Amy Klinger

Return to the Desert Island

Revisiting old work is a lot like hearing a recording of your own voice. You cringe. You groan. That’s what I sound like? Make it stop. Don’t ever do that again.

Fortunately, having focused my non-professional writing for the last eight years on the novel I’m now trying to publish, I don’t have a ton of old material to be tormented by. But I did recently come across an old commentary I wrote and recorded for Vermont Public Radio nearly a decade ago. No, I didn’t have the stomach to listen to it, but I read the text, flinchingly—finding it not terrible, but definitely quaint, trying too hard, and clearly shaved down to meet a strict time limitation. So I put it back in the archive folder.

It came to mind again later that night. I thought about the ideas and phrases I liked as well as those I didn’t. Through the lens of this new blog effort, I considered editing it and making it bearable to share as a post. And then I thought that it might actually be more interesting to show how I would go about editing it. A look behind the curtain, of sorts.

Actually, it might not be interesting at all. And I’m I’m not convinced the edited version is necessarily an improvement. But you lot are along for the ride, so let’s see how this goes. The format is simple, strikethrough type gets cut, bold type is revised or new. I’ll include a clean version at the end for those who would rather not witness the gory editorial surgery.

ISLAND MUSIC, 2010

My friend Glenn and I recently embarked on a quest to identify our favorite Desert Island Discs—that is, if we somehow found ourselves miraculously washed up on an uninhabited island carrying a stash of our most treasured music recordings, and that island was somehow equipped with a stereo, these 20 recordings would keep us happy until we eventually died from scurvy.

It’s been a more challenging assignment than I anticipated, screening out the chaff and, merely likeable clutter of a 30-year- old music collection. And while recordings from The Clash, Billie Holiday and Tom Waits were obvious selections, I never expected to include an album that I had lately kept in reserve for entertaining my three-year- old in her car seat. But there it was, number nine out of twenty, An Evening with John Denver.

Nearly 30 years before your Facebook friends were being nominated to chronicle their favorite albums of all time, there was “Desert Island Discs”—a radio program where musicians would come by the studio and talk about the recordings they would want to have along with them if they ever found themselves stranded on a desert island miraculously equipped with a record player and electricity. (Sounds kind of perfect, right?) The two provide the same platform for sharing, but there’s something about hypothetical setup of the latter that I imagine has some effect on the ultimate selections. These albums might not simply be your best loved, but rather those that have more to offer upon multiple—essentially a life sentence—of listening.

In giving thought to my own Desert Island collection (let’s no longer pretend they’re discs), I’ve pulled together an eclectic mix that weeds out what I find merely likable and gives privileged place to those that stand my own test of time. Some selections are obvious (to me): recordings by The Clash, Etta James and classical guitarist Roland Dyens. Others are noteworthy because they reflect unexpected discoveries. Or rediscoveries, as was the case with An Evening with John Denver.

Released at the height of Denver’s career, this double album is a live recording of two concerts held at Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles in 1974.

Nostalgia clearly plays a factor here. In 1975, at the age of five when I was five, my parents hauled my sisters and me to Madison Square Garden to see Denver at the height of his career perform. And the songs I memorized in junior high while learning to play guitar have stuck with me. And to this day, I keep the album among those that I shuffle through. I confess so much so that on occasion I may be found in my car, full out singing lyrics like, “The children and the flowers are my sisters and my brothers…” without even a hint of sarcasm or eye rolling. For years after, his songs were part of our family soundtrack, not just on our living room stereo, but also on the clunky 8-track player in our big blue Volvo station wagon. And in junior high, Denver’s were the first songs I learned to play on guitar.

It was several years ago, when my daughter was a literal captive audience strapped in her car seat, that I “dusted off” the album as an adult. I had wanted to play songs with clean lyrics and clear melodies that would soak into her brain, that we could remember and sing together at bedtime. At 11, she has since moved on to Sleater-Kinney and Tool, but I still keep the Denver album among those that I shuffle through in my car. I confess that, on occasion, I may be found full out singing lyrics like, “The children and the flowers are my sisters and my brothers…” without even a hint irony.

But I also think this particular album is one I would look to save me from the monotony of coconut croquet and seashell tiddlywinks keep coming back to because it so well captures the gift of energy and play between a live performer and his audience. Like a scoutmaster around a campfire, Denver shares stories, invites his audience to sing along, and laughs with them at his own jokes. All the while his fans holler, whistle and can hardly contain their adoration. It is a conversation that is both massive and intimate. And by the time he sings the final encore and his soft vibrato fades with the concert’s closing line, “I love to sing my songs to you,” you know it is deeply and passionately true.

Denver was an icon of an era. With his signature granny glasses and a tendency to express his enthusiasm with a big-grinning “Far out,” he was a gentle man whose love of nature was as clear and honest as the landscapes about which he sang. In a time when the last gasps of the Vietnam War, Watergate, and a major energy crisis were straining the country, Denver’s focus was on making connections to the world around us—both the natural and the human. Given our own point in history, with war in the headlines, scandals du jour, an environment in proportionally more dire straits, and a fractured and highly volatile political environment, I realize that my renewed appreciation for this album is not merely a coincidence. with endless wars, a culture of emboldened hate groups, domestic terrorism in our schools, an environment in exponentially more dire straits…I could go on and on, my appreciation for this album seems to stem from a longing for a little more innocence, a lot more kindness in the world.

Other recordings on my list appeal to other sensibilities—they rock or they swing, they present complex arrangements or compelling fusions, or simply showcase terrific storytelling. But An Evening with John Denver, corny as one of his own song lyrics, is a recording that sings to my heart. And that’s the kind of company that we all need when we’re feeling a little like castaways. It’s the perfect company for when you’re feeling a little like a castaway.

REVISITING ISLAND MUSIC, 2018

Decades before your Facebook friends were being nominated to chronicle their favorite albums of all time, there was “Desert Island Discs”—a radio program where musicians would come by the studio and talk about the recordings they would want to have along with them if they were ever stranded on a desert island miraculously equipped with a record player and electricity. (Sounds kind of perfect, right?) The two setups provide the same platform for sharing, but there’s something about the hypothetical backdrop of the latter that I imagine has some effect on the ultimate selections. These albums might not simply be your best loved, but rather those that have more to offer upon multiple—essentially a life sentence—of listenings.

In giving thought to my own Desert Island collection (let’s no longer pretend they’re discs), I’ve pulled together an eclectic mix that weeds out what I find merely likable and gives privileged place to those that stand my own test of time. Some selections are obvious (to me): recordings by The Clash, Etta James and classical guitarist Roland Dyens. Others are noteworthy because they reflect unexpected discoveries. Or rediscoveries, as was the case with An Evening with John Denver.

Released at the height of Denver’s career, this double album is a live recording of two concerts held at Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles in 1974. 

Nostalgia clearly plays a factor here. In 1975 when I was five, my parents hauled my sisters and me to Madison Square Garden to see Denver perform. For years after, his songs were part of our family soundtrack, not just on our living room stereo, but also on the clunky 8-track player in our big blue Volvo station wagon. And in junior high, Denver’s were the first songs I learned to play on guitar.

It was several years ago when my daughter was a literal captive audience strapped in her car seat, that I “dusted off” the album as an adult. I had wanted to play songs with clean lyrics and clear melodies that would soak into her brain, that we could remember and sing together at bedtime. At 11, she has since moved on to Sleater-Kinney and Tool, but I still keep the Denver album among those that I shuffle through in my car. I confess that, on occasion, I may be found full out singing lyrics like, “The children and the flowers are my sisters and my brothers…” without even a hint irony.

But I also think this particular album is one I would keep coming back to because it so well captures the gift of energy and play between a live performer and his audience. Like a scoutmaster around a campfire, Denver shares stories, invites his audience to sing along, and laughs with them at his own jokes. All the while his fans holler, whistle and can hardly contain their adoration. It is a conversation that is both massive and intimate. And by the time he sings the final encore and his soft vibrato fades with the concert’s closing line, “I love to sing my songs to you,” you know it is deeply and passionately true.

Denver was an icon of an era. With his signature granny glasses and a tendency to express his enthusiasm with a big-grinning “Far out,” he was a gentle man whose love of nature was as clear and honest as the landscapes about which he sang. In a time when the last gasps of the Vietnam War, Watergate, and a major energy crisis were straining the country, Denver’s focus was on making connections to the world around us—both the natural and the human. Given our own point in history with endless wars, a culture of emboldened hate groups, domestic terrorism in our schools, an environment in exponentially more dire straits…I could go on and on, my appreciation for this album seems to stem from a longing for a little more innocence, a lot more kindness in the world.

Other recordings on my list appeal to different sensibilities—they rock or they swing, they present complex arrangements or compelling fusions, or simply showcase terrific storytelling. But An Evening with John Denver, corny as one of his own song lyrics, is a recording that sings to my heart. It’s the perfect company for when you’re feeling a little like a castaway.

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