In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
“Leaving On A Jet Plane” was not a song about the Vietnam War. John Denver, a relatively unknown musician in the Los Angeles folk scene, had written the song at an airport in 1966, and it’s pretty clear from the lyrics that it’s all about an unfaithful traveling musician: “There’s so many times I’ve let you down / So many times I’ve played around / I tell you now, they don’t mean a thing.”
But in pop music, authorial intent doesn’t really matter. What matters is what the songs do when they go out into the world — the significance that these songs take on when they enter the lives of millions upon millions of strangers. Peter, Paul & Mary recorded “Leaving On A Jet Plane” in 1967, and they included it on Album 1700, the LP that they released that year. But it didn’t become a single until 1969, when the Vietnam War was near its peak, both as an armed conflict and as a whole generation’s defining event. And so “Leaving On A Jet Plane” became a Vietnam War song.
Peter, Paul & Mary had been around since 1961, when the manager Albert Grossman auditioned and assembled three kids from the Greenwich Village folk scene and put them together as a vocal group. We might think of Peter, Paul & Mary as idealistic and starry-eyed kids, and maybe they were that, but they were also Grossman’s attempt to capitalize on a musical moment. (A year after he created Peter, Paul & Mary, Grossman signed on as Bob Dylan’s manager. So if you look at it from a certain angle, Peter, Paul & Mary’s hit cover of “Blowin’ In The Wind,” the version that brought Dylan’s music to the masses, was a cannily executed piece of cross-promotion.)
Almost from the moment that they showed up, Peter, Paul & Mary were a massively successful enterprise. So it’s a bit of a shock that “Leaving On A Jet Plane” was the trio’s only #1 single, though they came close plenty of times. Peter, Paul And Mary landed six top-10 singles in the ’60s, as well as two #1 albums. They made it up to #2 twice. Once was their beatific 1963 version of “Blowin’ In The Wind,” which might’ve been a generational touchpoint even before they sang it at Matin Luther King, Jr.’s March On Washington. (I’d give it a 9.) And they also did it earlier that same year with “Puff (The Magic Dragon),” an original song that group member Peter Yarrow had co-written. (I have no idea what rating I’d give “Puff (The Magic Dragon).” It would be like rating birthday cake, or the commercial for Mr. Ray’s Hair Weave, or the taste of my own boogers. Certain things are implanted too deeply for me to get any kind of distance.)
“Leaving On A Jet Plane” is, in its own way, the most effective kind of protest song: The kind that never announces itself as a protest song. It’s a simple and graceful domestic moment, a case of geopolitical events tearing people apart and causing incalculable, irreparable damage in people’s lives. Even that bit about the many times that the singer has played around works within the cultural context. After all, an impending deployment could leave a young man trying suddenly and desperately to get his priorities in order, hoping to correct any mistakes he’s already made in his too-short life. Singing from what I imagine is the perspective of this young man, Mary Travers keens, “When I come home, I’ll wear your wedding ring,” knowing full well that the narrator might not make it back.
Political resonance aside, “Leaving On A Jet Plane” is also a piece of music so outright gorgeous that it could spin your head around. Peter, Paul & Mary had been singing lush, pretty harmonies for years before “Leaving On A Jet Plane,” and you can hear in the song’s arrangement that they knew just how to sing around each other, to back each other up. I love the way the men lightly echo Travers’ words at the end of some lines, or the way they wordlessly hum quiet counter-melodies underneath her central one. And when they all join up on the chorus, they well up into a raging storm of emotion. The song is a reverie of regret, but it’s dynamic, too. It changes the way feelings can change — the way a painful feeling can expand and contract, again and again, as you sit there and do your best to make sense of it.
“Leaving On A Jet Plane” would be the last big hit for Peter, Paul & Mary. Like so many iconic ’60s groups, they broke up in 1970, though they got back together in 1978 and spent the next 31 years touring. Also in 1970, Peter Yarrow was convicted of making inappropriate advances on a 14-year-old girl. He did a few months in prison, and Jimmy Carter pardoned him in 1981. That’s the guy who sang and co-wrote “Puff (The Magic Dragon).” Sorry if that fucks up your day the way it fucked up mine. At least we’ll always have the taste of our own boogers.
BONUS BEATS: In 1989, John Denver sued New Order over their stunner of a single “Run 2,” claiming, with some justification, that its guitar line ripped off “Leaving On A Jet Plane.” They settled out of court, and part of the agreement was that New Order would never re-release “Run 2” in its original form. Here’s its original form:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: The Firm — the short-lived New York rap supergroup of Nas, Foxy Brown, AZ, and Nature — interpolated “Leaving On A Jet Plane” in their 1997 Noreaga collab “I’m Leaving.” Here’s that:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Pop-punk novelty-cover institution Me First And The Gimme Gimmes, a band who will probably appear many times in this column, covered “Leaving On A Jet Plane” on their 1997 album Have A Ball. Here’s that: