Friday 28 June 2019

DONOVAN interview: 'Tales From Urban Bohemia'


 Remember “Sunshine Superman”, “Catch The Wind” and “Mellow Yellow”…? 
Now forget them – Donovan Leitch has new things to talk about. 
Andrew Darlington was there to get the details

 ‘Good Morning Mr Leitch, Have you had a busy day? …’ 
 (“Fakin It” by Simon & Garfunkel) 

“Look here, look here” he enthuses, stealth-stalking like a cartoon-cat, beckoning with contagiously conspiratorial intrigue. Poking his way through the bat-wings into the ornate but miniature theatre-boxes. “We’re going to have a wonderful show here tonight. I know it. ‘Cos this hall is so beautiful. It’s a red velvet theatre, it’s like a Christmas cake. Have you been in here before?”

Well, yes actually, an hour earlier I’d been watching him sound-checking way down there on that compact stage to the familiar pulse of “Sunshine Superman”. Watched him attacking into “Barabajagal”, going ‘Ok, we’ll take it on the fly’, then ‘Sorry, I lost it there’. ‘No’ Tom the bassist contradicts, ‘you were on’. Gathered around him there were Stuart Donaldson’s congas, Rat Scabies’ drums, double-bass, and Joe Atkinson’s keyboards. He’d paused to glance around the venue, ‘it’s dry in here, lots of soft surfaces. I’m getting a midi-sound out of these speakers, and a warm sound out of those. It’s a boxy sound, too thin in the mid, a bit of true bass on the bottom. Yeah – that kind of stuff. Can you put a hair on it?’ Then it’s “Mellow Yellow”, he counts it in, “dah-dah-dah da-da dah-dah, chord chord chord”, then ‘right, let’s talk about the end….’ I’ve watched lots of soundchecks in my time. Very few of them, in fact – none that I can think of, quite as precise and painstaking as this one. Such care is as rare as unicorn dung…

He performs tonight in spiralling crawls of psychedelic lighting, and beneath huge monochrome images of three Beat-Generation writers – Jack Kerouac with his deep darkly sensual eyes, an early Allen Ginsberg wearing a tie, and the supernatural stare of William Burroughs. And the more he plays the new songs, the more the cool groove of his ‘Beat Café’ album (2004, Appleseed Records) makes sense. The resonant double-bass pulse. The brushed-drums and bop-vibes. The Django-guitar and Beat ambience. The free improvisation that shimmers around “Love Floats”. Barefoot and beret. Beat Girls. Dharma Bums. Existentialism. Françoise Hardy. ‘City Lights’ editions. ‘Blue Note’ albums. Galois. Jean-Luc Godard. A flickering candle stuck in a drained wine-bottle, wax tendrils running. A virtual Paris Left Bank ‘Les Deux Magots’ or ‘Café de Flore’ where Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir once held court with Louis Aragon and Albert Camus. But it’s most apparent when he does the “Do Not Go Gentle” Dylan Thomas poem, which he departs live from the CD and does as a free-jazz foray with unexpected surges, vocal riffs and repetitions that don’t go exactly where they at first appear in the spaces between. He digs us digging him in Leeds.

Quite rightly… 

One time a crazy dream came to me... 
I looked in the closet, there was Donovan” 
 (Bob Dylan does ‘Talking World War 
Three Blues” live at the Royal Albert Hall) 

“Shall we get the drinks in? I’ll ask the waiter. I’ll have a glass… a wee glass of red wine. Carbonel Merlot.” He stretches back in the pause for the drinks to arrive, his black roll-neck and pants obviously distressed, not ‘distressed’ as in ‘hobo-chic designer distressed’, just distressed. “Well, I have to have a little break before the show, OK? Being inside, before a show, I get claustrophobic. Especially in those wonderful Music Hall dressing rooms. They’re small. They’re so SMALL!”

I have his attention only from soundcheck, to gig. So it’s necessary to compress the questions. But of course, Donovan doesn’t do soundbites, and there’s a mass to talk up. His name comes trailing clouds of imagery, he’s done every-stuff, a Ye Olde English Psychedelic sit-com of anti-Vietnam protest, love-beads, peace-signs, patchouli oil, ‘Granny-Takes-A-Trip’ shades, conservation, getting snarled at by Bob Dylan, kaftans, LSD, electrical bananas, hanging out with The Fabs and the Maharishi in India… to saving baby seals. He dates George Harrison’s wife’s sister, marries Brian Jones’ ex-girlfriend. He’s even there with Alice Cooper on “Billion Dollar Babies”. He has lots of hits.

So where to start… the beginning? “I was living in Hatfield, hanging out in St Albans. That was my manor. And at that time, all over the country people were saying ‘let’s get a few guitars together’, they were picking up guitars, and ending up being the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, the Kinks, the Who, the Hollies, the Zombies, the Animals – ha-ha-ha. Not all of them went to Art School, but they were hanging out at the Art School Balls. And I realised there was a Coffee House, a Jazz Club, a Folk Club, and an Art School in most of the old towns – and the old town for me was St Albans. Which, of course, is a Roman city, with a thousand-year-old Cathedral. And I used to hang out in the graveyard – we’d sleep there, and then we’d get chased on by the Police, while I was learning guitar from Dirty Hugh. In my book you’ll read about Dirty Hugh. He was a tall good-looking man with long hair, a long beard and a long coat, a really interesting guy. But he never bathed. He was a beautiful-looking man, more beautiful than Rasputin, but… I don’t know, sort-of like those ideas of wizards, y’know, not the ones with the hat-with-the-stars-on-it and the cloak. But the REAL wizards. And he played fascinating guitar styles that I wanted to learn. So I spent three days with him, and he stank to the high heavens. But one must suffer for one’s art mustn’t one? We used to sleep in the graveyard, then get up the next day, and he’d show me the next pattern. Patterns which I learned. I learned them. And Dirty Hugh taught me…”

He talks softly and entertainingly, while seldom engaging you directly. A slightly sad smile that’s not easy to read. He could do this on automatic-plot. The fact that he so obviously isn’t is evidence of… what? Renewed energies? Reconnections forged by the self-archaeology of compiling his autobiography? He talks about poetry and music, about the oral song-tradition that goes back to Homer, epics rhymed for mnemonic performance, clear through to the Gambian Griot who recited family history to ‘Roots’-questing Alex Haley. Literature, and the Celtic vision that is at the root of his work. Evident clear through to “Celia Of The Seals” (March 1971), a song that uses Celtic mythology to comment on the brutality of the seal-kills, the so-called seal-‘culls’. “It does, yes. It was about the seal hunts. But it mixed mythology with it. Because in far northern Scottish mythology the seal-people and the humans, they would mate, and seal-children would be born. Of course – it’s a myth, but it’s a beautiful myth. ‘Cos the seals, just like the dolphins, are intelligent. They say they once lived on the land, and that they ran around, but that they eventually returned to the sea, just like the dolphins. But it’s also about a top model called Celia Hammond (wife Linda’s close friend), who walked away – purposely, from modelling. She refused to wear fur because she realised it meant they were killing animals. She went up to the ice-floes with Brigitte Bardot and protested against the seal… they called it ‘seal culling’, which is really the seal-killing. So I asked my American label if they would carry a photograph of a seal-hunter walking across the ice carrying his knife with blood on it, and a poor little seal with its skin cut off, and its mother crying beside it – and they said ‘yes’. So I recorded the song called “Celia Of The Seals”…”

Perhaps he’s drawing on Dirty Hugh’s patterns during the first – acoustic, half of tonight’s show. The first-phase hits, 1965’s “Catch The Wind”, “Universal Soldier” and “Colours”. Linking songs into a narrative, “To Try For The Sun” is ‘a hitch-hiking song’, the line about the ‘windy city’ where the two vagabonds sleep rough is not Chicago, but Manchester, more precisely the derelict site of the future-GMEX. “Sunny Goodge Street” (once covered by Judy Collins) is about ‘a trip up to London to buy a little bit of hashish’, while “Jennifer Juniper” was written ‘about Jenny, Patti Boyd’s sister’. On “Hey Gyp (Dig The Slowness)” you hear the matrix for the future Marc Bolan – as well as the prototype Led Zeppelin acoustic stomp.

Before shifting from what he terms ‘definitely a black-&-white Folk period’ into his own Celtic Acid-Folk sub-genre… Hey, Groovy

Donovan is as important and influential as Bob Dylan 
and we are… listen, the man’s a poet…’ 
 (John Lennon to ‘Life’ magazine, 1968) 

When he does an electric “Barabajagal” tonight, you tend to miss the ferocity and finality of Jeff Beck’s full-on guitar. Ronnie Wood, Nicky Hopkins, Madeline Bell and Suzi Quatro were also there on the vinyl original. He’s worked with the best, Jimmy Page, Chris Spedding, Jack Bruce – in fact he stands in for Robert Plant with the other three-quarters of embryonic Led Zeppelin on “Hurdy Gurdy Man”, yet no matter who he plays with it’s never less than a Donovan track… He’s name-dropping the Beatles too. And why not? He was there. He tells of being in India with four Beatles, one Beach-Boy (Mike Love), and Mia Farrow. Of John Lennon patting the Maharishi’s head saying ‘there’s a good Guru’. And later that night, sitting cross-legged on the bungalow roof with their guitars, George leans over and suggests ‘I could write a verse for that…’, the song that becomes “Hurdy Gurdy Man”. Of course, back then, singles don’t extend beyond 2:57mins, and mindful of play-list time-restrictions - despite having mid-wived the Animals “House Of The Rising Sun”, producer Mickie Most omits George’s contribution in favour of the single’s excoriating incandescent Jimmy Page guitar solo which leaves no space for it. But he sings George’s verse tonight - “when the truth gets buried deep/ beneath a thousand years of sleep…” Donovan also tells the story, and sings the full version on his live album. These stories are true. Donovan provides the ‘sea of green, sky of blue’ line for “Yellow Submarine”. Then McCartney appears on his “Mellow Yellow” single, and Donovan guests on Beatles recording sessions – singing along with the chorus of “All You Need Is Love” at Abbey Road. He claims to have forgotten the exact moment, but Flower-Power photographs record it all. Oh Gosh…

Around this period Donovan was big, bigger than you could imagine. A no.1 hit record now means you get a heroin-chic girlfriend, you’re snapped thumping a paparazzi outside the nightclub, then you detox, and get dropped by your record label when your third single only gets to no.13… only to get resurrected by an ‘I’m A Celebrity Island’ Reality TV slot. Way back then it was different. Then you were the Pied Piper. Voice of a Generation. Shaman. Philosopher-Poet. Prophet of Gentleness. A radical Whistle-blower, a paisley Town Crier. All that weight of belief and expectation. “Yeah, getting a no.1 in America with “Sunshine Superman” was very important. It was extraordinary, and fun to begin with. None of us – the Beatles, the Stones, I - or any of us, expected that kind of mania. I talked to Lennon, and I talked to Joni Mitchell about it – I asked them ‘did you intend it, do you actually want to do this? It wasn’t a stroke of luck all the way, was it? You wanted to do it!’ So yes, we knew we were going to do this. But the shock was, the amount of the success.” So how does Donovan react? He gets another no.1 with “Mellow Yellow” (later covered by Herbie Hancock), and follows it with Folk-psych top five jewels “There Is A Mountain” and “Hurdy-Gurdy Man”. Perhaps writing the book has sharpened the memories? Refreshed the sensations? Renewed the acquaintances and events?

Whatever, most covers of his “Season Of The Witch” – and there have been plenty (Al Kooper and Stephen Stills, Brian Auger’s Trinity and Julie Driscoll, Courtney Love’s Hole), stress the edgy supernatural elements of the song, certainly its use in the second ‘Blues Brothers’ (1998) movie drips with voodoo. Yet the way Donovan tells the tale, it’s more ‘season of the witch-hunt’, written about the series of drug-raids targeted at the newly-emerged Bright Young Things of the Sixties Rock aristocracy. “Of all the Pop and Rock Stars of the 1960s, I was the first to be targeted by the Drug Squad, the first to be busted” he confides. “In my book it tells how I was busted, and following me were the Stones, the Beatles, and lots of other people.” Telling how, one 4am ‘on a cold London dawn’ they came to raid a naked and ‘skinny little me’, wrecking his Maida Vale Beatnik pad in their search for two-ounces of grass, before the arresting officer takes him aside… and asks for his autograph. “Everybody knew me that day” he adds wryly, as the story hits the press. George Harrison phones supportively, suggesting he can make much money from this uninvited notoriety. But could “Sunshine Superman” have happened without LSD? even though the lyrics say ‘could have tripped-out easy/ but I’ve, changed my ways’. Hey, far out…

There are four recently-issued expanded CD reissues. Starting with the full ‘Sunshine Superman’ album (1966). Its bonus tracks include the first and most effective of successive revisions of “Superlungs” – a hit for Terry Reid, with its dope-smoking schoolgirl straight out of an ‘OC’ plot-line. And “Museum” – a hit for Herman’s Hermits, forming teasing snapshots of London’s social metamorphosis. Plus “Fat Angel” name-checking Mama Cass and Jefferson Airplane, the methadrine-powered rolling stuttering “The Trip” - a stoned excursion through LA’s Sunset Strip and the blurred hipness of its hippest club with Joanie (Baez) and Dylan (‘broken hourglass in his hand’). And two songs for Bert Jansch, John Cameron’s complex and subtle Morley-harpsichord arrangement on “Bert’s Blues”, and “House Of Jansch”. “Seasons Of The Witch” too. Then the ‘Mellow Yellow’ album (1967) with its run of lyrical gems carried on shimmering sitar-splashed resonances – “Writer In The Sun”, “Sand And Foam”, “Young Girl Blues” and “Hampstead Incident”. There are walk-on lyric-parts for Mary Quant and Allen Ginsberg, plus rare US-only single “Epistle To Dippy” and long-lost jazz-cool ‘b’-side “Preachin’ Love”.

Next ‘The Hurdy Gurdy Man’ set (1968), Steve Hillage later reinvigorates, or re-discovers the power of “Hurdy-Gurdy Man”. Eartha Kitt, the Butthole Surfers too, doing their own version in July 1990. With the addition of “Jennifer Juniper” (later a November 1990 novelty hit for Singing Corner, aka comedians Trev & Simon), plus “Teen Angel”, and movie-theme “Poor Cow”. Until the more disparate and uneven ‘Barabajagal’ album (1969), with his mystic visionary tone-poem “Atlantis”, plus Graham Nash adding laser-guided harmonies to “Happiness Runs”. Also silly throw-away sing-along’s “Pamela Jo” and “I Love My Shirt” – surely based on the ‘keep going well, keep going Shell’ TV-ad? But expanded with Don’s own demo of “Lord Of The Reedy River” covered by Mary Hopkins… and Kate Bush, and “Poor Man’s Sunshine” that will eventually appear thirty-five years later on 2004’s ‘Beat Café’. While “Barabajagal” itself will be covered in 2000 by Dope Smugglaz (in league with Shaun Ryder, about whom, more later…).

beat: the timeless code of the self exiled 
always, bohemians and beats challenge hypocrisy and greed.
they represent an attitude of dissent, focusing a bright
light on the absurdities of society. usually expressed in
lifestyle through one of the arts, bohemian and beat 
self-exiles continue to gather the free atmosphere of the café 
(Donovan, sleeve-notes to ‘Beat Café’

Quit whatever you’re doing. Drop all those predigested notions. Take this trip to ‘Donoleitcho’s Island’, and grab a look around. It’s stranger than you know. To some, it’s nothing more than an escapist ‘Land That Doesn’t Have To Be’. And sure, there’s comic-strip references here - Green Lantern and Superman (even if the latter comes adorned with Nitzschean embellishments). Plus Beat and hipster references too. All infused by playful narcotic indulgences. So his is an art for the higher and lower self? Yet there’s no darkness in Donovan. And critics enjoy their flirtations with ‘close-enough-to-say-you’ve-been-there’ darkness. They like their heroes ‘elegantly wasted’ or ‘psychedelically deranged’. Donovan’s not like that. There’s no miserablism. Sad wistfulness, yes. Haunted melancholy, yes. Mystery and magic seen through the ‘microscopic circles in the fluid of my sight’ (‘Sand And Foam’). Swords broken and cast into enchanted lakes. Sounds conjured from the ether, draped in John Cameron’s sometimes over-decorous arrangements, even when they seem an unnecessary and distracting prettification. After all, this is the minstrel who assumed ‘The Pied Piper Of Hamelin’ (1972) movie-role, didn’t he? then went on to write the score for Franco Zefferelli’s St Francis of Assisi bio-pic ‘Brother Sun Sister Moon’ (1972).

Yet he can deal teasing sexual innuendo, ‘softly I enter her garden/ parting her veil with a sigh’ (‘Bleak City Woman’). He writes with sensitivity from a female point of view too. From the ‘Palais Girl’ who kisses ‘John & Paul’ goodnight on her wall, to that first-ever lyric-reference to female masturbation, ‘yourself you’d touch, but not too much/ you hear it’s degrading’ (‘Young Girl Blues’). A sensitivity to both the anima – or feminine side of the gender equation, and Gaia, the natural power of the world. This is what Patti Smith – on the sleeve of ‘Horses’ (1975), calls ‘beyond gender’, explaining later ‘by that, I meant that as an artist, I can take any position, any voice, that I want’.

“Yes, these female… aspects, in my songs, are what I brought in. I brought in the ‘feminised male’. In the songs 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 Sixties into songs. And at first they thought I must be gay. Gypsy Dave will tell you – half my audience in New York and San Francisco at a couple of early concerts were gay, and they were knocking the doors down to meet me. And I’m saying ‘yeah yeah yeah, I’m hetero guys, I’m actually hetero, but I understand exactly where you’re coming from. You have a feminine aspect, and you want to celebrate it’. So, yeh, I was doing all that – singing from other points of view. But I have children’s songs as well….” And if Donovan’s belief in the natural innocence of ‘all the golden children’, and their childlike innocence, the idea that we’re born wise but that our vision gets muddied, is now tarnished, then that’s our loss, not his.

six cheap people in an empty hotel,
every last one with a story to tell...
could have tripped out easy, but I decided to stay” 
 (“Donovan” by The Happy Mondays on the 
album ‘Thrills Pills & Bellyaches’ 1991) 

What’s so funny ‘bout Peace, Love & Understanding…? Donovan, the shooting star who fell to Earth, never had another chart hit after he hitchhiked off the edge of sixties-end, that lost long-haired, loose-hipped, flower-powerful dreaming decade. In all probability, if it had been issued just three years earlier, 1973’s “Cosmic Wheels” would have gone Top Ten. Little doubt about that. The fact that it doesn’t is less down to Donovan than it is to those ‘Changin’ Times’. But others didn’t survive the transition at all, in a blur of myth, martyrdom and conspiracy Hendrix, Brian Jones and Jim Morrison all died at that black-magic age 27. While for Donovan, according to his album title, he was merely faced with the more problematic ‘7-Tease’ (November 1974). ‘Around about 1970 I had achieved everything I could have possibly dreamed of and more’ he told Sylvie Simmons. ‘There was nowhere else to go. I didn’t burn out, I wasn’t a drug addict, but I was wounded in some way. I came home to my cottage in England, married Linda and walked away from fame, the Rolls-Royce, the yacht, the mansion…’ (in ‘Night & Day’ 29 September 1996). Yes, he married long-term muse ‘girl-child’ Linda Lawrence. They have two daughters together, Astrella Celeste and Oriole Nebula. Plus a grandson Sebastian. And stepson Julian Brian (through 16-year-old Linda by Brian Jones). There’s also the ‘children I didn’t raise’ with Californian Enid Stilligoe, actress Ione Skye who appears in ‘Rivers Edge’ (1986), and the movie of the Martin Amis novel ‘The Rachel Papers’ (1989), and musician Donovan Leitch Jrn who played in glam-band Nancy Boy, and...

No matter what else he does he’s always going to be Donovan. The Donovan who kicked 3,000 blooms into the audience at the Hollywood Bowl. The gentle flowerchild Donovan in kaftan. That’s good, it means he’ll never be without a cult audience. That’s bad in that, no matter how he tries, no matter how many reinventions he attempts, no matter how he strives to attach his name to happening bands, like the Happy Mondays or Trevor & Simon, or work with producers like Rick Rubin, he will never ever be allowed to expand outside that audience. “And – er, I go on stage at eight… so, I can only afford another ten minutes. And you’re not even looking at your questions…” adding playfully “you’d better get to some key ones in case you say to yourself later ‘oh, I didn’t ask him that one…’

So, some time later, during the late-1980’s, he tours with Happy Mondays - who also write and record a track called “Donovan” for their ‘Thrills Pills & Bellyaches’ album (1991), which quotes “Sunshine Superman” lyrics. Perhaps he sees similarities with what they were doing in that e-necking ‘Second Summer Of Love’, and the 1960s drug scene? “Mmmm, the Mondays were the Rolling Stones of the eighties, they were incredible” he concedes. “And those young bands respect me, ‘cos I take chances, because I break the rules. I broke the rules in songwriting and recording. And that’s an inspiration to a young band. They feel they have to follow a certain line… and I say ‘no’! Don’t follow any lines. Break the rules. And the Mondays loved that in me. So, they came looking for me. And they found me. I was doing solo gigs up north somewhere, I can’t remember where (actually, it was Colne, Lancashire). I was with Julian – my stepson, who was acting as my Roadie. And there was a knock on the door. Julian answered, he went and I heard him say ‘I’ll ask’, then he came back and said ‘there’s five guys here from Manchester, they’re called the Happy Mondays and they want to take you now, capture you, put you in their van and take you to the ‘Hacienda’’… So, we met, and I hung out with the Mondays and went on six of their performances with them. Then Shaun (Ryder) fell in love with my daughter, and his brother Paul fell in love with my other daughter. And there’s a beautiful grandchild from Shaun with my daughter Oriole Nebula, called Coca (Sebastian). And so… that was Madchester. It was the eighties.”

Later there were sessions with Rap-Metal meister Rick Rubin too (the 1996 ‘Sutras’ album). Yet although seasons change, he’s still letting his freak-flag fly, there’s still this corner of a foreign field that is forever sixties… ‘I never thought it was going to last another day. Each day… well, it could have been the last, but it didn’t matter if it was. I never felt it was a job, it was a life-style, a vocation’. If I pull a hit record, well good… but otherwise I’ll just continue making nice records’ (to ‘New Musical Express’ January 1975). Then, as now. And now, there’s the book – ‘my autobiography, ‘The Hurdy Gurdy Man’, it’s on the Century imprint’, there’s the albums… the ‘Fortieth Anniversary Tour’, and he’s in a good place. “OK Andy, there it is. And I hope you’re coming to the show tonight…?” I assure him I will, “Thank you man. See you later…’ It’s only then, as he’s walking away, that I remember the other questions I should have asked him. The ‘oh, I didn’t ask him that one…’ syndrome.

Published in:
‘ROCK ‘N’ REEL Vol.2 No.1 Jan/Feb’
(UK – December 2006)

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