This one, of course, is yet another adventure in a typically trite–and, therefore, a perennial favorite–Humorama cartoon idea, but, in addition to those Long Island good ol’ boys and their bumper crops of corn, it also owes a tip of the sweat-stained Resistol (if I had one) to John Denver.
I was driving through Green Country and surfing through the airwaves the other day, trying to find something–ANYTHING–that wasn’t jive-jumpers, Bible-thumpers or neo-conservative leg-humpers, when I managed to catch a "classic country" station over in Fort Smith in the middle of John’s "Hey, It’s Good To Be Back Home Again"–one of those songs you’ll never, ever hear on one of our so-called "oldies" stations in Tulsa (or any other oldies station in any other market, from what my friends tell me) because, if there were any teeth in the truth-in-advertising laws, their station breaks/shameless self-promo ads would be required to say, "K-R-A-P, FM eleventy-seven-point-whatever, [Your Town]’s SOLID CRAP, where you’re NEVER going to hear anything YOU want to hear, because our idiot programming director has decided that out of all those thousands of songs you heard back when, ONLY FIFTEEN of them are the Greatest Hits of the Sixties, Seventies, andEighties, and we’re going to play them–AND NOTHING BUT THEM–over and over and over and over again until YOU’RE READY TO PUKE!!!"
Anyway, hearing one of ol’ John’s biggest hits–and probably my choice for pick of the litter–actually coming out of my car radio after so long brought back memories, and not just of the summer of ’74, when damned near all of us in Armor Officer Basic had that "album" on (really dating myself here) 8-track. My wife mentions him occasionally, and I’m afraid she’s not a fan of his. Aside from not liking "yee-haw, spit" music in general, she thinks John was a hypocrite, preaching that we should all go green and bear the expense and effort of environmental conscientiousness, while he went out and got himself killed leaving Sasquatch-sized carbon footprints in the sky in his Rich Boy private airplane. I can kinda sorta see her point, but as a Born Again Believer since I was in three-cornered pants thirty or forty years before Joseph Corn gave it a name in "The Winged Gospel", I’m not only more than inclined to be indulgent with John on thatpoint, but even uncharitably inclined to think the Better Half has, in the old Texas expression, "…done quit talkin’ politics and got off onto religion."
There is, admittedly, a certain phoniness in John Denver and his music, that others have noticed before, but, in fact, that’s one of the things that appeal to me about him, and probably appealed to a great many of his other fans. Because phoniness isn’t really the right word. If he didn’t quite ring true, I still believe he was singing from the heart–just from a confused heart. That airplane he killed himself in was probably a lot closer to his roots than all that granola-munching and tree-hugging he was singing about, whether he wanted it to be or not. Which, I think, struck a chord (ha, ha) with us, his fans–whether we wanted it to or not.
In the chapter on Pickup Truck Chic in "Engines of Change: A History of the American Dream in Fifteen Cars" (which I highly recommend), Paul Ingrassia notes that Loretta Lynn really was a coal miner’s daughter and Johnny Cash really was the son of a cotton-pickin’ sharecropper, but questions John’s credentials as a country singer on the grounds that as the son of an Air Force officer he presumably had it a lot easier (although he adds that his real name being Deutschendorf should count as authentic suffering enough). He goes on to mention that Colonel Deutschendorf–Henry John, Sr.–wasn’t just any Air Force officer, mind you, but one who had flown himself into the Air Force Hall of Fame via three world speed records in the B-58 Hustler, back when that "supersonic atomic jet bomber" (as the model box tops screamed it) was the newest and hottest thing on the block. Of course, Ingrassia’s tongue was firmly in his cheek, and Idid get a chuckle out of it, but his little joke DID kind of pick at an old scab.
I remember one of my high school teachers–a guy I thought was a rational, well-educated, thinking person–going absolutely bug-f*ck & bat-sh*t nuts one day when one of us "young people" used the word "lunch". I mean, you’d a’thought the kid had done gone an’ told this poor Good Ol’ Boy that his picante sauce was made in New York City, instead of just simply mentioning in passing what he’d brought his peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich to school for. "Lunch", as our outraged teacher made it plain (even if he didn’t use the exact words), is something that candy-assed, weenie-wimp YANKEES eat. Southerners–People of the Heartland, REAL Country People, Genuine Down Home Folks–call their noon meal "dinner". By using such an city slicker sissy term as "lunch", we were just showing what a bunch of pantywaists, totally out of touch with our rural heritage, we’d become.
If not as stridently as on that occasion, I’d heard that same sort of criticism all my life up to that point, and have continued to hear it–either directly or implied–from denizens of the Great American Ignorance Belt all my life since. There’s a sign advertising some kind of drink or chewing tobacco or beef jerky or God knows what taped just to the side of the door at the convenience store where I stop for my Dr. Pepper after work, showing a tough-looking Bubba-thuh-Survivalist in a camouflage t-shirt and bib overalls glaring out at you and, finding your country credentials wanting, letting you know in a no-uncertain-terms sneer that the product–whatever the hell it is–is "NOT FOR CITY BOYS". And, of course, every women’s magazine on the rack inside the door has a cover blurb announcing at least one article about "country crafts" or "country decorating" or the like. The message, as it always has been, is still there: country =good, city = bad.
And we were city and bad, because, as Ingrassia pointed out, we hadn’t picked cotton, we hadn’t mined coal, and, worst of all–even though Ingrassia didn’t come out and say it–we ate…lunch. And somehow, it was all our fault. It never seemed to click in the heads of that teacher or the other former farmers that made up our parents’ generation that if they’d wanted us to grow up to be country boys (and girls), they should have kept us down on Good Ol’ Rocky Top in Tennessee–that if they packed up and struck out to strike it rich building Caddies on the General Motors assembly line or bucking rivets at Douglas or North American, it was better than even money that their kids were going to grow up to be Detroit street punks or California beach bums (or, if you made a career out of the Air Force, that your kid just might end up inadvertently kicking the right rudder pedal–and thus the bucket–while trying to switch fuel tanks over Monterrey).
In fairness to the Greatest Generation, however, I should add that it did only SEEM as if it never clicked in their heads. In actuality, it probably didn’t click so much as it clanged. I think they did know, or at least had some gut feeling, that they’d sold their–and, with it, our–country birthright. Detroit has been in the news over the past decade or two, and especially the last week or two, as the last place on God’s green earth anyone would want to be, but even in its heyday fifty years ago, when we their children were starting to groove on the Motown Sound, Bobby Bare was twanging the country blues to his fellow grown-ups about going to sleep in Detroit City and dreaming about those cotton fields back home, about wanting to put his foolish pride on a southbound freight and let it ride. But, of course, he didn’t, and neither did the folks he was singing to/about. The money was too good. And, let’s face it: we Boomerswere a pretty damned expensive bunch to support (and still are, or will be; no matter how dark their worst fears about the Social Security system might be now, I’m afraid the future is going to show our grandkids they were practically being blase about it).
Furthermore, taking responsibility for our own actions (admittedly not a Boomer long suit), it has to be admitted that even as we were being demonized as Agents of the Urban Satan by parental believers in "The Country Gospel" (to adapt Mr. Korn’s title), we ourselves were accepting The Belief into our hearts and living it in our lives, whether that meant going back to nature on a hippy commune or commuting to a job in the city from that mobile home on the half acre outside town that was the most Country Living we could afford at the time. Or maybe just cruisin’ ’round the Greater Fort Knox-Radcliff-Elizabethtown Metropolitan Area, groovin’ on John’s 8-track. Maybe we hadn’t picked cotton or mined coal, but, to paraphrase those other early Seventies singing icons, Donny and Marie, we WERE a little bit country, even if we were a whole lot rock’n’roll, and we clung to, believed in, expressed, whatever country virtues we had.
Yes, as a child I’d felt right at home on the streets of downtown Dallas on those trips with dad to see "the boys" at Central Fire Station and police headquarters and the Sheriff’s office in the county courthouse, and I couldn’t wait until I was old enough to go to Jack Ruby’s Carousel or Abe Weinstein’s Colony strip clubs, or get a drink in Sol’s Turf Bar, which from the outside looking in YOU JUST KNEW was chock-full of the kind of hard-nosed private eyes, shady operators and shifty characters, chain-smoking reporters and dyed-by-her-own-hand suicide blondes in sheathe dresses, fishnet stockings and stiletto heels that you saw on every self-respecting TV crime show from Perry Mason to Peter Gunn. But if my shoes had felt like they belonged on the sidewalks of Dallas, my bare feet had also felt at home grubbing for potatoes out back of Grandma Brown’s, picking corn in Uncle Bill’s fields and taking part inthe subsequent shucking bees, and every now and then helping herd Uncle Ralph’s cows out of the creek bottoms and up to the barn.
More than likely, 99 out of 100 (or maybe the percentage was even higher) of John Denver’s fans had a similar urban-rural dichotomy working in their lives. I’m sure those other semi-country boys at Armor School that summer of ’74, like Bass from Oklahoma and Barr from Nebraska, Carlino from Colorado and even Ramspacher and Way from upstate New York, did. No doubt graduate of Fort Worth’s Arlington Heights High School Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr. had had the same dualistic experience, and he put it into words the rest of us could have a feeling for. Words we listened to in those hot new Mustangs and Chargers with four-on-the-floor we’d used our first Army paychecks to buy, even as the lyrics made us suspect that we’d be better, more noble, perhaps even happier, men if we were driving twenty-year-old Chevy or International Harvester pick-ups with three-on-the-tree instead. Words that let us make believe, if only for just a little while, that wewere–or could be, if we just tried–country enough to please our parents (and maybe even ourselves).
There was, of course, another reason for latching onto "our country roots"–another group of people altogether we felt/feel the need to impress–or perhaps "offend" is a better word–with our rural virtues. Namely, the aforementioned Perry Mason and Peter Gunn, or more, accurately, the powers-that-be behind them. I sometimes reflect on the irony of the fact that a lot of my James Bond, Tiger Mann, Matt Helm, Travis McGee, Sam Durrell and other paperback tales of glamorous international intrigue in the cosmopolitan fleshpots of the world were selected from the racks in the utility-closet-turned-used-book-buy/sell/trade section of the Pearl Feed Store. The irony is compounded by the fact that the Pearl Feed Store wasn’t some trendy little boutique just using a countrified name as a gimmick to sell antiques and folk art and other "junque", but an honest-to-God farm and ranch supply store, and yet it wasn’t in our little cotton farming townor in any of the other rural burgs of south Dallas County, but in Oak Cliff–the same inner city part of Dallas where Lee Harvey Oswald had his South Beckley Avenue apartment, not far at all from the intersection where he would gun down Officer Tippit, or the Texas Theater where the Dallas cops would catch up with him.
Unfortunately, it also confirms–at least in their elitist minds–that no matter how big a city Dallas might think it is, or, for that matter what kind of big cities Des Moines and Denver might think they are, to the New York City-Washington, D.C.-Ivy League Axis of Arrogance (aided and abetted by their stooges in the media and their lackeys in Tinseltown), Dallas and Des Moines and Denver are all just hick towns, and the only people living west of the Hudson, east of Hollywood or outside the Beltway who AREN’T semi-literate rubes with hay in their hair and cowshit on their boots are the REALLY ignorant grits who are confused about which of the two goes where. Just as unfortunately, those of us growing up out here in flyover country let that steady diet of elitist propaganda on television instill yet another inferiority complex in our muddled psyches–the idee fixe that no matter what kind of city slickers our parents mighthave thought us to be, the sad truth was we weren’t urban enough (and weren’t ever going to be) to suit our self-appointed cultural betters. Unlike our parents though, whom we wanted to please no matter how much rebellion we put on to the contrary, them there fancy pants easterners just kinda pissed us off. And since our idiotic legal system doesn’t allow you to just cut loose with a .30-30 on their less-than-useless ivory tower butts (much less offer a two-dollar-an-ear bounty on ’em like it should), we simply made a virtue out of neccessity and adopted a sort of in-your-face version of the "aw shucks, m’am" drawl with a vengeance, to let those jumped-up Harvard-Yale horse’s behinds know they ain’t half as smart as they think they are. Or, at least, to convince ourselves that they aren’t.
So, I don’t think ol’ John was a phony. I just think that like a lot of us he was confused about who he was and where he came from. I remember my dad talking about a former Georgia plowboy who said he’d joined the Air Force because he "…got tired of hiking forty miles a day using a mule’s ass for a compass", and recall him saying of Hoof Proudfoot, after seeing his name in the credits of "Empire of the Sun" as the stunt pilot flying the P-51D, that "You just gotta figure he was born an’ raised in Anadarko, Oklahoma, and the first pair of shoes he ever owned was throwed to him by an Air Force supply sergeant" (in fact, he was British and an RAF squadron leader, but you can see where that name and the Mustang might give a Texas boy like dad the wrong idea). I think John, like a lot of us, was simply confused at being a generation removed from the kind of guys dad was talking about, and yet a generation or two away from being the kind of guys who canbe comfortable with that. I think he was caught between two worlds, thought you had to be from one or the other and didn’t realize you could–indeed, given our upbringing, HAD to–have a foot in both.
He didn’t realize that he should have been singing "Sometimes, this old farm DOES feel like a long-friend/But, hey, it’s good to get home to indoor plumbing again."