Tuesday, May 10, 2011

10 Reasons Donovan’s the Most

Donovan quickly evolved from a folksinger many critics dismissed as the UK’s pale response to Dylan to a completely unique psychedelic minstrel. As Mr. Leitch turns 65 today, let’s dig ten reasons why he’s the most.

1. Do Look Back

With his little cap and acoustic guitar, the press were quick to label Donovan a Dylan clone, and Bob was rightfully skeptical when reading headlines about his new rival during the 1965 tour D.A. Pennebaker captured in Don’t Look Back. When Dylan hosted a Double-D summit in his hotel room, the guys sat down and debuted their latest songs for each other. Donovan’s was the flimsy, twee “To Sing for You”; Dylan’s the lacerating “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”. For years this sequence was held up as a prime example of Dylan’s hipness and Don’s lameness. Viewed decades removed from the incident, it’s hard not to see this scene in a totally different light. Sitting off to the side in his shades as Donovan sings, Dylan is condescending and patronizing (“Hey, that’s a good song, man!”). Donovan comes off as sweet and gracious in light of the undercurrent of ridicule. In just a little over a year, Donovan would reemerge with a totally new sound, and no one could justifiably accuse him of clinging to Dylan’s Cuban heels again.

2. All Raga All the Time

In 1965, The Kinks (“See My Friends”) and The Beatles (“Norwegian Wood”) introduced a new pop subgenre by melding modern folk-rock with the drone and instrumentation of Indian raga. By the next year, everyone was jumping on the “raga rock” wagon: The Stones, The Cyrkle, The Byrds, The Yardbirds. And though The Kinks and The Beatles were not finished with the form yet, only one artist fully explored raga rock as a conceptual thread streaming through nearly every track on 12 inches of vinyl. In September of 1966, Donovan released Sunshine Superman. Aside from a couple of rocking tributes to Swinging London (the title track, “The Trip”) and one spooky vision of apocalypse (“Season of the Witch”), the LP was essentially Rock’s first full-length raga rock album. Donovan approaches the style from the modal acoustic folk of “Legend of a Girl Child Linda” to sitar spiked stuff such as “Three King Fishers”, “Ferris Wheel”, “Guinevere”, and “The Fat Angel”. Intoxicating.

3. Legend of a Girl Child Linda

Linda Lawrence thought she had it made when she hooked up with Brian Jones, the pretty, enigmatic, and absurdly talented original leader of The Rolling Stones. Things turned sour when she became pregnant with one of the many kids Jones sired. True to form, he lost interest in Linda when she broke the news. Even more loathsomely, he got violent. Brian and Linda’s scuffles were so dire that The Pretty Things, who roomed below Jones, could here the crashes through the ceiling of their flat. Linda lucked out when Jones took off for good, and sweet, gentle Donovan entered her life. After a long courtship, the two married in 1970, and Don became father to young Julian Brian Jones, now Julian Brian Leitch. Linda and Donovan had two kids together, and celebrated their 40th anniversary last year, which must be some sort of Rock & Roll record.

4. Busted

The Drug Bust that rattled the ‘60s pop world was certainly the one that went down at Keith Richards’s Redlands estate on February 12, 1967. Keith and Mick faced stiff sentences on trumped-up charges, and the outcry from their fans, peers, and even the press (conservative William Rees-Mogg’s famous Times editorial “Who Breaks a Butterfly on a Wheel?”) was unprecedented. The Stones’ bust may have been Britain’s loudest, but the first was aimed at innocent little Don. A few months after some of Donovan’s friends were depicted enjoying a toke in the TV doc A Boy Called Donovan, the blue meanies arrived to whisk him off for holding a little grass. Fortunately, the charges evaporated and Don was free to continue sprinkling his psychedelic pixie dust on the tracks that would comprise Sunshine Superman. If Donovan’s bust shocked the older generation, his complete renunciation of all drugs after meeting Maharishi Mahesh Yogi a couple of years later must have been equally shocking to the kids.

5. Sky of Blue...

John, Paul, George, and Ringo were quite generous with their talents, assisting pals such as The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, Ron Wood, Cream, and Elton John in the studio. But the first artist deemed worthy of a Beatle’s helping hand was Donovan. Paul McCartney could be heard bumping and grinding on Don’s late ’66 hit “Mellow Yellow” (he is especially audible ad-libbing during the instrumental break). Months earlier, Donovan became the first composer aside from Lennon to co-write a tune with McCartney when he contributed the “Sky of blue, sea of green” line to “Yellow Submarine”.

6. “All they know is what we teach ‘em.”

Donovan made an even greater contribution to Beatledom in 1968 when he tagged along with the Fabs on their Indian retreat with the Maharishi. During the trip he reportedly taught both Paul and John the fluid finger picking technique taught to him by finger picking virtuoso Bert Jansch years earlier. Without this valuable knowledge, “The White Album” may have lacked such tracks as “Blackbird” and “Julia”. Thanks, Donovan!

7. “Getting a little bit better, no doubt.”

Lots of ‘60s rockers spoke out against war, but few put their money where their mouths were like Donovan did. His first single of’67 was, in the opinion of this writer, his greatest. “Epistle to Dippy” is musically beguiling, with its twangy guitar hook and cheeky fiddle break. Lyrically, it is a message to Donovan’s old friend, who went by the nickname “Dippy” and was currently serving in the ranks of the British Army stationed in Malaysia. When Dippy heard himself name checked in Donovan’s latest hit, he contacted the singer. And what did Donovan do after reconnecting with his buddy? He personally paid for Dippy’s military discharge! We should all have friends like that.

8. For Little Ones

The inescapable popularity of “Yellow Submarine” inspired every artist swinging in mid-‘60s London to bake up their own confection for the kiddies. The Kinks, The Who, The Move, even The Rolling Stones all made records fit for pre-teen consumption. But none of these artists were as apt for such tunes as whimsical Donovan. In late 1967, he released Rock’s first full-on children’s album. The double-disc (and Rock’s first box set) Gift from a Flower to a Garden included one record aimed at adults called “Wear Your Love Like Heaven” and one appropriately titled “For Little Ones” on which he delivered such delicate fantasies as “The Enchanted Gypsy”, “The Tinker and the Crab”, and “Starfish-on-Toast” (the two discs were released as separate albums in the U.S.). Solidifying his devotion to making listenable music for tots, he put out H.M.S. Donovan in 1971. This time all four sides of the double L.P. were custom made for the kiddies. Young parents must have expelled a hearty sigh of relief knowing they could finally toss those old copies of “The Hokey Pokey” in favor of a platter more pleasing to mature ears.

9. Truth

Those who may have been inclined to dismiss Donovan as a lightweight have long praised him for one monumental contribute to heavy rock: his “Hurdy Gurdy Man” is the first record to feature all three of Led Zeppelin’s instrumentalists: Jimmy Page, John Bonham, and John Paul Jones. Actually, it isn’t. In fact, John Paul Jones is the only Zep to contribute to “Hurdy Gurdy Man”, but that does not squelch Donovan’s heavy credentials. On his next L.P., Barabajagal, he recruited The Jeff Beck Group to back him on the title track and “Superlungs (My Supergirl)”. The results are two bits of white-hot evidence of Donovan’s power as a pure rocker and the Jeff Beck’s Group’s ability to stir up a funky murk to rival Sly and the Family Stone.

10. “One chants out between two worlds.”

The Beatles got all the press for following Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, but his most devoted pop follower was Donovan. More than four decades after his first Indian excursion to visit the Maharishi, Donovan continues to lecture about the benefits of transcendental meditation as a path to opening the consciousness and achieving inner peace. Donovan’s TM advocacy also resulted in one of pop-culture’s most unlikely teams when he joined forces with fellow meditator and freaky genius David Lynch to spread the word. As a member of the David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness-Based Education and World Peace, Donovan works to promote the introduction of transcendental meditation into school curriculums.
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