By Mike Greenblatt
Donovan Leitch, born Glasgow, Scotland, 1946, raised in Hatfield, England, from age 10 on, is in the 47th year of his world-class career. His songs have been covered by Joan Baez, The Animals, The Allman Brothers, Judy Collins, Hole, Al Kooper, Jefferson Airplane, Kate Bush, Claudine Longet, Marianne Faithfull, the Pharcyde and many others.
At first, he was a Brit equivalent of Bob Dylan, both men with deep Woody Guthrie affectations. While Bob wrote that the answer was blowing in the wind, Donovan wrote that the answer (to love) was like trying to catch the wind. With that one moment in time, highlighted by a 1965 meeting of the minds in Donovan’s hotel suite, wherein he hosts Dylan and his entourage (captured on film in the documentary “Don’t Look Back”), the two represented the twin poles of youthful protest. This first powerful chapter of Donovan’s eclectic musical journey deeply emblazoned such profundities as “Josie,” “Colours,” “Codine” and “Universal Soldier” (the last two by Buffy Sainte-Marie) on an impressionable generation’s brain. It was folk music, all right, just a man and his guitar, but with an exotic tinge, a mysterious oeuvre, a deeply satisfying, slightly accented voice that instantly denoted a modicum of class. It’s all contained on the ’65 debut, “What’s Bin Did And What’s Bin Hid.”
By the time of his second album, “Fairytale,” Donovan was hard charging through preconceptions going from “Hey Gyp (Dig The Slowness),” with its Bo Diddley beat and ornery blues-harp, to the psychedelic and jazzy “Sunny Goodge Street.” The next year, album No. 3, “Sunshine Superman,” made him an international star. Released in the U.S. in September 1966 — nearly nine months before The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” — its range was spectacular, its scope universal, its sound trippy, the perfect album for the times. The dude had balls, even going so far as to write “The Fat Angel” about Mama Cass. Even today, “Sunshine Superman” stands the test of time as one of the great ’60s rock ’n’ roll albums to come out of England.
When “Mellow Yellow” came out, the generation was stoned out enough to think a line in the title track—“electrical banana is bound to be the very next phase”—was about the hallucinatory effects of smoking banana peels! Such was the effect this soft-spoken otherworldly pop star from across the ocean was having on American kids. Yes, I admit it, this reporter scraped off the inside of a banana peel, rolled it and smoked it. (It didn’t work.) Decades later, I had the opportunity to ask the man himself what that phrase meant and he told me, “It was from the back of a sex magazine. I saw this ad for a vibrating dildo. It had nothing to do with drugs.” Still, the track was mesmerizing. Arranged by John Paul Jones, who would go on to play bass in Led Zeppelin, and with Paul McCartney on background vocals, it would become the ubiquitous soundtrack of our times. You couldn’t escape it. On the live version, Donovan sings, “I’m just mad about 14-year-old girls/They’re just mad about me.” My, how times have changed.
In 1968, horrified by how drugs and violence were creeping into the utopian hippie aesthetic, Donovan released “A Gift From A Flower To A Garden,” a double-album of pure poetry, children’s verse, a look back to his folkie days and the hit “Wear Your Love Like Heaven.” It was as if he was stepping back from the escalating madness, and he battled Clive Davis long and loud over its packaging. Ultimately, they reached a consensus wherein Donovan’s lavish box format (which George Harrison would use so effectively on “All Things Must Pass”) would be pared down to a reasonable facsimile thereof.
Touring long and all over the world, Donovan’s late ’60s shows were happenings of the most transcendently beautiful proportions. No stranger to the art of theatrics, these concerts transported audiences to another universe, with the sights, smells, sounds and ambiance that glittered with otherworldly accoutrements. They were era-defining events. And Donovan, with his long, flowing robes and dramatic entrances, was the Pied Piper.
As a 17-year-old greedily gobbling up 1968’s eccentric and eclectic soundscapes, Donovan, to me, was right up there with whatever was coming from across the pond, and that included the twin Beatles/Stones divinity. Donovan had written “Hurdy Gurdy Man” about the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (with whom he studied in India with members of The Beatles and The Beach Boys, plus Mia Farrow and few other wisdom-seekers) with Jimi Hendrix in mind, but producer Mickie Most put his foot down, demanding the composer record it himself. I’ll never forget the first time I heard it, not realizing it was Donovan fronting Led Zeppelin: guitarist Page, drummer Bonham, bassist Jones. My friends and I marveled at how this music was actually created specifically to be heard while stoned. Smoke a joint and stick your head between two cheap Sears speakers, and worlds were revealed! (We would take turns doing so over and over to this song.) A year later, the same thing happened with “Barabajagal.” Once again, we had no idea that it was Donovan fronting The Jeff Back Group: guitarist Beck, bassist Ron Wood, pianist Nicky Hopkins, drummer Tony Newman, back-up singer Suzi Quatro. It was hard, crazy, undeniable and undefinable music, and our parents thought we were nuts to listen to it. That, right there, is a key component of rock ’n’ roll’s allure.
There are those who say that the ideals of the 1960s died when Phil Ochs went crazy and became homeless in the mid-’70s. I prefer to think it’s when Donovan ceased to be a commercial force. Time passes every artist by eventually but for those of us for whom Donovan was a hero, he never stopped making great records. “Riki Tiki Tavi” was especially irresistible, delicious, intoxicating and only grew better and better after dozens and dozens of listenings. The pop world may have moved on to punk, glam, metal, rap and grunge, but Donovan, completely unfazed by any trend whatsoever, continued to make beautiful and stirring music on albums released in ’70, ’71, ’73, ’75 and ’76, plus he continued to tour and be treated like royalty by his international following. One ’70s gem among many was his reworking of the old jug-band song from the 1920s, “Stealin’,” which he made his own and which still stands supreme today, with its lazy shuffling gait and its clarinet/viola beauty.
The concerts stopped in the ’80s. It would be mostly a silent decade. Then, a new generation started listening again due to the Epic/Legacy 1992 release of “Troubadour: The Definitive Collection 1964-1976.” The two-disc set successfully captured the magic and the range of artistry of Donovan, making the power that he had over a generation come alive again. Four years later, there came his first all-new album in over two decades, the Rick Rubin-produced “Sutras,” a stunningly beautiful return to form.
“Beat Café” in 2004 celebrated Donovan’s long-ago and far-away influences of the 1950s beat generation of poets, jazz artists and novelists. A self-titled boxed set in 2005, complete with purple felt cover, had it all (almost). In listening to all those decades of music, one can finally appreciate the trajectory and magnificent sweep of this man’s vision. “The Autobiography of Donovan: Hurdy Gurdy Man” came out that year, and a documentary film, “Sunshine Superman: The Journey of Donovan,” came out in 2008.
The awards, the accolades, the respect, and the influence that Donovan has exerted over the generations that followed him have been mounting ever since. A 2006 tour (with Rat Scabies of The Damned on drums) preceded concerts at The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., Alice Tully Hall in New York and The Kodak Theater in L.A. (filmed for a concert movie). His involvement with filmmaker David Lynch in a foundation for “Consciousness-Based Education and World Peace” is but an extension of his earliest messages. In 2007, Donovan performed two shows at the prestigious South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas, and the Kodak gig was released as “The Donovan Concert: Live in L.A.” In 2009, he was honored as a “BMI Icon” as a songwriter who has bestowed “a unique and indelible influence on generations of music makers.” Previous winners include Peter Gabriel, Ray Davies, Van Morrison, Bee Gees, Isaac Hayes, Dolly Parton, James Brown and Paul Simon.
Along with The Beatles, Donovan defined part of what living through the 1960s as a teenager was all about. It was a heady time filled with experimentation, discovery and musical epiphanies. As a generation’s spokesperson whose music contained enough beauty, power, importance, light-heartedness and love to ensure its immortaility, Donovan belongs in The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The songs he created have ripened and grown even more profound, gorgeous and mysterious with the passage of time. And that is the true essence of genius. His next album, which he’s alluded to in interviews, should be a doozy. Gm