Redigging Donovan

A few of months ago, if you had expressed interest, I could have told you about my fascination, occurring through my British '60's-obsessed teenage years, with Donovan. I would have talked about having heard the chart-toppers, by then not contemporary, when I was a small tot but not really becoming curious until I sat down, at thirteen or so, with my eldest sister's well-worn, oft-played LP copy of "Donovan's Greatest Hits" and tuned in. This is how it went:

I was enormously intrigued by the almost discordant -seeming, slightly disorienting "Epistle to Dippy," with its thudding electric guitar and bass opening, harpsichord, strings and hipster lyrics ("elevator in the brain hotel" particularly delighted me). "Sunshine Superman," "Season of the Witch" and "Wear Your Love like Heaven" transported me to the first past – in which I, born in 1966, was not a significant participant – that I idealized, the Psychedelic Era. The closing track, "Lalena," struck me as beautiful but almost unbearably poignant. Sitting in a corner of my basement, surrounded by my stereo equipment, records and, of course, guitar, I looked at the picture booklet included in the "open-out" album; seeing the shot (shown above) of the very young, pre-fame Donovan, parked at a piano but chording on a twelve-string guitar, his hair so closely-cropped that his trademark waves are not apparent ... and the one, now iconic, in which he, barefooted, clothed in a long gown and holding a peacock fan, gazes out to sea from where he reposes, enclosed front, back and above by a stone structure, I wondered What sort of person is this Hurdy Gurdy Man, who creates vivid and enticing pictures with his song poetry, sings sometimes in a reverb-simulating voice, and gently but not at all tentatively – just masterfully – strums and picks an acoustic?

For the next several years, still loyal to what can came from the British Isles in the '60's and can loosely be termed rock and folk, I listened to Donovan, as enchanted as ever by his imagery and the sort of trill, not at all precious, with which he often presented it. I bought copies of "Mellow Yellow" and "The Hurdy Gurdy Man" as well as an album representing his introductory period (in which he was labeled, by a label-obsessed press, "The British Bob Dylan"), which, I was to find, contained tracks from both his first, "What's Bin Did and What's Bin Hid" and second, "Fairytale" LP outings. The cover of a Shawn Phillips composition, "Little Tin Soldier," from the early collection made me sad; I listened least of all to the record on which it appeared, which I acquired last. I logged countless hours with "Mellow" and "Hurdy" – from the former, I especially loved "Writer in the Sun," "Sand and Foam," "House of Jansch" (I didn't know then who Jansch was; thanks, Tom, for enlightening me), "Young Girl Blues," "Hampstead Incident" and "Sunny South Kensington"; from the latter, the title track and "Get Thy Bearings."

In short, I could have told you much, composed of both minutiae and superficialities, about my long-held passion for Donovan – but I could not, in these more recent times, have expressed my intensity of feeling about his music, because it's all but impossible, perhaps genuinely impossible, to reheat, re-experience, and then accurately communicate an emotional response, even one sustained over a period of years. I can, though, tell you now about my present rediscovery of Donovan and my new interpretation of his music and its magic.

Last October, having been inspired by Will Hodgkinson's funny-as-heck, illuminating and "it's never too late"-themed Guitar Man, I returned to the six-string guitar (so much for this). A great deal had happened in my music listening life since I first was playing this instrument in earnest and digging Donovan. I had discovered jazz and swing! One of the reasons, in fact, that I had abandoned the guitar is that I felt unable to adapt myself to the greater demands of playing jazz after years of strumming harmonically simple barre chords in a rock setting. Anyway, all of a sudden back to my first love (and seemingly overnight in possession of some new guitars, bought with savings), I started thinking about what I wanted to do this time around with the six-string. I had realized in my tenor-playing days that I had a yen to become proficient as a solo guitarist in the chord melody style ... and also that I had no desire to sing (I'm not bad – I mean, I sing in tune ... but I'm no Jo Stafford.) Since being turned on to Davy Graham's staggeringly diverse music, I've been making an effort to expose myself to more ... stuff and people – to allow myself to be influenced as well as to enjoy that thrill of discovery. Sometimes, I've learned, discovery can actually be rediscovery. I found myself, in considering what can be done with one little ol' guitar, remembering the Donovan concert – just the man and his guitar – that I attended in ... oh, I guess it was '87, and how impressed I'd been by his ability both to suggest, with just that one guitar, some of the complex arrangements that were used for his records and breathe new life into songs he'd surely performed thousands of times. This, I understood now more deeply, was something by which to be inspired.

... Well, I can't say it was déjà vu all over again, as I'm no longer quite so starry-eyed about some of the aspects of the time in which the Scottish singer/songwriter/musician rose to fame, once very much caught up in my appreciation of his music, but I am, yet again – decades after I thought I was moving on to something else – an ardent admirer of the great Donovan. Funny thing is, I see now that way back when, before I was officially a jazz fan, I was grooving to the snazzy arrangements that John Cameron cooked up for Don's hits and album cuts, which contain elements, now unmistakable to me, of both jazz and swing. I hesitate to use the word, as it somehow seems to impart something much less, cheaper, than what I want it to, but Donovan, regarded at least at first primarily as a folkie and later as a prime exponent of psychedelic music (whatever that, technically, is), was "jazzy." ... Ah, I hate labels. It wasn't apparent to me when I was a young fan, as I knew nothing about jazz, but Donovan, I've realized in this rediscovery, dug jazz – I didn't need the confirmation I've found in reading up on the guy in these past weeks.

Donovan, both then was and now is, associated with a positive message – which might best be represented musically by major chords – but I've been pleased to note again all that minor chord melancholy – "Sand and Foam," "Young Girl Blues," "Hampstead Incident." I love those moody, ruminative minor chords, and Donovan employed them most effectively.

I've been on a regular Donovan buying spree lately, securing compact disc copies of
"Fairytale," "Sunshine Superman," "Mellow Yellow," "Donovan in Concert," "A Gift from a Flower to a Garden," "The Hurdy Gurdy Man" and "Barabajagal." The extremely familiar as well as the entirely new, which includes all those lovely, spare demo recordings that have been so generously included in the CD reissues, are thrilling me. I await the arrival of "Sunshine Superman – The Journey of Donovan," the three-hours-plus documentary of whose 2008 release I just learned. Whew ... much material to absorb. Last night, I watched my newly acquired copy of "Donovan Live in L.A. at the Kodak Theatre," which captures a master musician, singer and songwriter (in the company of a fine double-bassist and percussionist) nodding to a magical musical past that seemed to represent infinite possibilities; speaking, with total relevance, in the present and looking optimistically toward the future. Before launching into "Happiness Runs," for which he, as he had when I saw him over twenty years ago, instructed the "boys" and "girls" in their parts for the sing-a-long, Donovan made an acknowledgment of the song's use in a Cheerios commericial: He mentioned that the Wall Street Journal had (clearly chidingly) inquired if he was "selling-out" by leasing his song for the purpose of hawking something and then explained that he was "selling in" – "The songs must go to the largest audience," he succinctly put it .

Happiness runs in a circular motion.
Thought is like a little boat upon the sea.
Ev'rybody is a part of ev'rything, anyway.
You can have ev'rything if you let yourself be.

It's a good message – for ev'rybody.

Do watch Will Hodgkinson's excellent, probing interview with Donovan – begin here.