I was in Cleveland last week for Donovan’s induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. It was an amazing time… Donovan’s acceptance speech and performance, the induction concert and backstage scene, a tour of the just opened Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Library and Archive, not to mention the incredible talent assembled for the 2012 induction ceremonies… it was an unforgettable few days. On April 10th, the day before we arrived, The Plain Dealer, Cleveland’s leading newspaper, published a feature story on Donovan, written by pop-music critic John Soeder. We present the story here in full for you to enjoy. More to come on the other activities.
Tuesday, April 10th 2012
27th ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME INDUCTIONS: DONOVAN
Mellow poet still believes the ’60s dream
Inward-looking lyrics generated big hits
By John Soeder
Plain Dealer Pop Music Critic
Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones and Donovan, 1968. Copyright ©Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.
Donovan is on a first name basis not only with the rest of the world, but with music history. “It was Joanie who introduced me to Bobby, and it was Bobby who introduced me to the four guys,” the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame bound singer-songwriter said.
Joanie? That would be Joan Baez. Bobby? Bob Dylan, naturally. And the four guys? None other than John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr.
“The Beatles and I became fast friends,” Donovan said.
“We saw in each other this talent. …We came from different cities but from similar backgrounds. They came from the seaport of Liverpool. I came from the seaport of Glasgow. What you got was music from all over the world, pouring into the ports.”
Slapped by some with the dreaded “new Dylan” tag in the 1960s, Donovan kept illustrious company. In the blinding glare of his superstar pals (who also included Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix), though, it was easy to overlook Donovan’s own extraordinary accomplishments.
Horizon-broadening hippie. Inward-looking seeker. Zeitgeist-channeling musical pathfinder. Donovan was all of the above, and then some. He will be ushered into the Rock Hall by long time admirer John Mellencamp, who toured with Donovan in 2005.
Graham Nash, a two-time Hall of Famer himself (inducted with Crosby, Stills and Nash and with the Hollies), is thrilled to have Donovan joining the elite club.
“It’s a long time coming, isn’t it?” said Nash, part of the supporting cast (along with Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood) for “Barabajagal,” Donovan’s 1969 album.
“I don’t think Donovan has ever gotten the credit he really, truly deserves,” Nash said.
“There was an English television show called ‘Thank Your Lucky Stars.’ The Hollies and Donovan were on there, and that’s the first time I heard him play ‘Catch the Wind.’ Not many people know this, but he taught me how to fingerpick my guitar.”
“With all due respect, who the hell can compare anybody to Bob Dylan? I think the appreciation for Donovan suffered a little because of that comparison between him and Bob. Donovan has been very underrated for years.”
Donovan’s “fabulous” songs enthralled listeners with beautiful melodies and interesting lyrics, Nash said.
Woody Guthrie an early influence
Donovan, 65, was born Donovan Leitch. Music and poetry filled his childhood.
“Most of the relatives would carry a Scottish song or an Irish song or two at parties, and my father read me poetry from a very early age,” he said.
In the process, art and activism became intertwined in young Donovan’s mind.
“The poets that my father would read me were very much a part of the past 200 years of social change,” he said.
“The great Robert Burns of Scotland was part of the social unrest of the 1700s. You come swinging all the way up through the 1800s and the 1900s, and you Robert Service and W.H. Davies, whose poems my father also read to me.”
Later, when this art-school dropout became a beatnik troubadour, he was struck by the social consciousness of Woody Guthrie’s songs.
“Most people think that I heard Bob Dylan first and got a cap and harmonica,” Donovan said.
“Really, it was Woody Guthrie. He was so influential.”
“Donovan scored his first hit, ‘Catch the Wind,’ in 1965. The introspective, homespun ballad spoke of unrequited love.
“I felt the call to become a bridge to the inner world, a bridge needed in materialistic times,” Donovan wrote in “The Autobiography of Donovan: The Hurdy Gurdy Man.”
Shortly after “Catch the Wind” caught on, he first crossed paths with a kindred American spirit.
“When I met Bob Dylan, I was definitely impressed,” Donovan said.
“This guy had come from the American folk world, but he was very schooled in poetry, too. He’d studied the Beat poets, of course. I grew up in the British bohemian scene. Dylan grew up in the American bohemian scene. So I was very pleased to meet such a guy.”
Donovan’s ever-expanding circle of musical friends also came to include John Sebastian of the Lovin’ Spoonful.
“He knew everybody I knew, from Dylan to Jack Elliott and all these guys who were part of the [Greenwich] Village scene that I had grown up with,” Sebastian said.
“We felt a kinship. As Dylan says about Donovan in ‘Don’t Look Back’ [D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary about Dylan’s 1965 UK tour], ‘Hey! He sounds like Jack!’ Yeah! I said, ’Boy, this guy has been listening to his Jack Elliott very carefully.’
“I guess what I enjoyed about Don was that his points of reference resembled mine in some ways… We were all drawing from the same pots.”
The same could be said of Donovan and his Fab Four friends.
McCartney dropped by Donovan’s London flat in 1966 and pulled out an acoustic guitar.
“You write children’s songs – what about this one?” McCartney said, launching into a new ditty about a yellow submarine.
It was missing a few lyrics. McCartney asked for help filling in the blanks.
Donovan retreated to another room. He soon came back with the lines: Sky of blue and sea of green/ In our yellow submarine…”
“That’ll do,” McCartney said.
Ask Donovan about it today, and he’s modest about his contribution.
“It’s not the most earth-shattering couplet in the world,” he said, with an almost audible shrug.
“I was very pleased to have two lines in a Beatles song, but more than that, in a song that celebrated the very unusual situation that we were in. The ‘yellow submarine’ was actually the life that they were living – that we were living – separated from the world and isolated by fame.”
A misconception about ‘Mellow Yellow’
I must have been Donovan’s yellow period. A few months later, he notched a top 5 single with “Mellow Yellow”, a cryptic ditty featuring a cameo appearance by McCartney.
“Ah! There was a lot of mellow and a lot of yellow going on at that time, yeah,” Donovan said, laughing.
While we’re at it, let’s clear this up once and for all: “Mellow Yellow” is not about smoking banana peels.
“The song became extremely popular, as you know, and the story got attached that if you smoked dried banana skins, you could get high,” Donovan patiently explained for the umpteenth time.
“People on ships headed for India were trying it. Farmers in Czechoslovakia were trying it. We wondered where the story came from.”
Decades later, Donovan got what he reckons is the only satisfactory answer. During a visit to the Rock Hall in the late 1990s, he bumped into Country Joe Mcdonald, who confessed to spreading rumors about the intoxicating properties of banana peels while driving around San Francisco in 1966 – just as “Mellow Yellow” was climbing the charts – in a truck decorated with a giant banana.
“You couldn’t make this up!” Donovan said.
Banana peels aside, his exotically arranged music – complete with sitar and harpsichord – provided a perfect soundtrack for the psychedelic revolution, especially the landmark album “Sunshine Superman.” The trippy title track (with Jimmy Page on guitar) went to No. 1 in 1966, the same year that Donovan was busted for marijuana possession.
He dabbled in other drugs, too.
“Our generation in the 60’s wasn’t the first to use sacred plants,” he said.
“It was pretty obvious that generations had been using altered states of consciousness in music and art, before us… I didn’t particularly write songs on psychedelics. But the experiences were so extraordinary, on mescaline and on peyote, that I wrote about them.”
“The ‘50s were a very restrictive world. Until the early ‘60’s, when we guys came along, nobody left their garden patch. Then the garden became world-wide. It was completely open. You could do anything you wanted, musically.”
“That album [‘Sunshine Superman’] seemed to be a herald. I was ringing a bell, saying that you could do anything you want.”
“If I opened the gate first, I’m very pleased, ‘cause what came through that gate we all know was so important for everyone. That’s my understanding, that the gate we opened led to the inner world.”
“And yes, psychedelics were a part of it.”
For Donovan, so was transcendental meditation, the virtues of which he continues to extol. He first studied it (along with the Beatles) under the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
When Donovan wasn’t getting in touch with his inner self, he continued to enjoy Top 40 success to the tune of “Hurdy Gurdy Man” and “Atlantis,” among other hits.
Looking forward to touring again
After the sun set on the ’60s, his popularity faded. He continued to record and to perform, albeit less frequently.
Now Donovan is ripe for rediscovery. A new retrospective, “The Essential Donovan,” is set to come out Tuesday, April 17, with 36 songs on two CDs.
Donovan also is raring to hit the road again.
“This Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction — what a springboard that will be for a tour,” he said. “I’ll be back onstage almost everywhere, from this summer on.”
Long after flower power became a punch line for some, Donovan is one ’60s survivor who hasn’t abandoned the dream.
“The ’60s are a living idea, and the idea is still being developed,” he said.
“Up until that period, there were lots of doors closed. Now they’re open, and you can still walk through, no matter what you want to do.
“For instance, every country in the Western world has an ecological board to talk about the future of the planet. Years ago, there was nothing like that.
“In yoga and in bohemian ideas, there is no particular era that was then, and then it’s over. Its impulse is still being felt. It’s alive today.”