Dave Molter

John Denver: Visionary?

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In 1972, John Denver recorded what was to become his signature tune, “Rocky Mountain High.” On Jan. 1 this year, the use of marijuana for “recreational purposes” became legal in Colorado. Coincidence? Of course not.


I have always thought that the success of “Rocky Mountain High,” ostensibly a paean to The Centennial State, has less to do with people waxing poetic over the mental image of the snow-capped Rocky Mountains than with their giggling over the dual meaning of the word “high” in its title. Denver, at the time America’s favorite pudding-basin-coiffed, wire-rimmed-bespectacled troubadour, knew exactly what he was doing.


The Summer of Love was in the rearview mirrors of Volkswagen buses for five years when Denver wrote “Rocky Mountain High.” It was the perfect time. Remember in 1972, Richard M. Nixon and Spiro T. Agnew held the reins of power in Washington, D.C. If you weren’t high, you probably wished you were. What is arguably Denver’s most iconic tune provided a great way for closet hippies ensconced in positions of power within the federal government to giggle softly while their straight-laced colleagues sang along, unknowingly. Take that, Mr. Establishment!


Ya gotta tip your headband to John’s marketing savvy. He’d shown it earlier. Born Henry John Deutschendorf Jr. in Roswell, N.M., he moved to Colorado, adopted the name of its capital as his own, and wrote of pure air and lofty mountain peaks – and left plenty of room for interpretation. Who would have bought a song called “Roswell Desert Low” by John Santa Fe? No one knows for sure if John Denver ever went one toke over the line. But rumor has it he was devastated when told that The Muppets were not a race of beings discovered living in a cave outside Aspen.


So in many ways it was John Denver who predicted that Colorado voters would vote to make the recreational use of marijuana legal. And when those voters said in November they wanted pot, they weren’t just blowin’ smoke. Word out of Colorado is that authorized dealers – only about three dozen of more than 200 authorized dealers opened – may have run out of marijuana by the time you read this. Now, that’s high demand.


The power of pot was illustrated to me sometime in 1968 by my band’s guitarist, whose name has been changed because of Facebook. Between sets at a club outside Pittsburgh, “Nigel” wandered into the club’s kitchen. Always hungry, he explored the various containers found there, and upon opening a small brown paper bag began to hop about in an agitated manner. He quickly stashed the bag within his Nehru shirt.


“Moltie,” he called out, motioning me into the kitchen, “look at this!” Peering over my shoulder cautiously to see if anyone was watching, he peeled open his shirt and parted the top of the bag just enough to reveal a greenish-brown, flaky substance that had an unfamiliar odor.


“It’s pot!” Nigel exclaimed. Then he ran out to the parking lot and came back 20 minutes later. His eyelids hung heavy, and he spent most of the last set staring at our strobe light, even when it wasn’t on.


“Oh man,” the rest of the band members said. “That must be really good stuff!”


So good, in fact, that Nigel decided he’d sell some to the bartender.


We played a week’s worth of gigs before we came back to the club, and Nigel spent much of them in a fog, marveling at neon signs and proclaiming all waitresses groovy. When we returned to the club, the bartender met Nigel at the door. We assumed he wanted more of “the stuff.”


“Hey, man!” he said, stabbing his finger into the front of Nigel’s paisley vest. “That weed you sold me was oregano!”


Marijuana: a drug so powerful that just the belief that he was smoking it kept Nigel high for a week.


Last I heard, Nigel was leavin’ on a jet plane. For Colorado.


Do you suppose oregano is legal there?


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