When country balladeer John Denver's plane went down five years ago, his death left a hole in the hearts of his fans.

By Alanna Nash
Updated October 18, 2002 at 04:00 AM EDT
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In John Denver’s mind, it was going to be a perfect weekend. First, a flying lesson in Santa Maria, Calif., in the experimental Long EZ plane the 53-year-old singer and environmentalist had just purchased, then a flight to Monterey to tee off in Pebble Beach on Sunday: ”I’m gonna play golf and then I’m gonna fly my new bird.”

But around 5:30 p.m., Oct. 12, 1997, 16 minutes into a one-hour post-golf flight, the single-engine fiberglass plane banked sharply, then plunged 500 feet into Monterey Bay. The National Transportation Safety Board determined the cause of the crash as pilot error: Denver had declined to refuel before takeoff and lost control of the plane while trying to manipulate the fuel handle to switch tanks.

The plaid-clad singer-songwriter’s death occurred amid a mild comeback from a string of disappointments he called ”the dark night of the soul.” His two marriages had ended in divorce, in 1983 and 1991. He’d been arrested twice, in 1993 and 1994, for DUI. In 1986, RCA — where he’d earned 14 gold and 8 platinum records — dropped him. And his sometime acting career (the peak of which was 1977’s Oh, God!) faltered. Yet at the time of the accident, he was touring to support two new albums, The Best of John Denver Live and All Aboard!

At the height of his career, Newsweek named him ”the most popular pop singer in America.” But the entertainer, born Henry John Deutschendorf Jr. in Roswell, N.M., was also ridiculed for the hippie-folk style that earned him seven top 10 hits, including ”Rocky Mountain High” and ”Thank God I’m a Country Boy.” ”A lot of people write him off as lightweight,” says singer Kathy Mattea. ”But he articulated a kind of optimism, and he brought acoustic music to the forefront, bridging folk, pop, and country in a fresh way…. People forget how huge he was worldwide.”

And how huge he may become again, particularly with new fans who revere his talk of world peace. ”They hold him on the same level as Jesus, Buddha, and Gandhi,” says Elizabeth Thompson, who’s making a documentary on the singer and his legacy. A play (Almost Heaven: Songs and Stories of John Denver) is just out of workshop, and Denver’s Windstar Foundation (which promotes environmental responsibility) will unveil a statue of its cofounder in Snowmass, Colo., this October.

Denver wouldn’t have been surprised. ”If you’ve been the biggest,” he said in 1991, ”it’s a very rare thing when it declines and you come back up again. But I’d be willing to bet it’s going to happen.”

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