DONOVAN doesn’t mean to name-drop, but when you have moved in his circles it is inevitable.
“In 1965, it was clear that Dylan, Donovan and The Beatles would have to meet,” says the iconic folk and psychedelic singer. “When I met The Beatles, it turned out we had very similar books on our shelves.”
Donovan speaks of himself in the third person and is not slow to stake a claim as one of the primary influencers of mid-20th century popular music. This might reek of hubris, except in Donovan’s case it may be stating the obvious: he was one of the first British folkies to crash the pop market, while his 1965 hit, ‘Sunshine Superman’, is regarded as a foundation stone of the psychedelic movement.
“I didn’t realise it, at the time, but I was leaving a lot of the old ways behind and breaking into new ways,” he says. “It is very hard to put your finger on Donovan. I was very renaissance in that sense. ‘Sunshine Superman’ was recognised by the Rock’n’roll Hall of Fame as the initiation of psychedelic music — at least a year and a half before [Beatles’ LP] Sergeant Pepper, and well before the Velvet Underground.”
Donovan had not set out to alter the flow of popular music. That’s just the sort of artist he was: restless, endlessly curious, unwilling to delve into the same box of tricks over and over.
“At around the age of 15 or 16, I started mixing my influences,” says Donovan. “It was very hard to put a finger on me. The Stones, The Beatles, The Kinks, The Who, The Hollies — every album sticks basically to the sound they used before. I wouldn’t do that. I kept moving around.”
Donovan recalls playing ‘Sunshine Superman’ to his producer. Donovan had explained that he wanted to incorporate jazz-fusion, psychedelic, spiritual, classical elements and harpsichord. His producer had never heard anything like it. Nonetheless, he acceded to Donovan’s wishes and thus a new kind of music was created.
Though close to Dylan and The Beatles — he was their companion on the famous visit to India that inspired The White Album — Donovan has never quite received his dues. The singer is regarded as an essential part of the 1960s pantheon, without being accorded the reverence visited upon many of his ‘compatriots’. He says this has annoyed his fans, but never bothered him. Still, it was satisfying to be inducted into the 2012 Rock’n’roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio.
“Whenever I receive an award, my fans would say ‘about time’. In actual fact, it [the Hall of Fame initiation] was perfecting timing. I accept and welcome awards, because they reach out to a brand new audience. Whenever a boxed set of my work was put out, journalists would ask ‘why is this man not recognised as much as he should be?’ It was not that I was after the awards, it was just that nobody could quite put a finger on me.”
Donovan lived in Glasgow until he was seven (when the family moved to commuter-belt London). Of Irish extraction, he is proud of his Celtic roots and spent some time in Ireland (he still has a house in Cork and is a frequent visitor). Indeed, he sees himself in the tradition of Ireland’s and Scotland’s great folk musicians and poets, and accepted his induction into the Rock’n’roll Hall of Fame by reading several lines of verse (in addition to performing his hit ‘Season of the Witch,’ backed by John Mellencamp.
“I have always felt my music was in the great tradition of Celtic — Irish and Scottish — music. I’m from the Irish in Glasgow. One granny is Kelly, one is O’Brien. It’s similar to the way that The Beatles are the Irish of Liverpool. There’s a very strong root to my music,” he says.
Donovan’s parents were solidly working class. His mother worked in a factory, his father on the Rolls Royce assembly line. Nonetheless, his was a bohemian upbringing. His father would read poetry, his mother sing. As a teenager, in St Alban’s, he immersed himself in London’s burgeoning folk scene. He would busk, delve into the blues, rediscover the traditional ballads of his childhood.
His career took off in 1964, when he was signed to Pye Records. His early material revealed he had the same influences as Bob Dylan — pre-rock’n’roll folk artists such as Woodie Guthrie and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot. Knocking around London, he befriended Brian Jones, of The Rolling Stones, and soon made the acquaintance of Dylan, passing through on an early UK tour (their encounter is captured in the documentary, Don’t Look Back).
Following his Hall Of Fame induction, it was assumed Donovan would cash in on his raised profile by hitting the road. However, he rarely performs live and saw little reason to alter his behaviour. Instead, he went back to America and recorded a new record, Shadows Of Blue.
“Someone said to me, ‘I guess you are going to go around the world and make a bundle of money’. What I, in fact, did was go to Nashville with seven songs in my back pocket. There, I wrote three new ones.
“With my new album, I wanted to show that not only can I still write and record, I also wanted to trace the history of where I came from — of where popular music comes from.”
* Donovan plays Ballymaloe Grainstore, Cork, Dec 28.
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