Role Models: A Q&A With Donovan

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The inimitable Donovan has countless tales to relay and advice to dispense. We sat down with him at the Sony office in Manhattan, where he was eager to reflect on the songs and stories that populate the new Essential Donovan’s 36 tracks. Clad in leather jacket, Starbucks venti in hand, the 66-year-old legend discusses a career that, at its height, rivaled the Beatles’ and Dylan’s, and the neo-folkies who’ve sourced him as their inspiration. (A condensed version of this interview ran in the July/August issue.)

What was going through your mind as you accepted your induction into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame?

I’d been working for these last three or four years with my daughter, Estrella Celester, and her husband, Jason Rothberg, and my wife, Linda, on gathering the archive. Who would’ve thought I’d have an archive? But 400 master tapes arrived from a storeroom that we had forgotten was there, and that is extraordinary. It had a lot of stuff that had already been released, but it had a lot of material that hadn’t been released, and I’d maybe forgotten at least 30 songs that I’d written. I was so eager when I was young, it was often it would be three songs a day begun. I don’t mind completed, but there’d be starts, and I’d immediately put them down in any studio I was closed to as a demo on acoustic guitar.

So in going through all this material, I’ve been flashing back and looking back, and so when the award was finally 100 percent, and now you’re being inducted, I’d kind of already been down that road, thinking about all my work and where it all came from and the various periods. But what was most essential and extraordinary at the Rock Hall was the incredible audience in Cleveland, which we’ve heard over the years is one of the biggest, hottest audiences in America for rock ‘n’ roll, but they were 10 times that. I was in Cleveland many years ago and experienced that audience, but now this was 6,000 people completely jacked to the max for an evening of total uniqueness. We can never repeat this evening. They’re amazing. It’s a singular honor to me, and I really am pleased with it.

Other honorees don’t take these honors so gladly for various reasons of their own. Me, I’ve had awards before, but this one is the Academy Award, it’s the largest searchlight to be trained upon one’s work in the whole world. For me, I like that, and especially this one, because it introduces thousands of new fans, young people and students to the work. And my work I’ve always felt was of a positive nature, but also of a revolutionary nature where I can encourage new bands to experiment and break rules. The other night what I felt on stage with [John] Mellencamp, who introduced me, which I loved, and we’ve known each other for some time now, and he took me on the road to, as he said in his speech, tell everybody what an influence I was and an encouragement for him to start making songs and music himself. And then being on stage with John, wow, doing “Season of the Witch,” and a version I’ve never done before.”

It had to have been extraordinary to be inducted alongside peers as well, like the Faces and Laura Nyro.

When I heard I was inducted and the Faces were there, I said, “That’s great.” They’re my pals. Of course, Ronnie Lane isn’t with us anymore, but when the four of them and I met in the early ‘60s, we became quite friends and we would hang out and have a good laugh. We were obviously dedicated to what we were doing. We really were happy to be getting our first records out there, and it was so much in swinging London [laughs] at the time. Laura Nyro, I met her once, but I followed her career avidly when she was just beginning. I met her son there, who received her award. She was one of the new ladies in music when I was coming up. It was great.

 You’ve always had collaborators and muses. How important is it for an artist to have those outside sources of inspiration?

I’ve never collaborated co-writing with someone. I found it difficult, just as other writers find it difficult. They come up with the music and the lyrics themselves. But I’ve had players that have enjoyed playing with me and I’ve enjoyed playing with them. I only wrote one line on a Beatles song, so you might say I collaborated with Paul McCartney. But Paul and I, when we were sitting around in the mid-‘60s playing songs to each other, we found it very hard to co-write, because any idea I came up with, he’d come up with another idea bouncing off it. So they weren’t collaborations, they were encouragements for each of us to write another song, then another song, then another song.

But I’ve had great sessions and associations with Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck [etc]. Guitar players particularly like playing with me, because I write such a quirky song and it’s always such an interesting session, and it has feelings of jazz-funk at times, and it has a straight-out kind of folk styles, which guitar players love. But always, the songs are well-structured an interesting. But years later, I figured out why the rhythm guitar I play is so interesting. Because I used to be a drummer, and I started at first wanting to be Gene Krupa and Art Blakey, and I was into jazz in a big way when I was 14. I was banging these skins, man, and whacking those symbols, but what I learned was an unfailing sense of rhythm in Latin, jazz… I was learning all these parts that drummers learn, and then when I wanted to go on the road, I said, “That’s it, society stinks, I’m leaving.” My mother and father chased me on the first day and brought me back. Second two or three days I ran away, the police brought me back, because it was against the law, would you believe. And then I managed to escape. [At] about 16 and a half, [friend and songwriting partner] Gypsy Dave and I put our thumbs out and we left. But by then, I’d borrowed a guitar from a friend who borrowed it from his girlfriend, and she never got it back.

And from that day, I dedicated myself, because you can’t carry drums on your back, you can carry a guitar on your back. And whenever the cars didn’t stop, I didn’t care, because I sat down on the roadside and practiced another style that I was trying to learn. But I realize, looking back, guitar players love playing with me because of this rhythm I get going in my finger styles and my flat pick. I can cook up rhythms, and I had to cook them up myself, because I only had one guitar. So I’d be doing bass parts, I’d be doing Latin rhythms out of the middle of the guitar, and I’d be picking melodies out of the top of the guitar. I was a one-man band. [Laughs] So Danny Thompson would say, “I don’t have to find a bass part, Don, you’re playing the bass part on the bottom of the guitar there.” And drummers would say, “I don’t have to find a pattern, because you’re playing the pattern inside the guitar anyway. So I’ve had such great players in the sessions.

 Do you think your partnership with Mickie Most deserves to get more recognition than it does?

Without Mickie Most though [doing] production, I wouldn’t have learned the techniques of recording. He was great. A lot of people recognize Mickie for the work he’s done. It wasn’t just me. He did the Animals and Herman’s Hermits and on and on. He makes extraordinary records. But maybe the collaboration of Mickie Most and I hasn’t been truly highlighted yet, because he and I created things in the studio that hadn’t been created before. Not only the wonderful music that I’d listened to as a boy from all genres that I wished to bring together on Sunshine Superman, our first album [together], and [its] first single, “Sunshine Superman.” All those elements of Latin and jazz and acoustic music and poetry and rock… we were experimenting in an incredible way. I guess there should be an article soon about Mickie and I.

What was it like trying to crossover your experimental styles into the pop world?

I’m not a schooled musician. I don’t know notation, and I don’t know how to read music. And I found later that that was a great plus in composition and breaking rules, because my dear friend Nigel Kennedy, the classic jazz violinist, he’s a maestro, but he was taught from the age of 6. And Nigel says, “The difficulty with classical training or any training is it’s hard to improvise.” And songwriting is improvisation. You’re breaking rules. You’re playing structures, but you break the structure, and you’re not fixed with the structure.

I accepted the pop world at a time when folk musicians looked down. The bohemian underground music of jazz, blues and folk looked down their noses at pop. They thought pop was the ignorant music for the ignorant masses. [They thought] it was child-like, it was infantile, and it did not mean anything. I thought completely the opposite. I thought, “Millions of young people who’ve now been born after the Second World War, they were the ones that needed more than us in the underground all this stuff in the underground.” [It] had to be given to the popular mass, the popular culture. Why? We were living under threat of nuclear war, and we still are. After the [Second World] War, there were millions of people born. Because the war was over, everybody jumped into bed. I was part of it. The Beatles were born during the war, and so were the Rolling Stones. [They were] just a little bit older than me. I was part of the first of the generations called the Baby Boom. Inside the underground was everything: jazz, blues, but also songs of civil rights, protest, ecology and personal awareness—transformation if your inner self through meditation. And poetry. All these elements, to me, should be introduced to the popular culture.

The Beat poets felt the same thing in the ‘40s and ‘50s. Ginsberg and Kerouac and McClure and other Beat poets said, “If poetry could be brought back into the popular culture, with the poet would come all the important things the 20th century needed.” All that material [was] being held back, not considered good enough for the mass, because the mass were being controlled by the propaganda machine. The underground, which I found in the folk world to be absolutely ridiculous, they said, “Oh, we can’t give this stuff to the mass.” And I said, “What kind of socialism are you preaching? You want a socialism that holds back Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger and all the songs of freedom and all these books of self-transformation and awareness of ecology?” And I said, “No, we’ve got to give it to the popular mass.” So I embraced the pop single as a way of doing it. Jazz musicians released albums, pop musicians released singles, so I said to myself, “I will embrace the single.” When I was live at first on television, all the folk magazines [said], “Donovan sells out. Donovan becomes a pop singer.” So I embraced it. Before I met Mickie, I was experiencing successful singles, and that’s when I started hanging out and listening closer to pop records in a big way and trying to figure out if I could make my music expand into all these different genres that I love and then get a producer and make that sound. I would be communicating on a major level with millions of my generation, and I wanted to be a voice.

Something was happening on the Sunshine Superman album. I couldn’t figure out at the time what the impact would be, but nobody else seemed to be doing it. But the Beatles, I was drawn closer to because I felt their attitude was what I was wanting. I felt their attitude on “Love Me Do.” And yet, it was two acoustic guitars, a harmonica, acoustic drums and harmonies. There was no electric guitars. It was actually quite folky. And when I discovered that I liked Elvis, his first record was a double-bass, an acoustic guitar and acoustic drums. No electrics. And then things started cooking in my head: Here’s this band the Beatles and they’re doing this stuff, and I go, “There’s something about that. That’s where I’m going. I’m gonna do that. That attitude. Not that sound, not that harmony. They had a harmonic structure that was quite Celtic. This feeling was that they had something going for them that I could learn from. It wouldn’t be nine months that I would be sitting in the same room with them, Dylan and Joan Baez. So [there’s] this bridge between folk and pop, and I realize I’m gonna take from the attitude of Bobby. Not his sound, although they compared me to his sound at one point, but I didn’t play guitar like him at all. And Joan’s commitment to pushing songs out to the world of understand, peace and social change. My background, with my father reading me poems of social change, and folk music was part of my background. And these guys, who were popping on the charts, I saw this possibility, and so did Dylan I think, and Joanie.

That May of 1965 in the Savoy Hotel, it was Dylan that introduced me to the Beatles, and we were all in the same hotel suite. That very weekend, I think Joanie and Bobby released their first singles, I already had my single on the charts two months before. Their singles went right up, and that I think was the time, in a worldwide sense, when folk music and bohemian ideas of poetry finally invaded pop culture. And then the Beatles were boosted by Bobby’s writing and Dylan Thomas, and they were also boosted by what I was doing on Sunshine Superman. I was sued, because big Allen Klein, who’d managed Mickie Most, the Rolling Stones and Marianne Faithful and had his sights on managing the Beatles, saw me on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1965 and wrote down “and Donovan.” He came over, and he was like a pirate. He boarded my ship, and he took the prize like a pirate does and introduce me to Clive Davis, and I was Clive Davis’ first signing on Epic. When that happened, my ass was sued because Pye didn’t want to let go, quite rightly, and this album was put on the shelf complete and finished.

And I’m talking about how Sunshine Superman boosted the Beatles into experiment, and they boosted me to experiment in pop culture sounds on my records. That album was unreleased, and I went off to Greece, where I wrote “Mellow Yellow” that summer of ’66. I thought it was over, the career was over. Gypsy and I said, “Looks like it’s over. It’s been fun.” It didn’t bother us for some reason. We were young, we didn’t care. So Mickie Most said to us before we went, “Look, the album, whatever you do, don’t play it to Paul McCartney.” I said, “Why?” He said, “Don, just listen to me, you don’t know what you’ve got here.” But he knew we had something that was extraordinary and unique. But I did play it to Paul, of course, because we don’t make our records for the audience. We feel great that we’re working, and we love to make records for ourselves, but we also make records to impress our peers. There’s a rivalry going on here, ya know? So you make a record and you go, “Hey, look what I just did. What do you think of that?” I think George Martin and Paul and the rest of the Beatles saw the possibilities of expanding sounds and introducing other sounds. It was coming anyway to them, but I think Sunshine Superman gave them a kick in the ass. And then it was released, and Gypsy Dave and I got a call in Greece on an almost deserted island with one telephone, and it’s my manager, the English manager, [saying], “Come back, there’s a ticket for ya in Athens, first class, it goes all the way to London.” “What’s happening?” “Well, the record’s finally been released, and the single’s number one all over the fucking world. Get your ass back here!”

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