York City, that it happened.  Unexpectedly, she had to enact some quick thinking after the one man concert.  She persuaded her husband Bill on the spot to crash the gathering that was forming.

“Just stay with me,” she told Bill, as she hurriedly blended in with the crowd.  Moments later she found herself enjoying a cocktail, standing right beside John Denver, again. She introduced herself, reminding him of the time he fixed her camera.  She said he chuckled, that he said he remembered!  This time, he was even more generous.  This time, she asked for a kiss, and he gave her one!

With his wife Annie standing right there. With her husband Bill, standing right there.

She was wild and racy and full of fun, with a ready heart that just popped right out of the top of her white turtleneck sweater.  She looked like the girl next door, the preacher’s daughter, with all the requisite wild stories attached, a nurse or a teacher.  She was all and both…a devoted mom, grandmom, a wife, an EMT, and the recent past president of their local first aid rescue squad. By the time she shared her John Denver stories with me, and I shared mine with her, we were both not only teary-eyed, but somehow bonded ecstatically in one of those surprising kind of ways that cosmically suggest there is a unique and particular order to the universe.

Leslie’s husband Bill was equally engaging.  He was open and animated.  An interesting guy with an interesting career, now retired and full of spirit and wonder.  Having once taught Calculus, he recommended to Rich a book entitled, A Tour of the Calculus, which Rich ordered, and recently received in the mail.  Our husbands also seemed to take an instant liking to one another, and also seemed to have plenty to talk about (even though it probably wasn’t John Denver).

After meeting Leslie and Bill, Rich and I rode the chairlift up Aspen Mountain to see the view credited with inspiring “Annie’s Song.”  It was a wet, cold ride, as the weather had changed from perfect to wintery, deteriorating particularly that day as we gained elevation. Fortunately, I was dressed for it, and the experience was worth the rain mixed with snow.

The view from Aspen Mountain of the 15th anniversary of John Denver’s death.

We returned to the Mountain Chalet cold and wet to hear new artists perform their original pieces and some more John Denver music.  Afterward, we warmed up at Little Annie’s with some hot tea, homemade soup and stew, then turned in early because I was getting pretty wiped out and Rich wanted to watch the Cardinals beat the Washington Nationals in the season playoff game.

On Saturday, we walked through Aspen Farmer’s Market in the rain, and stopped in the shops to make a few souvenir purchases.  Rich bought some locally made honey that I’ve been enjoying in my morning tea.  We ran into Leslie and Bill on the misty streets of Aspen, and as we were dropping off our purchases back at our hotel, Leslie texted, inviting us to join them for dinner. They even picked us up at the Mountain House Lodge, and Bill drove us in their rented SUV, pointing out several interesting homes and sites along the way.  In clearer weather now, we meandered through Roaring Fork Valley to Woody Creek Tavern, one of John Denver’s purported watering holes.  There, among the garish memorabilia that kept reminding me for some reason of Wisconsin, Leslie said enthusiastically, “Okay, you tell us your story, and we’ll tell you ours.”  Some arguing commenced about who had the wilder story, but really, it was Leslie’s delightful interest in the literary that made her so charming and intriguing.

Bill holding the door as Rich and Leslie enter the Woody Creek Tavern for dinner.

inside Woody Creek Tavern

John Denver photo on the wall

 

more JD inside the Woody Creek Tavern

We enjoyed some really tasty food while sharing our stories.  That evening, we all attended the John Denver Tribute Concert at the Wheeler Opera House, where during intermission Leslie said to me, “I’ll never see a door the same way again in my life.”  I was amazed that that part of our long story had stuck with her.  Simpatico, once again.  At the concert, many of John’s former band members (Mack Bailey, Denny Brooks, Jim Curry, Bill Danoff, Alan Deremo, Richie Gajate-Garcia, Jim Horn, Pete Huttlinger, Chris Nole, Jim Salestrom and Steve Weisberg) performed some of the pieces that helped him make popular.  There, too, John’s daughter Jesse and his former wife Annie joined the finale.  Such loss, recognized by so many–those who truly loved this man and his work. All through the night, it seemed the gravity of John Denver’s tragic ending was in equal proportion to the gifts he gave us. As though he died as he had lived, in an extreme, unexpected, and intensely passionate way.

John Denver projected on the large screen as musicians play
a tribute concert in his honor at the Aspen Wheeler Opera House

Long into the nights, throughout Aspen this October, people of all ages shared as Leslie and I did songs and stories of a man dear to their hearts. There were stories about concerts, about songwriting, about lyrics and chords, about travel and about family members, about meeting dignitaries and winning (and losing) cribbage games.  There were many stories of unparalleled love and kindness and generosity.  There were stories about weddings, about babies being born, about camping and hiking, and about where we were when we heard the tragic news—and what it all meant to us, this incredible loss.

Somehow, people all over the world were brought together by one enormous spirit–the music of an especially gifted storyteller.  And that talent of bringing people together has become part of John Denver’s legacy.  He did it in so many ways while he was alive, and Leslie and I are proof that he still does.

Leslie and Me together at the John Denver Sanctuary

Leslie and I pointing to the line, “I know I’m going to hate to see it end” in the Poems, Prayers, and Promises lyrics.

wild Leslie, wild me, and wild Bill
on Goodbye, Again day at the John Denver Sanctuary
Aspen, CO

© Debra A. Valentino, all rights reserved.

Aspen in October 2012, Part 3: New Friends in Aspen

one of the woman working at the
John Denver Sanctuary, 10/11/12

Part 3:  New Friends in Aspen, 10.11.12

Teresa asked me to tell my story to Julie, the resident horticulturist, and then to the site architect.  I was a little self-conscious, but heartened by her supportive curiosity.  People seemed to be coming and going in the conversation, so I didn’t fully realize until we were posing for photographs that I was chatting with THE main developer, designer and architect, Jeff Woods.  The guy who walked the land with Annie (Denver) just days after John died, looking for the proper venue, helping her begin to unveil the best way to honor John Denver’s memory.  Wanting also to offer a financial donation, I had asked Teresa what the approximate cost was for engraving (with lyrics from John’s songs) the large boulders, as they had done and were wanting to continue doing.  She called Jeff over to answer, and he said it was as much as a thousand dollars.  I asked if it was relatively easy, did they use engraving templates, and he said yes, they did, it went surprisingly fast.  Then I told him about my purpose in attending and about my journey back from closed head injury, as Teresa had requested.

I was surprised when Jeff said that he, too, had suffered traumatic brain injury, that he was badly beaten at age eighteen.  He said he had been athletic at the time of the beating, but that the injury destroyed his ability for quite some time; for one thing, he no longer could golf.  I told him exactly the same was true for me, that my injury was profoundly physical—I had to give up all my hobbies, and couldn’t even swing a golf club until I was coming up on my five year mark–then, how exciting it was just recently to have that first day back on the course.  He said, “Oh, yours was much worse than mine.  I wasn’t out of it for that long.”  Then he added, “But my brother still catches me to this day on things I can’t remember from that time.”

As it turned out, Jeff and I had something else in common, too.  We had both grown up just miles apart, in the northwest suburbs of Chicago.  ‘Nothing like driving a thousand miles to discover just how small the world can be sometimes!

chatting with Theresa
and landscape architect, Jeff Woods

Naturally, it was inspiring to meet someone who had overcome the odds of severe head trauma and gone on to accomplish this phenomenal achievement.  He was a degreed landscape architect and designer, and he was responsible for creating one of the largest outdoor gardens in our country—maybe the world.  He modestly compared it to Kew Gardens in England.  I was enthralled by the thought and passion put into it all.  Still, I had some ideas I wanted to share with him.

As I worked and walked the grounds, many ideas came.  First of all, I noticed how many additional boulders had been added since my initial visit with my daughter in May–quite a good number.  The additions changed the landscape so that there was significantly less greenery and grassland, though far more boulders upon which to sit and ponder or converse.  I wasn’t sure at first if it was a welcomed change.  But as we discussed handicap access, I decided that the sanctuary had become a sort of mock-hike, the feel of the terrain one would experience while hiking in the Rocky Mountains, without the dangers of slipping and falling (due to the lack of incline and elevation).  In this way, the mountains were being brought down to the valley, set on safe land, so that even the wheelchair bound could now experience something they might not otherwise be able to enjoy. Fortunately for me, Jeff Woods was affably approachable that day.  He talked readily to me individually and to the group at large about the construction of the sanctuary and the newly erected Theatre Aspen tent on site, where some performances had already taken place this summer before it was closed for the season.

Jeff Woods explains the treatment and filtration of storm water run-off (before it’s allowed to go into the river) at the John Denver Sanctuary in Aspen, CO

He explained the underlying storm water runoff purification system below, the sand and plant filters woven beneath and between the rocks, and about planned future phases—eventually making the park some two to three times its current size.  As he readily discussed these ideas, I mentioned to him the significance of also honoring John Denver’s creative spirit, his artistic inspiration.  It’s true that the park already does this in its novel way with the rock and tree sculpture that simulates a stage and John performing on it (somewhat reminiscent of a Greek theatre), as well as with the inscriptions from his original work on the boulders that were donated early on, along further still with the sound of rolling water over a rocky riverbed…but there is additionally room for possible enhancements that hearken the creative imagination at large, the focused endeavor of all artists, which is of course the very thing John Denver so consistently mastered.  I told Jeff that this sanctuary could appeal not only to musicians but to all artists and craftsmen, poets, writers…drawing to it not only a celebration of music, but of all forms of creativity.  He agreed, and seemed inspired, or at the least once again surprised by the breadth of this sanctuary’s purview.

Now, when I told him of my desire to create a course for college students, however–a sort of seminar in John Denver and/or the music of his time, Jeff just sort of backed off and said, well, “Good luck with that.”  I didn’t get the impression he was being sarcastic or thought it was a bad idea–just not his area.  Leave it to an English teacher to think designing outdoor gardens is her area.  He gave me a good laugh at myself, even if he graciously didn’t enjoy a good laugh on me.

Jeff Woods with me and Rich
Fall 2012 Volunteer Day at John Denver Sanctuary

Of course, I still think I could design and implement that course, and do my part to bring John Denver’s popularity to the next generation.  Maybe that’s something I’ll think about again when I prepare to head back to work next spring or fall.

Jeff Pine performing at the Aspen Community Church

On Thursday afternoon, we returned to the Aspen Community Church to enjoy a performance by Jeff Pine.  Jeff Pine was at least the third Jeff we would meet that day alone, but the only musically gifted and performing one, as far as we knew.  He told a story of his father taking him to a John Denver concert when he was just a boy, and how John’s talent motivated him to learn guitar.  He was a gently connected soul, the one who actually carved John Denver’s name in a branch and placed it at the coast near the site of the plane crash for John’s first memorial (under “Posthumous recognition” see “on September 24, 2007”).  At this concert, we noticed a woman that was staying at our hotel.  A woman who we learned had fallen off a horse in nearby Glenwood Springs, just before arriving in Aspen.

After Jeff Pine’s concert, we walked the warm streets of Aspen. A large group of both locals and tourists had gathered in front of a restaurant where a bear on a balcony ate wistfully the berries off an overhanging tree.  Everyone was entranced, and probably too close, as we watched the bear eat hundreds of berries.  The police observed the scene nearby, in blue jean attire, which is something we have certainly never seen back home in the midwest.  We stopped to eat at The Meatball Shack, where we met and conversed with the owner, and enjoyed the best truffle fries imaginable.  Then, we walked the rigorous walk back to the Mountain House Lodge, hoping to join the morning hike to Williams Lake, the site purported to be the inspiration for the song “Rocky Mountain High.”

Jeff (L), Pete Mikelson (C), and Marcia (R)

I was already beginning to fatigue, however, and Friday morning was rather slow going for me, along with a less favorable weather forecast.  Instead of hiking, we sat at breakfast with a couple we had met the morning before, the woman who had fallen off the horse.  I asked how she was feeling, and she told us the story.  We became fast friends with Marcia and Jeff (now the fourth for us), and literally sat talking for hours.  It seemed we’d been friends for years, with no distance, no pretense, plenty to discuss, some good laughs and the kind of resourcefulness and comfort that good friends offer.

After our leisurely breakfast, we moved on for some Storytelling at the Mountain Chalet. The weather was continuing to gray and mist, and it was already past 11 a.m.

And then I met Leslie.

 

© Debra A. Valentino, all rights reserved.

Aspen in October 2012, Part 2: At the Santuary

Part 2:  At the Santuary

Fifteen years after an experienced pilot and irreplaceable American folk artist was lost in a panicked moment over the waters of the Pacific Ocean near Monterey, California, people from all over the world gathered in his hometown of Aspen, Colorado.  Hundreds of devoted fans traveled thousands of miles to celebrate this man’s vast contributions—a full fifteen years after he was forever gone from the earth and sky he so steadfastly celebrated.  Some of the people were friends and relatives, band members and constituents, and some of them had been coming every year for all fifteen.  Many were musicians inspired by his craft, spanning in age from the early twenties to the mid seventies.  Although it was my first attendance at Aspen in October, the pilgrimage offered unexpected insights and unanticipated personal growth, some connected to my experience with post-concussive syndrome, and some not.  Old friendships were reignited, and new ones were forged as the spirit of this man, John Denver, was palpably with every one of us throughout, and with all of us at once.

Mark Cormican playing at the Aspen Community Church

On Wednesday evening, we attended a concert by Mark Cormican in the intimate setting of the Aspen Community Church. Mark’s rendition of “This Old Guitar” at the end of the evening moved me to tears, but I did good with this (losing it) until a couple days later when I heard Keeper at one of the musical sessions Friday afternoon perform “Poems and Prayers and Promises.”  That was one of the toughest moments, not only because Keeper is good, but also because that was my first-ever John Denver favorite, the first John Denver song I played a thousand million times on my little record player in my early teenage room.  It is noteworthy when a songwriter’s music punctuates one’s own ideology, as John Denver’s music does for me.  I’ve never grown tired of that song, and it simply represents so much about who I am and how I’ve lived  my life.

Still driving from Denver during Wednesday morning’s Meet and Greet, our initial bond took root with a volunteer cleanup and bulb planting Thursday morning at the John Denver Sanctuary, sponsored by the City of Aspen Parks Department. This event was especially well organized, well attended and well supported. The moment we appeared, we were warmly greeted by other workers and by the Parks’ office manager, Teresa, with whom I had corresponded via email.  Much to my delight, there were packs and stacks of planting gloves, kneeling pads, and even metal bulb planters. There was even a pre-made picture sign indicating the types of bulbs we would be planting (Purple Allium, Yellow and White Narcissus, Blue Muscari, Orange and Red Tulips).

All of this impressed the pedant in me.  And better yet, before we arrived, all the flower bulbs had been placed in specific beds, perfectly spaced and arranged for planting. 

Everything I worried about was attended to in advance, and we were off to a perfect start.  They also had refreshments set up, some snacks, including hot water for tea, and cold and delicious water with which to rehydrate. I must have had four or five glasses of that water, so refreshing it seems I can still taste it, taken during short breaks to catch my breath in the thin mountain air. Planting was surprisingly more work than I remembered. Though it is something I did most springs and falls, it is not something I had done since obtaining my closed head injury.  It made me realize how much I missed it, if I had forgotten.  I was so grateful on this day to have enough stamina at last.  For all I had missed over the past five years, and for as bad as all of it had made me feel, I was here, fairly pain, fatigue and nausea-free, maybe not feeling terrific, but fully aware, participating in a meaningful event that re-connected me to a part of my lost and worn self.  I worked conscientiously in the magnificent Aspen sunshine, enjoying every moment, remembering the many quite contrasting, darker days when I couldn’t even lift my head, let alone leave my bed.  Those years were certainly no bed of roses, but here I was after so much agony.  I was mindful with the drop of every bulb of the great spirit of the man who did not survive, of the remarkable human we were honoring—how pleased this tribute would make him, how delighted he would be to see the flowers blooming in the spring.  It was an incredibly beautiful morning under the bluest autumnal sky.

blue sky over Aspen

A perfect place to leave the past behind.

I stood solidly on sacred ground, sensing a long awaited emancipation.  You can’t imagine fresher air than that in the Rocky Mountains, and you understand when you are there, even all these years later, how it became the perfect inspiration for so many of John Denver’s most famous lyrics, and why he felt compelled to capture it in a song (in this clip, “High Flight” begins at 3:55, but fans will want to watch it in its entirety).

Volunteers working at the JD Sanctuary in Aspen, CO

All around us, people planted the four varieties of bulbs, many in small groups, some more individually gathering bags full of fallen leaves.  As we worked, the city office manager, Teresa Hackbarth, came by to chat some more.  She was curious where we were from and how many times we’d been to the sanctuary.  I explained this was only my second time, that my daughter had gifted me the past Mother’s Day with a weekend together, hiking, which I once did avidly–and visiting John Denver’s sanctuary, an item on my “bucket list.”

Our conversation led to a somewhat less brief introduction of my condition. Teresa seemed intrigued.  She said, “So, this is a bit of a spiritual journey for you, then?  I love that!”  Her interest seemed rather foreign to me, yet genuine and sincere.  I thought, what would it be like to have this kind of validation always?  To be taken seriously and not dismissed?  To be believed, and to be given sufficient notice?  To be regarded, valued?  To meet head to head, not watching the other’s back turning, then walking away?  Those who suffer know what I mean, those who are ill.  Something about Teresa just read “Aspen” through and through.  She had purity of spirit.  Perception. Identification.  Focus.  Goodness.  These were many of the very things that fed John Denver as he strummed new chord progressions, as he wrote songs that touched heart strings far across the continents.  His influence seemed palpable throughout the town.

chatting at the John Denver Sanctuary
with Theresa and Julie from
the Aspen Parks Department

And, really, this event set the stage for the rest of the week.  People everywhere just being real, fully alive.  As my new friend Leslie kept saying, “happy.”  There’s a wonderful level of trust enjoyed by travelers, and sharing so many of these moments was magical and uplifting.  It removed all suspicion, any lingering doubt, and gave well deserved meaning to that controversial phrase, “Rocky Mountain High.”  Skeptics generally don’t know this particular world.  Perhaps one actually has to travel to Aspen to find it.

 

© Debra A. Valentino, all rights reserved.

 

 

 

Aspen in October 2012, Part 1: Introduction

Intro: Music, Music, Music (and some poetry)

John Denver’s music arrived quietly in the late 1960s and would span fervently like eagles wings across three decades.  The whisper that was his entrée was the windstorm that would become America’s voice, thanks to his vast contributions.  Many of the over two hundred songs he himself penned would sustain popularity beyond his untimely death on October 12, 1997, and well into today (including the induction of two state songs, one official, and one that might as well be).

Older fans gathering this past week in Aspen unanimously agreed that the next generation needs to know both of John Denver’s musical talent and his global activism.  They told stories of children and grandchildren’s first words and unending recollections having to do with John Denver.  Daily they shared how they want young people to learn of his greatness at a time when true heroes are nearly inaccessible.

Notably, during today’s especially divisive political campaign, John Denver fans gathered to regain the seemingly elusive values that traditionally sustain the hearts of all Americans, the steadfast ideals John stood for:  love, joy, artistry, nature, song, ecology, fairness, peace, community.

John Denver was a humanitarian who campaigned in 1976 for Jimmy Carter.  He traveled to Russia and was instrumental in achieving foreign diplomacy.  He was a friend to presidents and dignitaries alike.  John Denver’s politics tell us a lot about his values and about the people who continue to honor him faithfully.  John was against all forms of violence, opposing war and oppression.  He was ardently devoted to world peace.  He was a maverick, and accomplished all these things before it became fashionable to do so among celebrities.  One could say that John Denver set the stage for wealthy people contributing to global concerns.

John Denver was a popular figure with a particular fan base, and his music was exceptional in its depth of expression both artistically and vocally.  Although John Denver was not classically trained, he had a great tenor voice, perhaps one of the greatest of the popular singers of his time, rivaled only by the likes of highly accomplished opera singers such as Jose Carreras, Luciano Pavarotti, and Placido Domingo.

What I always appreciated about John Denver is that he had the confidence to be himself, to create and celebrate his own voice.  He didn’t resort to gimmicks to create an image, such as painting his tongue black, biting off the head of a bat, or gyrating his hips, like so many of his equally talented competitors did.  He seemed completely comfortable in his own skin, a skin that was often chastised and mocked for being too pristine (despite the alleged and seemingly ever present alcohol and marijuana controversies), too nerdy, geeky, a dweeb, dorky.  His boy next door image cost him the respect of many in his field, but to me, as a young teenager and then young woman following his career, I saw him as a stoic, gracefully meeting the challenges of his distasteful bullies.  John Denver cared, and he was not afraid to care.  He wasn’t ashamed, and he didn’t hide…even when others determined he might have had something to hide, such as his tumultuous relationships or his admitted sterility.  He was the gentlest soul with the biggest heart.  He was both as human and as divine as they come.  The pressures on him, living in a post-machismo time of opportunism, must have been enormous.  But somehow, John kept his focus.  He turned everything into a song, and even his laments into songs of praise, and in so doing, he gave us hope.  You could be in the darkest mood, listening to one of John’s darkest songs, and still, somehow through listening, come out feeling better.  His voice was not just that of an angel, but of a comforting angel–one who had especially for you a kleenex and a warm embrace.  He made you think.  He made you celebrate.  He let you despair and rejoice, and he was there for you to do it with.

Perhaps, compared to many John Denver was a regular guy.  Not just a “country boy,” but a nature lover, a tree hugger, an environmentalist.  He knew what mattered to him, and he left whatever mattered to the mainstream to them.  Yet, he was ardent about getting his message out.  The proof that he succeeded was everywhere in Aspen this week in the eyes of the hundreds of people who gathered specifically to remember his work.

Coming together in a harmony like this, at this event known as Aspen in October, marking in solemn solitude and in group assembly the anniversary of John Denver’s untimely death, was collectively and individually not only enormously fulfilling, but easily one of the greatest tributes anyone could possibly pay.

I will always remember John Denver and sing his praises–well, speak and write of them (you don’t want to hear me sing).  We are all better for having had him here with us, and we are all the lesser for having lost his brilliance.

 

 © Debra A. Valentino, all rights reserved.