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Donovan: The 'Sunshine Superman,' Part II

In the second part of our exclusive, extended interview with Donovan, he shares his thoughts and observations about the famous musicians he came to know, admire and in some cases even inspire — Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and most famously, The Beatles.

Get Caught Up Miss Part I of our interview with Donovan? Read it now.

There’s a popular expression that’s open to interpretation: “If you remember the ’60s, you really weren’t there.”

Folk Singer Donovan

So, leave it to Donovan Leitch to set the record straight. In his new documentary, “Sunshine Superman: The Journey of Donovan,” he not only recalls that amazing decade in vivid detail, but he freely shares those memories with the rest of us. And given the DVD’s treasure trove of archival footage, classic performances and personal perspectives, the enduring impact of Donovan’s brilliant career is made all the more evident, from his groundbreaking music to the influence he still exerts on the attitudes and outlook of an entire generation.

If it’s also true that a person’s judged by the company he keeps, then it’s no surprise that Donovan claims bragging rights on his cast of contemporaries, as well.

In the second part of our exclusive, extended interview, he shares his thoughts and observations about the famous musicians he came to know, admire and in some cases even inspire — Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and most famously, The Beatles. They form a fascinating, firsthand account of what inevitably remains the most indelible era of modern musical history.

Your first great ’60s summit took place earlier, in 1965, when you met Bob Dylan, a meeting documented in his film “Don’t Look Back.” How did that come about?

Donovan: Joan Baez evidently took great delight in introducing me to Bobby, and I needed to meet Bobby. There was no question about it. We both loved Woody Guthrie. In that clip, it’s very obvious Bobby is listening and not once taking a drag from his cigarette — two folk singers meeting. I had asked him to sing “It’s All Over Now,” but it was in that room. Of course, it’s mad. That was the ’60s. He was very hyper and very up and very hip and very city. Very New York, very jumpy, and I looked very calm and very laid back. The difference was the drugs.

Who would you say did the best Donovan cover?

Donovan: Well, I guess The Butthole Surfers doing “Hurdy Gurdy Man.”

Is that just because you like to say “Butthole Surfers?”

Donovan: It’s a completely hilarious version; I love it. And then another version of “Hurdy Gurdy Man” by Eartha Kitt was enormously, extraordinarily unsuccessful. But it doesn’t matter…

How about the Al Kooper version of “Season of the Witch”?

Donovan: Of course. I love that version, and “There Is A Mountain” by the Allman Brothers, which has become a staple of their shows. Covers are obviously so satisfying to me… when you write a song that becomes seminal, meaning “Season of the Witch,” and it becomes something that bands can play for three days… nonstop! (laughs) Zeppelin used to warm up their rehearsals with it to get into the mood. And “Happiness Runs” is being used in schools for children to be in singing in community. I mean, these are the kind of covers I like, yeah.

We hear a lot of your songs in commercials these days. “Catch The Wind” seems to have caught on lately.

Donovan: You know, it’s amazing. I embraced commercials about four or five years ago, realizing I should work with the ad agencies, and I started meeting them.

Every three weeks there’s a call for one of my songs for TV and film. Students get my songs for a dollar when they’re making a student film. Other people have to pay. It’s the new radio. And when I started hearing “Catch The Wind” being requested again and again and again, it was extraordinary, and then people were saying they were hearing it on the radio more and more — two to three times a day — and then they’re hearing it in various places.

It’s interesting which songs are being asked for. Like the film “Children of Men” wanted a song called “There Is An Ocean” from Essence to Essence. So directors, of course, realized, and ad directors realized, that my songs are like mini movies, and I performed them so.

Your songs have this very mystical imagery. Where did those images and melodies come from?

Donovan: I open the film (“Sunshine Superman”) with the words “I am a poet,” and this is the poet’s job, to lead the people into an inner world. Entertainment plays a big part of it, because that’s a skill. I’m the first one to hear the songs. I’m the first audience, and I am privileged to hear them as they emerge.

Once they asked the pagan priest, a pagan ritual guy, “How did you do that?” because some people were moved. And he said, “I didn’t do it.” And they said, “What did you mean you didn’t do it? You wrote the song, you performed it.” And he said, “Oh, no, all I did was create the circumstances for it to happen.”

This is interesting how songs are formed, and where they come from. It’s called inspiration. Where does it come from? You have to be in a certain frame, like a writer has to be sitting down with a pencil, and you have to be in a certain frame for any lines to come out. But, no matter how many lines come out, along the way something will start flowing, and that’s what happens with the songs. It’s interesting what Keith Richards said when they asked him how he writes songs, and Keith said he plays three Buddy Holly songs in a row, and the fourth one is his.

There is a theme that begins it, and then you start to turn this cauldron of inspiration and other music comes from it. It all comes from within, of course. If you’re calm and you’re settled and you’re sitting in front of the piano or the guitar and you don’t get in the way, you clear your mind — the creative juices flow.

It’s been said that while you were in India with The Beatles in 1968, you actually helped write some of the songs that later appeared on The Beatles’ White Album, even though you weren’t properly credited.

Donovan: I wouldn’t go that far, no. We all wrote our own songs, but where that story came from was a comment from George who said once, (affects Liverpool accent) “Donovan’s all over the White Album.”

What he means is that we only had acoustic guitars. George brought the instruments, of course, Indian and otherwise, and the tablas... they were for Ringo. We were constantly playing. Whenever there was a guitar around, it was never out of hand, and I was performing all the time, constantly. So, the three songwriters, John, Paul and George, were constantly hearing folk styles that maybe they hadn’t heard, maybe they hadn’t known, so they hadn’t learned them.

So, the styles I was playing came out, and when they picked up their guitars there, they were experimenting with that style. Country-rock things that Paul was doing, and then this finger style, which is the main story everybody remembers me telling. John turned around one day and said, “How do you do that?” I said, “What?”

Because by then I was doing things that were so fast and flawless, I forgot I was even doing them. I mean, when someone asked how do you do that, I didn’t even know I was doing then. “You mean this?” It was so natural for me to do it. So, I said, “It’s a pattern,” and I went all the way back to when I learned it, and I taught it to John. It took me three days, and it took John two days.

Out of that picking, out of that style or that chord or a new tuning, it opens up a new universe of songwriting if you’re a songwriter. Joni Mitchell used to invent her own tunings to create new songs, and then had too many glasses of wine and woke up the next day and realized she had retuned her guitar four times the night before and she had forgotten what the tunings were.

She told me this. She had to train herself to write them down and use a tape recorder when they came along. But, this form of claw hammer, which was invented by the Carter Family in 1928, was taken from a banjo style and transposed to guitar, and Ma Carter invented this style. It immediately makes you write in a different style, and what he wrote was “Dear Prudence,” “Crippled Inside” and “Julia” all with this guitar style.

He immediately adapted it to electric guitar when he got back to London. I remember John saying, “How do you write children’s songs?” I said, “Well, what do you mean? Just remember when you were a kid. Try to be simple.” And he said, “Well, you know, I never knew my mum.” And when you hear some of the lines, it’s possible… I don’t like to get involved with other people’s songs unless they ask, but I think I might have thrown a line in.


Donovan: In fact, I was asked by Paul for a line for “Yellow Submarine,” and I gave him one of those.

What line was it?

Donovan: (chuckles) “Sky of blue, sea of green… in a Yellow Submarine…” It wasn’t anything earth-shattering.

It really connects, though.

Donovan: (chuckles) Well, the sea of green and all that, he already had in the song. But, children’s songs were easy for me, because I had absorbed so much poetry. My father had read me Robert Louis Stevenson, “Alice in Wonderland” and an enormous amount of Victorian poems, and so I was well versed in those. But, I think I might have thrown a line in, not a melody, into “Julia.” It sounds like one of my lines, anyway.

Which one?

Donovan: I don’t know. “Seashell eyes,” maybe. It sounds like that could be John’s, maybe (chuckles), but you know, the actual theme of being on the beach, the whole song, walking along the sand with his little hand in his mother’s and all that, it sounds like me, because obviously all my songs were full of oceans and seas and seacoasts (laughs) and seashells and the whole Victorian, romantic coastline of Britain.

Rumor has it that Paul McCartney sang background on “Atlantis.”

Donovan: No. (chuckles) Paul did the “Mellow Yellow” session and added the clap and the giggle. The only thing we ever got close doing was that Mary Hopkin album.

You had three songs on that first Apple album of hers.

Donovan: Yes, that was a project Paul and I did. David Lynch and I have invited Paul over the past three years to join us and to put meditation in every school in the world (chuckles). It’s no small dream, but it’s becoming a reality. But, Paul was going through that extraordinary thing himself in the last year and a half.

Where you disappointed when The Beatles renounced the Maharishi?

Donovan: It’s very simple. It was a set-up. John wrote a song about it, but it had more to do with their private lives at the time and nothing to do with Maharishi. There was a bad apple in the camp. I think Magic Alex didn’t like that John’s relationship was building with Maharishi. And he poisoned John’s feeling for Maharishi. This is common knowledge now, but John realized it later, and George apologized, too. It was nothing at all what people imagined, and it was a sad affair, of course, but what was magic was the meditation, and we continued to do that.

So, it was The Beatles’ friend Magic Alex who started a rumor that the Maharishi was sleeping with the women?

Donovan: There was an Australian nurse that said something, ha ha ha, and even Mia [Farrow] said something, but that was absolutely nuts, mad, and nothing to do with Maharishi. It was a shame that it happened, but that’s what happens around great teachers.

Now that you’ve compiled the first 40 years of your career, what does the immediate future hold?

Donovan: I have a double album coming out — it’s called Ritual Groove. I thought to myself, I make music, but in actual fact, I make little movies. When I was traveling around, I met a lot of filmmakers, students, and became aware of YouTube and MySpace. So, I want to make documentaries. I’ve made one, and I’m working on two others, with music.

Working with these young filmmakers with my music became an idea… Ritual Groove. It’s a soundtrack to a movie not yet made, and I’m passing the project over to filmmakers. My songs play a dramatic role. My favorite is “Catch the Wind” in a GE commercial for alternative wind energy. So, commercials are the new radio, and more people watch commercials than listen to music maybe on a consistent level.

It’s interesting that a young person can put “Mellow Yellow” from a Gap commercial into the search engine and 27 Donovan albums appear. It’s an instant introduction.

The new album, Ritual Groove, explores a lot of themes, the loss of ritual, actually. I’ve held it back, because I don’t know what to do with it. Is it an album or is it a project that I would like to develop as a full film to encourage young filmmakers to take up a Donovan theme? We might be introduced to a new young filmmaker, and that’s very exciting for me. Because I’ve already made 32 albums, you know.
So, film and music and a tour next year... I still do festivals when I’m asked.

It appears you’re going to be very busy.

Donovan: It’s just getting back to work I guess… in a more consistent way.

Miss Part I of our interview with Donovan? Click here to catch up!