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Is John Denver's "Rocky Mountain High" about marijuana, or is it a big myth-understanding?

Second only to "Mile High City," the title of John Denver's folksy classic "Rocky Mountain High" is the pun we're seeing the most lately in reporting about our state's legal weed. For the most part, Colorado has always been particularly proud of the anthem that celebrates our most treasured feature, so much so that we made it our second state song in 2007. And while legalized marijuana is slowly becoming a tourist attraction to rival our beloved Rocky Mountains, when John Denver wrote the lyrics "friends around the campfire and everybody's high," was he celebrating the plant that would give our state a new identity thirty years later?

See also: John Denver: Five things you may not know

Sorry to disappoint, but the answer is no, at least according to the songwriter himself. Just as the "Rocky Mountain High" lyric "fire in the sky" is not about an alien abduction, and "Why they try to tear the mountains down . . . more scars upon the land," was not about fracking, the double entendre about being high had nothing to do with cannabis, but about the organic elation that can be found in camping outdoors.

Though you'd be forgiven for thinking otherwise. Sporadic radio stations had banned the song throughout the first half of the '80s, fearing FCC retribution for playing a song that promoted drug use. During the Tipper Gore-lead witch-hunt against morally spicy music getting into the hands of minors, John Denver testified alongside Frank Zappa and Dee Snyder of Twisted Sister before Congress during the Parents Music Resource Center hearings. Attempting to set the record straight, Denver said in his testimony:

I am opposed to censorship of any kind. . . . My song 'Rocky Mountain High' was banned from many radio stations as a drug related song. This was obviously done by people who had never seen or been to the Rocky Mountains, and also had never experienced the elation, the celebration of life, the joy of living that one feels when he observes something as wondrous as the Perseid meteor shower on a moonless, cloudless night, when there are so many stars that you have a shadow from the starlight, and you are out camping with your friends, your best friends, and introducing them to one of nature's most spectacular light shows for the first time. This is obviously a clear case of misinterpretation. Mr. Chairman, what assurance have I that any national panel to review my music can make any better judgement?

In his 1994 autobiography, Take Me Home, Denver admitted to using marijuana (along with cocaine and LSD), and would go on to check himself into a rehab clinic for alcohol abuse. But when writing about "Rocky Mountain High," he reiterates that the song's inspiration sprung from when he first moved to Aspen at the age of 27.

"I remember, almost to the moment, when that song started to take shape in my head. We were working on the next album and it was to be called Mother Nature's Son, after the the Beatles song, which I'd included. It was set for release in September. In mid August, Annie and I and some friends went up to Williams Lake to watch the first Perseid meteor showers. . . .

At some point, I went off in a raft to the middle of the lake, singing my heart out. It wasn't so much that I was singing to entertain anyone back on shore, but rather I was singing for the mountains and for the sky... The shadow of the starlight blew me away. Maybe it was the state I was in. I went back and lay down next to Annie in front of our tent, thinking everybody had gone to sleep, and thinking about how in nature all things, large and small, were interwoven, when swoosh, a meteor went smoking by. . . .

I worked on the song -- and the song worked on me -- for a good couple of weeks. I was working one day with Mike Taylor, an acoustic guitarist who had performed with me at the Cellar Door and had moved out to Aspen. Mike sat down and showed me this guitar lick and suddenly the whole thing came together. It was just what the piece needed. When I realized what I had -- another anthem, maybe; a true expression of one's self, maybe -- we changed the sequencing of the album we'd just completed, and then we changed the album title."

 

The cannabis controversy surrounding "Rocky Mountain High" was unearthed again in 2007 when state legislators pushed to have it declared Colorado's musical motto. "If I thought there was anything in that song about the use of drugs or encouraging the use of drugs, I would never have run the resolution," then Democratic State Senator Bob Hagedorn told the New York Times, citing the tenth anniversary of Denver's life-ending plane crash in 1997 as partial motivation for the resolution. "A high is medically the releasing of endorphins in the brain -- yes, drugs cause it, but so do lots of other things ... We could be talking about guys who've been fishing all day, or kids pigging out on s'mores."

Just because it isn't about what it might seem, don't let that stop you from blasting "Rocky Mountain High" for our January 1 unveiling of legalized highness. It's still a great anthem for our state's natural beauty, even if it's not about our state's most famous natural drug. Though if you are looking for a heady playlist that isn't about meteor showers, feel free to check out our pot critic William Breathe's 420 playlist.

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