When I was growing up in Colorado, Dan Fogelberg’s music was as inescapable as John Denver’s. Before he broke nationwide in the late ’70s and early ’80s with hits like “Longer” and “Hard to Say,” Fogelberg was all over the radio in his adopted home state, where he lived and recorded in a remote mountain ranch, from which he issued the occasional oracular pronouncement in the form of an album, which I would soon hear gently emanating from 8-track- and cassette-players in car stereos and campsites wherever I went in Colorado. Like John Denver, he sang of his love of nature in soft-plaintive ballads. And like his contemporary, Jackson Browne, he also sang of the ruined dreams of the ’60s peace-and-love brigade as they crashed into the materialism and self-absorption of the Me Decade. The result was ideal music for the post-hippie Colorado of the ’70s, laid-back soft-rock balladry with a deep reservoir of melancholy. (My favorite song of his is still 1975’s “These Days,” with its haunting, distorted, descending guitar line and it’s what-the-hell-happened-to-us refrain, “All I ever wanted to be was free.”)
Even when he became the toast of pop radio, Fogelberg always seemed to me to be a loner, a man out of time. In an era when bouncy, cheerfully synthetic pop and hair metal ruled the airwaves, here was a guy singing acoustic music for grownups, songs full of wistful nostalgia like “Leader of the Band” and “Same Old Lang Syne” — and having them become hits. Later still, as he continued to do exactly the same thing, even as he fell out of fashion and radio went off in a thousand different directions, he seemed still further out of step.
In his twilight years, “Longer” popped up as a wedding processional in 2002’s About Schmidt. I suppose it was supposed to indicate the characters’ cornball taste, but to me, it made perfect sense. If you were a guy like Dermot Mulroney’s character, who grew up in Denver in the ’70s and was finally getting married well into your thirties, of course Fogelberg’s “Longer” would be a likely wedding tune. All those years later, having become an object of nostalgia itself, Fogelberg’s music had finally caught up with the nostalgia that was its subject. For me, at least, it took on new emotional resonance that it hadn’t seemed to possess when it was fresh — but of course, the music hadn’t changed; I had. I was surprised by how saddened I was this morning to hear of his death yesterday at age 56, because I had never recognized that his music, sentimental and old-fashioned as it was, had meant as much to me as it did. But I’m consoled by a line from his song “Ghosts”: “Death is there to keep us honest and constantly remind us we are free.” And that was all he ever wanted to be.