John Denver's Unsung Story


Come let me love you

Let me give my life to you

Let me drown in your laughter

Let me die in your arms…

—Annie’s Song

It may be the most celebrated love ballad John Denver ever wrote and still wafts out at an occasional flower-child wedding. But what jolted Denver into creating Annie’s Song back in 1975 were the aftershocks of the near breakup of his own celebrated marriage to the lady of the title, Ann Martell Denver.

Admittedly “insecure” and overwhelmed by John’s staggering success during their “tough” early years together, Annie, as well as John, had withdrawn into “noncommunication.” Finally they actually separated, and a confused Denver fled their Aspen aerie for Switzerland. “It was only six days, but felt like three months,” Annie recalls now. “I would get up at 4 a.m. and start crying and continue until I went to sleep that night.” The crisis didn’t end until a tearful long-distance call helped Annie “really get clear that I loved him totally. What it came down to is that love is unconditional. We’ve had some bad times, but now we keep talking.”

That reconciliation, and rethinking, preserved a union that’s now lasted 11 tumultuous years. John, after all, was an obscure folkie with the Chad Mitchell Trio when he met Annie. Then stardom hit like an avalanche, as he sold more than 100 million records, became a movie actor (in 1977’s Oh, God!) and TV fixture (hosting last week’s Grammys, for example, and headlining his own special next month). Annie, now 32 to his 35, sat home worrying, “How am I going to compete with this? It was very threatening for me,” she notes. “I didn’t know who I was. I didn’t have an identity.”

John’s absences didn’t make it easier. Even though he writes about home and hearth, Annie tends them—seldom leaving the Aspen he so lovingly limns in song. Characteristically, she turned down even the trip to Washington, D.C. with John when he represented American pop music at last month’s hoopla for Chinese Vice-Premier Teng Hsiao-ping. Teng was so touched by John’s rendition of Take Me Home, Country Roads and by his halting Chinese phrases (Denver was the only entertainer on the program who even tried) that 110 copies of the new LP John Denver were dispatched to the departing visitors. (“Now we’ve got 900 million new potential customers,” gloats Denver’s mega-manager, Jerry Weintraub.) “John would be happy traveling, seeing the seven wonders of the world,” figures Annie. “I’m pretty happy at home.”

The difference now, of course, is that she has a reason—rather, two reasons—to stay there. After learning that John was unable to father children himself—a fact he has frankly acknowledged, though “People were first blown away when I was willing to say that I’m sterile”—the Denvers decided to adopt. To shorten the wait, they didn’t specify sex or race but only that the babies be healthy. Zachary John, now 4, is one-quarter Cherokee, and Anna Kate, 2, is Japanese-American. “I feel an incredible bond with the women who gave birth to them,” glows Annie. “But they are totally our children.” “How did we ever live without those little children?” marvels John. “We were always meant to be together. It enhances everything.”

They have certainly eased Denver’s wildly gyrating emotional swings. A complicated and intense man (for all his onstage cheerfulness), Denver admits that his Rocky Mountain highs “have been balanced by incredible lows. When I get depressed,” he admits, “I question whether life is worth living.” Parenthood has changed that dire outlook and convinced him that “the epitome of being a man is being a father.” For one thing, the children have altered John’s Cuisinart approach to the consciousness movement. Where once he united yoga, est, aikido, pyramid power and rolfing, John has now discovered a more traditional faith. “Anna Kate likes to hold hands and pray at dinner. It’s something special they enjoy doing,” reports Annie, (est, to be sure, remains a passion, and Denver still praises Werner Erhard as “one of my dearest friends.”)

“I think more about the family now,” sums up John. “That’s an interesting progression for me.” A “night person” on tour, Denver has had to readjust, especially to early rising. “No more making love in the morning,” Annie cracks. He still spent half of last year away from Aspen, but now when he’s there, he’s there. “I used to be here physically, but my head would be on the road,” he admits. For Annie, too, it’s an adjustment. “She has all this stuff going—errands, visiting friends, taking care of the children,” says John. “It’s difficult to pull her out of that to where she will accept that I’m home and give me a little attention.”

But John has been arriving or leaving on a jet plane since they met in 1966. He had just replaced Chad Mitchell in the folk-singing trio. After a concert at Gustavus Adolphus College in Saint Peter, Minn., he spotted a pretty sophomore in the student union. “I wore blue jeans, lumberjack shirt and penny loafers. John later told me he fell in love on the spot,” recounts Annie. But it wasn’t until a year later, when John was giving a concert 10 miles away, that they had their first date. John hit it off with her restaurateur father and he “really appeals to those mothers,” Annie jokes now. But she herself said no when John proposed in 1967. But then, she adds, “I changed my mind. So my best friend called John and told him to ask me again.” That time she accepted. “Of all the people I ever met in my life, he really seemed to care and love me. That’s why I married him. There wasn’t this—boom—sexual attraction, but he’s that too.”

John had first visited Aspen while courting Annie on a ski trip. He attached to it as only a rootless Air Force brat could. And after three years of living in Chicago and Minneapolis, the Denvers started house hunting in Aspen. John had left the trio, but his solo earnings had gone primarily toward making good the group’s inherited debt. “There was nothing we could afford,” he recalls. “This guy said, ‘Let me show you some lots.’ And he took us up on the hill here. There was lots of snow and it was near evening. Annie and I held hands and said, ‘We’ll take it.’ We had found our home. It’s as simple as that.” Then, after Country Roads hit in ’71, the Denvers suddenly could not only afford the payments on the land but moved to Aspen and erected the prize-winning redwood-and-glass contemporary house where they roost to this day.

They have added a living room filled with earth-tone supergraphics, stained glass and plants, a separate guest house and small outdoor pool. Annie still does the shopping, cooking (John’s favorite: chicken curry), dishes and laundry. A friend does her cleaning. When John is home they ski, go camping and hiking together. John also likes an occasional joint and, in summer, tattles Annie, “to take off all his clothes and go out and till the soil.”

This month he will tape the second annual John Denver Pro-Am Ski Tournament in Heavenly Valley for an ABC special. At the same time, he will do a week-long stint at Harrah’s Tahoe. He is also contemplating a wildlife documentary, Rocky Mountain Reunion, in the spring. Since Oh, God! he has read “tons” of scripts, but “I don’t want to do another one just to do a movie.”

Denver still gives time and money to what he calls his “concerns”: anti-hunger programs, the antinuclear-power movement, endangered species, the ERA and the exploration of space (he’s a board member of the National Space Institute). Although he “thought seriously about getting into politics a couple of years ago,” Denver is now disenchanted. “It is one of the least effective arenas in the world,” he has decided. “I frankly think I’m in a much more powerful position as a singer and songwriter.” He no longer plans to do fund-raising concerts for politicians (as he did for Carter and McGovern), though he continues charity gigs like last month’s UNICEF concert with the Bee Gees, Olivia Newton-John, et al. His own SRO tours will continue, with or without Top Ten records—”It’s been so long I don’t remember,” he jokes, though “it sure would be nice to get one.”

The muse and subject of so much of his writing still glows over “the romanticism of it all. It’s like having a man defend your honor and fight for you,” says Annie. “I think it is a wonderful thing that a lot of women have lost in liberation.” Still, when John comes home from a hard stint at the studio looking for compliments, she sometimes annoys him by innocently asking, “Isn’t that too much echo on your voice?” Zachary is equally blasé. John can’t forget the time when, in a limo on the way to see his father perform, Zachary looked at the crowds and remarked to his parents: “Are all these guys going to hear some guy’s dad sing?” “At times I’ve got a really big ego,” John goes on, a bit misty-eyed. “But I’ll tell you the best thing about me. I’m some guy’s dad; I’m some little gal’s dad. When I die, if they say I was Annie’s husband and Zachary John and Anna Kate’s father, boy, that’s enough for me to be remembered by,” says John Denver. “That’s more than enough.”

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