Rocky Mountain Highs
Rocky Mountain Highs
A Q&A with Steve Weisberg
By Geoff Gehman
Steve Weisberg played lead guitar, dobro and pedal steel with John Denver from 1973 to 1977, when Denver became a pop-culture king big enough to star in a movie with George Burns as God. It was five years of nirvana, and not just because Weisberg recorded hits like “Annie’s Song,” shared record-breaking TV specials like “Rocky Mountain Christmas” and enjoyed perks like a 707 with a fireplace. What made his time with Denver not only memorable but indelible was a rare chemistry with a rare performer who not only made people feel better, but live better.
Weisberg still honors the spirit of Denver, who died in 1997 in the crash of an experimental plane he was piloting. He trades tunes and tales in an intimate solo show called “John Denver: Off the Record,” plays Denver festivals with Denver alumni, duets with Denver tributeers. On Sept. 29 he’ll return to the Mauch Chunk Opera House with singer-songwriter Ted Vigil, who combines a Rocky Mountain-high voice with a triple-take resemblance to the late entertainer-activist born Henry John Deutschendorf Jr.
During a recent interview from his Dallas home, Weisberg came off as a savvy, savory storyteller. He discussed how he helped Vigil play Denver songs more authentically, how Denver helped him become a more authentic son, and how he turned an ambitious plan into a sweet gig with the world’s most ambitious folk musician.
Q: In 1972 you left Austin for Aspen determined to become John Denver’s lead guitarist, to “let John Denver discover me.” Why were you so hellbent to be his main man?
A: Well, I was not really a fan of John’s music. I just wanted to break into the music business, and I recognized his music as something I’d very easily embellish with my style. I had already realized that I wasn’t destined to be the next Hendrix, that instead of being a top gun I could be a good little flyer who played simple, warm licks. I already knew Aspen was a livable place, with $7 [ski-]lift tickets and $40,000 houses. John was the first artist who lived in a tiny town where I knew all I had to do was move there and he will hire me and the rest will be history. The fact that John didn’t have a lead guitarist at the time was just a ripple in my master formula.
Sure enough, I had John’s phone number within a week of moving to Aspen. And when I was there, “Rocky Mountain High” came out and became his second big hit. I intuitively knew: Build it and he will come hear me. And I built it by playing four afternoon gigs at an après-ski lodge where no one listened, and four gigs at a coffeehouse where no one talked.
When John finally called me, I was pleased but not nervous. He came over to my house and we played for what we both thought was an hour; turned out it was really three hours. God, how I wished I had taped that!
You know, I bet John went to his grave not believing the true story of why I was in Aspen.
Q: Did you significantly change any of John’s hits the way that Art Garfunkel convinced Paul Simon that “Bridge Over Troubled Water” needed a third verse?
A: It’s not that [guitarist] John Sommers and I changed John’s songs, it’s more that we painted them with colors. If the song was the house, [Sommers] and I were the gingerbread. [Denver] never told me what to play. He never edited my playing; he never cut and pasted. What I played went on the record. He might say: “You know, Steve, I kind of hear you playing dobro on this,” which was code for: You’re playing dobro on this. I’m just realizing how rare it is that someone in that high position of power never wanted to manage an unknown guitarist’s work.
I have to tell you, John played guitar like a sledgehammer. Oh my God, what a beat he laid down! God, that man didn’t need a band. I remember he’d come out for the second half of shows at Madison Square Garden by himself and that place would be dead quiet while he performed. I’d stand there at the back of this cavernous room saying to myself: I can’t believe he goes up there alone and can control the New York audience–the most difficult audience in the world–with nothing but his voice and a guitar.
It reminded me of what a friend, a rock and roll singer with a David Clayton-Thomas kind of voice, said about John in concert: “Oh, he’s a bitch!”
Q: What was the apex of your time with John? You must have had a moment or three when you told yourself: God, it doesn’t get any better than this.
A: I don’t have one particular memory; I have a basketful. I’ll pull one out for you. When we played in London at the Palladium, John was so big they regilded everything. My rock-and-roll heroes, the Moody Blues, were backstage, and [lead songwriter-guitarist-vocalist] Justin Hayward told me [imitates plummy English accent]: “I rather like your dobro playing.” I thought: Hell, somebody pinch me!
Or maybe it was the tour when John rented a converted 707. It was called the Starship and among other things it had a Wurlitzer organ, a bedroom with a fireplace, and the first VCR that any of us had ever seen. In 39 days we played 41 shows in 36 cities and the only way we pulled it off was traveling in that flying tour bus.
I think one of my fondest memories is of a rare off day on that tour in Jacksonville when John rented a big boat and we drank beer, fished and just shot the breeze. And I remember thinking: This is pretty fine.
Q: John put several of your songs on his albums and in his TV specials. Which one of them did you play most often?
A: The only time I remember we played “Christmas for Cowboys” live was on the TV show “Rocky Mountain Christmas.” I didn’t realize until recently that it had the largest audience of any music TV special at that time: 60 million people. How extraordinary.
John wanted to show off me and John Sommers on the live record that became “An Evening with John Denver.” At the time our concert showcase was “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” So [Denver] said: “Why do a traditional and not get paid? Write a bluegrass tune and make some money.” So one afternoon [Sommers] and I throw some ideas on the wall: “Okay, let’s do it in G, it will be in three chords, and it will be fast.” And that’s how “Pickin’ the Sun Down” was born.
Here’s another testimonial to John’s generosity: [Producer] Milt Okun wanted [Weisberg’s song] “It’s Up to You” as the first single from [the album] “Back Home Again.” John wanted to release “Annie’s Song” as the first single. He ended up putting “It’s Up to You” on the flip side of the 45 of “Back Home Again.” And I didn’t know it until it hit the record stores.
Q: Part of the enduring appeal of John’s music is that it’s infectious to hear and perform. I mean, yesterday I couldn’t stop singing “For Baby (For Bobbie).” It just ribboned out of me.
A: John’s songs definitely have that effect. There was this 30-hour period in New York where we played four shows for a tenth of a million people. And they weren’t just listening; you could feel they were personally involved. It proved to me, the doubting Thomas, that something he was doing connected them to something they liked.
John knew how to make people feel good, and he knew how to make them think. I have met so many people who altered their life’s course because of his music, who dropped out of business school to join the Peace Corps and then started a charity. His music was without any doubt a call to action.
Q: Even a song as transparent as “This Old Guitar” is a killer expression of how a simple instrument can radically improve a life
A: Hey, I was your basic invisible kid until I found the guitar. It brought me out of obscurity. Athletes thought I was cool. Teachers thought I was cool. Girls thought I was cool. If not for the guitar, I’d probably still be a virgin.
Q: What advice have you given to Ted Vigil about performing John’s songs genuinely?
A: I’ve helped him with little nuances of guitar parts. I don’t want to come off as a mentor but, you know, I have a lot of inside knowledge; I was there forming these songs. When I first met Ted he was just strumming. Now he’s strumming and picking. He’s a fast learner. Even better, he wants to be better and better.
My essential piece of advice to Ted is to stick with his natural voice, which is fabulous. He can nail the highest notes in ”The Eagle and the Hawk” and “Calypso.” I try to encourage him not to sound like John. I hear so many people tell me about people who perform John’s songs, “Oh, he sounds so much like John Denver,” when none of them sound like John Denver to me. When Ted sticks to what he does well, naturally, I hear a very good singer performing a song very familiar to me.
Q: What did you learn from John? How did he rub off on you?
A: Let me tell you a story. It all started when my parents drove from Dallas to visit my wife and me in Aspen. John and Annie [Denver’s first wife and “Annie’s Song” muse] invited the four of us to their house for dinner. We’re saying goodbye and John and Annie are hugging everyone. Well, Dad and I stand there looking at each other, frozen, because we’re anything but huggers. Our hug was the most perfunctory, fast, nervous thing in the world. And I mumbled: “Loveyou.” And he mumbled it back.
A couple of days later my parents are loading up to drive home. My dad gets in the car, backs up, and motions me to come over with his finger. He’s got his hand sticking out the window, I bend over, he pulls his arm over my neck, pulls me close, kisses me on the cheek, and almost tearfully says: “God, how I love you!”
When my dad got back to Dallas he retrained my brothers in this protocol. And that’s how it remained till the day he died. Which means that from John Denver I learned to hug my father and tell him I loved him.
Steve Weisberg: The Scoop
First unforgettable song: the Ventures’ instrumental version of “Memphis”—his first “guitar magic carpet.”
First main instrument: the trombone, also a “magic carpet”
First meeting with John Denver: in a hardware store in Aspen, where they both investigated a fireplace grate
First time he played dulcimer: After Denver suggested he play a dulcimer on a recording of the song “The Music Is You,” Weisberg hurried to a local instrument store, bought a dulcimer, learned how to tune it, hurried back to the studio and played it so well, Denver thought he had been playing it for years instead of minutes.
His reaction when he first heard “Annie’s Song”: “When John played it for me, I had to suppress my laughter. I thought: This is a grammar-school teacher’s case study of similes run amuck. I knew nothing about what it meant to long for home. I wanted to stay out on the road forever. I wanted fast planes, luxury hotels, beautiful women wanting to thank me for the music. I knew nothing of the human heart.”
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown, Pa. His favorite John Denver songs include “Fly Away,” “Looking for Space” and “Calypso.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.