Monday, 25 January 2010

The TRUE story of how I fell out of love with Donovan

I feel guilty framing the title for this entry but it has to be faced. Yes, that Donovan - is there another? Donovan the minstrel whose Fairytale in truncated Marble Arch form was the first LP I ever bought; Donovan whose 1972 benefit gig with his new Irish band at Green's Playhouse, Glasgow, for UCS (Upper Clyde Shipbuilding) was the first concert I ever attended (you can't include Dean Ford and the Gaylords, as the Marmalade probably still were then, in a marquee in the Duchess Park in Motherwell sometime in the sixties as that was simply an event like a fete or a jumble sale to my younger self - and I'm not even sure I remember it properly).

That Donovan, the weaver of spells, is now, sadly, no more: no more, that is, than any other fondly remembered artist whom I don't exactly blush to recall, but who is no longer a living force for me in terms of going to gigs or seeking out new releases.

I'm speaking, of course, about the public Donovan, the image which is no more the whole man than I may be considered to be solely constituted of the enthusiasms contained within this blog. Okay, bad example, but you get the idea: Donovan In My Life, not his own.

Good-morning-Mr-Leitch looms almost as large as the Beatles (which'll please please him) in that part of my musical development bound around early adolescence. LPs and gigs apart, he was also my initiation into the wonderful, or at least boredom-devouring, world of weekly music papers: it was an article about him which prompted me to buy a copy of Sounds for myself for the first time (an elder brother read the music papers), prompting a kind of wistful surprise and regret from my mother: I, too, had now crossed over to the other side. Ever after I would be listening to and reading about music, still present in the house but, I suspect, from my mother's point of view at one remove, a transition already made by two elder brothers. Like starting to have a bath by myself (a tad earlier) it was a staging post.

The Beatles were there all through my childhood, thanks to those elder brothers, but perhaps the group's ubiquity in the sixties made seem them less of a threat (even my father's idol Harold Wilson had acknowledged them) or perhaps it was the fact that I had actively sought out Donovan, rather than listening to pop music which happened to be playing in the house anyway.

Although that, now I think of it, is a grey area: I recall 45s of Hurdy Gurdy Man and Sunshine Superman which I think belonged to my eldest brother so that even if I bought the budget LP for myself I would have been following his lead.

I do recall, however, the more or less explicit rule, observed more by myself and my immediate elder brother, that you had to like different artists. My eldest brother didn't intervene to claim first dibs on Donovan
either because he wasn't around for part of my teens - or because with a greater age gap between us, the need for that kind of direct rivalry was lessened, as he had already won whatever kind of male game it was.

I recall one occasion when my immediate elder brother and his schoolfriend poured scorn on the unhip cover of the Universal Soldier LP which only had a photograph of a smartly dressed Donovan, possibly performing on TV: the flower power image on the Marble Arch Fairytale cover was one thing, but this was beyond the pale. (In later years he would enthuse about the Donovan in Concert album, thus exposing the essentially shallow and contradictory nature of his so-called principled stance.)

At the time, however, that brother favoured Tyrannosaurus Rex, still some way from teenybopper fame and, though widely publicised via John Peel's BBC radio programme, very much a cult group, "underground," so his liking for them proclaimed his superior status and musical knowledge - neither of which prevented him, when Tyrannosaurus Rex came to play at Motherwell Town Hall in 1970, from embarrassingly himself by foolishly asking a female fan standing by the entrance: "Are you June Child?" (Although now I come to think of it, it can't have been all that embarrassing if he related the tale himself.)

And this egregious error did not affect the essential point: Donovan may have been "mine" but Tyrannosaurus Rex was "his." I might be permitted to listen occasionally to his Prophets, Seers and Sages album, but I couldn't, in any sense, own it. A strange and wonderfully exotic thing it seemed at the time, although now I'd like to have Marc Bolan arraigned in the same court as Bernie Taupin for crimes against songwriting. (In what seems to have been a characteristic bout of self-delusion Bolan once complained that "The Labour Exchange couldn't get me a job as a poet.")

You could say that Donovan, for all his connection with childhood innocence - I can hardly say robbed me of my own innocence, but provided me, at the time I needed it, with a figure whose songs spoke of an alternative existence, of other ways of being. Rather, I must reluctantly allow, as Marc Bolan may have done for my brother - and in a sense the words mattered less than the meaning we chose to invest in them.

I'm not talking about drugs, incidentally, but being given the capacity to dream. There had been a famous bust in which Donovan was involved in the sixties - even though after returning from India where he had studied alongside the Beatles he renounced narcotics in the notes to his meditation-inspired A Gift From a Flower to a Garden.

Would my parents have been aware of either event? But the psychedelic associations of any photo of late sixties Donovan might have been enough for them - if, that is, they actually distinguished one pop star from another instead of seeing them all as a kind of unvariegated threat like a grey cloud of hoodies lingering in a shopping mall (there's my own middle-aged fear coming out), seeking to rob their sons of that overriding desire for academic achievement which my father, in particular, seemed to prize to the exclusion of just about everything else. In a neat inversion of the protestant anthem my eldest brother would chant:

Oh, the sash my father wore, it said: Study Hard All Day,
And it's on the twelfth I love to slash the sash my father wore.

Donovan had been a beatnik, stealing milk bottles off doorsteps in Cornwall; John Lennon's middle class origins may or may not have been apparent, but in my father's eyes the Beatles and their ilk stood for a dangerous creed of pleasure and possibility whose easy rewards did not follow from anything which constituted Hard Work. I can recall his displeasure when I was listening to Donovan's Open Road LP on headphones in the dark in my bedroom, a small part of me already beyond his control.

And pop stars in general, as mentioned in the entry about the visiting priest, were undoubtedly seen by him as threats to the Catholic way of life. When David Essex, who had starred in Godspell, was asked by on  a children's TV show whether he was himself religious, his reply was something like: No, but I recognise that Jesus was a good man who did a lot of good things.

My father, who happened to be in the room, contented himself on this occasion with a kind of low-level rumble: "How very good of you." But in my memory he is gripping the armrests of his chair with white-knuckled intensity.

In time, each of us turned his back on the church, becoming, in a phrase my father used to more than one of us, Flotsam On the Sea of Life (though I have been informed since that technically we would have been jetsam). Yet my Dono-faith it waivered not, although when Tyrannosaurus Rex morphed into glam rock gods T Rex, I'm not sure how my brother was able to rationalise this volte-face. It was certainly a personal blow to our flesh-and-blood guru, and Bolan's former champion, the BBC DJ John Peel; I recall his playing Telegram Sam on his evening show but saying something which suggested sadness and bewilderment afterwards.

The result of a refusal to play a subsequent single was that Peel, a close friend of Bolan's who had endlessly promoted his work, had driven him to gigs - hell, had even read out a stupid fairy story on the first Tyrannosaurus Rex album ("Kingsley Mole sat high on a windy knoll") - was cruelly and suddenly dropped, an event remembered with some pain in that portion of his autobiography he survived to write. Peel did talk elsewhere about being greeted warmly by Bolan much later on - but only after his star was in freefall. And it's fair to say that producer Tony Visconti, who worked on those Tyrannosaurus Rex LPs and far beyond, does not retain exclusively happy memories of the bopping elf once his career took off.

I can't resist mentioning that the spurned friend did get in at least one pleasing dig: reviewing a later T. Rex single for Disc and Music Echo, he noted that in the song Marc pronounced "dinosaur" as "dino-saw-er, " like the Hollywood Argyles' Alley-Oop. "Oh well," wrote Peel, "at least Marc's sources are good."

A further, related, diversion: Alley-Oop had been produced by Kim Fowley, who also worked on a 1969 comeback album for John Peel's childhood hero Gene Vincent, funded by Peel's label Dandelion Records. It can't have been much of a success, as I bought a cheapo copy in Motherwell Woolworths about the same time as that Ronnie Hawkins LP, but at least on one track Vincent - sinking down as Bolan was soon to float up - drawled: "This is for Mister Jahhhn Peel, who's been so kind to me."

Meanwhile Donovan, if never again to become the huge star he was in both Britain and America in psychedelic mode in the sixties, kept reinventing himself in the seventies. The Open Road album referred to earlier (one of Peel's favourites, incidentally) on Pye's more hip Dawn label, ostensibly made him just another member of a group, but it was clearly Donovan's show; his later claims to have invented Celtic Rock stem from this album and he has a point, although you do wish someone else had made it for him. And had my father looked at the lyrics inside the gatefold sleeve, he might have done more than to ask me not to listen in the dark, where songs such as Poke at the Pope were concerned:

His eyes are sunken and his cheeks are hollow
While you dig the poor of the world they follow
He hoarding up their gold in the Vatican
Would you trust this man? ask yourself now

"Of course, it's very emotive," my immediate elder brother told me in a superior sort of way. Mind you, he had had the humiliating (I'd like to think) experience of playing records to the doctor's son across the road who merely kept muttering, "Mediocre, mediocre." (Now he was a Scott Walker fan so I suppose, taking the long view, that must make him the overall winner.)

Over the years I went to see Donovan quite a few times. The magic of that first gig is what sticks most in the mind, although I was never disappointed. I recorded the 1973 gig at the Apollo (as it probably was by then) to promote Essence to Essence, the album produced by Andrew Loog Oldham, and another "new" Donovan. Fuzzy as it was on my little cassette recorder, I listened to it through the Rigonda (Russian) stereo system which my father had bequeathed to my room, having got the next model up.

This thought suggests a contradiction: as far as I remember, my father had no particular interest in music. He did, however, have an eye for a perceived bargain, so was it that the Russian-made Rigonda ("adjustable from a whisper to a ROAR!" according to the ad in Exchange and Mart) was simply too good value to resist, or could it have been some kind of reluctant nod in the direction of his sons' enthusiasms? I don't know - although he also bought a Moskvich, an ugly, mustard-coloured block which was apparently the most potentially dangerous car on the road.

When I look at a list of later Donovan albums I can see that I didn't always buy them, but usually borrowed them from my local library: a sign of waning interest? But three fairly recent events combined to make that faith finally ebb away. One was seeing the Master Musicians of Joujouka in concert at the Royal Festival Hall around the mid nineties. Presumably because of the Brian Jones connection (Donovan married Linda Lawrence), just before the interval Donovan popped on to sing a fairly pointless song centering around the elderly leader of the group's limited English, not going much beyond a few phrases like "Thank you very much." At a party it might (perhaps) have been charming; here, where we had already been immersed in those hypnotic, repetitious rhythms for the best part of an hour it felt irrelevant.

A few years later, having had the delight of hearing the second half of A Gift From a Flower to a Garden for the first time (that the cost of a full price double album would have been beyond my means in my teenage years) I warmed to Donovan again. As with the Henry Red Allen sides with the Luis Russell Orchestra (see Luis, Louis post), there is a peculiar pleasure to be derived from hearing something you haven't heard before but which is intimately linked to something you know well.

In this case, I could hear that a song like Epistle to Derroll (about mentor Derroll Adams, who had played at that UCS gig) was related to, but several stages on from, the sensibility who had written the lyrics for The Ballad of Geraldine, which closed my edition of the Fairytale album. And in Starfish-on-the-Toast, lines like:

Fanfaring daffodilly, trumpetingly small

had a precision and a poetry which was beyond the former husband of the real June Child, although maybe you need to hear that close-miked, intimate, almost whispered, delivery, and the unhurried, simple guitar patterns, possibly influenced by the banjoman, to get the full effect:

Re Epistle to Derroll, incidentally, it was John Peel, also a longtime Dono-fan, who said that only Donovan could make the word "Belgium" sound romantic. Anyway, rather than faffing around with paraphrase, I'll paste in my review of A Gift From a Flower to a Garden from a well-known etc, simply headed "At His Very Best":

The best of this double album undoubtedly shows Donovan at the height of his artistic powers: songs are poetic but succinct, with sensitive backing from Harold McNair and others when it's needed (Enchanted Gypsy; Tinker and the Crab) or his own acoustic guitar when it isn't (Isle of Islay; Epistle to Derroll).

If you are only familiar with the numerous permutations of the much-reissued early stuff then this is a clear development, though the songs retain Donovan's sense of seeing beauty and wonder in the simplest things, especially in Isle of Islay or a song like Starfish on the Toast: "Holding whelks and periwinkles tingling in his hand / Little does he know they hold him too."

I agree that the second album is better than the first, as others have said, but one of the beauties of Gift... as a whole is that several styles, including a relaxed, jazzy feel on some numbers like Sun, blend effortlessly together without feeling forced - indeed, ease and unselfconsciousness are the key words here. Other Donovan albums have their merits but in my view this record simply has the highest concentration of excellent songs.

There was a forum called something like "Donovan Conference"; I left a gushing message there of gratitude to Donovan a few years ago which is perhaps better left floating in cyberspace. Because now we come to the less good news.

I'm not sure of the order of events but I went to see Donovan at a gig at the Festival Hall maybe two or three years ago. I couldn't get a great seat but being sort of top left wasn't so bad: it was roughly where I'd been seated at Green's Playhouse more than thirty years before so maybe, along with the newly discovered delights of A Gift ... I could fall back into that Sunday afternoon when everything he sang was a wonder, and I never wanted the concert to end. The RFH gig was, indeed, consciously looking back to 1964, so it would be an occasion to celebrate our memories together and do what I've talked about in the doo wop entries in this blog, have that bittersweet overlay of past and present, linking hands with that younger self.

Well, the title of this piece sort of gives it away. I can't remember when I'd last seen him do a full concert (as opposed to popping up at someone else's) but the sense of absolute commitment only seemed fitfully there on that night in January 2004. Certainly the voice had changed. Whether it was a means of masking deficiencies brought about by age I don't know, but the vibrato-laden singing I heard that night seemed like a parody of the younger Donovan.(Matters were not helped by a lot of chatter coming from the back of the house - possibly members of Donovan's entourage or family, as they had percussive instruments to shake during There is a Mountain.) Donovan's schtick may not have been that different from earlier Dono-gigs, but it felt tedious that night.

So was it me? Him? Is it fair (as in the conclusion of that Paperback Writer book) to expect idols to give you back your youth? And he is continuing to record (although the Rick Rubin effort did not ressurect his career in the way that the Cash recordings did for the Man in Black), so that he isn't simply relying on his back catalogue, although that night was specifically about looking back.

But his recentish autobiography and an anthology-type DVD documentary haven't helped matters. Again, rather than faffing around I'll paste in my review from a well-known etc, entitled, rather cheaply I admit, "Readable but no Chronicles":

Forty years on, I'm sure the last thing Donovan wants is to be compared to Bob Dylan yet again, but it's difficult to avoid such comparisons when their autobiographies have come out so near each other.
What The Hurdy Gurdy Man lacks, however, is that sense in Dylan's book of sudden richness in an unlikely phrase, or a willingness to depart on all manner of unexpected (but enlightening) tangents. There's a sense, too, that Donovan has a chip on his shoulder and wants to make sure he impresses upon you his importance as a jazz-rock and Celtic rock innovator. Not that that is unreasonable: he has been unfairly neglected after his plummetting from the immense fame of the sixties, and I hope the recent reissues of his early albums will redress the balance.

The book is highly readable – Donovan’s tranformation into a major musical figure is a fascinating story, after all – and sections like his account of the casual beatnik lifestyle in Cornwall are enormously entertaining. But despite a strong page-turning quality, occasionally it feels like details have been omitted or insufficiently expanded. His eventual reuniting with Linda Lawrence is the overall arc of the book; perhaps as a consequence, other relationships seem to be given short shrift. And when you consider who our troubadour kept company with at the height of Flower Power isn’t there a more complex, contradictory tale - or at least an extra anecdote or three - waiting to come out?

A documentary series on his life some years ago on Radio 2, narrated by Donovan himself, hinted at problems in coming to terms with his life in the 70s or 80s. This book sidesteps that by effectively ending early, despite a cursory nod to the present day at the end. The upbeat nature of his telling of his tale is perhaps of a piece with the uplifting naivety of his best work, but you do feel there is more to be told, whether by Donovan himself or a biographer; Donovan's talent as a songwriter certainly merits further exploration.

The DVD documentary is of a piece with the biography: at times there is what seems like a protective layer of self-importance but you can understand his frustration that because he is no longer fashionable his actual achievements are consistently underrated. He wasn't just a Beatle hanger-on but a major star in his own right - who taught John Lennon the fingerpicking style which helped make Julia (see previous post) the classic it is. Julian Cope praises the documentary here (scroll down).

And if you are a reader of rock magazines or websites (and you probably are if you've got this far) you will know that a surprising number of musicians do, in fact, regularly cite Donovan as an inspiration - but maybe cult status is not enough when once you soared to Beatle-type heights. I remember, in a Radio 4 (I think) documentary about Donovan from the early seventies presented by Michael Wale, Mickie Most saying: "I've seen ten thousand people in America bow their heads to him." It must be hard not to inhale. And it must be very difficult when nothing else you do can get you back on the same plane ... and I don't mean Translove Airways.

But, finally, however he copes with the inconsistencies of his career, the business problems which prevented him fully capitalising on his success at the opportune moment, and despite his notion of whatever level of fame is, or ought to be, his due, not to mention the problem of striving to remain a child of faerie when trapped in an aging body, what really matters is that the best of his recordings, especially the second disc of A Gift, are pure gold, allowing us to see, or think we can see, with a child's eyes: forever young, to quote a former rival. And they won't go away.

Surfing the net looking for images and links for this piece, I saw that Donovan's official website had a live streaming of a concert in Munich last night. Had I been aware of it yesterday, I probably would have watched it, despite everything I've said above. What's that about, eh?

I've just realised it is still accessible and as I write this I can hear him singing The Enchanted Gypsy. And now, forty five years on, he is singing Catch the Wind. And with Try For the Sun, track 1 on the Marble Arch Fairytale, I think I must stop. I'd rather be listening to that than writing this. He looks older - he's no longer trying to cover his forehead with a few locks of hair - but he sounds alright - less mannered. Now he's singing The Ballad of Geraldine. I'm hesitating because I wanted some kind of conclusive sentence here but maybe it's best just to come to a halt, accept the contradictory feelings about Donovan, and invite you, the reader, to join me in hailing your Evening Star - as his dad put it all those years ago - Donovan.

... assuming, of course, there is still a link of some kind. (Is that a clever enough ending?)

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