“I’m not religious, but church music is the shit,” a friend whispered in a confessional tone over his beer. “The chord changes are intricately complex and it’s timeless. That’s why there have been Christmas carols since Henry the VIII. He even wrote some of them, or his court musicians did. That’s where ‘Greensleeves’ came from. The biggest problem I have is that it starts too early … like the week before Thanksgiving and then it’s like January 14th and you’re still fucking hearing it in grocery stores. That sucks. But when you hear the bell choir and you hear the ‘falalalala,’ it’s good cheer. I love it. Dylan came out with a Christmas album (‘Christmas in the Heart’). It’s terrible.” He made a face like he had just eaten blood pudding thinking it was chocolate. Yes, ’tis the season for that irksome, repetitive, mind-deadening holiday music, endless Christmas canticles blared across the loudspeakers at ski resorts and pouring out of restaurants and shops, permeating the streets and oozing up from the powdery whiteness of an otherwise perfect day.
It may be somewhat of a Scrooge attitude, but as hard as some of us try to ignore it, Christmas music won’t go away. If you ever actually liked Christmas music, by the time the celebrated Eve rolls around, you loathe hearing another verse of what has become insipid muzak droning out seasonal cheeriness. Call it the Christmas creep — whereas the assault used to start in early December but has now slipped into the day after Halloween. It is why many of us pay homage to Saint Steve for bringing us the iPod and the choice of a night silent of the inanity of granny getting run over by reindeer, or the looping of high-pitched androgynous voices, of sleigh bells ringing or little drummer boys who have nothing to do with rock-and-roll or Christmas for that matter. Even though Billy Idol oddly snarled out an album of traditional Christmas carols, The Boss electrified Santa Claus coming to town and plenty of indie and alternative bands startled new life into old hymns, there are actually a few holiday scores that especially warm the cockles … the ones you find yourself inexplicably whistling in July on a deep wilderness hike. The Grinch. Charlie Brown. But most notably, John Denver and the Muppets.
With just one song, John Denver did more to uplift the Yuletide spirit of more folk all over the country than a bowl full of wassail; he opened his nationally broadcast show in 1988, “Christmas in Aspen,” with one of his favorite Christmas songs, “Rocky Mountain High,” the tune capable of invoking euphoric mountain pride and responsible for relocating generations of happiness seekers to the beauty of the Rockies. The seasonal show was the highest-rated show for the ABC network at that time, watched by more than 60 million people.
John’s voice had the perfect cadence for traditional carols and his broad smile was the epitome of kid on Christmas morning. Although he made his “Rocky Mountain Christmas” album in 1975, which included the non-traditional “Please Daddy (Don’t Get Drunk This Christmas),” “Aspenglow” and “Christmas for Cowboys,” the collaboration with Jim Henson’s Muppets in the 1979 “A Christmas Together” is truly the playful stuff that transcends the holiday season drollery. Nothing is more exhilarating than Animal screaming, “Run run, reindeer!” in “Little Saint Nick,” written and originally recorded by the Beach Boys (Wilson/Love) in 1963 and played by the Muppets’ band, Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem. There’s a couple of John’s originals as well, such as “A Baby Just Like You,” in which his son Zachary is woven into the lyrics but the song was written for Frank Sinatra, and “Alfie The Christmas Tree,” which he said was inspired largely by the Muppets.
The cast of Muppets harmonizes well with John, who naturally fits right in with a diva pig, frogs, long-snouted creatures and feather-headed sax players. The album was re-released in 1996, but was sorely missing three integral songs — “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “When the River Meets the Sea” and “Little Saint Nick” — much to the disappointment of fans. Luckily, the faux pas was corrected in 2006 when the CD was again released in its platinum-certified original version with all 13 songs. Even though the CD and digital download have been available through Windstar Records, the vinyl had been out of print for a long time when John Denver’s estate decided to release a Kermit green edition in vinyl this year. Yes, this album is enhanced in frog green (and available exclusively from Urban Outfitters). The original LP inspired the exceedingly popular TV production of the same name in 1979, which, for some reason, has never been available in VHS or DVD to the public (but can be viewed in segments on youtube.com). In 1990, John also recorded the album “Christmas Like a Lullaby,” with more religious tunes. And just in case you were thinking you’ve heard all of John’s recordings before his fatal plane crash of 1997, this past October, John’s estate announced a series of previously unreleased live recordings. The first is digitally mastered from a 1990 concert in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and available as digital downloads from johndenver.com.
John’s penchant for introducing people to his adopted Aspen paradise extended to Muppets and, in 1983, he brought his close friend Jim Henson and his eclectic clan of creatures westward to film a campout under the gaze of the Maroon Bells (John: “The mosquitoes aren’t bad.” Kermit: “Aren’t bad? They’re delicious!”). The bedazzled gang donned classic plaid flannel shirts and puffy down vests for the 50-minute TV musical special, “Rocky Mountain Holiday” (still available on DVD).
John once said, “There’s one piece of advice my dad gave me when he dropped me off at college. He said, ‘You’ve got the talent. You can sing and play guitar. That doesn’t make you any better than anyone else.’” What made John more admirable than many though was how he used his well earned fame, calling attention to environmental issues, sustainable living, fighting homelessness and world hunger, especially where it concerned children, a supporter of space exploration and NASA and, of course, he testified in front of Congress in 1985 to protest the Washington Wives’ attempt at censorship in music. Earlier, he had been forced to defend “Rocky Mountain High” as a song about the natural bliss of being in the wilderness with friends around a campfire as opposed to a drug-induced high. The song was granted legislative status as Colorado’s second state song in 2007, after the 1915 “Where Columbines Grow.”
If you dread the Christmas musical inundation, but want to pump up the holiday spirit, John Denver and the Muppets “Christmas Together” is the one album to have for dancing around Yule fire … far out!
Dawne Belloise is a freelance writer, photographer, traveler and vocalist whose huge Italian family sang the entire score of “Guys and Dolls” and “Westside Story” on Christmas Eve. After hearing “Rocky Mountain High,” she moved to a garage on a back alley in Crested Butte. firstname.lastname@example.org