Sunday, November 28, 2010


About a year ago, I became quite obsessed with Donovan and decided to write about the four albums I was especially enchanted with. Instead, I got sidetracked reading and writing about the old Donovan-Dylan rivalry and never was able to finish the post properly. I also knew that an editor would probably just cut this analysis of something I ultimately decide is pointless, but I couldn't make myself delete it. Now that this blog is more-or-less finished, I thought it would make a fitting home for this orphaned piece. Over on Ley Lines I plan to actually talk about some Donovan songs as a follow-up to this preamble.

I'm not sure what, if anything, I thought of Donovan before having my curiosity piqued by this Woebot post, but back when I read it I made a mental note to follow up on his music. That took two years, but I eventually picked up all three albums Woebot mentions--Mellow Yellow, A Gift From a Flower to a Garden, and The Hurdy Gurdy Man--as well as the one that precedes them, Sunshine Superman (plus The Hurdy Gurdy Man's patchy successor, Barabajagal). For many, Donovan is the arch-hippie, at least the British version, but I had no strong preconceptions about him or his music. I remembered his appearance in the Dylan tour documentary Dont Look Back but couldn't positively identify any of his songs, not even his hits. So if you have some kind of anti-Donovan baggage--maybe your parents played him a lot, or you've heard the song "Mellow Yellow" too many times--I hope you can ignore it, because this run of brilliant albums puts him on the same level as the best of the late '60s groups.

Donovan Leitch, born in Glasgow in 1946 (though raised outside of London), began his career at a very young age--he recorded a set of demos at 17 and appeared on Ready, Steady, Go! (a Top of the Pops style show) at age 18. Here's his take on the period leading up to his decision to become a musician:
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.

I've yet to really immerse myself in it, but his early folk music is nice (some songs are a little dated for sure). It fits into the British folk milieu with ease and the standout tracks from his earliest records, "Colours" for example, are quite lovely if somewhat less original than the material that makes up the next phase of his career. By "less original," I don't mean they sound exactly like Bob Dylan, a comparison that was frequently made at the time (possibly first by his label) and has continued to stick despite making little sense. Apart from the gulf in sensibility between them--Donovan is wide-eyed innocence with an open heart and little self-consciousness; Dylan is, well, kind of the opposite even in protest-singer mode--Donovan's music is British to the core even though, much like the rest of the UK folk scene, it was initially heavily influenced by Woody Guthrie and other older American folk singers. Nonetheless, the "Donovan is the new Dylan" charge electrified the music press at the time, and when Dylan came to the UK for his infamous 1965 tour the two met as documented in Dont Look Back.

You can disappear into a gossipy internet rabbit hole trying to figure out what really went on between Donovan and Dylan. In addition to never arriving at the truth, you'll run into an unpleasant coterie of Dylan fans: the kind of people who idolize the sneering peacock badboy version of Dylan seen in Dont Look Back. (As Roger Ebert put it in 1998: "What a jerk Bob Dylan was in 1965. What an immature, self-important, inflated, cruel, shallow little creature, lacking in empathy and contemptuous of anyone who was not himself or his lackey." Of course, whether you're getting the "real" Dylan in the film is an assumption you should definitely question.) These people claim they can read Donovan's mind in the scene where he plays "To Sing For You" and then Dylan plays "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue". Despite it being audible that Donovan asks him to play "Baby Blue," some claim that Dylan chooses the song to belittle Donovan* and that the shots of his face while Dylan plays show him devastated by his inferiority to the master.

In their defense, it is easy to read contempt into lots of what Dylan does or says in DLB, and in an earlier, funny scene he jokingly mocks Donovan in conversation with Alan Price of The Animals. For what it's worth, here is Donovan's take forty years after his strange role in Dylan's exceptionally strange 1965. I'm sure that version has been polished over the years--to save face surely, but I'd attribute some of it to Donovan's kindness**--but the truth is that Donovan was a teenager at the time, his career had just begun, everyone involved was frequently and highly intoxicated, and, most importantly, Donovan's music deepened considerably after he left behind his folk origins. If there's any reason to persist in comparing them, that's probably it: both of their careers changed dramatically in 1966 as they, in very different ways, embraced startling new sounds.

At any rate, the rivalry is mismatched, for Donovan partisans have to reckon with the fact that he never took on anywhere near the mass cultural weight that Dylan did. I see that as an advantage though; unless you encounter them when you're rather young, I think it's difficult to develop an intimate, personal connection to Highway 61 Revisited or Blonde on Blonde at this point in music history. Like trying to appreciate the Mona Lisa or a Van Gogh self-portrait, the iconic stature of the work can cause alienation, apathy, or even resentment. Despite being something of an emblem for the cliched flower-power '60s, Donovan, on the other hand, feels more available and his beautiful, charming music can still feel like a personal discovery.

*This interesting paper on the film argues that the song is actually directed at Joan Baez. That paper also led me to the Ebert quote, and, in a footnote, Baker points out that Donovan wrote many of the signs used in the "Subterranean Homesick Blues" video, which calls the seriousness of their supposed rivalry into question. However, Baker's interpretation of that rivalry is that Donovan, along with Baez, is being set up by the film as a representative of the past that Dylan sheds and that the Dylan v. Donovan scene is an important part of establishing that narrative, one fully intended by the filmmakers.

** In Electric Eden, Rob Young claims that Donovan gave Vashti Bunyan the money to buy her famous gypsy wagon and horse, Bess; her travels with her partner in that wagon make up most of the subject matter of Just Another Diamond Day.