It’s full disclosure time. I’ve been keeping a certain someone from you, an iconic stud of the ‘70s: Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr. That’s right, my darling Deutschendorf. He was everywhere: on the radio, on television, in the movies, even sometimes in the news for political activism. Perplexed by the famed Deutshendorf? Clearly, you weren’t a groupie. To advance his career, he went by the name John Denver. (Oh, my cheeks burn with embarrassment. Perhaps I shouldn’t have done the full reveal. How many of you would have actually Googled “Deutschendorf”?)
Okay, it’s out. I had a crush on John Denver. I was only seven when he was at his peak, his “Rocky Mountain High”. I hate that I offer my youth as part of my defense. Looking back on his photos, I don’t know what I saw in him. That mop top of blond hair was the right color, but the wrong style. The folksy, Western shirts never did it for me either. And then there were the spectacles. My most vivid memory of Denver places him with The Muppets and the roundness of his glasses made him blend in with googly-eyed Kermit, Gonzo, Miss Piggy et al. In fact, I’m getting a little confused—did the green frog sing “Rainbow Connection” while strumming a banjo or was it my Denver? Maybe John really was a Muppet.
Yeah, not the stuff from which crushes arise.
But see, that is why I cherish this particular infatuation. It came before my gay indoctrination when I first showed up at a club in West Hollywood, wearing dress pants and a conservative button down designer shirt in a peachy tone that I felt blended nicely with my complexion. (Yep, I naively thought guys would be cruising the club, checking out my complexion.)
Before I had any understanding of what was physically hot, my tastes were hit and miss. Andy Gibb? Bull’s-eye. John Denver? Completely missed the dartboard. Still, I wasn’t completely clueless. I chose Denver over that other bespectacled blond musician of the ‘70s, Paul Williams. The Denver crush came when my assessment of a man was probably more balanced. Looks counted for something, but musical talent, a passion for the environment and a willingness to share an emotionally vulnerability mattered more.
Even at the time, I knew that many people dismissed Denver as a hokey, schmaltzy promoter of bland music. There is some evidence of that, particularly in his later work, but I’d say many talented musicians become watered down versions of themselves as they age—Rod Stewart and Elton John immediately come to mind.
The attraction to John Denver came from his beliefs, as conveyed in lyrics and music. He sang of sunshine, sky, mountains and water and how the sights of nature could make him cry. He paid tribute to Calypso and Jacques Cousteau’s oceanic exploration and environmentalism. His “Annie’s Song” is an ode to true (if un-lasting) love, simple, emotionally raw and linking his love for a woman with his love for nature. He oozed earnestness.
I listen to John Denver’s music sparingly now, not because it doesn’t hold up, but because I wish to preserve the enchantment. About once a year, I’ll pull out a CD, pop it in the car and go for a scenic drive. My eyes get watery as I listen to him gush in “Sunshine on My Shoulders”, “I’mSorry” and “Fly Away”. I don’t ever want to lose my connection to his songs.
So you see, I can explain my attraction to John Denver. His public persona included so much of what I admire and what I seek in a man. And yet there is a sadness as I think about this. I am not certain that I’d give a real life gay version of John Denver a second glance today. And that’s where the live by the sword, die by the sword expression impales me. I too have been and will continue to be overlooked due to a bland exterior. Being gay can be a punishing existence and often it’s not the outside haters who cause the deepest wounds.
John Denver harkens back to a simpler, purer era, a time of my own innocence. Sometimes remembering a past crush creates an ache arising not from what he was but what I held to be most important. How did my strong seven-year-old self go so far astray?