ON THE BEAT ROUTE WITH
THE HURDY-GURDY MAN
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…
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.
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.
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’.”
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’.
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…”
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…”
(UK – July 2006)