Ipswich bound music icon Donovan interviewed
Donovan, one of music’s most influential singer-songwriters, talks to entertainment writer Wayne Savage about 50 years in the biz, inspiring The Beatles and his supposed rivalry with Bob Dylan.
The Bohemia culture’s invasion of mainstream Britain in the 1960s changed everything. Helping lead that charge was Donovan, one of the country’s most enduring singer-songwriters whose fingerprints can be seen throughout the last half century of popular music.
“Fifty years in the business, my goodness; can you believe it? Time flies but I wasn’t counting,” he laughs as we discuss his latest tour.
“The painters, artists, dancers, singers, poets, philosophers, spiritual seekers invaded popular culture. There were tonnes of new ideas. One was let’s try not to live too much in the past or worry too much about the future, try to live in the now, the moment and enjoy it. That stuck with me so I haven’t really considered the years passing in that way. I’m healthy, not overweight and I’ve still got my hair,” he laughs. “So I must’ve been doing something right.”
Hailing from Glasgow, he’s spent quite a bit of time in what he calls “wonderful Suffolk” over the years, having family in Shotley. He’s looking forward to reacquainting himself with the Ipswich Corn Exchange November 4.
Three things feature prominently in our chat. His relationship with The Beatles and his over-exaggerated rivalry with Bob Dylan and first and foremost his wife, his “sunshine supergirl Linda”.
“I was doing something right when I married that gal. We’ve been together for a long while and she’s in lots of songs. Linda’s all over the place on this new album (Donovan Retrospective),” he laughs.
Their love story is extraordinary, an on-off relationship that remains a driving force in his career.
After the depression, two world wars and the spectre of nuclear war hovering above everybody, he says the 1960s were needed so badly. They were both a product of the subsequent baby boom, with large numbers of young people let loose in the world.
“Very early on we realised we had the same goals in mind. Wouldn’t it be great to be involved in the arts. She’s backstage with me and is an artist and writer. But it would be me in our relationship who would go out there and become a voice, one of the great voices, of the 1960s.”
The double CD, which also features new single One English Summer, comprises his early classics from the 1960s on one disc and includes hits like Sunshine Superman and Catch the Wind, both for Linda. The other disc is a selection of 1960s songs that charts the trajectory he took his music in from 1965.
“My so-called folk years, (how I) experimented with enormous amounts of new ways of writing songs and recording, using world music instruments...”
Donovan’s released one autobiography already, The Hurdy Gurdy Man, which only goes up to 1970 because the publisher likened the first draft to War and Peace. He’s recorded a second, shorter, account of the later 1970s as an audio book, which features some of his music too. His nine albums, cult rather than smash hits he admits, recorded during the decade are also becoming available.
Right now, his mind’s focused on the 50th anniversary tour, his first in 10 years which opened in his home town Glasgow earlier this month.
“I’ve toured everywhere, done it all, played every major festival, been in every major concert hall in the world, had 13 top 20 hits, more than 700 covers of my songs, there wasn’t really much more I could do,” he laughs. “So I took big breaks.”
Recently inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame plus picking up the Mojo Maverick award - from Jimmy Page no less - and the BMI Icon award, Linda asked what was left to do.
“I said I’m going to go out and thank all the fans, so I’m back on the road. If it wasn’t (for the fans) I wouldn’t be able to buy a pack of strings without working on the building site. I’ll be singing all the popular songs don’t worry. If I miss one shout out and I’ll sing it.”
Fans can also expect some of his cult songs, especially from 1965 which he says have struck a chord with a new generation of fans.
“I wrote them when I was 18, young people in my audience hear those early songs and they hear their own story – looking for a life, looking at this crazy world, how bad it looks, but maybe it’s possible there’s a place for them. That was me when I was 18. (They’re universal themes), that’s why I guess the music continues. Somebody described my music as hopeful melancholy, it’s an interesting description,” he laughs.
“I can feel down, just like everybody else but then something in that melancholy song is filled with hope, that ‘I can get through this’. That’s why a song is so important to so many millions of people around the world. I can’t imagine a world without music or storytelling.”
There’s an argument to be made that some of The Beatles’ best songs may never have been written if not for Donovan. George Harrison himself later said in The Beatles Anthology that he was all over the White Album.
It was 1968 when Donovan and his dear friends John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Harrison and Ringo Starr found themselves sat in an ashram, in the jungle by the Ganges, studying meditation with a yogi. Naturally, they’d taken their acoustic guitars along.
One day Lennon saw Donovan demonstrating a particular finger picking style he’d learnt from playing folk, blues, jazz, flamenco and classical.
“It fascinated John and he said (mimicking his voice) ‘how do you do that’. He sat down and learnt it in two days – it took me three. He was really fast and wrote Dear Prudence, Julia and Crippled Inside all from this finger style. The special one was Julia, to his mother.
“Paul’s left-handed so I couldn’t teach him sitting face to face, but he’s a genius, he walked around and John kept saying ‘come sit down Paul, learn this, it’s fascinating’ but he said ‘no, no, I’m alright’. He picked it up by ear and he created his own left-handed style. The beautiful song that came out of it was Blackbird.”
They were all fascinated by Donovan’s use of certain chord structures.
“George was fascinated by them. He was very close to me, we would always talk about meditation, spirituality, yoga, how we could help our millions of fans, how we could help the world if we could bring more peace inside to people; all that stuff. It’s A minor descent, an old structure that comes from Johann Sebastian Bach and flamenco. George learned that and came up with an extraordinary song called While My Guitar Gently weeps.”
We can’t talk about The Beatles without talking about another of his contemporaries; Bob Dylan. The press of the time enjoyed labelling Donovan a Dylan clone and playing up the rivalry between them.
“We both came from Bohemia, his was America; especially Greenwich Village and New York City. I guess mine was Chelsea and Portobello Road in London. Both of us loved Woody Guthrie. As a young man I was emulating Woody and so was Bobby, he had a cap and a harmonica and I had a cap and a harmonica,” laughs Donovan.
“People put us together in the media and said I was like the British Bob Dylan. It was funny because we weren’t really like each other but we did love Woody, he was the link. We met and we got on fine. The most important thing happening was folk music and poetry was entering popular culture through Dylan, Joan Baez and me. It was a fantastic explosion of bohemian culture.”
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