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Donovan: The 'Sunshine Superman,' Part I

1960s psych-folk icon Donovan reflects on 40 years of music, memories and meditation.

Donovan, the folk troubadour. Photo courtesy of Donovan Collection.

“It was the early ’60s and it was fascinating. And of course, there was the hilarity and the chaos of the rock ’n’ roll world. I was a strange figure indeed to be in the center of all that.”

— Donovan

A strange figure in a little surreal setting, indeed. Forty years on, Donovan Leitch’s memories of the events that transpired four decades past remain surprisingly vivid, and for that matter, remarkably revealing.

After all, few other artists could claim such a prominent insider’s view on the changes and turbulence of that starry-eyed era as the musician who became a veritable pied piper to his young and eager audiences. Like The Beatles, with whom he developed an intimate personal bond, he represented the image and ideals of those changing times.

Donovan’s music — as manifest in a string of top-charting hits like “Catch the Wind,” “Mellow Yellow,” “Sunshine Superman” and “Wear Your Love Like Heaven,” among the many — mirrored the tangled path of that remarkable decade, transitioning from the folk music that jumpstarted its trajectory, to the indelible rock and pop classics that provided its soundtrack and ultimately to the psychedelic sounds that moved it into new and more adventurous realms. He proffered rich, resilient narratives, somehow both knowing and naïve, imbued with lush arrangements and an approach that he himself wistfully describes as “hopeful melancholy.”

Despite his ongoing output, Donovan’s popularity started to slow with the dawn of the ’70s, eventually grinding to a halt altogether in the ’80s. However, with younger artists taking renewed interest in his music during the ’90s, and his own return to prominence via the Rick Rubin-produced Sutras album in 1996, Donovan showed that his carefree, carefully crafted style was still in sync with changing times.

A 2004 release, Beatnik Café, found him returning to his bohemian roots via a salute to the writers, musicians and thinkers — Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, among them — who helped nudge the decade along a path toward cultural and social upheaval.

After celebrating the 40th anniversary of his musical beginnings in 2005 with his book, “The Autobiography of Donovan: The Hurdy Gurdy Man,” and a box-set anthology Try For The Sun, Donovan remains busier than ever.

He’s currently juggling a multitude of projects, including his work with director David Lynch’s Foundation for Consciousness-Based Education and World Peace — an outgrowth of his continuing devotion to Transcendental Meditation fostered under the tutelage of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi — and a new documentary, “Sunshine Superman: The Journey of Donovan,” a five-hour biographical film packaged on two DVDs and directed by acclaimed cinematographer Hannes Rossacher.

In addition, there’s the promise of a new double album — Donovan’s 33rd release by his own count — as well as an extensive tour, his first in recent memory.

Consequently, when he phones Goldmine from the home in Ireland that he shares with his wife Linda, to whom he’s been married a remarkable 38 years, there are plenty of topics, both past and present, that are ripe for discussion.

At age 62, he still bears a remarkable resemblance to the traveling troubadour of old, while the voice that comes through the phone line speaks with the earnest, amiable and contented tone of a man whose perspective as a philosopher and free spirit naturally informs his work as a singer and songwriter. Here is Part I of our two-part interview with Donovan.

“Sunshine Superman” is quite an extensive documentary. How long did it take to assemble?

Donovan: Six plus years (laughs). When (director) Hannes Rossacher and I met, six years ago in Vienna, I said, “2005 is coming up and basically it’s been 40 years, and I’d gotten my book together, which I released in ’05, and I was gathering the archives down in the basement of my old house here.

As I was gathering, it was becoming clear that through the old films and photos and whatnot that maybe I should be celebrating something through film, because I’d like to honor some of my old influences and talk about the journey so far. Hans would say it would be a documentary, and we’d need the artist for three weeks with a few interviews every other day, and it would be the kind of documentary that’s usually done as a portrait that’s usually seen through other people’s eyes, who are interviewed and say what a great guy or gal this was, or what a horrible person (laughs). But you very rarely see the subject.

I’m alive, so I started talking, and wherever I went in the world, he would just send his film team. So, I’d go over old ground — San Francisco, London and on, and so it wasn’t a lot of pressure to release it, but after awhile we said, “I think we should finish it soon.” He started rolling film, and I just started talking really. So, that’s how it began, and it didn’t take this length of time on purpose. It just rolled on, and we decided the end of last year we better finish it.

How did you collect all the archival footage?

Donovan: Hans went into the basement, and he started looking at the footage which I had, and he said, “Wow, you’ve got some stuff here; it’s in better shape than the Stones’!”

He had worked with the Stones and shot their tour in South America. So, I already had a lot of stuff. Of course, we needed some key stuff — the Dylan stuff, the Newport Folk Festival and the Isle of Wight footage. D.A. Pennebaker, who shot the Dylan film “Don’t Look Back,” had asked me for permission to use my footage on “Don’t Look Back” on a new DVD release. So, I said sure; we’ll just swap, you give me a little bit of the film, and I’ll give you my rights. So, that worked out. The same thing happened with Marty Lerner of the Newport Folk Festival. We kind of did a swap.

We just started finding things. I found 400 audio tapes which are now in the process of being preserved onto digital. My father had an enormous amount of print, from old rock magazines and newspapers and stuff like that. I can’t believe Linda and I carried this stuff around. It’s just been in boxes. We gathered all this stuff in various places, and now we’ve brought it all into one spot.

It must have been somewhat overwhelming trying to encapsulate a 40-plus year career.

Donovan: Well, it’s a long haul to look at, it’s true, and I had gone through it in my book up until ’94. I’d been gathering stories and anecdotes but decided only to release an autobiography up until 1970, me meeting Linda again. So, I didn’t release the story of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s in a book form, because it was just too much.

But, this film allowed us to go into those areas briefly, and it is extraordinary when one looks back (laughs) on the life one has lived. What was very pleasing, and emotionally pleasing, were the friendships I had formed, and the influences that helped me along the way. I was very moved by that.

Did you remember all these incidents and episodes when you revisited them?

Donovan: Do I remember? Yes, of course. Well, I can see it. When I was doing the book, it was the music. When I walked through St. Ives, it would be a fragrance of the countryside, and one was transported way back to those feelings.

When I look back and see myself, a young me, I recognize me, and the feelings I was feeling, the feeling of confidence and calm in front of madness (laughs) all around me, which was quite impressive if you think what was going on. But I intended to be in the center of the hurricane of folk music to begin with. I saw my intention. When I looked back, I saw the young man who wished to enter the folk world and speak of civil rights protest and looked to be a positive influence on the awareness that was growing all over the world.

It’s amazing how young you were when you started out. You were only 18 or 19 when you had your first hit records, right?

Donovan: I think we were older then (laughs). More worldly. With traveling, I started early. I started at 15 running away — or hitchhiking away — at 16 and living rough with Gypsy Dave out in the fields, and the beaches, and park benches, and old houses and graveyards.

I took a few knocks by the time I was 18 already. But yeah, it’s quite early. It’s very early to start, but I took it in my stride it would seem. I see myself dealing with it when I look back. I pretty much had it together by the time of the first record. I’d learned a lot of my skills. Looking back, I realize I must have put an enormous amount of time in between the age of 16 and 17½, learning the skills, because that first record, when I play it back now or I see myself playing in those early days, it looks like I had it all together on the guitar and the vocal even before I went in the studio. That was quite impressive!

In the ’60s it seemed everyone was in bands. You and Dylan were among the very few solo artists. Did you ever have any desire to put a group together?

Donovan: No, I saw the difficulties of bands. I mean, I’m not a band, so I can’t break up (laughs), and that was handy. Solo was what I was. I mean I played drums at first — I played a bit of jazz, and for that you needed other people.

But, when I picked up the guitar, I said, this is portable, you can actually put this in the bag and put your thumb out on the road, and there you’d go. It was more practical with a guitar, and then, I realized the first thing I was doing differently right away, before The Beatles and the Stones. They were doing a lot of covers. On my first record, I was already writing a lot of my own stuff, so the guitar fitted well. So, I needed other instruments around me, but I never looked back and said it would have been good with a band. I’m solo as an artist, and I can work with bands when I want.

But, didn’t you miss the comraderie that the other bands seem to have?

Donovan: Oh… the comraderie. Yeah, it was great hanging out with The Beatles and it’s very true, their Liverpool humor and their friendship in those early days glued them together. But, Gypsy was my buddy. We would be talking all the time — reading the books, studying the work. Always together. Gyp was all I needed.

What caused the two of you to part ways?

Donovan: He’d had enough, and I had enough basically when we parted. He wanted to marry and get his little place together… actually, that’s what happened; he had a child. But, at the end of the ’60s, it was like, oh God, it’s done, it’s over. It wasn’t the kind of thing where I wanted to start and live this life on the road all the time. And I had done everything I could possibly do. Gypsy had had enough. It was mad. He wanted to wander around the world a little more… and he did.

Your music really is synonymous with the ’60s. Was that a reaction to those trends, or were you always ahead of the curve?

Donovan: Yeah, I kind of pioneered in a couple of places there, but I think I was part of a great movement. Every three months something amazing happened from 1965 to 1969 in the way of change. It was a renaissance decade, similar to the one in Italy, brought out of bohemia into popular culture. And each of my songs seemed to be there chronicling it as it were, yeah.

When did you decide you wanted to be more than a folk singer and make that transition to rock ’n’ roll?

Donovan: When I heard The Beatles on radio, I didn’t even know who they were really. I just heard these instruments. I said wow, there it is — acoustic guitar, harmonica — it’s going to happen, and I’m going to get involved, and, of course, I would use jazz and classical and pop and world music and poetry and every sort of music would enter that first record. It was a fusion, Sunshine Superman.

How did the traditional folkies react when you move away from more folk-oriented material?

Donovan: There were those who wanted to be traditional all the way, with the hand cupped over the ear in their turtleneck sweaters. And while they were singing the songs of protest and social change, they were very fixed in their own ways.
Ewan MacColl, the great folk laureate and songwriter, he was very down on me when I wanted to popularize folk music. It was as if it was to be preserved in alcohol (laughs) and put on a shelf somewhere. But, really, it was the music of the people. It was the music of the folk.

Did you know when you were writing and recording these songs that they would be hits?

Donovan: No, I didn’t. I was amazed when (producer) Mickie Most would sort of pick a song. Only after a few years when I would write a particular song, would I notice — gosh, there’s a chorus — this chorus is attractive.

Of course, all my songs were attractive to me. They were like they’re my children. I reckon it’s like a young painter who is learning his stuff and is trying his hand at different styles — trying [a] bit of Picasso, a bit of Matisse, a bit of DaVinci even — trying all these different ways of sketching. I could listen to a style of music and it would enter a computer part of me, and then when I’m describing an emotion or writing a line, or something is moving me, or somebody has said something… then I would pick up the guitar and the line starts moving. A style will come out, and Mickie Most would listen, and he would pick the singles. And the rest he said, you can do them as album tracks.

Your songs had a lot of very intricate and sophisticated arrangements.

Donovan: Mickie said, “It looks like you’re going to need an arranger,” because I’d say I wanted things like a harpsichord, a piano, congas, a double bass and he said, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. We’ll get an arranger, the best one I got.” John Cameron had just come down from Cambridge. John was like me. He could dip into anything.

He had such a knowledge of classical and jazz, and immediately, it was jazz musicians in the studio, no question about it. Or, it would be session guys working in London, the occasional Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones running around because they didn’t have a band at the time. And so, each song that Mickie picked wasn’t like the last one, because I couldn’t repeat.

Your first major album on CBS, Mellow Yellow, was delayed because of a lawsuit. What was that all about?

Donovan: Can you believe that? It was held up for seven months from the spring of ’66 all the way through the summer!

Why was that? Allen Klein took me off Pye Records. I was signed with one label, and he put me with CBS and immediately Pye sued, of course. In the long run, it was a good move. He put me with a major label in the States. I had been with Hickory in the States, but that’s another story.

Whose idea was it to put the strings in “Lalena?” With the exception of “Yesterday” and “As Tears Go By,” that was still a innovative new idea.

Donovan: The string quartet in “Lalena” was pretty obvious. John Cameron, when he heard the arpeggio I was playing, he said it sounds like a quartet, and I said, “Yeah, I guess it does.” It was like troubadour style, and I loved all styles, so I’d hear these things in my head, you know? So, John Cameron and Mickie Most and Donovan — that was that, we had a trio.

It seemed sort of ironic that you were this mellow sort of folk troubadour who wrote all these lush, lovely, mellow songs, and yet, you had the future members of the heaviest, loudest band in the world, Led Zeppelin, on your albums as part of the backing band.

Donovan: But they didn’t have to take the session. Jimmy said recently how he really looked forward to a Donovan session (chuckles).

Of course, they were relatively anonymous on those sessions. Your teaming with Jeff Beck on Barabajagal really seemed an unlikely juxtaposition at the time.

Donovan: It did seem odd. You see, I didn’t have a band. That’s it basically. I remember Tommy Smothers had rented a house in Hollywood in ’68. And he delighted in planning the party he threw for me and saying, “Who’s that? It’s incredible! It’s on the charts! What is it? Who is it?”

And that’s it — Donovan and Jeff Beck and everyone said, “What?!” The combo was a mad idea in anybody’s head, but it seemed to be perfect when Mickie was recording Beck at the time with Beck-Ola. Yeah, so that’s it — quirky things going on all the time. Experimenting and taking chances and breaking rules. That’s what it’s all about.

Click here for Part II of the article!