Wednesday, January 1, 2014

John Denver: "Leaving, On A Jet Plane"

December 31st would have been John Denver's 70th birthday had he lived, and that fact leads me rather more toward contemplation than to speculation. I have almost no inkling of what Denver might have done with these last sixteen years, and the October 1997 accident that took his life also ended his longed-for return to the center stage of American popular culture. Moreover, the period of his stratospheric popularity in the 1970s has retreated much, much farther into the past, irrelevant to the collective memory of the half of the population in the U.S. who were not even born when JD ruled the charts and airwaves or who were at best infants and toddlers - and for many of whom Denver's whooping enthusiasm in the concert videos posted to YouTube and his earnest if apparently at times naive promotion of the New Age and environmental causes of his day seem as alien to their lives and times as do the singer's granny glasses and bell bottoms.

Which is too bad, really, because Denver wrote some excellent songs in the folk idiom and performed them with consummate skill. I addressed these points recently and in more detail than I will here when I profiled "Take Me Home, Country Roads" last October. What was implicit at the end of that piece - when I quoted legendary producer Milt Okun's fervent wish that Denver would be taken seriously as an American musical artist on the same plane with Stephen Foster, Charles Ives, and Aaron Copland - was that JD was never embraced by any commuinity of critics, neither the pop and rock newspaper wags nor the academics of the professoriat, some of whom have been tripping over each other to get Bob Dylan either a real Pulitzer Prize or a Nobel Prize For Literature, or both. I know of more than a few Denver fanatics who just do not understand this at all, either the lack of attention to their hero or to the adulation accorded to Dylan and other singer-songwriters of the era, both famous and obscure, whose creative output seems generally to be more highly regarded than Denver's is, even with the re-evaluation of JD that is going on now and that I also discussed in the linked article.

The reasons for this oversight are varied, but they probably come down to what is perceived as a lack of depth and sophistication in Denver's music, something no one ever alleged about Dylan's lyrics or those of a few dozen other musical artists who like Bobby D at least skirted around the edges of the folk revival and accompanied their creations for the most part with acoustic guitars. Yet once again in this regard, Denver is being unfairly slighted. Though his highest-profile hit songs may well have been cheerful hymns to the beauties of nature and the wonders of romantic love, there was a decidedly darker undercurrent in much of Denver's writing - a melancholia approaching depression in a fine song like "Eclipse," for instance, or the urban alienation of "Fly Away." And always  - always - Denver wrote about loneliness and about isolation and about the consequences of the failure of the romantic dreams that he so famously extolled in the hits.

These two distinctly different sides of Denver's writing are evident in the first two of his compositions to be recorded professionally. The very first, copyrighted under his real name as "H.J. Deutschendorf, Jr.", was called "For Bobbie" and appeared on the second album that JD waxed as a replacement member of The Mitchell Trio in 1965. Though that original recording has yet to be posted on YouTube, Denver reunited with the original Chad Mitchell Trio for a number of concerts in 1987, and the his performance here from those shows (with his former partners in the group, Mike Kobluk and Joe Frazier) is virtually identical to the '65 studio recording:

The song was covered most famously by pop-folk superstars Peter, Paul and Mary, who renamed it "For Baby" and converted it into a tune for a newborn child. But Denver continued to perform it and record it with the original title and lyric - and the original intent as a competent if simple love ballad. It is pleasant enough, but had JD been planning a career based on songs like this, he would have been better off returning to Texas Tech.

Fortunately and famously, Denver was capable of much better writing, and his talent for matching words with melodies emerged in an emphatically more accomplished second recording, a 1966 composition that JD wanted to call "Babe, I Hate To Go." The title was nixed as drab and unimaginative by Milt Okun, who suggested that Denver use the first line of the chorus as the title instead of the last, and thus was "Leaving, On A Jet Plane" born. The last incarnation of the Mitchell Trio (with Kobluk and David Boise) recorded "Jet Plane" - complete with the comma that has since disappeared from the title but with which the tune is still under copyright - for the band's final album in 1967 called Alive:

Both the tune and lyrics here are greatly superior to the "Bobbie" number, but the performance seems rushed, as if Denver has not yet realized that he has written a somewhat sad song about lovers parting, with the "wedding ring" bit in the third verse coming across as a hopeful and possibly desperate antidote to the singer's sorrow as he contemplates the upcoming loneliness of the road. Denver's original solo rendition on his first commercially-produced album, 1969's Rhymes and Reasons, has similar pacing, if a somewhat more reflective interpretation of the lyric:

Several years later, however, when JD re-recorded some of his earlier tunes for the monster nine-times platinum-selling John Denver's Greatest Hits, Denver had altered both the speed of the melody and the more sober and quiet voice of the story:

With slight variations, this is the interpretation that Denver used in concert for the rest of his career.

Still, "Leaving, On A Jet Plane" and Denver's career would likely have been lost in obscurity (the sales of the first two recordings above were negligible) had Milt Okun not also acted as musical director for the aforementioned high profile PP&M, which may well have been the only pop-folk group whose popularity survived the onslaught of the British Invasion of rock music following the 1964 arrival of The Beatles in the U.S. Okun brought "Jet Plane" to PP&M, who included it in their 1967 offering Album 1700, surely one of the group's best and most accomplished efforts. For reasons now unknown, the band's label, Warner Brothers, waited until 1969 to release the tune as a 45rpm single, which became PP&M's last charting single (of several) and the only one to hit the #1 spot on Billboard's main pop charts.

"Jet Plane" became the signature number for the late Mary Travers, who recorded and performed it solo as well as with the trio. Further, the song's appearance on the popular 1700 album was what enabled Okun and Denver's other representatives to market the young unknown singer-songwriter to major label RCA. JD's Rhymes and Reasons debut, in fact, was released at precisely the time in autumn of 1969 that PP&M's "Jet Plane" was ascending the pop music singles charts. Additionally, one of Denver's first network TV appearances during his solo career was sitting in with PP&M for "Jet Plane" on one of the trio's specials, this one in 1969 at the height of the song's popularity - and the beginning of Denver's.

The tune has been covered by professionals hundreds and hundreds of times, in virtually every musical mode imaginable. A sampling of some of the more interesting takes - first, a version in memory of my father, a man of generally impeccable musical tastes ranging from Glenn Miller and George Gershwin to his annual seasonal subscription to the prestigious Chicago Symphony but who for some mysterious reason also loved the musical stylings of The Ray Conniff Singers:

Should that not be sufficiently abusive of the lyric and grating to the senses, I submit that this punk version by Me First and the Gimme Gimmes will do the trick:

Rather more interesting to me, not to say palatable, is what rapper and actor Mose Def does with the song:

It is a sampling of the number and not the song that John Denver wrote, but it somehow works for me in the way that Lindsay Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac remarked to John Stewart that a good pop recording should be repetitive and hypnotic.

Perhaps because of Mary Travers' top flight vocals on the hit version, "Jet Plane" has become a perennial favorite for female soloists. One of the most popular and widely-heard versions of fairly recent vintage was by Canadian Chantal Kreviazuk as part of the hit 1998 movie Armageddon:

Kreviazuk is a more than competent pro, and the jazz-tinged chord structure of her accompaniment creates a very different effect from Denver's original earnest folkie-ness.

For a contemporary female vocalist's interpretation, though, my favorite hands down is by Vienna Teng, a young Stanford engineering graduate whom I first heard ten years ago late at night while randomly flipping through television programs and seeing her do one song as the closing act on The David Letterman Show. Teng is a proficient and introspective songwriter with four albums to her credit (though she is apparently on a bit of a performing hiatus while she is working simultaneously on an MBA and M.S. at the University of Michigan), and her vocal delivery is nothing if not sensitive:

Teng gets a little too hushed at points here, perhaps, but in her favor it can be said that she at least avoids the breathiness of most of the American Idol generation of singers and demonstrates a genuine awareness of the meaning of Denver's lyric.

"There are no second acts in American lives," F. Scott Fitzgerald once famously observed, but he was not saying that revivals and comebacks are impossible. Rather, he meant that artists' careers in this country tended to be all build-up followed by decline, without the requisite second act as in the plays of his day in which the protagonist could learn and grow and develop depth and complexity in conflict in the middle of the story. I have often thought that such was the case with John Denver, who shot to international stardom and maintained a breakneck pace of developing his entertainment projects and promoting his environmental causes without being able to step aside for a time and rethink and broaden his songwriting interests. Throughout his career, he essentially got better and better at doing the same thing, though as his personal life darkened in his later years, so too did the tone of many of his musical creations. To say so is not to fault Denver; having once written a song as good as "Leaving, On A Jet Plane" is, as profoundly moving as it has been to so many people over the passing decades and generations and expressing both the light and dark of his creative vision, it would have been virtually impossible and likely foolish as well for JD not to try to forge such an expression once more. That he may never again have created so enduring a song as this speaks to his fallible humanity; that he never stopped trying, to his quality and commitment as an artist.


Ben C. Alexander said...

Much of the genius of PP&M was an ability to understand compositions, often even more than the composer. This seems underscored by the contemporaneous versions of "Leaving." The lyrics of "For Bobby" expose the feelings of most parents for their children in a way I have not seen or heard elsewhere.

mark said...

I feel very, very embarrassed in the cavalier dismissal of JDs artistry that I held in my younger years. I appreciate your corrections.