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Not all roses round boy next door.

John Denver: Mother Nature's Son. By John Collis (Mainstream, pounds 15.99). Reviewed by Simon Evans.

To the countless millions of people who bought his records and attended his sell-out concerts John Denver was the quintessential all-American boy.

It's easy to see why. In the mid 70s, with his floppy hairstyle, awkward glasses and uncomplicated songs about mountains and country roads, he was the perfect antidote to the Watergate era, a period of intense soul-searching for the American people when the very ideals that the Union had been built upon were called into question.

As is so often the case what you saw wasn't entirely what you got. For one thing, despite his espousal of environmental causes Denver owned a Lear jet, one of the most polluting machines on the planet.

And despite the wholesome image, he later admitted that some of his best songs - Rocky Mountain High among them - were written under the influence of LSD. Denver also was not averse to the odd joint or three and would later admit to being an alcoholic.

All this is detailed in Collis's book, along with the rather exaggerated allegation that Denver was a "wife-beater". In fairness Denver did admit to once putting his hands round his soon to be ex-wife Annie's neck (yes, the Annie of that song) during a row - which admittedly is bad enough - but does it really merit him being described as a "wife beater". I think not.

It's a shame that the publisher has seen fit to promote the book on the basis of these tit-bits - which Denver had already owned up to some years before his death - for Collis's book is the most balanced consideration of Denver's life and work you are likely to find.

While no great fan of the music, he still finds much to admire in songs such as The Eagle and the Hawk, perhaps the most powerful expression of Denver's near-pantheistic nature worship. And he readily points out that, despite that Lear jet, Denver refused to compromise his principles, to the extent of being dropped by his record company - which at the time was linked to arms manufacturers - for touring the USSR, criticising the Reagan government and, the most heinous crime of all, singing songs about peace in an age when nuclear war seemed to be all too likely.

Denver also subsidised his own Windstar Foundation - aimed at educating people into protecting and conserving the environment - to the tune of countless millions of dollars. The Foundation, which Denver described towards the end of his life as his proudest achievement, was such a drain on his resources that he had to undergo several large-scale tours in the 90s just to keep it afloat.

It would have been very easy for Collis to have been cynical about John Denver - enough people were - but while expressing reservations about the music (it's alarming, and revealing that all Denver's songs were written in the major key) he clearly has much admiration for the man - and justly so.
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Jan 15, 2000
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