All I Ever Wanted

A Conversation with Ivan Denis

I drove to Tucson thinking something about roots and driving into the past.  One of the things that I truly do love about this travel journalism gig, is that I really do embrace the Muse on my motorcycle rides.  I open Ghost up on the highway, and the Indian Thunderstroke 911 engine hums itself straight into my core like a tuning fork.  It is here that I start to dream, waiting for a song on Ghost Rider Radio to spark a thought and show me the way.  It is cool to approach a deadline with that kind of openness: it feels pure, it feels raw – less contrived.


Shinedown comes on, and an idea starts to form.  Roots.  Dreams.  Expectations: those great and those small.  Progress.  Setbacks.  All I ever wanted… Indeed.  This thought starts to form about the complexities of life, the continual stream of have-tos screaming out for attention, and the dizzying barrage of gadgets that are supposed to make it all more manageable…. for a small fee.  If I Ever Lose My Faith by Sting comes to mind every time this line of thinking crosses my way, “I never saw no miracle of science that didn’t go from a blessing to a curse.”


There seems to be this pervasive need in our society now to get back to something old, there is this built in throwback nostalgia in everything: from music, the resurgence of vinyl, entertainment, to fashion.  However, it is hard to pin point whether that phenomena is simply the current hip trend, or if it is indicative of something deeper.  Perhaps – as our cultures and interconnected worlds spin faster and faster and more chaotically out of the scope of our control – it is simply a relief to imagine a more simple time.

In staying with that spirit of simplicity: an honest craft, an artful telling, and a quality product – it made sense to me to cap my trip with another artist who, through the crucible of trial and error, finds himself much more on the side of living each day to do what he loves doing, rather than stressing about the gains.  Ivan Denis brings the soulful, James Taylor-esque side to country music, and with vocals that are sometimes a bit Garth and others a bit George, he covers a four-octave scale.  Finding a studio that agreed with embracing the imperfections of that instrument, however, proved an entirely different matter.  Simplicity, it seems, is only interesting as long as it is selling something.

I was born in Tucson, Arizona.  Some of my fondest memories of youth are riding the “Oregon Trail” through the cholla and the mesquite.  My grandfather used to live at the top of Golder Ranch road, when Catalina felt much more like a distant village far outside of Tucson instead of a bubbling mainstreet suburb.  He would saddle “Duce” up two or three times a day for a beloved little boy who came to visit on the weekends, and we would ride that buckskin horse like he was a carnival pony.  He never seemed to mind.

Norman “Papa” Clark, my grandfather, was a Captain with the Tucson Fire Department, and after long hours: teaching rappelling, prying dead ladies out of bathtubs, and cutting bodies from the twisted remains of man’s arrogance… to say nothing of fighting fires in the Arizona desert – he needed to unplug.  He would come home to the Catalina Mountains, saddle Duce, and disappear into the jagged ridges with a bedroll and a .22 pistol loaded with snake-shot for rattlers.

There was something about the freedom those rides provided.  The way that the stresses and tragedies of the world would recede and eventually fade, to the quiet, the rhythm of the horse’s hooves against earth, and the whispers of the wind.  There was a serentiny that was only achievable there, in those mountains, on that steed, with that solitude.

Not everybody understands… the simplicity of it… the purity of it… the necessity of it…

In many ways, you can say that what I do as a motorcyclist is the same thing… and as much as I am instantly going to regret this… I am not ashamed to say that when Wanted Dead or Alive blares into my helmet, yeah… well, you get it…. Bikers know that feeling.


“On the steel horse I ride” – indeed.  So I mounted up, and headed south, looking to reconnect to my past, drive back into time, meditate on expectations and disappointment  and perspective, and then cap the trip off seeing Ivan Denis perform an intimate show at The Views… looking at the Catalina Mountains….. reminiscing.


I love Tucson, well, most specifically North Tucson.  I love the Catalina Mountains.  I love Mount Lemmon.  The drive south from Apache Junction is fast, and scenic.  The first leg has one flying below the shadow of the Superstitions, and then out past the prison in Florence.  After that, the almost imperceptible, gentle incline that leads to the high desert vegetation and cacti that sets Arizona’s City of the South apart from the Valley of the Sun.  When the Catalina range starts coming into view, and Pusch ridge can be seen cutting into the sky, I always feel like I am headed home.

On this particular trip, and on many others through the years, when I allow my mind to drift into the past… I find myself wondering where the line is between the way we were raised to be and the person that we become when left to our own devices: nature vs. nurture.  Which side of that yin and yang effects us more deeply?  So much of our lives are simply reactionary; as we search for coping mechanisms to deal with the constancy of life’s challenges.

I find the introspective analysis of who we are as people, interesting. What motivates us?  What scares us?  Where does that fear come from?  On one hand the responsibility of molding a young mind is almost too intimidating to even attempt.  If every mistake leaves scars, and everybody makes mistakes, its a wonder any of us have turned out alright or want to be parents at all.  Therefore, there must also be a powerful argument made for our human ability to rationalize and reason and will ourselves to a different reality.

So, on this particular journey as I drove past my old elementary school, and old houses, I pondered Dickens ‘chain of iron or flowers that began on one fateful day and led me to this current juncture.  Part of that journey into memory was spending an evening with good friends, vising old students over coffee, and heading to see a guy I sent to school with… who had also become an artist.  When we reconnected, I found myself struggling to remember exactly where Ivan fit into the jigsaw of my past, “Now you ran around with the Kelly boys right, and maybe Jared Leslie?” so he gently reminded me.


“I grew up in Redington. Jack Kelly was a neighbor down the road, so yes I know the Kelly clan and yes Jared Leslie: he lived just up the hill from me for a while.  I remember all of you guys around the D & D table during lunches.You were usually DM {Dungeons & Dragons and Dungeon Master folks, if your level of Geek is just not up to par.} I hung out more than I played. I floated between there and the art room. I think most of the people I hung out with were sort of misfits who insisted on doing there own thing.”

Sometimes  it it funny how memories fade like photographs left on the dash under the sun, bu somebody mentions something, and BAM! it triggers a wave of those scenes to snap sharply back into focus.  Many a lunch hour was spent hanging out with cool teachers (teachers who understood D&D kids might need a place to hide more likely) and playing Dungeon & Dragons with the other freaks and geeks.  So we played out legendary tales, and we became legendary heroes in our own minds.  Largely, though, in the end, we were just bullied and misunderstood.

Huh…  Another misfit doing well… Imagine that.

At some point, I don’t remember when, I got this idea that life just kind of happened to you.  All a person needed to do was get good grades, do well in school, and prepare themselves for what he or she wanted to be and BOOM! it would happen.  I waited for it.  I tried to make safe, calculated decisions, in everything from career to love to family.  It can be easy to try to blame all of our lives on our parents, or on our situations, and it would be naive of me to say that I was not affected by my history.  I lived a life of supposed to, and was never the kid to really risk getting in trouble or upsetting the status quo.  I tried to hang low and be invisible, but life just kept spiraling completely out of my control.  But the question of how much of that lack of self-confidence, that amount of fear, and uncertainty was built in from environmental situations or was simply part of my nature and character is the very essence of the conversation.

Once again, great artists, great minds…. similar journeys.  Stephen had been trying to tell me about it for years… but some… just wait….



It wasn’t until years later, when I wrote the line, “Nothing of value is created in safety” in Spirits of Jerome, that I started to understand.  And it still took me over a year to pull the trigger.  To finally embrace the fear of failure… and jump.

Ivan took a different path.

“I dropped out of high school because It sucked. I don’t have a better answer.  I’ve made my choices and hedged my bets. I’m not the least embarrassed by it. I think we all have done exactly that. We do pretty amazing things, sometimes we fuck everything up. It’s wonderful, but it’s messy. When the day’s over, and the lights go out, you have to swallow it all before you go to sleep. Sometimes I sleep, sometimes I don’t. That’s where I find my songs.”


When we journey into the past, driving through the curves of memory and negotiating the obstacles of regret and sorrow, it is easy to think of things as a torrential force of distractions.  It is like everything in our lives is hellbent on keeping us from our chosen goals, and it isn’t until we realize that it was the constant distractions that defined our lives…. not the best laid plans.

It has been awesome, while riding this journalistic whirlwind, to see that there is a reality that doesn’t come across in the reality shows.  We seem to live in this world of immediacy and flash fame, where YouTube, trending topics, and the ability to go viral drive the egocentric idea that we are doing things, eating things, or seeing things that the entirety of the rest of the world must also want to see.

See what I mean? If you think it is just the young kids… think again

The problem…. it is stressful.  But we are not actively creating a society of people who willingly unplug, who willingly step back, or who willingly part from their cell phones.  Conversely, we are creating a society of people who have no ability to take responsibility for their own decisions and simply wave the status update of validation and empowerment and call themselves justified.  All inaction and inanity can be justified this way.

We are creating generations of children who live in virtual reality, dream larger than life, and see themselves as the stars of their own dramas – and they have every real expectation that that story ought to be televised.  Why not?  Everything I do is a headline.  Facebook and status updates have upset the value of eyes.  The proof of it is everywhere you look…. Hint: counting the people not looking at their own screens is easier.

Social Media Has Created a Generation of Narcissists

Narcissism and Social Networking

Narcissism and Self Promotion

But when we dig into the real, peel back the layers of Arizona and open our eyes to something outside of that narcissistic blue spectrum of our digital worlds, we see that somewhere along the line – we completely missed the point.  There are real people, real writers, real singers, real musicians, real poets, real filmmakers all around us, filling the world with beauty and original creative thoughts and vision.  But it is happening beyond the digital realm, it is happening in the really real world with really real people.

When you dare to put down the Selfie-Stick, you see the real reality of it.  Everybody is carving out their spaces.  Everyone is hedging their bets.  Everyone is dancing the tango between fear and success.  Everybody wants to rule the world, and nobody really knows how in a world changing faster than it has ever done before.

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I find myself wondering what causes people to build these patterns.  Some kids seem confident right off the bat, strong and competitive: thriving for that last second shot, or that final at-bat to win the game.  Where does that comes from?  Is it real, or is a charade that they cloak themselves in – like armor?

“For a long time you didn’t need to look close to see me shaking in my boots. I still get rattled pretty easy. If I ever do my thing in front of people without being nervous It might be time to hang it up.” 

What happens in our lives to make us DOERS, people confident enough to be willing and able to take the risks that will either make them or destroy their dreams in the attempt?  Is it the way we were brought up, loved, nurtured, filled with self-confidence?  Or is it in the DNA and the biology that screams out that some people just have completely different skill sets?

I would never in a million years have had the guts to drop out of high school.  I hardly had the nerve to ask my dad if I could go to the church dances on the weekend.  Some kids are scared of their own shadow, timid and reserved: fearing with everything they know that moment when they are called on.  Where does that start?  Can it be controlled, channeled, changed, or is it a genetic part of our character: a code that is programmed and on line?

So what happens to a generation of people who never had to be misfits, at least not in the same way.  To be a misfit, you have to fear, you have to know that what you are doing or your way of being is simply not the social norm and will not be popular.  You accept that, and in many ways thrive on it.

Currently, that is not the general premise.  The general consensus now is that any person can be exactly any way at all they want to be, and if you are not accepted – that is the observer’s problem.  In ideology, this degree of individuality and acceptance seems ideal, Utopian even: a concept of the way things ought to be – except that it’s not.  Conformity is required in the job world.  Not being what people expect will end up on your yearly review.  And perception is the only reality, and not playing the game could lose you your career.

This status quo, this prioritized concern with the show of things – rather than the true of things – and the villianization of those who can’t get with the program… has invaded almost every aspect of our lives.  It is obvious in social norms, and in the work place.  It is obvious in the way we talk to the public, and then flip each other off in parking lots and freeways.  We are not building a kinder, better, more understanding world… we are building the puppet show of one.

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This is nowhere more obvious than in current popular music.

“I guess in most of my writing I tend to blend metaphor with the literal. I believe in my audience and I want them to find their own way in my song. The majority of Pop Country seems to simplify and spoon feed the audience. Wash, rinse, repeat. They tend to celebrate ignorance.In tune, and in time of course.  Point is…I try to write substantial lyrics that move me. Then I allow the audience to hear what they do.”

Ivan Denis is going into the studio this month to record his first full length album.  His search for which studio he would eventually choose, led to an interesting segway in our dialog.

“Every single place that I went said the exact same thing: ‘oh man, no worries, it’ll be great, we will auto-tune the imperfections and set everything up on a beat count’.  Nobody seemed to understand that I wanted the imperfections.  I wanted the live takes.  I wanted quality musicians having a quality, genuine, musical dialog.  Music performed by musicians is a conversation.  All this modern recording bullshit kills the conversation.”

Look for the album by Ivan Denis this Fall recorded at Landmark Sound Recorders.  ( Linda Ronstadt’s people know what’s legit!)

I guess what I am trying to say, and what I drove to Tucson thinking about, was something happened in my life to turn that switch.  Something happened to make me willing to throw everything into living.  Finally enough years of careful planning, and ultimate failure of those plans, had shown that planning is not living.  Doing is.


I spent so many years… too many years simply waiting for greatness.  I just figured, in my infinite naivete, well, I’m brilliant… I just have to wait for people to realize it and find me.  But – why would they?  How would they?  And all of that planning, all of that dreaming, led to decades of living a life that was only defined by what might happen in the future… and doing close to nothing to achieve it.

“When you get stuck that’s when you reach. It’s when you rise. You can’t just learn to be okay with being stuck. It’s like the love song, at least we have each other…no, no you don’t. You have stuck, and stuck ruins lives. Any body who’s ever really been depressed can tell you that’s true.”

No wonder so many of us – living our daily routines – feel like our lives are on endless repeat.


Ivan Denis told me the story of one of his songs, look for it on the upcoming release, and I once again, through conversation, art, and mutual creative respect, life became just a bit more focused.

“In Gasoline I sing about a relationship gone bust. The guy screams with regret.  He had the girl of his dreams.  She was real and tangible; only to find that his dreams betrayed him. What he thought was so right, wasn’t. There is no reasoning or reckoning. It was perfect, and perfect didn’t work. That is just how life can be. The things we need, what we want, what we treasure…The whole damn thing is fluid. We change as change changes and we try like hell to hold on!”


In a world like ours, it can take an inordinate amount of self control to just …. simply…. stop.  Look around.  Breathe.  Take it all in.  Watch birds soar, without the need to go Live on Facebook.  In a world of chaos, machinations within machinations, where nothing we want to think we have security in is really secure… it can be easy to try to lose oneself on the digital webs.  One can simply fade into the background of noise and competing headlines, and there is nothing there to really tell you that you are not as supremely special as you think you are.


You can turn the phone off.  Put down the camera.  Leave the Google Glass at home next to your Star Trek Chess Set where it belongs.  Demand purity and honesty in your music, and revel in the beauty that comes from unplanned things.  You can find something cool happening in your neck of the woods, LIVE, with other breathing, living human beings…. and just for a while… try to reconnect to a simpler time.



Keep the Greasy Side Down My Friends.


  1. Great article. I’d like to think that those of us that still cherish the simpler things can have an impact on the younger generations, and do. The retro resurgence is hopefully their way to connect to that in spite of the reality that we are living in.
    Fantastic coverage on Ivan Denis. I’m personally a big fan. Not only is he incredibly talented but very down to earth. I think that he and his wife are great examples of “real people doing real things” and an important part of the Tucson community.
    Thanks for the good read!

  2. Watching and reading, Ryan. You’re a natural, fearless, long-format writer. Anyone tries to stifle that in you, take it with a large-ass grain of salt, smile and then put them in the back of your mind until they just fade away. -Pepper

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