Monday, 29 June 2015

Interview: DONOVAN On The Beat Route


All of a sudden – Donovan Leitch is everywhere. 
His long-promised long-awaited autobiography
‘The Hurdy Gurdy Man’ is published May 2006, 
in the meantime EMI are issuing four digitally-remastered 
extended editions of previously-USA-only albums, 
while he’s launching a new series of ‘Beat Café’-themed 
gigs, with Rat Scabies on drums! 
 Andrew Darlington is there to get the details

“His universe glowed like the first morning of the world. 
Objects appeared and disappeared. 
Metamorphosis became commonplace …” 
 George Melly writes about Donovan in ‘Revolt Into Style’

A wild-eyed black-and-white mongrel pursues a buckled crushed-down Evian bottle bounce-bouncing across the ‘Bar Pacific’ courtyard cobbles, snarling it up in eager readiness for the next throw. We watch its relentless energy, sat hunched back into the friendly shade around the table, the sun above us busy being a very magic fellow. Donovan Leitch is scuffed and taggle-haired, but effortlessly cool. A writer in the sun. A poet cornered.

Then there’s a woman, brandishing a concert-flier. “It’s against my principles” she gushes, “but I’ve been a gigantic fan of yours for years.”

He crinkle-grins, squinting up into the sun. “Come up here and I’ll sign it. Are you coming in for the show? What’s your name? Diane? – Diana, the goddess. The huntress.” He felt-tip scribes across the leaflet. “You haven’t got a bow at home, have you, Diana? Do you bathe in a mountain pool with all your maidens around you? Until the hunter comes, and he has a sneaky-peek at you. And he’s not supposed to see you, rising out of the water, so you turn him into a stag. And his own brothers, not knowing it’s him, pursue him, hunt him down and kill him, and…”

“That’s the old romantic in you, isn’t it, Donovan?” she blusters, part-embarrassed, mostly flattered. Lost in some gulf between faded hippie-chic, and Desperate Housewife deep-cleavage.

“Oh, I’m a mythologist as well. There’s goddess in all women.” If he’s done this effusive honey-dripping spiel-routine before, and surely he must have done something very similar, it doesn’t come out that way. “Anyway, I’ve got to do an interview. Look out for me…”

As she walks away looking down gloatingly at the autograph, he comments “I’m getting chilly, but she must be freezing” adding ‘nice style’, approvingly… ‘Yeah, she’s sure fine-looking man’, I agree, ‘she’s something else…!’, quoting Eddie Cochran (for reasons that may become evident later).

While the black-and-white mongrel’s still rampaging. She has to side-step around it. And I swear it’s grinning, wild-eyed…

“Happiness runs in a circular motion 
thought is like a little boat upon the stream …” 
(Donovan, ‘Happiness Runs’) 

Donovan. He’s been in fashion. And out of it. Now he’s beyond it all, into his own parallel universe. It’s a good place to be. There’s no commercial pressures. When he wants to tour, he can sell-out mid-size venues like this with ease. When he puts out an album he knows it will sell enough to make the exercise artistically satisfying and economically viable. His most recent is ‘Beat Café’ (2004, Appleseed Records), which includes the traditional “The Cuckoo”. “It’s an old tune” he agrees. “And a favourite of mine. It’s probably an Irish song that went over with the migrants. ‘Ah-diddlie, Ah-diddlie, A diddile-diddle-dah’.” As he sings, he’s emphasising its lilting melancholy. “It’s an old way of singing – ‘keening’, you know? Which means it’s Celtic. Probably even pre-Celtic.”

Folk Songs have a way of diversifying. “Folk Songs are amazing. A Folk Song can last just as long as an archaeological find. They are actually the repositories of the history of human-kind, the human spirit. There are certain tunes that carry a ritual, or a circular dance that goes back millennia. And I know them. I feel them in my heart.” He clutches his hand over his chest. “There are five vowel-sounds” – he sings “‘a-eee-ah-owe-you’, and these root-sounds are in every language, no matter where or when. So you don’t have to understand the language to understand its particular soulful sound. ‘Cos when a local singer, whether Flamenco, or East Indian, or Native American, or an Eskimo... or a troubadour from Scotland – me!, what do you hear? When you hear the music, and it touches you – listen to the vowel-sounds…” He sings “‘ah-ah-ah-ah-o-luuuuve-yu-o-oo’. It’s the vowel-sounds that are creating the emotional contact with people. Yes. They’re actually playing the universal language, it’s amazing isn’t it?”

From anyone else it would sound insufferably like affectation, pretension. But to Donovan it’s a continuity he’s lived and believed in forever. When he does the raggle-taggle ‘minstrel-me’, it’s impossible to deny. Look at the life…

One of the posters in the foyer – the one listing forthcoming events, Twisted Folk, Kathryn Williams, Devendra Banhart, short-hands ‘Donovan: Britain’s Answer to Dylan’, which must be rather irksome. After all, he fought that brand-war so long ago surely it’s no longer even vaguely an issue? When the Folk-Rock scene was an infant, with CBS promoting Dylan as the ‘new cult leader’, and Donovan emerging on ‘Ready Steady Go’ with harmonica-harness, Woody Guthrie complex, Breton cap, guitar stickered ‘This Machine Kills’, and a fistful of anti-war songs, admittedly some comparison-confusion was admissible. Even though Donovan’s protest songs tended to be borrowed from Mick Softley (“The War Drags On”), Bert Jansch (“Do You Hear Me Now”), or Buffy Sainte-Marie’s articulate tirade “Universal Soldier” – an American single’s hit for Donovan which charts here as an EP title-track, something only the Beatles or Stones had previously done.

But soon the Dylan/Donovan differences became more apparent than these fleeting similarities. Watch the sequence in DA Pennebaker’s April 1965 tour-doc ‘Don’t Look Back’ where they meet up in the hotel room. Donovan offers his simple little tune “To Sing For You”. ‘Hey, that’s a good song, man’ sneers Dylan with immaculate under-statement, before replying with a devastatingly surreal “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue”, clearly marking out his territory in the food-chain. No competition. Literally.

Donovan was born in the Maryhill area of Glasgow 5th May 1946. ‘Twas there ‘I dreamt my dreams, and there I hung my jeans’. A poetry-reading father – Donald Kerr Leitch, ‘smelling of machine-oil’ and ‘Marxist Worker’s wisdom’. And a ‘tight-knot’ of a Mother – Winnifred Philips Leitch, a second-generation Irish Catholic, ‘bound up with false guilt’, an independent girl in ‘a dark and cruel world’. “In the beginning there was Folk music, even though they didn’t call it Folk music. I lived in Glasgow, although there was more Irish in my family than Scots. So I just heard nothing but songs all the time. Somebody would put a chair in the middle of the room, and sing their song. That happened at parties, birthdays, funerals, weddings, births – somebody would go into the middle of the room, and there would always be songs.” But after a childhood bout with polio the family relocated south. “When I was ten my father moved us down to (230 Bishop’s Rise, New) Hatfield, as part of the mid-‘50’s migrations. People were leaving the industrial cities and coming down to the New Towns around London, when I moved there from the grey streets of Glasgow it was a shock, the greenery, the birds and the bees, and all those beautiful things.” ‘Birds and Bees’? – a euphemism for sexual awakening, or just a mystical connection with nature?

But this was the late-50’s, what about Elvis, Eddie Cochran? “I had a phase of Rock ‘n’ Roll. I was an adolescent boy. Buddy Holly was my idol when I was twelve. I heard Buddy Holly and I went – ‘aaah, this is incredible!’ But it didn’t make me want to form a Rock ‘n’ Roll band. Buddy Holly breathed his lyrics, y’know – (he sings) ‘Listen to me-ee, hear what I sa-ay… listen closely to me-ee-hee’ and so – ‘ah-ah-ah’.” He emotes the tremulous Donovan intonation in a Buddy Holly-style. “So when you hear Donovan going (breathily) ‘aah-haa-haaa’, it’s a Buddy Holly influence.” Whatever, he ‘flunked my way to college’, ‘reading Kerouac and Ginsberg well-juiced’. Yeah, Rave On, John Donne… before his own first gig at ‘The Cock’ in St Albans. A poet in denims. “I went into (Welwyn Garden City College of) Further Education, and that’s where I met Bohemia, beatnik girls, long hair, rollneck sweaters, social discussions on the campus green. I said ‘this is where I belong. The girls look better. The guys dress better. There’s art, there’s poetry, and the music is better.’ In the Secondary Modern School I’d been to, they had a recorder and a tambourine. And once a month, they had us bang the tambourine and try to blow the whistle. They called it a music lesson! So when I went to College the world of art lay before me. That’s when I first heard Woody Guthrie and Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Joan Baez and Pete Seeger…”

Later, in 1964, prior to his first official release, he records some publisher’s demos with producer Terry Kennedy. Subsequently rediscovered the tracks include Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Codine”, and the Tim Hardin-derived “London Town”. He’d just turned eighteen in May of that year. Already poised for a dayglo career at a time when colour-TV was still science fiction.

“your friends they are making a Pop Star or two 
every evening, you know that scene backwards, 
they can’t see the patterns they’re weaving…” 
 (Donovan, ‘Young Girl Blues’) 

The “Sunshine Superman” single was recorded between 2-and-5pm Sunday 19th December 1965 at EMI’s Abbey Road Studio 3, at a time when he was caught up in a contractual imbroglio, a limbo of wrangling High Court writs and litiginous distractions. It was Donovan’s first Mickie Most session, with a song initially announced to the press as “For John And Paul”. It opens with double-bass and electric bass providing depth and texture. “I made the ‘Sunshine Superman’ album in late-’65 and early-’66. Which, by the way, was a year-and-a-half before ‘Sergeant Pepper’ – and ‘Sunshine Superman’ was just sat there. My book tells all about it. Mickie Most said ‘don’t play advance copies of this to Paul (McCartney)’, but of course I played it to Paul, because we make our records for our peers – did you know that? We don’t really make them for the audience. First, we make them for us, then for our peers.” Is there a sub-text here? What’s he implying? That if he’d not played Paul the demo of his album, that ‘Sergeant Pepper’ would have turned out a different beast? That there’s a causal connection between – say, “Young Girl Blues” and “She’s Leaving Home”? Of course, he doesn’t go that far. But draw your own conclusions. It’s not impossible…

The cascade of albums that follow come in supernaturally rapid sequence, so much so that quality-control lapses into occasional throw-away tweeness and whimsy – yet never so throw-away as, for example, Dylan’s ‘Self-Portrait’. And, with the tight musical palette provided by producer Mickie Most, arranger John Cameron, and the cream of session musicians to complement his lyrical dexterity and gifted melodic flair, the results – at their best, can be extraordinary. And, of course, this was all happening for the first time. Such fusions and daring forays had never been attempted before. They were making it up.

Now, when singer-songwriters, Damien Rice or James Blunt, drench their diary-agonies in strings, they have no excuse. Such errors have been inflicted so frequently by earlier practitioners that the dire warnings should not be ignored. But Donovan – and a few others, Phil Ochs, Tim Hardin, John Phillips, Ray Davies, Roger McGuinn, Syd Barrett, and yes, Paul McCartney, were charting unknown terrain. There were innovative excursions into jazz-freedoms and world music too. “Tangiers” (with Bert Jansch on guitar) – a previously US-only track now available here, looks beyond the druggy hippie exoticism of, say, Crosby Stills & Nash’s “Marrakesh Express”, to see the ‘starving kids with staring eyes’. Sure, ‘Moroccans with their elephantitus feet’ may be a clumsy rhyme, but his capacity to see those ‘who life and death treat so cheap’ suggests a timely reality-check. Just as he’s capable of mocking the superficiality of the girl now ‘dragged as any hippie should be / in old hippie town’ (“Hi, It’s Been A Long Time”).

A softer Rock. “Yeah, I brought in the ‘feminised male’… in my songs. In the songs which I sang, I used words like ‘beautiful’ and ‘lovely’ and ‘kind’ – and they were usually attributed to the feminine part of our race. As if only women had those emotions. And men don’t. Why is that?, I account that to two world wars and the Depression. When men were put in uniform, had their hair cut off, were de-humanised, demoralised, given weapons to kill, until all softness and all humanity was sort-of squeezed out of them. And I brought that back in the ‘60’s into songs. So these female… aspects, in my songs, are what I brought in. They would print in the music papers ‘Donovan Thinks The World Is Beautiful’ in two-inch-high letters and – of course, it was really a put-down. They’d say, ‘so you think that kindness and brotherhood, peace, family and humanity are coming back into the world?’ And I said ‘no, they’ve just temporarily gone missing’ and ‘I’m going to sing about them’.”

The lavishly-boxed double-set ‘Gift From A Flower To A Garden’ comes at sixties’ end after the gatefold two-disc ‘Blonde On Blonde’ has already stretched the record-buyer’s budget, worse, it’s competing that same year with Cream’s ‘Wheels Of Fire’ (August) and Hendrix’ ‘Electric Ladyland’ (October). Even its florid cover-art and over-ornate title, the photo-shoot at Bodiam Castle, the kaftan and peacock-fan, are just a little too unworldly, even for 1968, seemingly glancing back to the already decomposing ‘Summer of Love’ idealism. All of which means that his last UK chart album of the decade (no.13 in May 1968), fails to receive the recognition it deserves.

Which is ironic, because it’s a very much simplified Donovan stripped of Mickie Most’s Pop-production affectations, scraped to the acoustic bone, containing some of his most perfectly realised songs spun in soft patinas of subtly pastoral guitars. Written during a refuge-seeking flight from London complications, “Isle Of Islay” – in particular, sees himself reduced down to ‘a seed on your land’. Here, he’s a hide-away lane-haunter, birds-nester, field-farer, shore-walker, his precarious voice as fragile as stained glass. And yes, it’s strangely luring. Elsewhere he writes twinkle-toed tunes of a tinker’s encounter with a crab, and of enchanted gipsy caravans. ‘Travellers’ tend to be reviled in today’s tabloids, but Donovan attunes to older longer Romany traditions of Manouche as symbols of enticing freedom. A Diddycoy romance of the open road that blurs the line between fantasy and reality, or even the fiction that facts can become. There are songs that fall on either side of that arbitrary horizon, others that dissolve it to a mental state, a mode of perception, rather than an absolute firewall. But these portraits and landscapes are less a sweeping vision, than an awareness of the particular moment, in which tactile glimpses provide the interface. The tide of seasons, gulls and rock-pools. Astrologically-shaped starfish, charcoal clouds and pebble-drifts. Songs of innocence and experience. Tales for aging children. Beautiful – if problematically undisturbing. All violence, angst, and pain long exorcised from his colour-spectrum, leaving only a wistful melancholy. Yet – as the decade closes, on his ‘Barabajagal’ album, he returns to addressing the war, through an ‘epistle’ from a soldier in Vietnam fighting, to “Susan On The West Coast Waiting” for his return…

“lemon circles swim in the tea, 
fishing for time with a witching line 
and throwing it back in the sea …” 
 (Donovan, ‘Writer In The Sun’) 

He arrives tonight in the ‘City Varieties’ foyer, dressed in rumpled black with a ‘Donegal Cruise’ blue plastic bag. And he’s complaining about the traffic system. Adding, quite unnecessarily, “Donovan’s the name…” His comfortably shabby roll-neck and black jeans betray their travels, yet he’ll wear the same for the concert. He can also look as worn as his years suggest, until the moments when his face lights up in a spontaneous smile. He has white false-nails on his right hand, all the better to plectrum with. The suggestion of liver-spots too. And his hair – thinner, yet reassuringly tousled, up close, betrays a subtle blue tint that makes it appear darker than it is when viewed from audience-seating. He listens attentively to my questions, variants of which he must have been asked very many times before. Then his answers come in unbroken, yet carefully considered streams, addressing each point carefully and thoroughly. Both affected and compelling, relaxed and intense.

But it’s obvious that an interview – to Donovan, is an extension of the performance. He is at all times the guru dispensing esoteric wisdoms, just as he, in his turn, had absorbed secret bohemian magics from those who came before him, most obviously the three Beat Poets beneath whose images he’ll perform tonight – Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and Jack Kerouac, but beyond them through mystic and bohemian traditions stretching back, virtually to the misty Celtic dawn of time. ‘And so the journey begins…’ he’ll travelogue on-stage… Unlikely as it seems, Shadows bassist Brian ‘Liquorice’ Locking is there on his first two albums. Equally unlikely, tonight, his band is underscored by Rat Scabies’ sharp disciplined drumming. ‘The guy from the Stranglers!’ says an enthusiast in the row behind us. And I remember Robyn Hitchcock confiding to me some years ago, ‘The Damned? They’re just a bunch of old Hippies’.

Dylan’s ‘Chronicles’ are threaded with previously unsuspected shades of self-doubt, uncertainty, mixed-up confusions. For Donovan, there seems little of that. Apart from the phase-shifting post-60’s come-down when the hits stop. He’s endured a lot of vindictive bad-press. He’s been kicked around more than most. As though, because he once most embodied his audience’s aspirations, he’s held responsible for their excesses. So how do you impose new musical ideas onto people’s old associations? You can’t. Yet even though his vision may be narrower than Dylan’s, it’s more focussed, surer of itself. He’s no longer leading. But he’s not particularly concerned about catching up either. After playing a free impromptu set at the July 1970 Bath Festival he told ‘Melody Maker’ ‘the Pop Star I was has died, and now I am still a beatnik sleeping all over the place like I used to. I am happy doing this’. He is his own brand, his own self-contained eco-system, a unique taste. Perhaps it’s his father’s deeply instilled belief in the enduring worth of words, poetry, and vision? (‘my father he liked poetry, a scholar he might have made / had he not been born a poor boy, bare-foot and underpaid..’)

And for Donovan there have been periodic resurgences. “It was the eighties. I hung out with the Happy Mondays and went on six of their performances with them” he narrates easily. “And I was sitting in a pub with Shaun (Ryder) in Manchester once, and a young man came up and he said ‘Shaun, I’m going to do exactly what you do. I’m going to do what you’re doing’. And Shaun looked at him, and didn’t say a word. And the guy walked off. He was tall and good-looking, had long hair, he was in jeans and T-shirt. I said ‘who’s that?’ He said ‘oh, it’s just a singer, a fucking singer in a band’. I said ‘I think he means it Shaun. I recognise that look. I had that same look in my eyes when I was eighteen. I knew what I was going to do’. He said ‘naw, they’re rubbish, you know?’ Next Friday I turned on the television, and it was Oasis. It was Liam who’d come up and spoken to us…”

An anecdote conjuring a beguiling snapshot of an eighteen-years-young Donovan seen through a Gallagher’s lens, ‘in my mind my dreams are real, tonight I’m a Folk ‘n’ Roll Star’ – could it really have been like that? “Of course, there was all this inter-band rivalry between the Manchester bands, and now – over the ten years since, Manchester has continued to produce extraordinary bands. In a way, just like Liverpool has done. Black Grape was also incredible. You got Stone Roses, and the Charlatans – who recorded my “Season Of The Witch”, and another incredible band that really took me by storm – Starsailor. I was on stage with Starsailor at Glastonbury a couple of years ago. And so, I have this relationship with bands. And songs of mine become standard warm-ups for bands. “Season Of The Witch” is a standard warm-up song for thousands of bands around the world. That’s a kind of fame and appreciation that is real. It doesn’t depend on record sales. It means that your songs become a part of their life. I think that’s great.”

By now that very magic fellow, the sun, is waning. The wild-eyed black-and-white mongrel is gone, hunting new prey. And Diana, the goddess, is inside the venue impatient for the show to begin. So is there anything left un-asked to ask him…? The book? “Yes – I’ve written my autobiography over the years, and now it’s ready. I just came back from Greece last year where I was completing it with my pal. So now I’m ready, ready to present my book – which is called ‘The Hurdy Gurdy Man’, it’s coming out in October on the Century imprint. Look out for me.” And he’s gone…

“My songs are merely dreams, visiting my mind, 
we talk a while, by a crooked style, 
you’re lucky to catch a few…” 
 (Donovan, ‘Celeste’)

 Published in:
‘SONGBOOK no.8’ 
(UK – July 2006)

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