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PACIFIC GROVE, Calif.--With such 1970s hits as "Rocky Mountain High," "Sunshine on My Shoulders" and "Take Me Home, Country Roads," John Denver was a wholesome, wire-rimmed hippie who turned out sunny music for cynical times.
In the end, he died in a setting straight out of his music, soaring over the mountains, sea and sky before his brand-new experimental plane crashed Sunday in picturesque Monterey Bay. He was 53.
"Who I am is in my songs," Denver said in a 1986 interview. "I love it when people get that."
Peter, Paul and Mary made a hit of Denver's "Leaving on a Jet Plane" in 1969, and yesterday, member Mary Travers mourned him as man who offered an alternative to angry rock and helped bind the wounds of tumultuous times.
"I think he brought a sense of optimism, a sort of naivete we were thrilled to have after Vietnam, after Watergate, after the rising tide of cynicism of the 1970s," she said. "He was talking about how beautiful it was in the mountains, saying, "There is another side to it all.'"
Denver's single-engine Y-shaped plane crashed Sunday afternoon in the choppy waters just offshore. His body was badly mangled, and his identity was confirmed yesterday with fingerprints sent from Colorado.
National Transportation Safety Board spokesperson George Peterson said Denver had just bought the plane and had performed three practice touch-and-go landings at the Monterey Peninsula Airport. He then told the tower he would be flying for about an hour.
"The aircraft was about 500 feet in the air, and about 100 yards off the coast itself, when the engine quit and it went straight down into the water," said Sheriff Norman Hicks. "It just sort of dove head first, straight down into the water."
The two-seater aircraft was built by Rutan Aircraft. Owner Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager in 1986 made the first non-stop, unrefueled flight around the world in an experimental plane named Voyager.
Denver had two drunken-driving arrests in Colorado and was awaiting trial on one of those charges in January. Hicks said toxicology reports are done routinely in accidental deaths, and results are expected in 10 to 14 days.
Jerry Weintraub, the singer's friend and longtime manager, said Denver had a passion for flying. Denver's father was an Air Force test pilot and taught his son to fly a Learjet, Weintraub said.
"He was a huge force in the music industry in the 1970s," Weintraub said. "I think the music and all his passion for environmental causes will be remembered most."
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