The hard thing these days is recalling what a mystical hold his songs once had, how they seemed to speak to the spirit in ways that few others did, and how they painted pictures of places so many people yearned to be, states of mind as much as anything, the beauty of a sunrise, the lure of country roads.

John Denver's songs carried him to a pinnacle few ever attain. He became an individual recognized around the world, whole phrases of his songs implanted in people's memories, "sunshine in my eyes makes me cry," "take me home, country roads," "you fill up my senses like a night in a forest."They were anthems of a time and a place, America in the mid-1970s, songs that were inescapable on the radio and at many ceremonies too. There was a time when a wedding could not be conducted without at least one John Denver song.

He burst on the national scene with a mop of blond hair, some granny glasses and a fresh-faced enthusiasm that often boiled over into exclamations of "far out!" Then, just as suddenly, Denver seemed to disappear. He resurfaced only in tidbits of news, an attempt to ride a Soviet spacecraft, concerts in China and Vietnam, another marriage, another divorce, two arrests for drunken driving.

"I've seen both sides," Denver said in an interview. "I knew the kind of success I had doesn't sustain itself. The huge crowds I once had aren't there and you can accept that. But it's frustrating when you go to the Soviet Union and nobody knows about it. And it's frustrating when I sing better than I ever have, and am writing songs every bit as good, and I do not even have a record deal."

What Denver, 50, does have is a new autobiography, "Take Me Home," written with Arthur Tobier. It is an intriguing memoir that often shocks, recounting much pain and sadness experienced by someone who has usually been seen as a kind of sugar-coated Boy Scout.

"People put celebrities on a pedestal, especially if they've had some positive impact on their lives," Denver says. "This should get me off anybody's pedestal - but I hope it will also help other people feel they are not alone in their troubles."

Recounted in his book is a time when Denver stepped onto a 10th-floor balcony in London with the thought that he would jump to his death. Recounted is some use of marijuana, acid and cocaine. Recounted are numerous infidelities on the road.

And recounted, as well, is a time when Denver almost choked his first wife (subject of the poignant "Annie's Song") and then took a chain saw to their kitchen table, then their dining room table, then the headboard of their bed, all in retaliation for her cutting down a stand of trees beside their house in Aspen, Colo.

Denver could easily have omitted such incidents from his book, but he did not. He remains a person who comes across as resolutely earnest, serious, open to a fault. He has been an insistent sojourner through various philosophies and creeds, taking some from swamis, some from est, some from soul travel, some from his Presbyterian upbringing, so much sampling that he sometimes questions the depth of his commitment. And he admits in his memoir to have long held "the desire to be a hero - it was woven into everything I tried to do."

That is one reason why his recent problems, especially his two drunken-driving citations, produce such pain and embarrassment. "It caused me to take a real hard look at my life," he says. "There are certain things you do in your life with an element of risk and you have to be willing to pay the price. Hopefully, I'm learning to be more responsible."

Denver's commitment to causes has never lagged. He was born Henry John Deutschendorf Jr., grew up as a "painfully shy" son of a career Air Force officer, but he has pushed himself out front in efforts to save the environment, end hunger, promote peace - and not just spout such words or sing such songs.

Denver received the Albert Schweitzer Music Award in 1993 "for a life's work dedicated to music and devoted to humanity," an award that received far less notice than his drunken-driving arrests. That is, to Denver's mind, one more expression of this cynical age, and also why his sun-tinted music no longer is so popular, at least in America.