John Denver: The Beloved Uncool

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JOHN DENVER is dead at 53 after his single-engined plane plummeted into the Pacific Ocean near Salinas, California on Sunday. The cause of the crash, so far, is a mystery. But the tragic demise of a one-of-a-kind musician begs a semi-serious cultural question: Why was John Denver never revived by retro-chic?

Well, not all of the '70s came back. Funk, polyester, and Pam Grier are back. Even the Village People are hip again. Ski sweaters and Denver's never-raucous blend of country, folk and white-bread pop simply have not received their due.

But then Denver was never really hip. The multimillion-selling career that began with his penning of "Leaving on a Jet Plane" for Peter, Paul and Mary and crested with "Rocky Mountain High," "Sunshine on My Shoulders" and "Take Me Home, Country Roads" was never the messianic scamper of a rock star. His fans were many but silent; Denver was a star in the way that "Walker, Texas Ranger" is a top-20 hit these days: through the power of the uncool masses.

John Denver was treasured by the boomer generation. They put him alongside George Burns in "Oh God" and they tried to hook their kids, with some success, on "Annie's Song." The LP "John Denver's Greatest Hits" has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide, and is still selling. By all accounts, Henry John Deutschendorf Jr., son of an Air Force pilot, was in life what he was on stage: a lovable hippie environmentalist who sang from the heart and thanked God he was a country boy. And you can bet that whether Denver was cool or not, sales of those "Greatest Hits" will be plenty brisk this week.