By: Matt WelchPublished: September 19, 2022

John Denver, 1. PMRC, 0

Sometimes looks—and sounds—can be deceiving. Many people looked at John Denver’s signature mid-‘70s bowl haircut, granny glasses, and moon-pie face, and just assumed the sweet-voiced folk-rocker was at best a harmless hippie nostalgic, at worst a closet reactionary. Certainly that was the hope of the Washington wives club led by Tipper Gore when they invited Denver to testify at the soon-to-be-infamous Parents Music Resource Center congressional hearings on Sept. 19, 1985.

It was hardly the only time people underestimated Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr., during his 53 years on the planet. But it was the most spectacular.

Frank Zappa, who kicked off the witness proceedings, was expected to be an eloquent if somewhat dick-headed free-speech absolutist. Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snider, who came last, was surely intended as a comic foil and patsy. But Denver in the middle was presumed to be a witness for the prosecution. After some opening pleasantries in his mellifluous speaking voice, the co-star of Oh, God! quickly dispensed with that notion.

“I am strongly opposed to censorship of any kind in our society, or anywhere else in the world,” Denver said, in the prepared part of his testimony. “Discipline and self-restraint, when practiced by an individual, a family, or a company is an effective way to deal with [the] issue [of controversial lyrics]. The same thing when forced on a people by their government or, worse, by a self-appointed watchdog of public morals, is suppression, and will not be tolerated in a democratic society… Mr. Chairman, the suppression of the people of a society begins, in my mind, with the censorship of the written or spoken word. It was so in Nazi Germany. It is so in many places today where those in power are afraid of the consequences of an informed and educated people.”

Not today, Tipper!

“It was John Denver who did the most damage to the PMRC cause,” Barry Miles wrote in the biography Zappa. “Clean-cut and all-American, he held fast to the First Amendment.” Dee Snider tweeted last year, “I ALWAYS give John Denver props. His was the most powerful & damaging testimony of the day because while they expected Zappa & I to be against censorship they thought Denver would side with them… Senators panicked!”

Unfailingly polite, and generous to a fault toward the PMRC busybodies who convened the five-hour finger-wag, Denver nonetheless came out firmly against not just any kind of governmental involvement, but also voluntary warning labels. And—though admittedly the degree of difficulty was not high—he helped make Al Gore come off like a buffoon:

GORE: It is an honor to be able to ask some questions. I have been a fan for a long time, Mr. Denver, not only of your music but also of your contributions to efforts such as Farm Aid at the present time, world peace, and your trips to the Soviet Union and elsewhere.

Do you see the trend of increased sexual explicitness and violence in some rock music that is outlined by this presentation? Have you ever been to a

Mötley Crüe concert, for example?

DENVER: No, sir. […]

GORE. Well, if a 10-year-old listens to a song glorifying rape, that is not reflecting what is in that 10-year-old's mind, is it?

DENVER. I do not think so. I do not think there are many 10-year-olds who know what rape is.

GORE. I am not sure I would agree with that. If you have an explicit description of a suicide, in a song that seems to glorify and promote suicide, young people are aware of that.

DENVER. Senator Gore, excuse me for interrupting… I am saying that the small percentage of records that we are discussing here today compared to the 125,000 songs that are released every year is miniscule and it is not going to affect our children to a degree that we need to be fearful of.

And so on.

John Denver was a weird cat who wrote and sung great songs (including “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” never forget). He was a depressive alcoholic, forever getting DUIs, and his marriages were tempestuous enough that he once took a chainsaw to his bed. “Country Roads” was not an accurate physical description of West Virginia. People’s opinions about this complicated man and musician are going to differ.

But for one day 37 years ago today, he wiped the floor with sanctimonious senators and their wives, in a rousing defense of free speech. You filled up our senses, John.

John Denver - Take Me Home, Country Road (from the Wildlife Concert)

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