Thoughts on the Life and Death of John Denver

As you can see, this is not a song, but an essay, which eventually led to a song (In Memoriam: John Denver). Of the many musical “role models” I have had over the years, from Bob Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel, in the ’60’s, to Garth Brooks, in the ’90’s, probably no other singer or songwriter has influenced me more than John Denver has, as you can probably tell from some of the songs that I’ve written. It was a great shock to me, and a very sad occasion, when his plane crashed on October 12, 1997, particularly since I had had the good fortune (much luckier, in fact, than I could have known at the time) to have heard him give a live performance with the Houston Symphony just two weeks earlier. The following is the essay that I wrote for the “Rocky Mountain High” e-mail list — an internet group of John Denver followers — on October 15, 1997:

I did not hear about John Denver’s plane crash until Monday night (October 13), when my wife, Sallie, and I arrived back home from a 4-day backpacking trip in the Golden Trout Wilderness. I first heard about it when I checked our telephone messages– one of them was from Sallie’s mother, who had gone with us to see his performance with the Houston Symphony just 2 weeks earlier. She had recognized one of his songs being broadcast on CNN, earlier on Monday, stopped to listen to the story, and was calling us to tell us how sorry she was to hear it. I was stunned by the news, especially after seeing him so alive just two weeks before that, and I started looking for more information. The first place I found any was when I checked my e-mail, and started reading the flood of messages coming in on the “Rocky Mountain High” mailing list — more people than I even knew were on this list, pouring out their feelings about how much John Denver meant to them. For a while, it was all too overwhelming — I couldn’t think of much except disbelief, and grief, for several hours. Later on that night, though, when I was lying in bed, I started thinking about my own parallel experience: on Sunday, the same day that John’s plane crashed, Sallie and I had found ourselves in a life-threatening situation of our own, just as suddenly and unexpectedly. We were camped near the North Fork of the Kern River, and had decided to cross it to explore a trail on the far side. We started across what appeared to be a shallow-enough crossing point, only to discover that the river was much swifter, stronger, and colder, and the rocks on the bottom much more slippery and treacherous, than they had appeared to be. Before we were able to turn back, the current had knocked us off our feet, and we found ourselves holding onto the rocks on the bottom with all our strength to keep from being swept downstream. If we had not been able to hold on, we could have been seriously injured, or even killed. Fortunately, we were finally able to scramble back to dry land, where we just collapsed for a while — soaked, frozen, battered, and shaking all over.

Now, what does this personal experience have to do with John Denver? Just this: almost none of us (with the obvious exception of suicides) gets to choose how we will die. What we do choose, however, is how we will live, and often the latter choice indirectly determines the former one, in ways that we are not likely to foresee. John Denver loved to fly — he told us that over and over in his songs. In some, it was just a line or two, as in “Starwood in Aspen” (“A long time to hang in the sky”), or “Looking for Space” (“I go flying, high…”). In others, it was the main theme of the song, such as “Flight” (“Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth… Put out my hand and touched the face of God”). In some, like “The Eagle and the Hawk” (“And all those who see me, and all who believe in me, share in the freedom I feel when I fly”) and “Eagles and Horses” (“Going higher and higher and faster and faster, on eagles and horses I’m flying again”), he said it through metaphor. And in songs like “Flying for Me“, memorializing the astronauts, particularly the schoolteacher, who died in the Challenger explosion, he honored the flights of others (“They gave us their light, they gave us their spirit, and all they could be: they were flying for me”). There was also the almost eerie foreshadowing (or so it seems now) in “On the Wings of a Dream“: “Yesterday I had a dream about dying, about laying to rest and then flying”. The love of flying was as much a part of his life as his love of music, and of nature — even while knowing the risks associated with flying small planes. And while, unlike the other two interests, a love of flying is one I did not share with him, I can understand it, since I have a similar love of exploring remote wilderness areas, even knowing that there are some risks associated with that, as well. John Denver might have lived longer if he had not loved flying so much, but he would not have been the same person, any more than I would be the person I am if I stayed in cities all the time; and he might not have been able to give us as much as he did in his music. To paraphrase John’s own words, we might give him this epitaph: “He was flying for us …”

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