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John Denver

this alien actually was from Roswell...

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, October 15, 1997.

I never met John Denver, but in a weird sense I’ve always felt I had.

Long before he was famous, we were both musicians and we both played the twelve string guitar. I played a Martin D-12-28 and Denver apparently played a Guild. I had bought a Martin guitar because at that point I bought on reputation and I wasn’t a good enough guitarist to be picky. Now, about acoustic 12-strings. A 12-string guitar exerts about a half ton of tension on a guitar neck. Unlike classical and most steel strung guitars with six strings, this means that your fingering hand must be able to compress all these different diametered strings to the neck so they do not buzz, and that takes a lot of strength. Martin guitars, at least at that point, were not comfortable with the entire concept of the 12-string, and kept the strings about a foot and a half off the neck so that the instrument sounded great in open tunings or without interference from a musician’s hand. And if, far worse, you tried to compensate by using light gauge strings, the buzzing and fuzzed notes could be most annoying.

Guild, which normally built electric instruments, had produced an instrument that kept the strings barely off the neck, which was both thinner and longer by two frets than the Martin. It did not sound as good in open tunings, but once played through the crappy sound systems of the day, this made no big difference and the fact that one could actually play the thing without having forearms resembling Popeye’s was a blessing. Moreover, because the action on the neck was lower, when a singer used a capo to change tones and keys for certain songs, it did not require a geologic age to tune. In short, the Martin was a better guitar, but only in theory. The sixties were heavy on theory.

Well, I had first heard of Denver when he replaced Chad Mitchell in the Chad Mitchell Trio, which made no sense, so the people in charge renamed it the Mitchell Trio, which only made small sense. The Trio was not that popular, although they had a few hit songs like Lizzy Borden, so their live shows were the bread and butter more than the record sales. They had also been among the first groups to buy their own sound system with which to travel, which sounds weird, but back then most groups, even the best, would cheerfully play through the PA system in the gym and the public, which knew no better, was charmed. The Mitchell Trio was a precise vocal band, and their effect would have been wasted if nobody could hear them, so they bought a sound system and brought the whining, obsequious, sound system engineer on the road with them into the live performance of popular music, for which they are justifiably damned today. More to the point, the group could not afford it, still a tradition, and they were in debt for about $30,000, a lot in the dollars of 1966. When Mitchell left the group, many bookings did as well, and the finances were bleak. This was the scuttlebutt.

Enter Denver, a cheery twenty something, who then claimed he was from Texas rather than Roswell, New Mexico. His energy took over the group away from the veterans, who often resented him, and when the last original member left, the group became Denver, Boise, and Johnson, which never made it, and Denver stayed with the thing till the debts were paid off and then disbanded the group. He released records of his songs to adoring fans in solo performances. This was in the late 60’s.

I was playing a song called “That’s the Way Its Going to Be” at a coffee house in Massachusetts, but I could not get one of the parts right on the 12 string, so I fudged it. A stranger approached, showed me how to do it (which hurt...), and told me there was this guy Denver in New York who had shown him. I thanked him and vented all my frustrations with the 12 string to the poor guy, who said he knew, he knew, this guy Denver had had the same problems until thus and so. He was going back to New York, would see Denver again, and he would return with answers to all my questions (which were pretty bovine, in retrospect). Sure enough, he returned with hand written tablature of the parts I wanted to learn, notes on the care and feeding of the 12-string guitar, and a cheery greeting, all from this guy Denver. The advice was both accurate and helpful. Had I known, I would have kept the note. Essentially he said, “buy a Guild.”

It remains today a good memory of a guy whose professionalism and kindness’ were legion.