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.
John Denver never broke character, possibly because he never really had any character to break. John Denver’s whole persona, which was probably pretty close to his actual self, was always “sentimental outdoorsy guy.” He couldn’t even write a simple love song to his wife without comparing her to mountains and lakes and shit. You have to respect the man’s focus.
Denver had married his college sweetheart Anne Martell Denver in 1967, when he was still a struggling folksinger. When Denver became an unlikely superstar, they had trouble adjusting. At some point in the early ’70s, they separated. It didn’t last long — just six days — and things were better when they got back together. That’s when Denver wrote “Annie’s Song.” The couple lived in Aspen, Colorado, and Denver wrote the song on a ski lift. He’d just finished skiing downhill, and he was feeling immersed in all the nature around him. All that nature made him think of his wife. He says it took him about 10 minutes to write the song.
“You fill up my senses,” Denver sings, and then he names a bunch of other things that also fill up his senses: “The mountains in springtime,” “a walk in the rain,” “a storm in the desert,” “a sleepy blue ocean.” This was how Denver knew to communicate. And because there’s something so inherently romantic about all this imagery, those bone-simple similes work. (I could tell my wife that she makes me feel like the knife fight in John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, and it would be true, but it probably wouldn’t go over so well.)
“Annie’s Song” is a piece of work so sincerely sentimental that it risks absolute corniness. But that sincerity is why it works. Over an ornate, delicate acoustic-guitar figure, Denver wholeheartedly intones all that stuff about mountains and oceans, and then, in terms so heart-shatteringly vulnerable that they’re almost embarrassing to hear, he asks her to spend her life with him: “Let me drown in your laughter, let me die in your arms.” There’s not a lot to that imagery, but if you’re in the right place, it might affect you anyway.
The melody is elementally simple, almost hymnlike. It’s one of those songs I always hum along to when I hear it — always humming, never singing. It’s something about that melody. I don’t need to hear myself singing those words, but I do need to feel the vibration in my chest. When the strings and the backing singers come in, they’re all there to build that melody, to blow it out into something mountain-sized. Even before they show up, though the song sounds grand and epic. It’s syrup, but it’s good syrup. It’s fresh syrup directly from a majestic maple tree in a picturesque valley.
Denver did not die in Annie’s arms. They went through a painful divorce eight years later. During those divorce proceedings, as Denver wrote in his autobiography, he used a chainsaw to cut their bed in half and to destroy a lot of the furniture in their house. He also says that he grabbed her around the neck and was about to choke her before he stopped himself. That’s one of the more upsetting images I’ve encountered while writing this column: The exceedingly bland nice guy from that Muppets Chrstimas special with his hands wrapped around his wife’s neck. If I’ve learned anything from writing this everyday, it’s that pop stardom is inherently unhealthy. It’s a vocation that will almost inevitably bring out the worst in anyone who succeeds at it. If someone succeeds in pop stardom and does not become a monster at any point, then you know that person is a good person.
Later on, Denver married the Australian actress Cassandra Delaney, and that marriage also ended in divorce. His story, like so many of the other ones we’ve seen in this column, is fucked up. And yet “Annie’s Song” still stands as a feeling trapped in amber — a man trying to explain his total (if not eternal) devotion in the only way he knows.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from PJ Hogan’s 1997 movie My Best Friend’s Wedding where some kids huff helium and sing “Annie’s Song”:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Me First And The Gimme Gimmes covering “Annie’s Song” on the 2006 album Love Their Country and adding a “you fill up my orifices” punchline:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Annie’s Song” soundtracking a scene of mid-gunfight carnage in Ben Wheatley’s 2016 movie Free Fire:
THE NUMBER TWOS: Elton John’s grand and stately ballad “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” — a song that will eventually appear in this column in another form — peaked at #2 behind “Annie’s Song.” It’s a 9.