june 2012

Donovan: Gentle music and a gentler personality, all in day-glo colors

Donovan, Quite Rightly

By Billy Altman

Epic Legacy

For those of us of a certain age, simply saying the name "Donovan" brings back a flood of memories, most of which appear in the mind's eye in day-glo colors, and which invariably make us feel all warm and fuzzy--and, admittedly, perhaps a bit sheepish, too. After all, at the height of his career in the latter part of the 1960s, the Scottish-born UK folk-popster was the international poster boy for the hippie movement. If you were a serious Donovan fan, it meant that some part of you bought into the "high" concept of flower power, and making love, not war. It meant you thought the world was on the verge of changing--for the better--and that some of that change was because of the way (young) people like Donovan looked, and sounded, and acted.

Colour in sky prussian blue
Scarlet fleece changes hue
Crimson ball sinks from view
Wear your love like heaven.

Lord kiss me once more
Fill me with song
Allah kiss me once more
That I may, that I may
Wear my love like heaven.

I transcribed those words from the inside cover of my still-intact copy A Gift From a Flower to a Garden, Donovan's double-album box set, which I purchased upon its release in early 1968. The front cover has him standing in a field, by a sea shore, in full psychedelic regalia: flowing robe, strings of love beads, flowers in one hand, peacock feathers in the other. The back cover has him sitting in conversation with none other than the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, with the diminutive master of Transcendental Meditation also holding a flower in one hand, and Donovan's hand in the other.

Donovan, ‘Wear Your Love Like Heaven,’ from the album A Gift From a Flower to a Garden (1967), produced by Mickie Most

While the first album in the collection, highlighted by the above-quoted hit "Wear Your Love Like Heaven," showcased Donovan's jazz-flecked pop/rock, the second album, entitled For Little Ones, was an acoustic set of original children's folk songs with titles like "The Mandolin Man and His Secret" and "Starfish-on-the-Toast," and came complete with a folder filled with illustrated lyric sheets for each track.

Donovan, live in ‘65, performing his first hit, ‘Catch the Wind’

Between the two, you've got the basic thrust of Donovan's gentle music and gentler personality, both of which certainly had their effect during those heady times on impressionable young minds (like mine). There was his poetry, which dealt as much with the very sound of words as with their meanings. Who else but Donovan could turn "phosphorus" into "Phos-FOUR-us" on "Sand and Foam," or transform "electrical" into "Eee-leck-trickle" on "Mellow Yellow"? There were his melodies, which, as evidenced by tunes like "Catch the Wind" and "Jennifer Juniper," often sounded familiar the very first time you heard them. And, above all, there was the indefatigable romanticism, and optimism, which informed all his work, from "Colours" to "Atlantis." If ever anyone sang about life through rose-colored glasses, it was Donovan.

Donovan, ‘Jennifer Juniper’ (1968), a #26 single, produced by Mickie Most. The Jennifer of the title was Jenny Boyd, sister of George Harrison’s wife Pattie Boyd.

All the above-named songs can be found on the two-disc The Essential Donovan, released by Epic/Legacy to coincide with the singer-songwriter's long-deserved election this year to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And in re-visiting his music, one thing that does stand out is that, freed from the cultural trappings of the times from which they originally emerged, Donovan's songs really do hold up better than one might perhaps expect. "Sunshine Superman," "Season of the Witch," "Lalena": These are pretty sturdy classics, and, along with aforementioned evergreens like "Catch the Wind' and "Mellow Yellow," reveal an eclecticism that goes a long way to understanding Donovan's immense commercial popularity during the last half of the Swinging Sixties.

Donovan, ‘Atlantis’ (1968, #7 single)

Folk, rock, jazz, blues, pop--Donovan was comfortable in numerous styles. And he was fortunate that his producer throughout his most productive period was the estimable and ever-underrated Mickie Most who took Donovan's songs wherever they needed go sonically, whether it be the cheeky music hall vibe of "Mellow Yellow" (with guest whisperer Paul MacCartney) or the taut hard-rock edginess of "Hurdy Gurdy Man" (with guest sledgehammer wielders Led Zeppelin).

Donovan meets Dylan in a memorable scene from D A Pennebaker’s documentary, Don’t Look Back

All in all, not a bad track record for the UK troubadour who at age 18 had to endure being proclaimed "England's answer to Bob Dylan" before he'd barely even gotten out of the starting gate. (Those familiar with Don't Look Back, D A Pennebaker's documentary of Dylan's 1965 British tour, know that Dylan had his share of cruel fun with the comparison, cutting the teenage tunesmith in a song swap the first time they came face to face, and then telling a concert audience that "I looked in my closet--and there was Donovan.")

Donovan, live in ’65, performing ‘Colours,’ the followup single to ‘Catch the Wind.’

Like Mr. Zimmerman, though, Mr. Leitch proved there was more to him than met the eye at first or even second glance. Unlike Dylan, Donovan never quite made it out of the era that would ultimately define him. But that doesn't devalue the art he produced, and even if our memories of that time-coded art still manifest themselves in the kaleidoscopic colors of a long-gone age of innocence, it still feels good to sing along, and to remember.

Can I believe what I see
All I have wished for will be
All our race proud and free
Wear your love like heaven…

The Essential Donovan is available at www.amazon.com

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024