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View Full Version : "Sorry for the Way Things Are in China" -- what is John Denver talking about?


Rodgers01
11-11-2005, 11:34 PM
This is the refrain for the song "I'm Sorry" by John Denver:

I'm sorry for the way things are in China
I'm sorry things ain't what they used to be
But more than anything else
I'm sorry for myself
'Cause you're not here with me

The rest of the lyrics can be found here (http://lyricsdownload.com/john-denver-i-m-sorry-lyrics.html).

The first line of that refrain has always puzzled me. There is no other obvious mention of China in the rest of the song; it is, to all appearances, a pretty standard song about a guy who was dumped and misses his girlfriend.

So why is he sorry about the way things are in China? Did the girlfriend move to China? (But if so, why is he sorry about the way things are there?) Is it a sarcastic remark about the poor situation in China at the time? Was there something relevant going on in China when the song was written (surely he's not talking about the Cultural Revolution!)?

I know it's trivial and that we can't expect complete logic from all John Denver lyrics, but it's a prominent line in one of his better known songs, and it's so out of left field that it just bugs me. Any reasonable theories?

Larry Mudd
11-12-2005, 12:14 AM
At the time, China was (rightly or wrongly) pretty much synonymous with poverty. Mothers would guilt picky-eating kids into cleaning their plates by uttering the stock phrase "Think of all the starving children in China."

It was something we were expected to feel vaguely guilty about, and an easy segue from the general to the particular.

Rodgers01
11-12-2005, 12:32 AM
At the time, China was (rightly or wrongly) pretty much synonymous with poverty. Mothers would guilt picky-eating kids into cleaning their plates by uttering the stock phrase "Think of all the starving children in China."

It was something we were expected to feel vaguely guilty about, and an easy segue from the general to the particular.

I kinda figured it was something along those lines, but (and maybe this is just because I grew up in the cynical, oh-so-ironic '90s) the only reading of that meaning that made sense to me was if it was said in a snarky, sarcastic way as in: "Pfft; sorry your dad died, but I've got my own problems -- Friends just got cancelled." But that didn't fit the tone of the song, so I figured that it had to be something more specific that I was missing.

Larry Mudd
11-12-2005, 01:20 AM
Wait a minute -- you grew up in the last decade and yet you're curious about John Denver lyrics?

Yet more compelling evidence that young Dopers are fundamentally unlike other young people. :D

Rodgers01
11-12-2005, 01:27 AM
Wait a minute -- you grew up in the last decade and yet you're curious about John Denver lyrics?

Yet more compelling evidence that young Dopers are fundamentally unlike other young people. :D

I can quote Irving Berlin lyrics as a party trick to boot.

Walloon
11-12-2005, 02:31 AM
John Denver was about as blessedly unsnarky as they come.

sturmhauke
11-12-2005, 02:35 AM
I used to know the words to "Surgens Jesus" and one of the 109 versions of "Ave Maria" but I've forgotten most of them now.

Johanna
11-12-2005, 03:57 AM
I can chant The Descent of Inanna in the original Sumerian.

Just kidding.

rfgdxm
11-12-2005, 05:34 AM
John Denver was about as blessedly unsnarky as they come.
I just checked the lyrics. The context is the singer is wallowing in self-pity.

Xema
11-12-2005, 01:06 PM
At the time, China was (rightly or wrongly) pretty much synonymous with poverty.
The song was released in 1975, at which point Mao's Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was still ongoing. Many chinese had more than poverty to worry about.

stuyguy
11-12-2005, 05:31 PM
I can quote Irving Berlin lyrics as a party trick to boot.
Really?

You know, "Rodgers" is a somewhat unusual spelling of an otherwise common last name. But there was at least one pretty famous and talented guy who had it, and he was quite familiar with Irving's lyrics too. Any relation?

pesch
11-12-2005, 10:24 PM
John Denver was about as blessedly unsnarky as they come.

I thought so, too, until a friend directed me to his Rhymes & Reasons (http://amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/B0009I7O3O/qid=1131852077/sr=2-3/ref=pd_bbs_b_2_3/102-2841920-0059309?v=glance&s=music) album. It features "The Ballad of Spiro Agnew" and "The Ballad of Richard Nixon."

At the risk of offending them mods, here's the ENTIRE LYRIC to "The Ballad of Spiro Agnew":

"I'll sing you a song of Spiro Agnew and all the things he's done."

The rest is silence.

Rodgers01
11-12-2005, 11:12 PM
Really?

You know, "Rodgers" is a somewhat unusual spelling of an otherwise common last name. But there was at least one pretty famous and talented guy who had it, and he was quite familiar with Irving's lyrics too. Any relation?

Ha, you caught me! No relation, unfortunately; just a fan who happened to be listening to some of his music when trying to come up with a handle.

smarcelli
10-16-2014, 03:13 PM
The first line of that refrain has always puzzled me. There is no other obvious mention of China in the rest of the song; it is, to all appearances, a pretty standard song about a guy who was dumped and misses his girlfriend.

So why is he sorry about the way things are in China? Did the girlfriend move to China?

This can be a logical suspect: his girl let him down and came back to a work as an US government interpreter (for example) in China. Sometimes he receives her mails in which she told him how are the way things in China... Very simple, for me.
Ciao
Stefano
(a strong fan of John Denver since the 90's, among the very few ones in Italy)

njtt
10-16-2014, 03:50 PM
Was there something relevant going on in China when the song was written (surely he's not talking about the Cultural Revolution!)?

Why not?

Really Not All That Bright
10-16-2014, 03:51 PM
This is the weirdest zombie-bump ever.

engineer_comp_geek
10-16-2014, 04:03 PM
Moderator Action

Moving thread from General Questions to Cafe Society.

Also, zombie alert. This thread is from 2005.

astorian
10-16-2014, 04:24 PM
For those who are surprised that Denver had songs about Nixon and Agnew, remember that in the Sixties, he was a member of the Chad Mitchell Trio, a folk act dedicated in large part to political satire.

By the late Sixties, the whole folk music/coffee house/hootenanny scene ahd larely disappeared, the Chad Mitchell Trio broke up, and John had to make it on his own with a different sound and a different approach.

"I'm Sorry" is, in a sense, Part 2 of "Annie's Song." That is, Denver's wife Annie had left him due to his infidelities. "Annie's Song" was his way of begging her to come back to him. Well, it worked... but ultimately the marriage still didn't work out. "I'm Sorry" is John telling Annie he was sorry for all his screw-ups (and all his screwing around) as she was headed out the door.

NDP
10-16-2014, 05:27 PM
I thought so, too, until a friend directed me to his Rhymes & Reasons (http://amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/B0009I7O3O/qid=1131852077/sr=2-3/ref=pd_bbs_b_2_3/102-2841920-0059309?v=glance&s=music) album. It features "The Ballad of Spiro Agnew" and "The Ballad of Richard Nixon."

At the risk of offending them mods, here's the ENTIRE LYRIC to "The Ballad of Spiro Agnew":

"I'll sing you a song of Spiro Agnew and all the things he's done."

The rest is silence.

"The Ballad of Richard Nixon" is even shorter.

Little Nemo
10-16-2014, 05:40 PM
One possible interpretation is he's making insincere apologies in the first chorus. He's saying he's "sorry" but he's doing it in for things which he feels aren't his fault. Obviously whatever is happening in China may be bad but it's not the singer's fault. And the same is true about things not being the way they used to be. His final apology is the singer saying he's sorry his girlfriend left him - that may be sincere but it's still not talking any responsibility.

He sings a little more and then figures out he needs to accept that he was wrong and that's why she left. Then he begins to admit his mistakes and apologize for things he actually did: I'm sorry for all the lies I told you/for the things I didn't say/if I took some things for granted/for the chains I put on you.

Horatio Hellpop
10-17-2014, 02:57 AM
For those who are surprised that Denver had songs about Nixon and Agnew, remember that in the Sixties, he was a member of the Chad Mitchell Trio, a folk act dedicated in large part to political satire.

By the late Sixties, the whole folk music/coffee house/hootenanny scene ahd larely disappeared, the Chad Mitchell Trio broke up, and John had to make it on his own with a different sound and a different approach.

It got worse. I remember seeing a book called "American Country Music" in a bookstore circa 1978 and the cover picture was John Denver's big, grinning face. Not a magazine where they might have had him on it one month and Loretta Lynn or Johnny Cash the next; this was a one-shot book, and they chose this folk-pop balladeer as the face of country music. Jeezus. I think Sylvester Stallone played at the Grand Ol' Opry more than John Denver, and he was only there once!

terentii
10-17-2014, 04:25 AM
If this was indeed a song addressed to Annie, I would imagine the reference to China was in response to something that had happened between them, and was a line that she (and only she) would immediately understand. Maybe they had a fight over what a great man Chairman Mao was the night they broke up; who knows?

Has anyone ever asked her, I wonder?

MostlyUseless
10-17-2014, 05:36 AM
For the young ones, there have been waves in music and TV. First, there was disco in general. Donna Summers, KC & the sunshine band and the rest of that wave. At the tail end of that, there was Barry Manilow. He wrote the songs but jumped the shark with Copa Cabana.

After that, John Denver came along. John Denver gets disparaged because of his good old boy ah shucks thing, but if you examine his music, he was musically very advanced. For an example, take a look at 'Some Days are Diamonds..'

A simple song, but lyrically, very nice and musically, far more complicated than John gets credit for.

Fear Itself
10-17-2014, 05:40 AM
If this was indeed a song addressed to Annie, I would imagine the reference to China was in response to something that had happened between them, and was a line that she (and only she) would immediately understand. That would be missing the point of the song. He knows he screwed up, he is desperate to get her back, and in his desperation he apologizes for not only his own transgressions, but for bad things that happened half a world away that are not even remotely his fault. It is song of desperation and the absurd things that desperate people will cop to, to get someone back.

terentii
10-17-2014, 06:30 AM
That would be missing the point of the song. He knows he screwed up, he is desperate to get her back, and in his desperation he apologizes for not only his own transgressions, but for bad things that happened half a world away that are not even remotely his fault. It is song of desperation and the absurd things that desperate people will cop to, to get someone back.

Yes, I realize all of that, but the implication is (so far as I see it) China had some special significance for her (or both of them). Otherwise, it's kind of an odd reference.

Fear Itself
10-17-2014, 07:46 AM
Yes, I realize all of that, but the implication is (so far as I see it) China had some special significance for her (or both of them).I'm not seeing how you are reaching that conclusion. China is just a far away place, and in his desperation, he is apologizing for that too. No more.

running coach
10-17-2014, 07:57 AM
Yes, I realize all of that, but the implication is (so far as I see it) China had some special significance for her (or both of them). Otherwise, it's kind of an odd reference.

The song was released in mid 1975.

That year, China had the Haicheng earthquake (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1975_Haicheng_earthquake) and the Shadian massacre (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shadian_incident).

Hello Again
10-17-2014, 10:32 AM
IMHO "Sorry" here, just means "I'm sad about" it doesn't mean "I apologize". I've always heard it as "I'm sad about a lot if things that are wrong with the world, but the thing Im most sad about is that you're not here with me. That may seem silly in comparison to the problems, but it's impacting me more. "

" ... the way things are in china" and "things aren't what they used to be" are just examples of things people get upset about. They aren't personally significant to the singer. He could have written: I'm sorry about gas lines; I'm sorry about stagflation; I'm sorry Jimmy Carter's not doing a better job; I'm sorry about the continued conflict in the Middle East; ... [fill in whatever had you vaguely upset in 1975 ].

Fear Itself
10-17-2014, 12:44 PM
IMHO "Sorry" here, just means "I'm sad about" it doesn't mean "I apologize". In the context of the other lyrics, I think it does:

"I'm sorry for all the lies I told you,
I'm sorry for the things I didn't say.

...

I'm sorry if I took some things for granted,
I'm sorry for the chains I put on you."All apologies for his own transgressions. Now, he does use another meaning for "I'm sorry" when he says, "More than anything else, I'm sorry for myself" and "I'm sorry things ain't what they used to be." which are expressions of sadness, but that is a just poetic counterpoint to all the other occurrences of "I'm sorry", which were all apologies. The apology about China is just an exaggeration born of his desperation.

Rodgers01
10-17-2014, 01:29 PM
This is the weirdest zombie-bump ever.

I'll second that. This must have been one of the first threads I created on SDMB - how weird to see it bumped up almost a decade later.

DChord568
10-17-2014, 03:47 PM
It got worse. I remember seeing a book called "American Country Music" in a bookstore circa 1978 and the cover picture was John Denver's big, grinning face. Not a magazine where they might have had him on it one month and Loretta Lynn or Johnny Cash the next; this was a one-shot book, and they chose this folk-pop balladeer as the face of country music. Jeezus. I think Sylvester Stallone played at the Grand Ol' Opry more than John Denver, and he was only there once!

It was three years earlier, but the phenomenon you describe led directly to this (https://youtube.com/watch?v=qXgiCr-V9HM).

Charlie Rich (and later, his son) have tried to explain it away as Charlie being on medication (which sounds better than drunk)...but I've always preferred to believe his actions were sincerely, and justly, motivated.

DChord568
10-17-2014, 03:51 PM
For the young ones, there have been waves in music and TV. First, there was disco in general. Donna Summers, KC & the sunshine band and the rest of that wave. At the tail end of that, there was Barry Manilow. He wrote the songs but jumped the shark with Copa Cabana.

After that, John Denver came along.

Just me being typically anal, but your chronology is a bit off. John Denver "came along" in 1971, long before disco, Donna Summer or Barry Manilow reared their heads.

By time Denver had his last significant radio hit ("Fly Away", 1975), disco was just getting going.

Isamu
10-17-2014, 08:30 PM
Many are overlooking that this song was not written by Denver but was instead written by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, together with Gospel singer J. Moss.

I'm sorry for the way things are in China, is a not so subtle reference to "vagina". As in, I'm sorry about all that other vagina (I shoplifted). As others have said, it is an allusion to Denver's infidelities.

SeldomSeen
10-17-2014, 10:48 PM
Many are overlooking that this song was not written by Denver but was instead written by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, together with Gospel singer J. Moss.

??????? :dubious:

I'm sorry for the way things are in China, is a not so subtle reference to "vagina". As in, I'm sorry about all that other vagina (I shoplifted).

Eh...... wha? :confused:

Jim's Son
10-19-2014, 05:58 PM
Denver could be an odd case as far as "respect" goes. He testified in Congress along with Dee Snider and Frank Zappa against the PMRC of Tipper Gore, Susan Baker and others. Denver stated that a decade earlier idiots thought his song about the great outdoors "Rocky Mountain High" was actually pro drugs. Zappa and Snider got the street cred, Denver was ignored by the the self proclaimed keepers of cool.
Around 1975 China was recovering from the Great Leap Forward of the late 1950s that killed 18-32 million and another bout of communist mass insanity and butchering known as the Cultural Revolution.

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