Is John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain Excessive” about marijuana or is it an incredible understanding of delusion?
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After “Mile High City,” the title of John Denver’s popular classic, “Rocky Mountain High,” is the play on words we’ve seen the most in recent coverage of our state’s legal weed. For the most part, Colorado has always been especially proud of the anthem that celebrates our most popular feature, so much so that we made it our second state song in 2007. And while legalized marijuana is slowly becoming a tourist attraction that rivals our beloved Rocky Mountains when John Denver wrote “Friends around the campfire and everyone is high,” he was celebrating the plant that gave our state a new identity thirty years later should give?
See also: John Denver: Five Things You May Not Know
I’m sorry to disappoint, but the answer is no, at least according to the songwriter himself. Just like the lyrics of “Rocky Mountain High” “Fire In Heaven” isn’t about an alien abduction and “Why They Try That.” Tearing down mountains … more scars in the country, “it wasn’t about fracking, the ambiguity about being high had nothing to do with cannabis, but with the organic enthusiasm that can be found in camping outdoors.
Though you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise. Sporadic radio stations banned the song in the first half of the 1980s because they feared retaliation from the FCC for playing a song that encouraged drug use. During the witch hunt led by Tipper Gore against morally sharp music falling into the hands of minors, John Denver along with Frank Zappa and Dee Snyder of Twisted Sister testified before Congress during hearings at the Parents Music Resource Center. Denver tried to put the matter right, saying in his testimony:
I am against any censorship. . . . My song ‘Rocky Mountain High’ has been banned as a drug related song by many radio stations. This was obviously done by people who had never seen or been in the Rocky Mountains, and never experienced the exhilaration, the celebration of life, the joie de vivre that comes with something as strange as the Perseid meteor shower on a moonless, cloudless night when there are so many stars that you have a shadow from the starlight and you are camping with your friends, your best friends, and introducing them to one of nature’s most spectacular light shows for the first time. Obviously, this is a clear case of misinterpretation. Mr. Chairperson, what can I assure you that a national body reviewing my music can give a better judgment?
In his 1994 autobiography, Take Me Home, Denver admitted to using marijuana (along with cocaine and LSD) and went to a rehab clinic for alcohol abuse. But when writing about Rocky Mountain High, he reiterates that the song was inspired by moving to Aspen at the age of 27.
“I almost remember the moment this song took shape in my head. We were working on the next album and it would be called Mother Nature’s Son, after the Beatles song I recorded was due to be released in September. Mid-August Annie and I drove to Williams Lake with some friends to watch the first Perseid meteor showers.
At some point I took a raft out into the middle of the lake and sang my heart. It wasn’t so much that I sang to entertain someone on land, but I sang for the mountains and for the sky … The shadow of the starlight blew me away. Maybe it was the state I was in. I went back and lay down next to Annie in front of our tent, thinking everyone had fallen asleep and thinking how in nature all things big and small were interwoven when a meteor smoked by. . . .
I worked on the song – and the song worked for me – for a couple of weeks. One day I was working with Mike Taylor, an acoustic guitarist who had performed with me at the Cellar Door and had moved to Aspen. Mike sat down and showed me that guitar lick and suddenly it all came together. It was exactly what the piece needed. When I realized what I had – maybe another hymn; a true expression of himself, maybe – we changed the sequencing of the album we just finished and then changed the album title. “
The “Rocky Mountain High” cannabis controversy was re-exposed in 2007 when state lawmakers pushed for it to become the musical motto of Colorado. “If I had believed this song was about drug use or promoting drug use, I would never have passed the resolution,” Democratic State Senator Bob Hagedorn told the New York Times, quoting the tenth anniversary of Denver’s life -End of the plane crash in 1997 as part of the motivation for the dissolution. “Medically, a high is the release of endorphins in the brain – yes, drugs do it, but so many other things … We could talk about guys who fish all day or kids who hang out with s’ mores.”
Just because it’s not what it seems doesn’t stop you from blowing up Rocky Mountain High for our January 1st reveal of legalized sovereignty. It’s still a great anthem to the natural beauty of our state, even if it isn’t about our state’s most famous natural drug. However, if you’re looking for an exhilarating playlist that isn’t about meteor showers, you can check out our pot reviewer’s 420 playlist, William Breathe.
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