THE SUMMER OF LOVE (PART IV) DONOVAN
"The ancient book of changes, the “I Ching,” says, 'Music releases the obscure emotions of the heart.'”
If I associate any musician with this period, it would have to be Donovan, the single-named singer from Scotland who transformed himself from folksinger of protest songs to a troubadour of sad love songs or magical ditties or...well, just about any kind of song.
At the beginning of his career, Donovan was a UK version of Bob Dylan, a skilled guitar player in a pea coat who sang against the war. Donovan Leitch blossomed during that period when folk music attracted youth, in the late 1950s to the early 1960s. He composed and sang popular tunes like "Catch the Wind", "Universal Soldier", and "Colours" during this period. Here is the Dylan-influenced "Catch the Wind", a truly lovely folk-inflected pop tune.
But Dylan famously went electric in 1965 and Donovan followed suit. He had back-to-back major hits near the end of 1966 with "Sunshine Superman" and "Mellow Yellow", the latter a trippy tune that nearly
everyone presumed was drug inspired. Both went gold. Earlier that year Donovan had been picked up
on cannibis charges. But he embraced the drug culture and the psychedelic bands from San Francisco.
"Sunshine Superman" (below) makes reference to "tripping" and the song's speaker promises many
times to "blow the mind" of his true love. It hit #1 on the charts. Donovan was 19.
But it's the following period, from 1967-1969 that I most associate with Donovan. At first he was
influenced by LSD and mescaline but bad trips and drug abuse in his friends caused him to turn
against drug use and he proselytized in that vein. Eventually he headed east, like the Beatles, to study at the ashram of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, where transcendental meditation gave him what drugs no longer could. It changed him profoundly. In the winter of 1967 he released a two-album box set, A Gift from a Flower to a Garden, an almost unheard of practice that panicked the record company. But marketed as a box or as individual vinyl albums, it sold. The first record was for adults who would one day be parents. The second record was labeled as songs for children. I used to sit in my high school library with headphones listening to the tracks and grooving on the lyrics.
Here depicted in the box set, you can see that Donovan's "hippie" flower-child side has come to
the fore. It's also interesting to see him posing near a medieval castle. As I said, there was a
troubadour quality to his music. He even composed a melody for Shakespeare's tune "Under
the Greenwood Tree" from As You Like It. After the release of the madcap Beatles' films, many
musicians filmed thematic videos. Donovan's looks at first like it was filmed in Sherwood Forest!
Indian influences are obvious in this film with the strong use of the sitar and other Indian instruments.
Graham Nash of The Hollies and Crosby, Stills, & Nash makes an appearance. (See below)
In 1968 he recorded a live album and went on tour. In the summer the tour stopped at a recently re-opened facility called Madison Square Garden. This was the third iteration of the legendary arena; the
8th Avenue midtown locale was no more. It was my first concert.
What do I remember? I recall him coming out in a flowing robe and sitting cross-legged on pillows. He was eventually joined by an accompanying musician, the late Paul Horn, master flautist and the guru of New-Age World music. Horn had accompanied the Beatles to see the Maharishi. I remember when he came out it was silent...but the place was packed! Mostly I remember him teaching the boys to sing one part of the song "Happiness Runs", the girls a quite different part, and himself a third. Twenty thousand people sang full-throated three-part harmony! Amazing. Below is a clip of him trying it with a modest audience on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour that year.
When Donovan was asked recently to share some of his favorite moments, anecdotes or memories from the last 50 years, he replied: "1968: Twenty-thousand people in Madison Square Garden, just back from India, dressed in my Ashram gear. I walk onstage solo, and a wave of attention moves me like a strong wind, and I need to immediately sit cross-legged in case I fall over. I sing my softest song I know, “Isle of Islay.” Very rare New Yorker silence, and the audience are in awe. That night, I “broke the gate” at the Garden, earning more than any other solo artist in the Garden’s history (at the time). Before the concert, my New York Irish cops drove me through the traffic jam around the Garden. Later, one cop backstage told me, “(Ronald) Reagan was in his limo in the traffic jam on his campaign for California governor, and Reagan thought the traffic jam was for him.” My 10 Irish cops backstage all laughed."
Donovan had many more hits. "Hurdy Gurdy Man" and "Atlantis" and "Barabajagal", which is currently
being used in a television commercial. He is still touring and five years ago was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But I will fondly remember him best as a Sixties balladeer with a spiritual, almost
priestly, quality, and a lovely guitar and plaintive lyrics. A delight.