The creator of the psychedelic pop sound is more than happy to be playing a concert in his adopted home of Cork, he tells Ed Power
DONOVAN Philips Leitch is reclining in a corner of the Metropole Hotel in Cork, talking about fame and its many, many downsides. He speaks with some authority, being part of the first generation of rock and roll artists elevated, to their enduring shock, to global celebrity.
In the 1960s, Donovan was internationally prominent in his own right, with songs such as ‘Sunshine Superman’ and ‘Season Of The Witch’ laying the foundations for the psychedelic scene (a movement that would shortly afterwards bear fruit with Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Pink Floyd’s Piper at the Gates of Dawn). But he also had a ringside position as friends such as The Beatles and Bob Dylan become international icons.
This was not an easy time for any of them. Nobody in the history of popular culture had previously experienced celebrity at that level. When fame came knocking, they were swept off their feet, often literally. It was a tremendously exciting yet deeply disorientating too.
“Pop music was very young in the ’50s and early ’60s,” the now 70-year-old Donovan recalls, transatlantic accent containing trace elements of his working-class Glasgow upbringing. “Then TV came along and projected it massively around the world. The expansion of that success was a huge threat. Our private lives would be destroyed. How were we going to control this? I remember me and some companions being chased by girls. One of my friends said, ‘why are we running away from girls?’ I pointed out to him that if we stopped the ones behind would crush the ones in front. The situation was out of control.”
In the case of Donovan, and The Beatles, the solution to the dilemma presented by fame was to flee to India in early 1968 to seek understanding through meditation. United by their shared Irish heritage, Donovan had already struck up a firm friendship with John Lennon and Paul McCartney especially. They lived in the same part of London and spent much of their time larking about Abbey Road studios together. Indeed, Donovan is credited with helping McCartney write ‘Yellow Submarine’, pitching in with the chorus of the tune when his chum had hit a mental block.
“The Beatles are the Irish in Liverpool,” he says. “We were all asking the same questions — after two world wars and a nuclear bomb, was man the most superior species on the planet? The answer was ‘No’. We wanted to see where all of that destructive energy was coming from. We were on a quest for the truth.”
In the foothills of the Himalayas they studied with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, creator of transcendental meditation. Meanwhile, he and Lennon bonded over their love of folk and psychedelia. It was in India that Donovan taught Lennon his finger-picking guitar style, which the Beatle would later deploy on the White Album. “John saw me playing guitar. He asked how I did it. I said, ‘It’s a pattern. Do you want me to show you?’ From that, the picking patterns led to songs like ‘Dear Prudence’ on the White Album. In the Anthology film of the 1990s, George says, “Donovan’s all over The White Album.”
There was a darker side too, especially as the decade drew to a close and a great reckoning loomed. Donovan and his fellow travellers were recognised all over the world. Wealth, however, was another thing. More than a few exited the 1960s just as poor as they had entered it.
“After the ’60s crashed, John Lennon said to me ‘I was down to my last £20,000’. There were millions going around and we never knew where any of it was.”
Yet he wasn’t especially troubled. By then he had reconnected with his future wife Linda.
They had separated as his career was going stratospheric. Maintaining a romance in the white heat of super fame was simply impossible he said.
“It saved us — no relationship that began during the early fame of the ’60s survived. It was the celebrity. It could be highly destructive”
Donovan spent his early childhood in Glasgow, moving to Hertfordshire in the south of England with his family when he was seven. His upbringing was bohemian by the standards of the era. Singsongs were a regular occurrence, his mother and her five sisters belting out tunes acappella in the kitchen.
His father, meanwhile, was a keen student of Celtic poetry and imbued in his son an enduring love of verse (Donovan delivered several lines of Scottish-Gaelic when he was inducted into the Rock ’n’Roll Hall of Fame in 2012)
“From the age of three and four, I would be with my cousins under the table with the shandy listening to the folk music,” he recalls. “Don’t kid yourself. The success of the Beatles comes from the same place. Lennon and McCartney are richly rooted in poetry and story-telling song- making.”
Early in his career, Donovan was heralded as a British Dylan. There is a toe-curling scene in Don’t Look Back, the 1967 documentary chronicling Dylan touring the UK, in which Dylan appears to disdain Donovan as a mimic. In fact, they got on well off-camera and Dylan was always complimentary of the younger man’s music. He understood that Donovan, with his delvings into psychedelia, was blazing a trail others would follow.
“It was later said that, with ‘Sunshine Superman’, Donovan created the psychedelic revolution,” says the Scottish singer. “We certainly understood nobody else was at that time doing what we were. At the start, there was nothing else like it.”
His love affair with Ireland began in the early 1970s when his manager advised he take a year out and recharge.
Donovan lived in Dublin, then in Castlemartin, the Co Kildare estate and stud farm later owned by Tony O’Reilly, where house guests included the Rolling Stones. Eventually he made his way to North Cork, where he tries to be based for half the year (he also has a house, and recording studio, in Spain).
Donovan returns to Cork this week for a concert marking the 50th anniversary of ‘Sunshine Superman’ (the anniversary was actually last year — however, the tour has proved such a success it was extended into 2016).
“I’d love to spend half the year in Ireland and half the year in Spain. However, I’m still a travelling troubadour. If I can spend four and a half months in Ireland I’m very happy. I’ve got the house in North Cork that we’ve had for some time. I’m immensely proud of my background and heritage.”
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