Born Donovan Leitch in Glasgow, Scotland, the singer/songwriter later christened Donovan has achieved immortality on oldies radio thanks to the popularity of songs like "Mellow Yellow" and "Sunshine Superman." But there's more to Donovan than his greatest hits. First promoted as Britain's answer to Bob Dylan, Donovan similarly began as a straightforward modernizer of folk music, achieving virtual overnight UK stardom in 1965 with a series of television appearances that introduced delicate, acoustic tracks like "Catch The Wind" and "Colours." When Dylan zigged in the direction of soul-deep blues, Donovan zagged in the direction of pop, embracing the flower-powered spirit of hippie mysticism that characterized the mid-'60s. Teaming with producer Mickie Most, Donovan put out a series of increasingly eclectic albums that tapped into the psychedelic spirit of the time before turning heavy and apocalyptic as the '60s drew to a close.
Often ahead of his time musically, Donovan was also one of the first to be subjected to a public drug bust, and one of the first to embrace Eastern philosophy. He was also among the first rock stars to opt for a more settled-down existence. After fathering two children (actors Ione Skye and Donovan Leitch) with American girlfriend Enid Stulberger, he resumed a relationship with Linda Lawrence–once the girlfriend of Brian Jones–that has continued to this day. Donovan continued to release albums regularly throughout the '70s, then less regularly through the '80s. In the '90s, he released Sutras, a high-profile collaboration with producer Rick Rubin, and last year put out Beat Café, an endearing, low-key tribute to bohemian ideals. Now Donovan is back on tour, having just released the three-CD/one-DVD box set Try For The Sun: The Journey Of Donovan and his entertaining, long-in-the works autobiography The Hurdy Gurdy Man. In the latter, he discusses his early hitchhiking existence with lifelong pal Gypsy Dave, his romance with Linda, hanging out with The Beatles, and the real meaning of "Mellow Yellow." Shortly before embarking on a still-in-progress tour, Donovan spoke to The A.V. Club, expanding on some of these topics while discussing his early days and why he's now decided to step out of his past semi-reclusive existence.
The A.V. Club: You have a reputation for being reclusive. Why put yourself out there again now?
Donovan: You know, I get bored. And, I have to say, I'm very, very grateful my songwriting has buoyed me up all these years, so it's not like I need to come out to work. But I enjoy working when I feel there's a buzz in the air, and the buzz is the 40th anniversary [of my debut], I guess. These last two, three years, I've been asked to complete a book that's been sitting on the shelf for a while, of memoirs and such, and I got enthused to present my music again. The 40th anniversary is kind of like a party. I also feel new music in me, so two and a half years ago I began a project called Beat Café, and that was released last year. It was kind of a preface, an exploration of where the '60s came from. Sony got excited and made a box set, and Random House said, "Is that book ready yet?" [Laughs.] So the book, box, 40th anniversary, and buzz to come out with new music–that's why I'm back.
AVC: What kind of culture shock did you experience when your family moved from Scotland to England?
D: Language was first, because I speak in a different accent. That took a while, but my father had taught me fine phonetics, and he would read poems in different accents, and turn my accent around, so that was easy. The culture shock was the green and the beauty of the southern counties after the grey streets of Glasgow. Twenty minutes away from Glasgow were the Highlands and the wilds of Scotland, but we never went, working class boys and girls.
AVC: So what was your first taste of the bohemian lifestyle?
D: Well, I didn't know until later, but my uncle was quite a famous bohemian in Glasgow, and he played guitar. My father was a kind of a poetic bohemian and he read me poetry. But I didn't see it at first. My first experience of southern bohemia was in the campus of a further education college. In England, we'd leave school at 15 and go on to a college, and I went to further education in a town called Welling Garden City. I fully immersed myself in bohemia there, which included poetry and modern art, jazz, philosophy, social radicalism. My father brought me up to be a socialist. He was a strong union man, and I was brought up in a time of Celtic mysticism and socialism, and I ran into the music of Woody Guthrie, my goodness, at 16. That was it. I saw how the elements could come together. The vision I felt in the poems my father read me, the zeal of the socialism and the rise of the working class out of its industrial slavery, and the presentation of ideas through music. That was 1960 or something, when I heard Woody Guthrie. Then Joan Baez. Then Pete Seeger. Then Miles Davis.
AVC: At a certain point, you shied away from direct political statement. Was it a conscious decision?
D: Well, of course, I joined the march banning the bomb. Me and Joan Baez linked arms with Vanessa Redgrave, and even little Marc Bolan was on the end of the line, I saw in the photograph. And we had marched before I marched with Joan. But it became clear, from my view of what was going on, that there was a more basic problem for human suffering than greed. It was too simple. There had to be something else, and that's when I heard the word "Zen," or saw the word "Zen," in Jack Kerouac's book On the Road. I was fascinated, and that led to reading Alan Watts, Christmas Humphreys, DT Suzuki, and Buddhism. I saw that the actual basic reason for suffering is a misunderstanding, a psychological problem of not understanding that every race on the planet is one–altruism taken to the max. We only hurt ourselves when we blame others. All these started to make sense, and I realized that changing a government was like changing the rider of the same wild horse. So meditation became very important to me, and radicalism and armed revolution didn't seem to be the answer–my father and I heatedly debated that. But meditation suddenly became the tool for great change.
AVC: How did you begin recording?
D: When I was a boy I had a grand big tape recorder, and I made late-night radio shows with glasses of water and funny voices. I just loved radio plays. Later, I was invited to London's Tin Pan Alley, Denmark Street, to make some demos by two managers that discovered me. I said, "This is exactly what I want to do," and then I walked into this dingy little publishing house called Southern Music. Up on the wall was Buddy Holly, and as a teen I'd loved Buddy as a singer-songwriter, great artist, wonderful performer, and producer. Then I got to know this publishing company, down in the basement with a 4-track tape recorder in a dingy little room, a couple of great microphones, and I made nine demos at 17 years and a half. These nine recordings have been recently re-discovered, and they're on release on my website, on a CD called Sixty Four. I was playing for about a year and a quarter before I made those demos. I was an overnight success two weeks later on television shows without a record. I actually became successful without a record, singing live like a troubadour on television, and I made a record later. But that's how it started, in a little basement.
AVC: You got tagged early on as Britain's answer to Dylan. Do you think that helped or hurt you, starting out?
D: Well, it actually helped the whole folk invasion of the charts. It was kind of conscious, from Joan Baez on. And, earlier, Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. We were trying to get on mass communication and to present songs of meaning and social comment. When [Dylan and I] were linked, it was extraordinary, as my book sort of suggests, that three of us–Joan Baez, me, and Dylan–were in the same spring, in the same country, with records and tours. There was a misunderstanding–of course: It was Guthrie, with the cap and the harmonica, that Dylan and I were copying. And the link was… interesting. Bob and I got on well, and he encouraged me, and the press had a field day. It hasn't left any main problem for me, no.
AVC: You write about hearing "Love Me Do" and it being an inspiration for you to write songs with a pop sensibility. Did you have a hard time reconciling your commercial aspirations with your folk and bohemian principles?
D: Well, cheap popularity, I would say, is a great thing. It's not cheap. Actually, popular culture is where it's possible to present the most ideas from bohemia. I embraced it. And actually embraced it at a time when television was rising, and when 45 revs-per-minute records were cheap and easy to get by millions of youths. I didn't feel the sellout. In fact, more like a sell-in, like a pop artist who would use a popular image to present a social comment in a work of art. That's pop art. Pop music really is the same thing. And experimenting with different styles was fun, and still is.
AVC: One of the more striking comments you make in your autobiography is your claim that Dylan was a better lyricist, but you were more experimental musically. You started as a fairly straightforward folk singer–when did the experimentation come in?
D: Well, I kind of tipped my hat to Bob Dylan's writing, although I'm a highly skilled poet myself. I was trying to define that–it's heavy with words, Bob's work, and the music is kind of rhythm & bluesy. It's not folk-rock. It's not rock. Bob plays kind of a blues style, yeah? My experimentation began very early with my father playing me Billie Holiday and classical music, and with my uncle playing folk music. There was a mix going on when I was a kid. But it wasn't until later, when I started absorbing, at 16, what we call "world music" now, that it just all became a fusion. Anyone could put any kind of sounds together, like a collage. Because most of those songwriters that come out of Britain came out of the art-school diaspora, we knew about collage and montage and images, so putting different sounds together was a very painterly thing. If I sang about a harpsichord, it would be interesting to have one. But having John Cameron with me, as well as Mickie Most, the top pop producer–we would look at music like soundtracks in a movie. So fusing all these things was fun, and easy. Hanging out in the Blue Beat clubs of London–well, you go and score a bit of African bush and hang out with the Rastas, so of course in that kind of music would come easy to us Brits. In the studio I worked with jazz musicians. It meant a lot to me that the brotherhood promoted by bohemian socialism could also be a brotherhood of sound.
AVC: So was your 1966 drug bust your first indication that maybe the '60s would have a dark side?
D: It was my first indication that we would be victimized by the press and the establishment to try and stop something that they felt was not good. It was an indication, and it came later to all of us, that there was a purge, as we say in China. A purge going on, yeah? We were being pointed at. In the end the guy who busted us busted himself for planting it on us, so that was very clear. But no, the dark side wasn't drugs. The dark side of the '60s for artists was the extraordinary amount of fame that we were having to deal with. Our private lives were completely gone. We hadn't expected that.
AVC: When was the first time you realized that?
D: I suppose it would happen really early with 200 girls chasing Gypsy Dave and I with scissors. Something had changed. Why would they want this lock of hair? Do they know they're endangering themselves? When this frenzy started, it was very frightening and difficult to deal with. We had to create a whole set of security rules to protect not only us but the fans. There's a very dark side to fame, which ends up in the most darkest place possible with John Lennon getting shot.
AVC: Does that kind of feed in to the pessimism of a song like "Season Of The Witch"?
D: "Season Of The Witch" was kind of prophetic. It was anticipating the bust, so it was a dark song for that reason. It was a chilling sound to come from me, and I didn't know where it was coming from at first. Now it has become a seminal jam song, for three decades now, of all kinds of bands. Why? You know, Al Kooper is saying that it changed his life. It certainly changed my life. I was told that when I discovered the riff and sang the song to myself at a party, I played it for seven hours. There's something kind of ritualistic about it. Maybe it is the first kind of Celtic-rock thing I was doing, a rediscovery of our roots in Britain, which of course became the British sound.
AVC: Rock stars aren't known for sustaining long-lasting relationships, but you've been with Linda for decades now, and you stayed close with Gypsy Dave, who you were friends with before you were famous. How do you do that?
D: [Laughs.] Oh, gosh, you can look at it in different ways. The '60s wrecked most relationships in the popular music world that I lived through. Fame would do that. Too much time away from each other, extraordinary things happening outside your house, fans camping in your garden, your children being ridiculed at school–celebrity stories all over the place. But Linda and I met in 1965 and then parted after a wonderful affair when, as the book tells, she had to grow up. She was so young. She also had a child with Brian Jones and was still trying to come to terms with being the first charismatic girlfriend of the first charismatic star in Britain and the music world. So when we met, we fell in love, but then we kind of divorced without marrying. We spent the '60s apart. That is one of the elements why Linda and I survived the '60s. But why the longevity? We've been friends. We share the same interests. You might say it's astrological.
Gypsy Dave and I, when we put our thumbs out in the road in 1964, at the age of 16, we were vagabonds. Society was something to leave. The camaraderie that you find and shared experiences when you're young… When you meet again, there's a knowingness when you look at each other, because you've experienced something at very, very important times of your life. We haven't seen each other off and on for five or six years at a time, but we're always close. When I met George Harrison–who we all miss tremendously–he said, "It's always nice to see you, Don, because you never ask any questions." There's something about friendship that there's not much you have to say to each other.
AVC: You spent a lot of time assembling the new box set and digging through your past for your autobiography. What did you find that surprised you?
D: I've been picking away at it for over 30 years, with memoirs and journals and diaries and little scribbles here and there. I learned more about myself than any reader would, extraordinary things about my past–the first 10 years of my life in Glasgow, that was interesting. I was a sick child, and it was post-war and the bombed buildings… kids running after the disaster of the Second World War. Families torn up. It was very emotional, but then I saw the smiles and I remembered the poetry and looked at the photographs–my father was a photographer–and saw the child smiling, people smiling in the face of disaster. It was hard, but I managed to get in there, and I'm glad I did.
I learned about a lot of things. Learned how much I loved Linda in those early days, and just had to listen to the songs to see my life open up. I saw changes and I saw bravery. We courageous poets were standing up and presenting, through the medium of pop music, important issues in popular song. Not sitting back and combing our hair and enjoying the money on a yacht in Greece, but actually going for it. And I didn't realize that I'd spent more time–spiritually, socially, and musically–with four guys called The Beatles than any in my generation. I didn't understand that until I read the book. We had a kind of a–what did I say, unspoken bond? There was something happening to us that was extraordinary. We were so experimental that we could go anywhere that we liked with no rules. We knew no rules in music, and we liked each other that way.