I was working on the horrible closet cleaning project again last weekend and uncovered a box that I had almost forgotten was in there. I had sealed that box back in 1997 and it has sat in the dim corner of the storage closet ever since. It was pushed to the back of my memory, but as soon as I saw it, I knew immediately what it contained.
Twelve years ago today I attended a concert at the Performing Arts Center in Austin with a good friend of mine. It was the second time we had gone together to see this particular performer and we had debated whether we would go. He was no longer wildly popular as he had been in his prime, back in the '70s. The first time he had come to Austin he had sold out the Erwin Center. I didn't get to attend that concert. It was several years later that she and Mother and I had gone to see him at the Erwin Center and at that point the concert was staged using only half of the massive arena.
I thoroughly enjoyed that first opportunity to hear him in person, but the night was not an unqualified success. He had been a little irritable that night. The performance was great, but there were some disgruntled remarks made (justly so) about the state of Austin's downtown district and he seemed a little put out that we weren't familiar with and readily singing along with the songs from his latest album. I enjoyed the experience, but it had left a tiny bit of sour taste in my mouth and I thought carefully whether I really wanted to go see him again when the opportunity arose in 1997.
We conferred and decided that this might be the last time he came to Austin and we still loved his music and that yes, we would go. We took some ribbing from our friends when we bought the tickets, because it was no longer in vogue to be his fan. We headed to the concert that night, and discovered there were a lot of us loyal fans left in the area.
He was in a fantastic mood that night at the PAC. The acoustics of that auditorium are fantastic and his voice was probably better than it had ever been, strong and pure and never faltering on the high notes. He joked, he told stories, he sang every familiar favorite and a few new songs that we had not yet heard. He played the heck out of his guitar. We left on a musical high. We were so happy that we had attended that concert and had the opportunity to hear him in such a wonderful performance.
It was exactly one week later that we heard the tragic news of his death. The appearance in Austin had been the next to last concert of his life. He had been in California, piloting a new plane he had just acquired. Something went wrong and John Denver died when the plane crashed.
It is always something of a shock to hear of the sudden death of a celebrity, but it is even more of a shock when you just saw that person in vibrant health. I was devastated, but also thankful that I had had the opportunity to see him again and to hear him again. I was grateful that the concert had been such a positive experience, with John singing better than ever.
A funny thing happened at this point. Naturally his music got a lot of airplay for a week or so following his death, but I couldn't bear to listen to it. It was a very long time before I could bring myself to listen to the John Denver albums I owned. I took advantage of the opportunity to buy the CDs that were quickly reissued after his death, but they sat in the cabinet unheard. I had not yet worn the T-shirt I had bought at his concert and I never did wear it. I gathered the T-shirt, the ticket stub, the news articles and the People magazine tribute, placed them in a plastic bag and packed them away.
A few months earlier had seen the sudden death of another celebrity. Princess Diana had been tragically killed at the end of August. I had accumulated a number of magazine tributes, the special CD issued by Elton John and the newspaper announcing her death. These, too, I had placed in a large plastic bag.
I stopped by The Container Store one day and bought a pristine white box. Into that I had put all the Princess Diana material and all the John Denver material, sealed the box and placed it in the back of the closet. There it sat until I ran across it this week.
After twelve years, I can listen to his music again. I can even sing along now without getting choked up. But there are songs that he sang that night that I still can't listen to without feeling a twinge of pain. We had such a great sense of happiness and such a wonderful sense of comaraderie that night when he performed Dreamland Express, he singing the verses and the audience singing the chorus. Whenever I think of that concert, I think of that song. I discovered this past week that someone who attended that night has posted audio clips from the concert on YouTube. The quality is lousy, but as soon as I clicked on the link to hear Dreamland Express, I was transported there. A brief moment in time with a group of people who were in full enjoyment of an artist's work.
It was a privilege to be there and I will be forever thankful that I made the decision to go. I will always picture John Denver the way he was that night - relaxed, happy, and giving a flawless performance for his fans.