Skip to main content

Donovan and his newfound 'treasures'

Donovan talks about the release of “Buried Treasures Volume #1,” which includes 12 tracks that have never been heard before.
Donovan. Photo by Michael Collopy: Donovan Discs 2016,

Donovan. Photo by Michael Collopy: Donovan Discs 2016,

By Mike Greenblatt

He was “Mellow Yellow,” survived “The Trip,” turned The Summer Of Love into the “Season Of The Witch,” was totally resplendent in “Colours,” borrowed the “Universal Soldier” from Buffy Sainte-Marie while trying to “Catch The Wind” by “Preachin’ Love” to “Josie” on “Sunny Goodge Street.” Ultimately, he was — and is — the “Hurdy Gurdy Man.”

Donovan is a hero of song. His lilting Scottish accent has always informed his fusion of folk, jazz, blues, rock and pop while showing the world how to be a superstar with class. The series of singles he produced with Mickie Most are among the best that the 1960s had to offer on either side of the Atlantic. Then came a less career-oriented time of introspection, meditation, music, poetry and family. Still, through it all, Donovan kept at it, chasing the muse with various degrees of success. His latter-day CDs — especially “Beat Cafe” in 2004 — provide nuggets of gorgeous and satisfying singer/songwriter glory.

The 50th anniversary of his groundbreaking “Sunshine Superman” album has culminated in an American tour starting in New York and ending in San Francisco with the Los Angeles stop on September 2 being declared “Donovan Day” in Tinsel Town.

The release of “Buried Treasures Volume #1” is also cause to celebrate, as the 12 tracks have never — ever! — been heard before. “I forgot I wrote them,” he sheepishly admits.

We caught up with the “Hurdy Gurdy Man” himself (who fronted Led Zeppelin on that 1968 single) on the eve of the trek just as he was choosing which songs to spotlight. 

The following came in two phone calls on two successive days.

Goldmine: Congratulations on 50 “Sunshine Superman” years!

Donovan: It’s pretty extraordinary to celebrate a 50th anniversary of anything, be you an artist, poet, novelist singer or dancer. It’s not only a retrospective but a time to look at a body of work, which brings up what I’ve been working for the last 10 years: some 700 old masters of old analog tapes that made their way into my studio, from two-track, four-track, eight-track all the way to 24-track. They’ve all been transferred and there will be a series coming out called “Buried Treasures.” BT1, as we’ve been calling it, is out now and will only be the first such release. Out of the 700, I found 150 of them that I forgot I even wrote until I recently rediscovered them. I used to make endless demos, but they’re not really demo quality, they’re more like studio masters. There’s going to be, the first year, 100 new releases of this material. They’ll be digital at first, with CDs to follow. The album cover will be the actual box that the analog tapes came in. It’s something for the real fan.

GM: Never ever released? All of them? Are you saying there’s 150 brand new Donovan masters that we haven’t heard and they’re all going to come out starting with the current 12-track “Buried Treasures Volume #1”? Or are they remixed songs I already know and love?

D: I assure you you’ve never heard any of them. I mean, sure, it’s possible somebody sometime someway bootlegged them but, yes, for all intents and purposes, they’re all new songs from the breadth and width of my entire career. It’s pretty extraordinary, actually. My ‘60s output has been pretty well covered but these ‘70s tracks on came as something of a windfall to me personally.

GM: And here I thought Legacy’s “Essential Donovan” was the be-all and end-all.

D: In America, that would, indeed, be a fair assessment. I also decided to record a new single, “One English Summer,” in Kingston Jamaica, under rather unusual circumstances with all reggae musicians. But I want Goldmine to have the exclusive on “Buried Treasures” because it’s just so cool and so right for your particular magazine.

GM: Why did you decide not to bring a band out on the road with you this time?

D: It worked in Europe. I sit cross-legged on my sheepskin riser between two acoustic guitars. I wanted to do these songs the way they were composed. I’ve been telling people, and I confirmed it with Jimmy Page — and other rock bands of great historical value — that all of their songs are composed on acoustic guitar. You can’t sit in your front room with stacks of amps surrounding you while you compose a song (laughs). The Beatles, Stones, Kinks, Who, Hollies, everybody! We all sat around with acoustic guitars. It was on an acoustic that I wrote “Hurdy Gurdy Man” and that Jimmy Page co-wrote “Stairway To Heaven.” People don’t realize this. So I’m coming out solo to tell stories and sing all the hits, as well as a few others.

GM: Have you picked out your final set list yet?

D: No. Certain shows will have altered set lists but I will be doing almost every hit as it was written. Y’know, my first two albums, “What’s Bin Did and What’s Bin Hid” and “Fairytale” (both 1965) are still very near and dear to me and many of my fans.

GM: Will there be an opening act?

D: I can’t have any support and still do all the songs I want to do. Many artists have asked if they can open this tour for me, but I had to turn them down because it’s difficult enough for me to get to all the songs that the fans want to hear. So the first part of the show will be 40 minutes, then a 20-minute break, then an hour to close. That way, I can get through quite a bit of songs and still tell my stories.

GM: Will you be doing your 1966 “Season Of The Witch”?

D: Yeah. There’s a story here, too. I had learned the D9 chord from (Scottish folksinger and Pentangle founder) Bert Jansch (1943-2011).I started working on the A7 and D9 chords in his London kitchen. (British singer/songwriter) John Renbourn (1944-2015) was there and took those two chords and played them for 10 hours straight! I’ll never forget it. So when I went out to Hollywood with producer Mickie Most (1938-2003), I had that on my mind and it became the famous bass line for that song, which so many bands picked up on. Jimmy Page told me that Led Zeppelin used to do it as their soundcheck before shows.

GM: How about your 1967 “There Is A Mountain” that The Allman Brothers turned into their mighty “Mountain Jam”?

D:Not sure about that one yet. I think what other artists like about my songs is that they’re simple. Plus, the tempo and rhythmic structure of a lot of them are just so much fun to play. Of course, “There Is A Mountain” had that incredible flute line by Harold McNair, a white Jamaican called Little G who’s not with us anymore. His line corresponded with another simultaneous riff to create that song’s elusive chemistry ... (starts humming it in a decidedly jazz way) ... I think that’s what The Allman Brothers must’ve picked up on because both lines go so well together at the same time. I was a drummer first, y’know. I never played drums in any band but I studied drums seriously at first, and I think that helped me tremendously in my compositions.

GM: You gotta be doing Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Universal Soldier” protest song which you popularized early on.

D: Oh yes, of course. There’s never been a more apt time for that song than now, even though it was written by her 52 years ago in 1964. When Buffy released her debut album (“It’s My Way!”), I learned every single song of hers. I was in love with her music. Y’know, she was the first singer/songwriter girl. Joan Baez was still singing other people’s songs. Joni Mitchell hadn’t arrived yet.

GM: I know you’ll do “Catch The Wind.” I will never forget how you were first tagged as a Euro-Dylan after that song, in 1965, became your first American hit and it sounded so Dylanesque at the time. That scene in Dylan’s 1967 “Don’t Look Back” documentary where he comes off all snarly and rock-star-ish as you innocently strum a guitar looking so beautific and composed like the true flower child you were established some pretty clear parameters.

D: (laughs) I suppose. The people in the in-crowd knew what was happening. They knew Bobby Dylan was copying Woody Guthrie (1912-1967). I was honoring Bob by emulating him. We were the two most important folk singers who came out of the 1960s ... because we composed our own songs. Pete Seeger, too. But Bob and I wrote more songs in the folk scene than anybody, including Pete, so we were compared straightaway. Bob’s harmonica and hat were pure Woody. And if Bob came off a bit crass in that movie, well, he’s American. Americans are full of toughness. It comes out in that scene. Their drug was amphetamine. Our drug was hashish. So my contingent was more laid back than his. We did have lots of good times together, Bob and I. He was very cool with me when we were alone. In the film, he acts ornery, I know. That’s probably because the cameras were rolling. The most important moment in that film, I do believe, is when I sing a song for him called “To Sing For You” off my debut album. Folksingers tend to sing their songs for other folksingers and I was no different. He looked at me, and said, “You wrote that?” I said, “Yeah. Now sing me ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.’” He said, “You want that?” and I said “Yeah.” And he did. So we were swapping songs, a longstanding folk tradition.

Still, all the “Donovan versus Dylan” controversy at the time was good for both of us because it was pushing the fact that folk music and poetry were now going to invade the pop charts. It turned out that only Bob and I invaded the pop charts but we both had rock ’n’ roll in the wings. Bob had been listening to a lot of rock ’n’ roll. He never really listened to folk music. He loved American blues and early rock ’n’ roll so much. We used to talk about this. He wanted to make pop out of all that blues and early rock. I wanted to make pop out of all the Gaelic and Irish folk music I had always listened to. We were really very different. But that’s enough about Dylan. Next question.

GM: I doubt you’ll do “Preachin’ Love.”

D: Righto. It’s better with a band ... (starts singing it)

GM: 2016 has been a horrible year for rock star deaths. You participated in the sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll lifestyle as much as anyone else. To what do you owe your longevity?

D: Vegetarianism, meditation and finally marrying Linda (Lawrence). She was my “Sunshine Supergirl” in 1965. We’ve been looking out for each other since the early 1970s. She’s been very good for my health. Plus, although I have tried everything there is to try, I haven’t ever overdosed, got addicted or even ill. I’ve also met with my doctor quite a few times over the years and he said to me in London recently, “You don’t have to come so often.” I told him, “I’m just checking.” He maintained, “There’s nothing wrong except your blood pressure goes up when you tour but that’s normal.” I asked him, “What do other men do?” He said, “Most men don’t even check their health. Women do. Men see me only after something is already wrong.” So I’m quite healthy. I still have my hair. I’m not overweight. I basically eat vegetables, fruit and grains.

GM: What went through your mind upon being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012?

D: A lot of fans said, “It’s about time. It should have happened years ago.” I said, “No, it’s the perfect time.” It was such a great honor. I wrote a poem and read it there that night. It was the first time anyone ever accepted their honor with a poem. I think they realized it was I who initiated the psychedelic revolution with “Sunshine Superman.” I opened that door before The Beatles, Jefferson Airplane or Grateful Dead. They were all thinking about it but I did it.

GM: I always gravitated toward “Sunny Goodge Street.”

D: Ah, that, right there, was the breakthrough. That is the one! You don’t know when you’re doing it how long it’s going to take people to really see something. (Longtime friend) Gypsy Dave (Gyp Mills) and I knew exactly what we were doing. I didn’t go into music for a career in show business. I’m a poet and come from a long line of traditional street singers, philosophers and teachers. My father was a socialist who accomplished a lot of good things in his lifetime. He grew up an avid reader and he read poetry and prose to me with noble thought and a social consciousness about always helping your fellow man. He was very much a product of his Scotch and Irish forebears, and he was very much interested in what was going to happen to working men and women, and the children of the future. I think I inherited that part of him. Gypsy Dave and I used to listen for hours to The Mamas & The Papas and The Lovin’ Spoonful. We knew there were no rules anymore when it came to music or popular culture. One could do anything one wanted. We wanted to teach our generation to become responsible, maybe because most of our fathers and mothers made such a terrible mess out of everything: two world wars, the nuclear bomb and the systematic destruction of the ecosystem.

Given all that, I set about to write “Sunny Goodge Street” about the younger generation of the bohemian world, who would bring to the pop world all the thought waves of self-help, yoga, health food, freedom-of-speech, feminism, poetry, psychology, philosophy, literature, myths, legends and fairy tales, stuff that millions of young people needed to know about. And I started by writing the words “the magician he sparkles in satin and velvet/you gaze at his splendor with eyes you’ve not used yet.” I’m writing of The Third Eye here: an inner sense that can only be developed by holy plants like hashish and/or entering the inner world via meditation.

GM: Is that why you and The Beatles went to India to study with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi?

D: Yes! Exactly! I learned transcendental meditation and was quite serious about it all before I started spreading it to millions of people around the world (via “Donovan Children’s Fund,” in cooperation with filmmaker David Lynch’s Foundation to benefit at-risk U.S. students).

GM: But you took that mindset and recast it, in “Sunny Goodge Street,” to approximate Euro-hipsters “smashing into neon streets in their stillness/Smearing their eyes on the crazy Kali goddess/Listening to sounds of Mingus mellow fantastic.”

D: Yes, “violent hash smoker shook a chocolate machine.” He wasn’t violent, really, he just had the munchies, and he lost his money in the chocolate machine which wouldn’t work. But you have to understand what I myself was listening to at the time.

GM: Like who?

D: Ellington, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Miles, Jelly Roll Morton, Sinatra, Gene Krupa, Billie Holiday, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Buddy Holly and The Everly Brothers. I could see what was happening within myself. I was going to fuse them all. “Sunny Goodge Street” was a big eye-opener:(recites) “On the firefly platform on sunny Goodge Street violent hash smoker shook a chocolate machine bobbed in an eating scene.” It’s a scene out of bohemia that ultimately infested – or should I say was injected — straight into the pop world.

GM: I understand you taught John Lennon how to fingerpick.

D: We took our acoustic guitars to India. Although most of our time in India was spent meditating, eating health food and chasing monkeys off the kitchen table at breakfast, after meditation we would retreat to chat with our teacher, Maharishi (Mahesh Yogi), and gather on the balcony of the bungalow deep in the Ganges with the jungle below and, invariably, we would break out the guitars.

Ringo said to me once about John, “He never stops playing. When he wakes up, he picks up the guitar. You could never take it out of his hands all day. He’s constantly playing all the time.” But so were they. Paul and George had brought their Martins. George also brought tablas for Ringo but Ringo really wasn’t too keen on tabla (laughs.) He didn’t get excited about it at all. But what was exciting was the night just Paul, John and myself were sitting around with our guitars in the ashram singing silly songs. I was picking really fast through the songs clawhammer-style. I was playing a particular descending pattern called the “A-Minor Descent,” which is a very unique and very important chord structure for flamenco, jazz, Latin, blues and classical. It’s influenced so many songs. It really is an extraordinary set of chords.

John: How do you do that?

Donovan: Do what?

John: That! That finger-picking thing.

Well, I had to ask myself. Don’t forget I was barely 22 at the time. I had already been playing it for so long that I forgot how I learned it. I didn’t know how to tell him.

Donovan: Well, it’s a pattern.

John: Can you teach me?

Donovan: I guess. It’s moving so fast but I’ll slow it down for you. And I’ll try to remember when I was taught. It might take some time, John.

John: I’ve got time. We’re here in the jungle.

So I started. I gave him the claw-hammer, which, of course, comes from The Carter Family in 1920s rural America. They took four-string banjo picking and adapted it to six-string guitar.

Donovan: This is how it works, John. Look! You put your thumb on the fifth string. You put your third finger on the second string. You pool them together. That’s the first movement.

John was a good student. We continued to learn and what took me three days took him two. At first, he was frustrated but, y’know, after awhile, the brain tells you how. It took five sessions. So then he started really moving through the chords and doing the “A-Minor Descent.” Meanwhile, Paul got bored and started walking around with his guitar slung around his neck.

John: C’mon Paul! Listen to this. This is great! Come and learn this.

Well, he couldn’t. Paul is left-handed. It was too difficult for me to show it to someone who was left-handed. But Paul is very, very smart. Plus, he has such great ears. He wound up picking it up just listening. In fact, he did it in a very unusual method. Soon John was writing “Dear Prudence.” Shortly after that, Paul wrote “Blackbird.” Then George got interested. He didn’t want to learn this kind of picking. He had learned a different style, the Chet Atkins style out of Nashville, where you hold the flat pick between your thumb and first finger, then you use the other fingers to take some melody out of the chords. He was quite happy doing it that way. George, though, was quite fascinated with my new chord structures. And I encouraged George because he was just beginning to write songs, y’know? He deferred to John and Paul so much. And I did wind up giving to him this very secret descending pattern (laughs). He wound up writing “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” John, after he finished “Dear Prudence,” wrote “Crippled Inside” with that kind of guitar picking. But the one that was most touching to me was the one he wrote after that. It was a song about his mother “Julia.” That was most interesting. I probably wrote a couple of lines of “Julia.”

GM: You co-wrote “Julia”? You never got credit for that!

D: Forget credit. It doesn’t matter. Songwriters always help each other. He wanted to write a song about the childhood with his mother that he never had because he was brought up by his aunt. So he was creating a magical land on a beach with his mother as a little boy, which, of course, never really happened. But he needed to connect with his mother so he wrote that beautiful “Julia.” His guitar picking on “Julia” was amazing. Extraordinary, really.

John: How do I describe this?

Donovan: Sea shells and sand and sea-shell eyes.

Yes, I think sea-shell eyes was mine. I threw that in. Later, in an out-take from the Beatles “Anthology,” the four of them are sitting there talking about the white album when George says, “Wait a minute, guys. Donovan is all over the White Album!” And it was true. What I did was, and I didn’t realize it at the time, was take them back to the roots. They were playing like this when they played in a skiffle band. That was a wonderful experience, sharing that with John.

GM: Lennon lost faith in the Maharishi, leaving abruptly and calling him a fraud. Did you stick it out?

D: In psychotherapy, there’s this thing called “projection,” of which meditation is the deepest form. When you go inside, so to speak, and the teacher gives you the mantra, you’re going to find a lot of problems within that you haven’t faced: difficulties in your childhood and even, some say, difficulties in your previous lives. At first, you feel wondrous that the teacher uncovered such layers. This happened, by the way, to Sigmund Freud in New York. Before we went to India, we studied the books. But what the books don’t tell you is that way down deep inside, you start to release a lot of tension, created by psychosis and stress that you forgot about and tucked away. After your initial feeling of wonder, you project this stress on to the teacher and wind up blaming the teacher! In my view, this is what happened to John. He was projecting on to Maharishi his own difficulties. I think John understood this after awhile. You can’t blame anybody for anything. This was a pure form of meditation we were learning. All those contrivances aside, he apologized later.

GM: Is it true you were supposed to perform at the Monterey Pop Festival but couldn’t get into the country because you were the first of many pop stars to be busted for pot by the infamous narc cop Norman Pilcher?

D: (laughs) I was the target because “Sunshine Superman” was the album that led the way to open up the possibilities to seeing that problems originated on the inside. My role as a poet, always, was to encourage a deeper understanding of our inner consciousness. Poets, artists, musicians and those in the creative pop world didn’t have meditation in the West in the early ‘60s. We were using the time-honored tradition of holy plants. Not only has the plant kingdom taught us and fed us – without plants we couldn’t exist — but some of the plants are so incredibly powerful, they can open up your inner world. Hashish, marijuana and, of course, the great power plant, Magic Mushrooms, have been used for thousands of years. They say that the plant kingdom created religion, really. With certain plants, you enter a deeper consciousness inside yourself. So we were all smoking hash, really. It was just part of the scene.

On the “Fairytale” album, I mention this. As soon as it became clear that I was the one announcing — not that everyone should get high — but that a new form of consciousness was about to arise for young people who needed it, I was targeted. Jazz and blues musicians long before us gravitated toward ganja. A whole new alternative way of looking at life was what I was singing about: not alcohol, not tobacco, not meat, but a whole new understanding of what was going on.

So, yes, to answer your question, I got busted first and couldn’t play Monterey. George (Harrison) called straightaway because the newspapers reported that morning that Donovan jumped naked onto the back of a policeman after an orgy. The truth was, when they arrived, they broke in, busted me, smashed up the whole place, and I just happened to be naked when I jumped out of bed. I had no hashish. We had smoked it all the night previous. So they brought their own and planted it on us. After I got dressed, and they also busted my manager downstairs, I was told they “found” two ounces of the best Lebanese yellow hashish. We’d never seen such hash! Where did they get that stuff? We had tried to buy that stuff but could never buy it!

GM: That same guy, Pilcher, went on to bust The Beatles and the Stones.

D: He was collecting busts like memorabilia. So, anyway, that morning, when George called, he asked me if I was alright after reading what the newspapers reported. He offered to give me 10,000 pounds. I didn’t need the money so I turned him down. Down at the cop shop, at 4:00 in the morning, I was fingerprinted. That’s when Pilcher looked at me and said, “Y’know, it’s just my job. Can I have your autograph for my daughter?” George asked me what I was going to do. The paparazzi were all over the place like cockroaches. The cameras were all in our face in the street. I told George, “We’re going to Scotland until this all blows over.” George just said, “It’ll never blow over, Don. We’ll be next.”

And they were.

So it really wasn’t about drugs. It was about what we were singing about. The British people were concerned. They’re always concerned. Our music represented freedom of speech. It had already happened: the bohemian invasion of popular culture. By the way, Pilcher himself was busted in 1970. He went to jail for planting drugs on people.

GM: Do you regret your 1970 split with producer Mickie Most? You two were a commercial and artistic juggernaut with hit after hit. Upon the split, the hits dried up almost immediately.

D:I never joined this mission to be successful or make a career out of it. It wasn’t a job. I needed hit singles in the ‘60s. But, no, I didn’t miss them. Mickie and I never really had a falling out. The times had changed. It didn’t matter anymore to have a hot single on the charts every week of my life.

At the time, though, I was, indeed, looking for a hot producer who knew the pop sound and what would work. I wanted to fuse Buddy Holly, the new recording techniques, jazz, blues, folk, ragas, Japanese and Gaelic musics, poetry and drama. The Beatles felt the same way. We used to talk about it. We wanted to do everything! The Stones ran out of hit singles, too. As the ‘70s progressed, everything seemed to be repetition. It would have been wrong for me to try to continue on with hit singles. My 1970s material will all be re-released soon. I think what you’ll find is that, as my wife Linda said, the subjects on those albums in ’72, ’73, ’74 and ’75 are just being understood now, as to what they were about. Fame is not what we were looking for in ’76. We had already did it in ’69. Gypsy Dave and I had succeeded in bringing the bohemian manifesto into popular culture. Therefore, every band in the U.S. and Great Britain was now inviting us to their parties. Graham Nash was especially nice. I introduced him, too, to the guitar stylings we were talking about.

GM: Tell me of Brian Jones. You knew him intimately. Linda was his girlfriend once, yet you raised his son as your own.

D: Brian always reminded me of Bert Jansch, a similar character who influenced everybody, who I spoke about to you. Both Brian and Bert were like burning comets with talent so blazing, they were bound to burn out. Brian invented The Rolling Stones, no matter what Mick and Keith say. He was studying jazz, blues, folk and classical when Mick and Keith were still schoolboys. In a way, Brian kind of created the charismatic British rock star. He was the first. But like Jansch, Joplin, Morrison, Hendrix, Moon …they were comets. Nobody before or since has drummed like Keith Moon. In the inner circle, everybody knows what Brian did. That he played so many instruments was very telling of the talent of this man … but he was more than that. He was a visionary. He knew it had to be theatrical. He knew about bohemia and he knew all about jazz. This is why he loved Charlie Watts so much. Charlie’s a jazz drummer. Just like all of my drummers have been jazz drummers. Brian played jazz saxophone. He played all the instruments really. But you’re not to worry about Brian’s place in history. The old blues legends all loved the fact that Brian brought the slide guitar back into play. Howlin’ Wolf especially. GM

Donovan invites all to his website.