By Mike Greenblatt
From his folk-song beginnings to his role as an international hippie cultural leader whose 1966 album “Sunshine Superman” opened the psychedelic doors forever, Donovan Philips Leitch has charmed audiences and his peers as a distinctive voice amid the noise. A cerebral, jazzy iconoclast who could rock and roll with the best of them, Donovan fronted what would become Led Zeppelin (“Hurdy-Gurdy Man”) and The Jeff Beck Group (“Barabajagal”) on those two classic sides. He incorporated different genres as often as he changed his socks. And he never, ever, strayed from bringing his everlasting message of peace and love to the fore.
Born May 10, 1946, in Glasgow, Scotland, Donovan hit London running as a teenager with a handful of songs, a unique finger-picking guitar style and a voice that could melt ice. His influence over a generation (or three) of musicians is enormous. This includes his friends, The Beatles, to whom he taught his acoustic guitar styles. Considering himself part of a long line of bards dating back hundreds of years whose words, melodies and chords have the power to heal, Donovan has stayed true to this singular aesthetic, whether topping the pop charts in America and selling millions of records or stepping back, as he did for many years.
Nominated but not elected into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame last year (see Goldmine’s Spring Special 2011 for “The Case For Donovan”), Leitch was “pleased as punch” to get the nod this time around.
“It’s a singular honor,” he says, “to be recognized by one’s peers and by the media writers and producers of music. It’s the top recognition of one’s work!”
Donovan’s 2004 “Beat Café” album pays tribute to the generation before his, whose musicians helped to inspire him. In 2005, a beautiful four-disc box set in purple felt (“Try For The Sun: The Journey of Donovan”) successfully captured his aura. His autobiography, “The Hurdy-Gurdy Man,” was published by Arrow in 2006. A feature-length documentary film, “Sunshine Superman: The Journey Of Donovan,” came out in 2008. He recently culminated a 40-year passion for Transcendental Meditation by heading up the musical wing of The David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness-Based Education And World Peace.
And, oh yeah, he’s writing again.
In an interview from the Bahamas, Donovan was expansive, articulate, humorous, entertaining and erudite as we went over his career.
Goldmine: When you think back on your entire career, do you think of it all as different eras?
Donovan: I guess you could think of it like that. I look at it as genres of style. There’s the black and white period of 1964-1965, which is “folk,” but not really. There’s a burst of color and energy in 1966 with “Sunshine Superman.” That’s quite a big era where came the fusions, the experiments. It became very clear then I wasn’t just listening to British, Irish and Scottish folk music. I’d been absorbing everything, including my father’s record collection. Between the jazz, world music, classical, flamenco, Indian music and Japanese music, I was like a sponge soaking it all in, and it all burst out in ’66. Meeting (wife) Linda again in the late ‘60s resulted in “Cosmic Wheels” .
GM: “Sunshine Superman,” in 1966, heralded a whole new era not just for you, but for music and culture in general, although it was not recognized as such upon release.
DL: One sees in hindsight a lot of things. At the time, Gypsy Dave and I knew we had something. It was The Grand Experiment, after all. I certainly didn’t know as I created it in 1965 that I was opening a door. But history shows it was kind of a herald, ringing a bell, saying, “You can go anywhere now.” The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame cited that album in my first nomination last year as “igniting the psychedelic revolution.”
To me, it was more of a spiritual thing, a meditation on all the subjects of the bohemian world. In America, they called it the underground. All the important singer-songwriters came from this world where art, music, poetry, philosophy, spirituality, photography and cinema converge. As a young man, I sat with an older man and went through his record collection. Dylan did the same when he came out of Duluth, Minn. It was a learning process. I realized early on that these ideas had to go to the masses, and that was via pop music. There were people at the time in the folk and jazz worlds that thought this wisdom should be kept to themselves, that the masses were ignorant, unschooled and insensitive. That was completely the wrong idea, from my point of view.
I was brought up by a Socialist Union father who read poetry to me from the 1700s. Poets have always been speaking, reading, writing, promoting the new age of the world where the class system isn’t so important. I was put down by the folk world for taking this into pop. They thought pop was rubbish. I knew differently. Pop music was the portal to the world via a small plastic round cheap disc that millions of kids born after the second World War who had money in their pockets would all covet. Through that simple little disc, ideas could enter into the masses. I felt, and still feel, as a poet, one in a long line of poets, in service to those masses to bring meaningful lyrics to the people. It’s a glorious tradition, and I’ve always felt proud to be part of it.
Of course, the pop charts were filled with love songs and dance songs, yet here was a chance — and they called it a marriage of folk music and rock — that fascinated me. If you took these songs to the popular mass culture, the young people who usually only read cereal boxes at breakfast, I could turn them on. The Beatles were quite aware of the bohemian tradition, as well. We talked a lot about that when we met and became fast friends, real pals. So bringing this stuff to the pop world wasn’t what Joan Baez and Bob Dylan were doing at all! And when the pop world got it, they called it folk rock. Soon, all these lyrics were flooding the market, from Joni Mitchell to Neil Young. Here in England, Pete Townshend, too, was dealing with this social issue that led to a spiritual awakening — including meditation — within pop.
GM: How much did you take from the generation just before yours: The Beats … Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs?
DL: They were all very influential, yes. There was only Christopher Logue here in Great Britain, and Dylan Thomas, of course, a Welsh poet, who had great influence over John Lennon. The other British poets had roots in the Victorian and Georgian Age, so it was mostly Logue, Thomas and W.H. Auden. I mostly looked toward America: Woody Guthrie and Jack Kerouac. They both traveled on the road, and I had always been fascinated with that, because my father read me traveling poems by Robert William Service. He traveled to the Yukon and was in the first World War. So although I looked toward the Beats,
I also went further back in time. Sure, I read such poets as Michael McClure, Kenneth Rexroth, William Carlos Williams, e.e. cummings, all those guys. I was reading like crazy! The curious thing is that the beat poets thought they would bring back poetry to the masses via jazz, because jazz was the African-American invention, new and exciting, but the problem was, even though Kerouac would be typing to jazz records and making jazz rhythms on his typewriter, these were improvisational things. With the tradition of folk ballad music, one could bring in the new words, as I did, as Dylan ultimately did, and as Leonard Cohen did.
GM: What reached me as an American teenager in hearing all your stuff for the first time was the wide disparity, the eclectic vision, that enabled you to oh-so-soulfully sing such a beautiful love song as “Lalena,” before turning around to change a W.B. Yeats poem into “The Song Of The Wandering Aengus,” then make delicious pop confections like the total ear candy of “Riki Tiki Tavi” and “Clara Clairvoyant.”
DL: That pop sense came from listening to The Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly. Then, when I was introduced to (producer) Mickey Most, he was the most dynamic and brought in arranger John Cameron. The change between all the different genres we attempted was so easy and natural for me. I felt it upon writing “Wear Your Love Like Heaven” or “The Land Of Doesn’t Have To Be.” I would hear these sounds, and I think that one of the secrets was I had a lot of jazz players surrounding me a lot of the time. You put them on rock/pop records, and you’ve got something different. The British studios back then were strong in jazz and classical, thus a lot of the pop music was actually recorded by session professionals schooled in such.
GM: So many of your songs have turned into generational anthems. They’ve not only stood the test of time, but today sound just as vital, new and forward-thinking as when they were first recorded: songs like “Season Of The Witch,” “Sunny Goodge Street,” “Catch The Wind,” “Happiness Runs,” “Sunny South Kensington,” “To Susan On The West Coast Waiting,” “Atlantis,” even your great take on “Stealin’,” a live track, stands up today.
DL: Ah, yes. That old jug-band blues! I share the love of that kind of music with my friend John Sebastian of The Lovin’ Spoonful, and, of course, Jim Kweskin.
GM: It’s all in that voice of yours! You traversed the genres with consummate ease. Listening to your voice while you finger-picked an acoustic or had those high-flying flutes behind you was to be bathed in honey.
DL: It’s all in the tradition of the bard, the poet, and I felt it very strongly early on. As I grew older, I realized I was using skills I had borrowed from hundreds of years ago and they still worked: the legend of the story-teller, the local poet, the man with the guitar. And I was an instrument, my voice an instrument, with unique words and thoughts to impart, and the certain way I imparted them. The more I studied, the more I realized that in ancient Greece and beyond, there were schools of poetry, poetry in the Greek sense encompassed music and dance, as well. So the ancient poets sang, and there were schools with no books — oral teachings memorized, universities of poetry, up until about the 1700s. There were two I know of, one in Scotland and one in Ireland.
One would go to these schools for 21 years to study the forms of poetry and have the power to move people. We are called doctors of poetry. Also, on a deeper level, it was a healing art. Music has the power to heal, so it was very interesting to me when I received my Order of the Officer of Arts and Letters in France. Maybe this was the old way of saying that there is a skill here that has been learned and has been passed on and that I’m a part of. It’s a wonderful thing, and I take it seriously.
GM: And going forward?
DL: Ah! Well, it’s mad! I’ve started working with an archivist, Beth Hannant. Who would have even thought I’d have an archive one day? I don’t know how Linda and I gathered up all this stuff. I told her to have a go at it. So she put it all together, stopped, had some kids, came back, and so, for the last 10 years, there’s been a gathering of what in poetry would be called “The Complete Works.” Later this year, there will be a giant archive to be released of stuff that nobody has ever heard. There’s 400 tapes we’ve gone through. I’ve been discovering songs I forgot I even wrote. There’s studio recordings I forgot I even recorded.
Plus, I’ve been writing. I go in spurts. I’ve always had to be inspired to write. They say “the muse” inspires the poet. It’s not like I write a song every day. But I get bursts where I put songs down — guitar and vocal — before building them up a bit. Really, though, catching up with all the stuff that’s already been done has been a daunting task, but it looks like this year it will finally be complete. Painters do it. Painters gather their works and put them all together, as will I. I want this “Donovan Collection” intact to be passed on to future audiences. It’s looking more and more like it can become a study: music, poetry, lyrics, art, photography, video, print articles, my autobiography, a cinematic documentary. Lyrics describe the trouble mankind has been going through in the 20th and 21st centuries. I want students to not only enjoy the music and the fun and the laughter but to understand wholly what my generation brought to the world: a focus of the difficulties living on the planet and how we wish to save this planet, and what tools are available to do so.
But that’s not the end. There’s new things in the works, too — some acoustic, some with instrumentation. And, yes, I will be performing more in the coming year. I did last year on June 3 perform the complete “Sunshine Superman” album at The Royal Albert Hall. We celebrated the anniversary of that album and also of Linda and I. We hope to repeat that celebration in America with five performances in major cities after the summer, in an orchestral way. I would also very much like to perform solo again. There’s a part of me that enjoys that most of all. The more instrumental shows will incorporate a chamber orchestra, lots of flute and added percussion. I’m returning to the live field very slowly and very carefully. There’s an event at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles I’m very excited about, as well as an appearance on Conan O’Brien’s show. The Guitar Center in L.A. wants me to put my hands in concrete next to Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck and Bo Diddley. It’s most wonderful to me because, truthfully, I didn’t know what I was doing half the time when I first started playing guitar to accompany my songs, yet I wound up teaching The Beatles some (fingerpicking) styles. I’ll be in Cleveland in April, then New York City, because Sony will be putting out another Essentials collection.
Hey, I know you’ve been a great champion of my music over the years, and I just wanted to thank you. I love the magazine and it’s really cool to be able to have such a magazine as Goldmine on the planet.