Here’s one from the archives, recalled as I was editing the Jimmy Page book referred to in my last post. Page, of course, played a fine guitar line on Donovan’s 1966 hit ‘Sunshine Superman’ which he reprised on stage with Donovan at the Royal Albert Hall in 2011.
Here I am writing about Donovan 39 years and a bit ago, published in Melody Maker in August 1976. The one thing I recall about Donovan's stay in New York that week was that he was being managed by an old friend of mine, Terry Doran, who used to work for Apple and look after the Beatles’ cars. For reasons associated with carnal lust Terry requested the loan of my flat for a couple of hours for an assignation with the girlfriend of a very successful rock star, to which I acquiesced, but being as how it was hush-hush then I’ll say no more now.
Few artists evoke memories of the Sixties as much as Donovan who, even in this enlightened age, still clings resolutely to the styles that developed during the heady days of flower power.
Eight years later, Donovan continues to wear flowing robes and the occasional Nehru shirt with beads to match; the subject matter of his music is still based around peace, love, or travelling in space, and his conversation is liberally sprinkled with similar references. An hour spent in Donovan’s company is like being in a time warp.
For the past three years Donovan has not been particularly active. Albums, none too successful, have appeared on Epic. Records (with whom he signed an extremely lucrative deal some years ago) and there have been occasional solo appearances in the US and on the Continent. It is at least three years since he performed in England and, because of tax reasons, he has no plans to return.
Two months ago he made his most positive move this decade, by teaming up with Jiva, a band of musicians who share similar mental leanings, and appearing for the first time with a fully-fledged backing band. Jiva were signed to George Harrison’s Dark Horse Records until recently.
Donovan and Jiva are midway through their first US tour together. Last week they drew a capacity crowd to New York’s Wolman Skating rink in Central Park and, judging from the reaction, the man once hailed as Britain’s answer to Bob Dylan has retained a hard core of faithful followers.
The last time I saw Donovan was some months ago at the Bottom Line where he appeared almost solo (a keyboard player and conga player joined him for a few numbers) and sounded painfully thin, despite the familiarity his songs always echo. On a stage festooned with flowers he sat cross-legged beneath a large painting of a mountain and, coupling songs with poems, he came perilously close to boring everyone in the club.
Happily, his link with Jiva has stopped this fiasco. The band beef up his arrangements and, although he dismissed them at one point for a solo stint, the outcome was considerably more satisfactory. His old songs – ‘Catch The Wind’, ‘Mellow Yellow’ and ‘Colours’ especially – drew the biggest reaction – but it was interesting to note the reaction came from fans who would have been in kindergarten at the time of their original release.
Jiva first came to his attention when he heard their album about four months ago. “It was very positive and lyrical, which is why George Harrison was interested in them,” he told me the day after the concerts in his hotel suite. “Their lyrics were very positively into brotherhood and peace, and, of course, George and I have been the only people to sing about those subjects consistently since the Sixties.
“They’re also devotees of Guru Maharaj but they don’t sell it upfront, so that impressed me.”
Donovan met their bassist, James Strauss, in California, and the tie-up developed from there. For Donovan to have a rock band behind him is strange, “because the way I live is very un-rock. I can’t really deal with all the partying and losing the guitar player in Baltimore because he didn’t get up in time to catch the plane...but here was a band that was superbly organised, ordering their life to a way of life similar to my own.
“Before, I’ve never had a living band. I’ve only worked with people who were hired for a tour only. I’ll always keep a portion of the show as Donovan alone, and I’ll probably still do shows in clubs by myself. But it’s nice to be able to have a rock band there, and it’s nice to be with young musicians.
“And, of course, there’s a practical reason too. I can’t afford to hire session guys to take out on the road with me.”
Donovan sees his new partnership as a transition from his self-imposed exile from the music business. “I’m finally getting over the period when I sort of wanted to get away after being successful and then not being so successful any more. I guess I’ve always been around and always appealed to a certain underground audience who know my songs and want to come and hear me, but the overground audience is the one I want to try and appeal to again.
“It was... well, like an explosion in the Sixties, and now I am sort of calculating to try and get a hit single to draw attention to myself again. My motives are not fame so much, because I’ve already been through that, but because I want to sing to a large audience again. Wherever it leads, I’m heading towards a more productive period, more music and more touring.”
He admits that his attraction is partly nostalgic, but maintains that his recent material falls on sympathetic ears, too. “Half of the show is nostalgic, but the other half is interesting and new. People are still interested in what I’m doing and I’m still interested. I don’t know what the results will be – but I didn’t know how things would work out in 1965 either.
“I suppose I am a well-known has-been in many respects. In the sense of the music business someone who is no longer in the charts is a has-been, and that is me right now. I wrote that about myself and some others...it was for Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Brian Jones, people who couldn’t adapt to success and failure. Success is o.k., but Brian failed through not being able to handle it.”
With the turn of the decade, Donovan became seriously disillusioned and deliberately cut himself off from the business. “Yes...I was disillusioned as all young people were because we felt we were involved in a great cultural change in the Sixties. It was a great change, but I felt disillusioned at the end of the Sixties because nobody was doing it any more. The Beatles stopped and that seemed to end it all.
“Also, I was disillusioned with the business side of things.”
In hiding – in Ireland – Donovan continued writing, but the songs, he says, were not songs he wanted to share with anyone else. “They were reflective, personal and not for an audience. But I didn’t feel I was part of a movement any more...that was the most important thing.
“In the late Sixties I was singing but nothing was happening. The wind went out of the sails of the revolution, songs weren’t played on the air and I just became disillusioned, as I’ve said before. I took a back seat and enjoyed it that way.
“All around me the business was asking why I wasn’t happening, so that’s where the ‘well-known has-been’ comes from. The business doesn’t know how to handle you when you are not happening. Ray Davies has put it very clearly in all his songs but...it was O.K. I sat back and realised I had an audience and that was my strength.”
Before leaving CBS, Clive Davis re-signed Donovan to Epic for five years with a guarantee of ten albums, but the time period may well extend to seven years, for his output hasn’t been too prolific of late.
In fact, Donovan still owes Epic another six albums.
Ten years on, Donovan still enjoys singing material that dates back. “I love singing those old songs. I don’t think they date at all,” he said. “If the audience likes to hear them, I’ll play them and I’ll probably always sing them. I think an artist’s attitude towards his old songs is important, too. I mean...’Catch The Wind’ probably meant something to hundreds of people in the audience at one time in their lives and it’s interesting to see what it means now.
“Every year I seem to find the audiences getting younger, so it’s not the same people who always come to my shows year after year. My face looks young but my sound is ageless. I don’t know of any artists over the years who sing and play from the same position as myself.”
He still winces slightly when recalling that he was dubbed as Britain’s answer to Dylan, though he feels the comparisons were valid, if slightly embarrassing, at the time. “Well, we were both renegades who’d left home, but even the hat wasn’t a direct lift because Dylan had borrowed his. The folk scene generally, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, was what I was into and so was Dylan. I followed Dylan but I was two years younger.
“But the comparison...well, I was the young folkie in Europe and he was the the young folkie in America and we both sang about underground matters. In the end Dylan showed that we were very different. He drifted off into his musical things and I drifted off into mine. Certainly, he was the first herald. He spoke first and opened up many ways for us all to expand.
“I feel it’s a bit of an honour to have been tied to a man with such a power over words.”
Last year Donovan toured Australia and New Zealand for the first time, but taxes will keep him away from England until at least the end of this year.
He is based in the US and is currently applying for residency here. “I live in the desert but we’re still gypsies as a family. Slowly we’ll settle, but our children are travelling kids just like I am. I’ll always be a gypsy.”