A song that divided and inspired a generation: Rocky Mountain High
“Although we say mountains belong to the country, actually, they belong to those that love them”.
Dōgen Zenji (1200-1253)
“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better”.
Albert Einstein (1879-1955)
John Denver (born Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr. (December 31, 1943 – October 12, 1997)), was a clean-cut, soft-rock-folk music celebrity in the 1970s, beloved by millions for his beautiful melodies and lyrics in pieces like “Annie’s Song,” “Take me Home Country Roads,” and “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” The story of “Rocky Mountain High,” perhaps the most emblematic in his repertoire, is a tale worth recounting decades later, especially given the recurring news stories about the Perseid meteor shower.
As Denver narrates it, he and his wife Annie had just moved to Aspen, Colorado in the early 1970s. He fell in love with the mountains instantly, and felt like it was home even though he had lived in many other locations. He had moved around with his military family, from his Roswell, New Mexico birthplace, including living in Tucson, Arizona; Montgomery, Alabama; and Forth Worth, Texas—finding it hard to make permanent school friends.
During his first Colorado summer he went camping with friends. He was relieving himself late one evening amongst a stand of pine trees. It was dark and the starlight seemed softer within that grove than outside, with beguiling shadows.
Later that evening the campers observed the Perseid meteor shower, a regular phenomenon in the August mountain skies. One particularly impressive meteor burst, blazing, across the heavens, wowing Denver and his friends. The twin images of soft starlight and meteor showers affected him deeply. Once he was back home he started writing “Rocky Mountain High.”
Unusually, it took him nine months to get the lyrics and tune right, whereas “Annie’s Song” took 10 minutes on a ski lift. When it was released, it was musically at once complex and yet simple, and highly memorable. It is replete with compelling language.
The startling opening lines are about Denver himself, standing amongst the pines—he is 27 yet feels like this is his birth as a person. He was born and raised elsewhere and lived a peripatetic childhood, yet the mountains were instantly home in a way he had never previously experienced. There are religious overtones in the idea of being born again. He is gaining from the natural world a key to the magic of life.
As the lyrics progress, he sings about his past life in the fast lane. It was transient. This further reinforces the ‘two lives’ notion.
The emotions evinced by the light in daytime, and starlight, are on display in the chorus. His “raining fire” notion of the meteor burst, and ideas such as the shadows from the starlight being soft like a lullaby--these metaphors are wonderful.
The poetry of the Colorado mountains is teased out further in later verses. Mountains are “cathedral”, clouds “silver”, friends are “lost’” but their memories are retained. Indeed, Denver later became the Poet Laureate for Colorado. The heights of the mountains, the distance of the clouds (“as far as you can see”) and the depth of the perceiver’s view of everything all speak to how affected he was.
The later lines tell of his difficulties over the tragic death of friend who had visited him from Minnesota and was killed riding Denver’s motorcycle. Tragedy, mystery and incomprehensible beauty, all in one song.
While the lines in each stanza narrate a compelling storyline—a continuation of the elegiac descriptions as he reports moving around and interacting with nature, it all goes to make up a beautifully-realized introspection.
The unfathomable nature of beauty is here for all to see. He loves this world, and can’t drink enough of it—but he doesn’t, and can never, fully grasp it.
Is he religious? Communing with God? Being born again? He talks of walking the forest amongst mystery—seeking grace, solitude, serenity.
Many religious people reported finding themselves not just warming to this song, but experiencing intense closeness to God whilst listening to it.
Then fear underscores the earlier notes of doubt. The protagonist in the song (Denver himself, of course) cannot comprehend everything he is encountering and experiencing—and he is immensely concerned for the world. At the time of the song’s development there were concerns about bringing the Olympic Games to Colorado—hence the worry about the destruction of the mountains. The risk was developers tearing the mountains down, scarring the land, was clear—and to Denver, obnoxious.
This is his bête noire. Leave nature alone, he is saying. Especially nature in a form this gorgeous.
Then, towards the end, more redolent language. You’d be completely and utterly impoverished as a person, he says, if you’d never seen an eagle, soaring on the wing, high up. This is yet another evocation—this time, of that majestic creature, revered by so many throughout America and elsewhere.
Now he moves to closure, with his famous lines: friends “around a campfire”, and “everybody’s high”. This was a hell of a controversial ending, particularly in the 1970s, an era in which there were many vocal conservative groups worried about drug-taking amongst America’s youth.
In an instant, and unexpectedly, he has just betrayed many of his Christian listeners. He had them with the deep spirituality of the song, and lost them, some forever, with the reference to casual drug-taking.
Did Denver really mean, or mean to imply, marijuana use? He denied this, but the song was immediately banned for this line by many radio stations, although it seems tame by today’s standards. His official view was that this was simply about the high that one gets sharing life and communing with nature and with friends.
But the doubts persisted, and Denver was a known user of cannabis. He also admitted later to LSD and cocaine use.
The song alienated swathes of people. The religious saw the holy spirit in the prose, but the last twist angered them. It pleased those who silently or actively agreed with marijuana use, were atheists, and supported or lived what was described those days as a “hippy” lifestyle. The Christian Right and irreligious Left were split.
Over forty years later, the poetic verse contrasted with the disjunction at the end can still offend some. Looking beyond this, the lovely lyrics and a tune many couldn’t get out of their heads, evoked a glorious experience. Listening to it now, it remains a masterpiece. Only 4:21 on Spotify, but the chord progression and lyrics, crafted to be made for each other, working together, are brilliant.
Even today, people still get taken in their mind’s eye to the Rockies through this classic song.
There were postscripts. John Denver died in a plane crash, flying his personal plane, solo, in 1997 when he was 53. His legacy lives on in his songs and activism for the environment. The Colorado legislature approved of “Rocky Mountain High” being the state’s second anthem in 2007. There is a carving of the words from the song in a statue in Rio Grande Park, near Aspen, which has become a shrine for well-wishers and fans.
The itinerant, introverted youngster had found home in the mountains he loved. The controversy, like the lyrics and chords, endures. Just like the Perseid meteor shower, every August.
Denver, John, Tobier, Arthur (1994). Take Me Home: An Autobiography. New York: Crown.
John Denver photo and album cover courtesy of Wikipedia.
Lyrics to Rocky Mountain High