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Denver The Activist Says He's Still In Tune With America

September 11, 1987|JON MATSUMOTO

John Denver wondered out loud whether he or Oliver North more accurately reflects the spirit of America.

The singer, who was viewed as an All-American boy during his heyday in the early-to-middle '70s, voiced skepticism over the popular perception of North as folk hero in reaction to the Iran- contra hearings.

"Well, Oliver North and I are pretty much the same age," said Denver, 43, in a recent phone interview from his home in Aspen, Colo. "But I certainly don't think he represents America more or better (than I do). There are places that call me the Voice of America. And I do think I represent America."

Long a social activist with a decidedly liberal bent, Denver seemed as eager to talk about social issues as he did about his singing and acting career. Denver, who will appear at the Pacific Amphitheatre today, hasn't had a hit record in more than a decade and earlier this year was dropped by RCA Records, the label he'd been with for nearly 20 years. But the likable and articulate singer and songwriter continues to perform and fervently champion a variety of social causes. Nuclear disarmament and ending world hunger are two goals he considers of paramount importance.

Denver seemed most excited about his idealistic plan for stamping out world hunger while simultaneously cutting back on defense spending. His proposal is to persuade each country to donate 1% of its annual defense budget to fight world hunger and domestic poverty. He also hopes to persuade multinational corporations and defense contractors to donate 1% of their yearly profits for the same purpose. Denver plans to form a commission of "credible people with international backgrounds" to help persuade Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Chinese leader Deng Xioping and President Reagan to agree to the proposal.

"I'm not asking a lot," Denver said. "The biggest business in the world is making weapons. Fifty-five cents out of every tax dollar goes into our defense. It's an obscenity, and it's killing us. One of the greatest issues of our time and something we have to do something about very quickly is to get rid of nuclear weapons. We have to dissipate the environment of fear and mistrust that exists in the world. The best way to do this is by finding something we can all work on together on, like hunger."

Denver was once at the top of the pop world. In the '70s, he had seven top-ten hit singles, including such optimistic tunes as "Rocky Mountain High," "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" and "Sunshine on My Shoulders." But as he got more involved in humanitarian issues, and therefore grew more removed from RCA Records, his hit-making magic began to fade.

Denver recalled: "One tour, I spent an extra couple of hours in every city I visited to hold press conferences and do interviews so I could talk about President Carter's Commission on World and Domestic Hunger (of which Denver was a member). So I didn't have time to talk to the radio and record company people. I think I bruised a lot of people, and I destroyed some relationships."

Meanwhile, some of Denver's music was becoming less commercial and more political. That didn't sit well with RCA either.

"The fact that I spent so much time pushing the song 'What Are We Making Weapons For?' (in 1985), that was five-and-a-half minutes long and wasn't going to be a hit record, hurt my relationship with RCA. They want you to have hits. That's what sells albums. (After a while) they just weren't compelled to work for me to do the job the record company is supposed to do. "There have been some really good songs during the past 10 years. There have been hits on each of these albums. But they didn't get the kind of push from RCA or from me, to be quite honest, to make that happen."

Denver is now shopping for a record deal. He said he still has the ability to re-enter the top-10 singles and album charts. In the meantime, he is reviving his acting career. In 1977 he co-starred with George Burns in the hit movie "Oh God." Denver will appear in the TV adaptation of the Broadway play "Foxfire," which is tentatively scheduled to air next spring on CBS. Denver will play a country musician torn between staying behind in a small town with his widowed mother or moving out into the world.

The man known for his gregarious stage manner and wholesome enthusiasm hopes to increase his film and TV work and to cut down on his touring schedule in the coming years.

"I'd like to be in one place for a while," he said. "Making movies or doing a TV series offers that opportunity.

"Last year I was in Aspen for 25 days. Now that's dumb. I'm already doing a lot better than that this year. I'm being more picky, and I'm trying to only choose meaningful projects that I really want to do. I really want to have more time at home. I've got a lady, and I'm very much in love. My son, Zack, is a teen-ager now. I want to have more time with them and more time in these Rocky Mountains."

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