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Tuesday, October 14, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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John Denver -- Despite Bout With Northwest Logger, He Took Hold Here

Seattle Times Staff Critic

John Denver got his first taste of Seattle "cruising the taverns on First Avenue" with his burly co-workers from a logging camp in Lester, in the Snoqualmie National Forest. He worked there during the summer while a student of architecture at Texas Tech in Lubbock.

Denver died Sunday at the age of 53 when the plane he was flying crashed into Monterey Bay in California.

He told a Seattle Times reporter in 1972 that a Lester logger gave him the incentive to tackle the entertainment world.

"He got annoyed at my singing and hit me with my guitar," Denver said. "Knocked me out. Didn't hurt the guitar."

After that, Denver decided to perform for more sympathetic audiences. The popular singer of outdoorsy songs established a strong following here through a series of performances in the 1970s, most of them in what was then called the Seattle Center Coliseum (now KeyArena).

But he first performed here at a Seattle Pacific College (now University) homecoming concert, Feb. 4, 1972 in Brougham Pavilion.

By the time he returned nine months later to play the Paramount Theatre he was a bona fide star, with a hit song called "Take Me Home Country Roads." He was also known for writing "Leaving on a Jet Plane," a hit for Peter, Paul & Mary.

Denver returned to star in a concert at the then Seattle Center Arena (now Mercer Arena) on Oct. 7, 1973, a show that featured his hit "Rocky Mountain High." He told the audience about working at

another logging camp in North Bend 10 years earlier. Among the songs he sang were "I'd Rather Be a Cowboy," "Follow Me" and "Please, Daddy, Don't Get Drunk This Christmas."

Thanks to the success of "Rocky Mountain High," a landmark song about the beauties of his adopted home in Colorado, he sold out back-to-back concerts in the Coliseum in September 1974. That was also when his most successful love ballad, "Annie's Song," was at the top of the charts.

"He's probably the single most popular entertainer in the country today, outside of Elvis," my Seattle Times review said. "He comes across as the ultimate nice guy."

But I also wrote that I did not "entirely believe his squeaky-clean, countrified image" and that ultimately his concert was like "an overdose of whipped cream."

Denver's 1976 Coliseum concert was in-the-round, with the singer-guitarist performing on an elevated platform that slowly revolved, which struck me as silly. He was backed by an excellent band and the sound was exceptionally good.

"The band, the staging and the overall professionalism of the whole concert showed Denver really cares about his show," my Times review said. He told the audience that he wrote "Annie's Song" in 10 minutes on a ski-lift. The show was opened by the Starland Vocal Band ("Afternoon Delight").

His Nov. 20, 1978 Coliseum show was also in-the-round. Tickets were $10, $7.50 and $5. It was one of three concerts in my career that I couldn't bear (the others were by Michael Martin Murphy and Abba). "I had to leave after about 90 minutes," I wrote in my review the next day. "His music I can take," I concluded, "but his sugary stage persona is too much."

Nevertheless, I was there when he returned to the Coliseum in August, 1980. Again he was on that rotating platform, "like a chicken on a spit." He did several rock songs, including "Johnny B. Goode" and "Great Balls of Fire," which were entirely out of character for him. "Denver sang some pleasant songs in a rich, controlled voice," I wrote in my review. "`Leaving on a Jet Plane,' `Fly Away' and `Sweet Surrender' were among the nicest moments in the long show."

His performances in the 1980s took on a different tenor because by then he had separated from his wife, Annie, and other cracks began to appear in his carefully constructed image - including his commitment to environmental causes after he tried to circumvent the energy crisis by illegally burying a gas tank on his Aspen ranch.

Nevertheless, his audience still adored him. "The guy has concocted a cereal-box, nature-boy image that people want to believe in," Paul de Barros wrote in his review of a 1982 Coliseum show. "Denver has one of the most buoyant, clarion voices in pop music. He can sustain a note with total ease. You never strain for him."

By 1982, Denver stopped overemphasizing the good-guy image. He played two nights here that summer, but in the Arena rather than the Coliseum. "A more mature . . . somewhat somber Denver played guitar and sang songs about lost love that had an undeniable ring of truth to them," my review said.

Denver did not play another major Seattle concert until a triumphant return in 1995, when he sang for a full house at the 5th Avenue Theater, his voice better than ever.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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