Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Where the name comes from

The name "Whispering Jesse" has multiple meanings for me. It is the name of one of my favorite ski runs at Snowmass, a steep and rolling slope punctuated with islands of spruce trees that give the illusion of intense speed when passed at close range. It is also the title of one of my favorite John Denver songs. Some of his fans think the song is about his daughter Jesse Belle, but she was born after the first album to include the song, Higher Ground, was released in March, 1988. More likely, Jesse Belle was named after the song.

Here are the lyrics:

I often have wandered in deep contemplation
It seems that the mind runs wild when you’re all alone
The way that it could be
The way that it should be
Things I’d do differently if I could do them again

I’ve always loved spring time, the passing of winter
The green of the new leaves and life goin’ on
The promise of morning
The long days of summer
Warm nights of loving her beneath the bright stars

I’m just an old cowboy from high Colorado
Too old to ride anymore, too blind to see
I sleep in the city now
Away from the mountains
Away from the cabin we always called home

I dream I left there
On an old Palomino
Whispering Jesse rode right by my side
I long to hold her
To hear her soft breathing
The touch of her cool hands on my fevered brow

Whispering Jesse still rides in the mountains
Still sings in the canyons
Still lives in my heart

Words and music by John Denver

I like to think that John, who was an avid skier, also liked the ski run, so much that he put its name into his song.

But the significance of the song for me is more about John than it is about the song itself. I had the great good fortune to know John during the final years of his life. We were introduced by his assistant Stephanie Ryan shortly after she started working for him in 1994. Stephanie had worked for Marty Stouffer of Wild America fame for several years as a producer, and I was their computer consultant. When she left Marty to work for John, she suggested to him that they use me for their computer needs. It was the highlight of my professional career.

During the next three years, I got to know John both professionally and personally. He had always been an advocate for technology, especially as it positively affected the environment in ways such as reducing tree cutting and paper waste. He was a late adoptee of personal computers for his own use, however, so I spent many hours teaching him how to use his Macintosh laptop computers to do word processing and email, conduct research on the Internet, and generally keep his hectic life better organized. He was an eager student and would actually utter his famous "Far out!" when he had a new revelation about his computer and what it could do. He was also a humble man, astonished that a Yahoo search on his name would result in thousands of matches.

I saw John for the last time on the Tuesday evening before his death on Sunday, October 12, 1997. Stephanie and I were up at his house in Starwood getting him organized for his trip to Monterey. Stephanie was working on his agenda and I was working on making sure his laptop’s dial-up access would work when he got out there. John was in a great mood, more interested in socializing than in planning his trip. He had just recorded a new song, Yellowstone, that he wanted us to hear. So we went into his home studio to listen to a tape of it. There are some wolf howls in the song, so John was howling along while Stephanie and I laughed uncontrollably. Then we were off to his little music nook to hear a brand-new song he was still working on. He grabbed a guitar off the wall from among several hanging there, pulled out his piano bench, sat down, and immediately launched into the song. I can’t remember the melody but the lyrics told the story of two old lovers running into each other after many years. It reminded me a little of Harry Chapin’s Taxi, or Bob Dylan’s Tangled Up In Blue. More than anything, I was enthralled by the sound of his voice in that small space. I had seen John perform at Fiddler’s Green in Denver during his 1995 tour, but it was completely different to experience a personal concert. He strummed out of the song after a few minutes and said, "There’s a bridge that goes in there, but I don’t have it figured out yet." Stephanie and I just stared. "So what do you think?" he asked. All I could think to say was, "I can’t believe you can just pull a guitar off the wall, sit down and start playing like that! No tuning or anything!" He smiled one of his patented broad smiles and said, "But John, this is what I do."

Later, after Stephanie left to go home, John and I shared a couple of Fat Tires while making sure that he knew what he had to do to access his email and agenda from Monterey. When I was sure he had it down, I told him it was time to go. Since I had parked down by the guest house, he saw me out his back door. It was raining lightly. I thanked him for the music and the beer, and he thanked me for the computer help, then he said he was going to go sit and watch the storm roll in for a while. He clapped me on the back and then waved good-bye as I walked away.

I can’t find the quote now, but John once said that he had performed all over the world, and the thing that struck him wherever he went was that people are the same everywhere, that everybody wants the same things from life. I want to experience that feeling myself, to explore the world, meet the world’s people, and share in that sense of world community. To honor John’s memory, the sailboat that will take me there one day will be named Whispering Jesse.

Addendum 2/9/08: A loyal John Denver fan located the quote I couldn't find and sent it to me: "My music and all my work stem from the conviction that people everywhere are intrinsically the same," Denver said in a 1995 interview. "When I write a song, I want to take the personal experience or observation that inspired it and express it in as universal a way as possible. I'm a global citizen. I've created that for myself, and I don't want to step away from it. I want to work in whatever I do - my music, my writing, my performing, my commitments, my home and personal life - in a way that is directed towards a world in balance, a world that creates a better quality of life for all people."


JDsSquirrel said...

John you are a lucky man to have a dream to chase and fulfill. You are also to lucky to have had JD as a friend. I never met him but have met Ron. I was very influenced by JD and miss him.

Whispering Jesse is a wonderful song. It inspired a poem that I wrote. I was in graduate school and up late working on a paper. After I finished I went online to a poetry contest and what I wrote was way too long for the contest. I did eventually write one for the contest and lost. But have read the longer poem to many people and received positive comments.

Good luck with following your dream...all dreams are special and your's seems especially so.

Eve said...

What a nice blog John. People who are able to feel John Denver's music and message have to be very special people. Good luck in following your dream, I hope your journey is all you dream about!
A JD fan from Florida, USA

Anonymous said...

Hello Mr. Lichty,

I hope this finds you doing well. I was looking up some information for a dear friend of mine when I came across your blog and some memories you shared with readers about your friend, John Denver. Really, all I have to say is "Thank You" for sharing. So many people have, over the years, told stories about John in either a very negative light or a highly idolized "can do no wrong" image. Its nice to see someone who knew him personally and is willing to share that he was REAL and not a perfect man. I'm a huge fan of John Denver. His music has pulled me out of some really dark times in my life when I felt life wasn't worth living. I don't "idolize" John, but I can certainly appreciate his gift of song, but even more important, his love for all things living/wild and free. It has been my great fortune to know some people who have reached celebrity status, and to even be able to call them "friend". It has also been my experience that most "fans" of these folks refuse to believe that they are human beings like you and me, capable of poor judgement and mistakes like everyone else. I knew one day that someone would come along and confirm what I always believed to be true.... while insanely talented and profoundly prophetic, John Denver was a human being like you and me, who cared deeply for the people, places and things he loved and worked to make a difference in this world while he was here. I certainly do not begrudge anyone who wants to put John on a pedestal or lift him above everyone else. He deserves that adoration, to say the least. I am just someone who prefer's to know about the "real" person behind the image. Its nice to be able to have a little peek into the private, personal "off stage" side of John. Again, thank you for sharing with us your stories about your friend, John Denver....The man!

Best of luck to you in your pursuit to follow your dream and sail around the world.

Warmest regards,

“May God grant you always...A sunbeam to warm you, a moonbeam to charm you, a sheltering Angel so nothing can harm you. Laughter to cheer you. Faithful friends near you. And whenever you pray, Heaven to hear you.”