Monday, December 8, 2014

A Christmas reflection

The other day I spoke on the phone with my good Los Angeles friend, Bruce Gunnell, celebrating the refreshing rains the region was getting.  As a horticulturalist he was, of course, grateful for the precipitation, but as a boy raised on rain showers in the Midwest, any day of rain in sunny southern California is a reason to celebrate.  

As the conversation drifted to other things, Bruce mentioned that though he is again wary of seasonal commercial hype and the hassle of gift giving, he treasures the first Christmas album he plays every year just after Thanksgiving.  It has become ritual:  John Denver’s ‘Rocky Mountain Christmas.’  

Bruce and I are both big John Denver fans, an affection we can trace back to the earliest days of our friendship.  We played in a cover band back in the 1970s, filling many Friday and Saturday evenings in December with harmonies (first set) and rock ’n roll (second & third sets) at holiday parties set anywhere from Dayton to Xenia to Springfield.  Such a time it was, and if the truth be told, I deeply miss the music making and the band camaraderie.  

So it is special for me to know how important ‘Rocky Mountain Christmas’ still is to Bruce.  With so much of the past diminished in memory by time, it is warm and grounded to know John Denver’s music, especially this Christmas album, is still a touchstone that brings pleasant memories back to mind for him.  

After I got off the phone, I began to remember more of my own ‘Rocky Mountain Christmas’ story.  Back in the mid-1970s when the album was released, I was a young teacher and a reasonably new daddy starting a family with a partner who was still going to college.  We were lucky enough to have purchased our first house by then, and as you might imagine, Christmas was a time of glitter and music and baby wishes.   

Christmases were not without their disappointments then, however.  A year or so before daughter Kelly was born, an old friend in the apartment complex where we used to live gifted us with tickets to ‘Nutcracker’ one Sunday afternoon.  As lovely as the gesture was, as we drove up the driveway we saw that our front door was ajar.  Sure enough, somebody had broken in the front door and liberated our house of some pretty significant stuff, including the television and the living room sound system.   On the turntable when the outfit was stolen?  ‘Rocky Mountain Christmas.’  I’m pretty sure I could still put my hands on the empty album cover.  

I imagine I bought another copy of ‘Rocky Mountain Christmas,’ though I can’t recall.  Since the morphing of music from vinyl to CD to computer digital, I have made a project of upgrading songs and albums to the current format where all the music I own is collected and organized.

Oddly enough, though, through the years I never updated ‘Rocky Mountain Christmas’ to digital.  Hearing Bruce rave about its bearing in his life still, got me to thinking I had some music to buy.  He promised to burn me a copy and send it along, but the more I thought about it the more I couldn’t wait.  As I hope he knows, I will think about this newest version of ‘Rocky Mountain Christmas’ as a gift from him. 

When we talked about the loss of John Denver and the magic of this album, we both agreed the song ‘Aspenglow’ was a shared favorite.  As I listen to it now, I can just about visualize walking down a snowy street in a little mountain town with holiday shop windows glittering like tinsel.  I am certain, too, that my love for the Rockies and Colorado can be pegged to my affection for John Denver and his music. 

But another song on the album, ‘A baby just like you,’ brings me to tears every time I listen.  I needed to learn more.  After some time at Wikipedia, I learned that ‘Rocky Mountain Christmas’ was the #1 holiday album in the US in 1975, which reminds us of John Denver’s pop music icon status at that time.  Another best-selling Christmas album he recorded was with the Muppets.  

1975.  Let’s see:  daughter Jennifer was almost 3 years-old that Christmas.  Just a couple summers later, she and her mother and I would trek to Colorado to camp and embark on our first mountain backpacking event.  John Denver was big in our lives that summer, no doubt.  (I was, in fact, in my 27th year.) Three days later when we came back down through the mountain forest, repacked gear, and loaded into our car, the first song on the car cassette player was ‘Rocky Mountain High.’  I’m sure Jennifer didn’t care, but Chris and I had tears in our eyes.
Which brings me back to ‘A baby just like you.’  On the way home from that 1977 mountain adventure, we spent a night at a motel in South Dakota to watch the MLB All-Star game.  Nine months later our little Kelly was born.  So by Christmas that year, the album ‘Rocky Mountain Christmas’ and the song ‘A baby just like you’ would have resounded through our family’s Christmas experience.  I hope I took the time to sing it as a lullaby to Kelly inside her mommy’s belly, though I don’t recall.  

So it is with a brimming heart that I thank Bruce for re-gifting me with ‘Rocky Mountain Christmas.’  Truly this year a treasured gift of the season was offered by heart

Today’s elder idea:   ‘A baby just like you’ / John Denver

The season is upon us now, a time for gifts and giving
And as the year draws to its close, I think about my living

Christmas time when I was young, the magic and the wonder
But colors dull and candles dim and dark my standing under

Oh, little angel, shining light, you've set my soul to dreaming
You've given back my joy in life, and filled me with new meaning

A savior King was born that day, a baby just like you
And as the Magi came with gifts, I come with my gift too

That peace on earth fills up your time and brotherhood surrounds you
That you may know the warmth of love and wrap it all around you

It's just a wish, a dream I'm told from days when I was young
Merry Christmas, little Zachary, Merry Christmas everyone

Merry Christmas, little Kelly, Merry Christmas everyone!

images:  top:  album cover; mid:  Kelly c. 1979; below:  in an earlier time her sister Jennifer advises Dad about campfires