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Topic: We changed the world (Donovan auto-bio) Return to archive
October 8th, 2005 11:16 PM
Ten Thousand Motels We changed the world
By Peter Ross
Sunday Herald
Oct 9,2005

ALTHOUGH he considers himself a visionary, I see Donovan before he sees me. He is standing in the reception area of Glasgow’s Malmaison hotel, talking to a blonde woman holding a yellow flower. He’s wearing the standard issue beatnik black polo-neck and his greying hair is as long and curly as in his hippy heyday. He has just come from performing a short acoustic set in a bookshop; when he started playing, one woman burst into tears, presumably from pleasure. We walk downstairs to the brasserie to talk. Donovan is celebrating 40 years since his first chart success – his debut single Catch The Wind went to number four in 1965, the first of 10 hits in that decade. His auto biography, The Hurdy Gurdy Man, is being published to coincide with the anniversary. It’s all very well-timed; his music has more currency now than at any time since the 1960s, Devendra Banhart and the new American folk movement he spearheads having cited Donovan as a key influence.
Donovan became a pop star aged 19, packed it in at 24, and is now 59. Born Donovan Philips Leitch in Glasgow in 1946, he grew up in a (now demolished) tenement “a stone’s throw” from the hotel in which we are sitting . The Glasgow of his childhood was a post-war city of bombed buildings; he hunted for shell casings in the rubble.

His father, Donnie, had helped build Spitfire engines, and after the war continued to work as a tool setter. The family was poor but Donnie was an autodidact, a great reader who could be counted upon to stand up at parties and recite the works of Robert Burns and Robert Service; he was also a staunch trade unionist. “I was brought up on a diet of Celtic mysticism, poetry and socialism,” says Donovan. He was no stranger to jeely pieces either.

Donnie Leitch was Protestant, his wife Wynn a Catholic. Through the example of their marriage, Donovan reached an early understanding of a common humanity, beyond religious and other differences, which would inform his work in the peace and love era. The family moved to the south of England in 1956 when Donovan was 10, but his accent becomes increasingly Scottish when he reflects on his Glasgow years.

He was given the polio vaccine when he was four but the dosage was too strong and his right leg began to wither. Donovan wore a leg brace and walked with a limp, which meant he couldn’t run with the gangs. “It’s possible that one is an outsider immediately when one is a sick child,” he says. “I kind of look back on it and think it was positive for me because it made me withdraw from my pals and realise I was different.”

When local kids battered him, he didn’t fight back. His mother told him to stand up for himself, but that sort of aggression wasn’t in him. He thinks now that his eventual success was partly rooted in this need to triumph over his physically superior peers. Anyway, he took comfort from his father, who would cuddle him and recite from the Romantic poets.

He seems to have had a more complex relationship with his mother, who appears to have been rather highly strung; when she discovered her son had been masturbating, she locked herself in the bathroom and threatened to commit suicide. “Why was it so shocking to her?” Donovan wonders aloud. “Was it her background? Had she not come to terms with her own upbringing, or was her marriage not as she had imagined it would be? She thought it was her fault that I was masturbating.”

He says he may have had more sexual fantasies that most boys his age, and my impression from the book is that he was a very sexual person from quite early on. Is that fair to say? He puts his cup of Earl Grey down, rattling, on the saucer. “Yeah, I would say so. One has to move into the world of astrology. My wife Linda, my muse, my sunshine supergirl, we met God knows how many lives ago, and she studied astrology.”

This is how Donovan speaks, David Blaine meets David Brent – and you’d better get used to it. Anyway, Linda told him his character has been shaped by his star sign, Taurus. “And Tauruses are very earthy, connected to the earth. Our sign is the bull, and bulls are ... ” He breaks off, chuckling, then continues. “Bulls are very productive, and into the other cows in the field. So, yeah, I guess it’s because I’m a Taurus. But also I didn’t have a sister; it was just me and my brother. So maybe with being Taurus and having no girls in the family, I was attracted to women very early.”

His sexual libertarianism was also shaped by teenage reading of the Beats, particularly Jack Kerouac. “When I read On The Road it seemed like there were gals in the bohemian world who were willing to break the conditioning of their background, and refused to be pushing a pram, refused to marry in the normal way, and wished to be artists. These gals were not just sexual objects, they had freedom and an artistic bent. I was fascinated by those liberated females – not just because of the sexual freedom but because they had left society.”

In the early 1960s, he studied art at college in Welwyn Garden City and began to get into the new acoustic music coming out of America. The poetic ballads and socialism Donovan had learned from his father meant the folk scene was instantly familiar to him. He dropped out of college and bummed around, hanging out with the beatniks of St Ives, getting stoned and laid, washing dishes for a living. “I did not disagree with society’s aims,” he says, “but I realised that it was full of hypocrisy and greed, and I did not want to join.”

Returning home to Hertfordshire, his enjoyment of folk music became an obsession. He learned as many songs as he could, and persuaded a musician known as Dirty Phil to teach him the fingerpicking guitar style. Donovan would later show this technique to John Lennon while he and The Beatles were studying transcendental meditation in India.

The Peacock pub in St Albans was the place to hear and play folk music. But Donovan felt that he wasn’t liked by the other folkies. He writes in the book that it may have been because he was lame and regarded as a dreamer, but tells me he thinks the real reason is because he was an authentic working-class boy in a scene of middle-class kids slumming it. However: “I used all that derision and people looking down on me. I just got stronger with it.”

Not being taken seriously has always been a problem for Donovan . A Los Angeles Times review on his 1969 concert at the Hollywood Bowl – at which he performed to over 20,000 people – states: “Donovan is an unexceptional singer and guitarist. His songs smack heavily of dimestore incense. And he’s almost laughably pretentious and showbiz.” This is not atypical. Even in the 1960s, the press saw Donovan as something of a cheesy hippy, and he has come to stand for the worst excesses of the decade – drippy, twee, a bit daft.

He also had the misfortune to appear on the national stage in the very year – 1965 – that Bob Dylan was abandoning folk and pushing forward the frontiers of pop and rock . They met when Dylan toured Britain that year, and Donovan appears in DA Pennebaker’s documentary, Don’t Look Back. Conventional thinking on the film is that Dylan is sneering at Donovan, who performs a song for him, but Donovan doesn’t see it that way. “Absolute bullshit,” he snaps. “If you actually look at the movie, Bob is honouring my work.”

The allegation clearly hurts. I hadn’t even asked about Don’t Look Back; he brought it up himself. I do want to know, however, what it’s like for Donovan, trying to celebrate his 40th anniversary when suddenly 2005 turns into the year of Bob Dylan. Surely it must be frustrating that even after all these years he can’t escape the man’s shadow? “I’m going to have a pee,” he says, “but I’ll be back, and we’ll address that.”

He must be fed up having to talk about Bob Dylan. The comparison isn’t even appropriate. Four Donovan albums from the 1960s, reissued earlier this year, demonstrate the excellence and variety of much of his music. There are folk songs (Catch The Wind, Colours), catchy pop (Mellow Yellow, Jennifer Juniper) and tremendous psychedelic rock (Barabajagal, Hurdy Gurdy Man, Season Of The Witch).

But there is a lot of rubbish too. Donovan’s willingness to experiment with styles has made his body of work very inconsistent; he can be brilliant and awful, a dichotomy exemplified by the fact he had a hand in writing one of The Beatles’ very best songs, Julia, and one of their worst, Yellow Submarine.

Not that he is the sort to admit his failings. Back from the loo, he says: “When I met Bob through Joan Baez in 1965 of course I knew who he was, but I wasn’t particularly influenced by him. I sounded like Bob for five minutes, but Bob sounded like Woody Guthrie for a whole album. For me, it was a passing thing. The true link between us is that two solo singer-songwriters brought meaningful, poetic lyrics into pop culture. We have had more influence over the whole world of songwriting than any other two solo artists. We brought with us a poetic understanding and influenced forever the way songs are written. The Beatles learned from me as well as from Bob.”

Blimey. This is the egomania which spoils those chapters of his book dealing with his years of pop success; in the 1960s his head expanded along with his mind. But far from repenting, he exults. “The Celts boast,” he says. “And why should we not boast? Read Celtic mythology; every Celtic hero tale is boastful. We have to stand up and announce how strong we are because poetry in the 20th century was looked down on with derision; a poet was an effeminate, weak creature who should have a real job. Standing up and banging a staff was the ancient pagan way of the poet announcing himself. So boasting in my book is totally honest. In the book it looks like I am really full of myself, but we’ve got to be full of ourselves because when you start nobody believes in you.”

I’m tempted to believe that a basic insecurity is at the root of Donovan’s extraordinary ego – the sick child picked on by schoolkids, then again by snooty folkies and snidey journalists, giving himself the love that others denied him. Interestingly, his creative insecurity seems to manifest itself as sexual jealousy. There is a scene in the book where he has gone to bed with the American folk singer Joan Baez, but when she reminisces about sex with Bob Dylan his ardour is considerably dampened.

More significantly, Donovan’s relationship with Linda Lawrence, his wife since 1970, struggled in its early days because he suspected she was still in love with Brian Jones, who Donovan regarded as “the most creative and brilliant guitar player” in London. Jones and Lawrence had met in 1962 when she was 15, and she became pregnant in 1963. However as The Rolling Stones rose to prominence, Jones was encouraged to make a financial settlement and keep away from her and his son, Julian. By 1965, the year Donovan met Lawrence, it was more or less over between them.

Why did Linda’s relationship with Brian Jones make it difficult for him to admit his feelings for her? “Because she still wanted it to work out between her and Brian. She had a boy with him. And when you are 16 and you fall in love there is something unresolved. So I always felt that Brian was somewhere there in the background.

“You have to remember what Brian represented in those days. He was the business. And you have to beware of such a guy. Did he still have the love of my Linda’s heart? She didn’t feel guilty about anything, she just loved him. It was a love made in heaven, but it was bound for difficulties, bound for problems. She knew it. But surely that young girl would feel an ache for the father of her child? He wanted to marry her, but was convinced otherwise.”

In 1969, Brian Jones’s body was discovered in his swimming pool. I can’t help but wonder whether Donovan was glad his rival was gone. “I didn’t feel: ‘Oh well, maybe she’ll come running to me,’” he says. “I was too involved in my own trauma in 1969. I didn’t know where my life was going. No, I didn’t say: ‘Good, Brian’s gone. Now I can have Linda.’ That would be calculating and totally against my character ...”

I interrupt him. Surely it would be quite natural to feel glad? “No, I wouldn’t feel that,” he says. “I’m way beyond that. I didn’t worry that Brian was going to take Linda away from me. What I hated was not Brian but the love that Linda may have felt for him.”

As he struggled with these feelings, Donovan became involved with the American model Enid Karl, with whom he had a son and a daughter – Donovan and Ione. However this relationship failed and he did not see his children grow up; he didn’t meet Ione until she was an adult, and at one time expressed doubt that he was the father. In his book he writes that he felt powerless to be a dad, but doesn’t really explain why. So I ask him.

“Physically, geographically it was impossible because I was a rambling musician,” he says. “So that was difficult. And there was a great heartache that our relationship didn’t work, and it was being transferred to the children. I found that to be wrong when I spoke to my daughter, Ione, many years later. She said she would rather have gone through that heartache than the heartache of not knowing her father.

“I made a decision. Was it wrong? No, it was perfectly right. I can’t go back and change it. But in retrospect, children who don’t see a parent for years and years feel that they would rather be in a tug of love than not see the parent at all. I didn’t know that then, so I was wrong in that sense. All I can say to Ione is that had I known then what I know now, I would have gone through that [difficult experience of spending time with the children]. But when I did see the child, Dono, Enid would be bitter and call him back after two days. I thought it was breaking his heart.”

Hmmm. “Did you not think,” I ask, “that you were doing to Enid and your children what Brian Jones did to Linda and Julian?”

“No, I didn’t know that then,” he says. “Not until Linda said, ‘Don’t let this hap pen.’ I knew then, but I still couldn’t do it. I felt torn. Recently, of course, me and my American children have tried to repair those bridges, to meet and talk about it.

“But don’t imagine that was the only thing happening to me then. There was great fame and the overpowering trauma of the personal experience I was going through as a superstar, as all my friends were. The 1960s were coming to an end, and we were in danger, not only from ourselves through drugs and alcohol abuse, but also from the great fan base out there who wanted to love us to death.

“If you read the mythologies of the world, the hero is honoured to a point and then he is killed either by his own hand or by others. I was feeling a lot of other things, not just about my relationship with my children, but about my life and career, and also a great sense of boredom. I didn’t want to do any of it any more. I wanted out.”

He effectively dropped out of the music business at the end of the 1960s, married Linda Lawrence , had two daughters with her – Astrella and Oriole – and raised Julian as his own. He has released music and toured sporadically since then, but his association with flower power still clings to him like pollen. It must be odd being almost 60 and having your entire life defined by those five years in which you were truly famous.

Donovan is not an easy man to like nor to understand. His constant references to Buddhism and Celtic mythology tend to cloud his meaning, and there is definitely a sour irony in an icon of the love generation, the son of a loving and influential father, effectively cutting himself out of the lives of two of his own children.

Not that he has any regrets, or at least none he will admit to. He tends to overvalue his achievements, just as posterity has undervalued them, but to hear Donovan tell it, his life has turned out just as he planned.

“At 16, I knew what I wanted to do,” he says. “I intended everything. There was no luck in it whatsoever.”

The Hurdy Gurdy Man is published by Century, price £17.99. Donovan’s new album, Beat Café, is out now

October 8th, 2005 11:37 PM
VoodooChileInWOnderl Donovan is not just a legendary musician, but also a great person, very simple and cool. It's our pride and joy that he has made a contribution to Rocks Off and he and Linda his wife send me aChristmas Card all years, thats super cool!!

He also has a new box set with remasters of his legendary recordings
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