Donovan Q&A: Catching Up With a Folk Rock Superman

Donovan Q&A: Catching Up With a Folk Rock Superman

In the three months since Donovan received the news that he will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he has stepped up his activity in front of the film, TV and music industries. He performed at the Sundance Film Festival, made numerous private performances for music supervisors and delivered a sold-out chat and performance at L.A.'s Grammy Museum.

"Good Day L.A.," the morning show of the Los Angeles' FOX affiliate, devoted daily segments to Donovan during the last week of March, culminating in a live performance on March 30. Next up is the induction ceremony on April 14, which will be followed by Sony Legacy's release of "The Essential Donovan" on April 17. HBO will air the Hall of Fame ceremony/concert on May 5.

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In an interview held at his daughter's home in the Hollywood Hills, Donovan spelled out his plan for the Rock Hall concert. "'Sunshine Superman', I cannot not play, but I would like to preface it with an acoustic song, probably 'Catch the Wind.' We'll follow with 'Season of the Witch.' It looks like Jim James of My Morning Jacket (will join in). We played together at Radio City for the meditation concert and I got on really well with him so I will have the younger generation there."

The meditation concert he referred to was held in 2009 for the David Lynch Foundation that funds the teaching of Transcendental Meditation for school-age children. Donovan, who turns 65 in May, has been an avid supporter of the Lynch Foundation, contributing a track last year to "Download For Good: Music That Changes The World." A copy of the CD was on the coffee table so our conversation, which would touch on poets from the 18th century up through the Beat Generation, Bob Dylan and his last studio album, the underrated 2004 release "Beat Café," began with TM.

Billboard: Last year we heard a new song from you, "Listen." As one of the first and most visible people to experience TM in India, how has it affected your music?

Donovan: In the early days when the Beatles and I went to India and returned, we knew our fans should have it and then the world should have it. We needed it. Flash forward 35 years later (April 4, 2009) and Paul (McCartney) and Ringo (Starr) and Donovan and David Lynch are on the stage at Radio City Music Hall announcing to the world how schools have applied this mediation. Fear and anger and doubt have been subdued somewhat. It doesn't mean that you'll never be angry or filled with doubt again, but you won't hold on to it -- all things the Maharishi spoke of. This one was designed to be very applicable to the Western way of thinking. My dream was to (figure out) how do we bring in a new generation of songwriters? As it progressed, I wrote songs with meditation in them. The Beatles wrote songs with meditation in them.

What was the first song you were aware of writing because of TM?

"Happiness Runs" is the most direct one, which I wrote while in India with the Beatles and one Beach Boy (Mike Love) and Mia Farrow. Before India in '68 I was always looking for songs where people could sing along. It's part of the job to be a poet, folk singer -- children's songs, rounds, circular songs. And so I made this circular song "Happiness Runs" and it directly references meditation because it says 'happiness runs in a circular motion/thought is like a little boat upon the sea.' Simple words, but profound. More rocking was the "Hurdy Gurdy Man." In the 18th century the hurdy gurdy man played the instrument the hurdy gurdy and he traveled from town to town and he brought the news. So I related the hurdy gurdy man in the song to the teacher, the Maharishi, who brings us songs of love.

When you said meditation affected your songwriting, the first thing I thought of was "There is a Mountain." What's its origin?

It comes from a Zen haiku, but it is a koan as well -- the clever question asked of the student by the Zen master. "First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is." "The caterpillar sheds its skin/to find the butterfly within." It's very literal. If we could discard our skin, our hard husk of persona, it's an obvious description that inside there is a softer human. I found (sayings) in old books and by putting them into songs, I hoped they would trigger a question in the listener. By giving it a rhythm it has an attraction -- people were singing my lyrics not knowing what they were about.

On a certain level, you were far ahead of your time. Musicians of the last decade seem to understand you better than the musical community of the 1980s and '90s. Have you sensed that?

I could sit cross-legged in front of 20,000 people and play solo with one guitar (in the early 1970s tours) and a pin could drop and (be heard). I assumed even then, that everything I was singing they knew. It was just a veil hiding it. That didn't mean that the outside world would understand the Donovan magic or the songwriting. But I have been recognized, extraordinarily so, by the audience. We're talking 17 top 100 singles, selling out all the great concert halls of the world -- Sydney Opera House, Hollywood Bowl, Royal Albert Hall, Carnegie Hall. One gets recognized by one's peers and journalists who have a lot of experience and have studied and know where the various parts of my music came from.

There were so many facets to your music - there was a dramatic change from "Catch the Wind" to "Cosmic Wheels" and that's just 10 years. What made you want to be more than a folk singer and bring so many other elements into your music?

I'm a sponge. When I was younger I absorbed so much music and (the story) is always the same -- passed on by an older Bohemian who has a house that becomes a crossroads for visitors. Such a one was in the town of St. Albans for me. Such a one was in Minnesota for Dylan. It's where the older Bohemian says I know what you're up to; you better spend a few days with my record collection. In it is everything - folk, jazz, blues, classical, baroque, spoken word. I was so fascinated that I absorbed all of the styles, even the antique music of Sicily, rare flamenco from 1928. It was fascinating to me that I started dressing my lyrics in all kinds of costumes musically. Many of my contemporaries had one or two styles -- folk, blues. But when I did "Sunshine Superman," begun in 1965 and finished in May 1966, and presented so many genres blended, it was a natural thing to me. It represented what the Bohemian said: all the cultures should share the planet. That meant be brave, break the rules and walk over the genre lines and blend. I could see how it made me difficult to pin down.

"Catch the Wind" -- 1964
"Cosmic Wheels" -- 1972

At the beginning of it all, though, was folk music.

It was. (As a young boy) all the relatives would come around, the room would be cleared and a chair would be put in the middle. And a slightly tipsy relative would be pushed into the chair to sing their one song. These songs I didn't know at the time, were folk songs from the Scottish and the Irish, about the troubles and the migrations. Only later, when I was 15, did I learn these were called folk songs. After that my father's record collection of Sinatra and my mother's Billie Holiday and five-piece jazz groups from the '30s and musicals. When I was 15 ,that would be Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly and I'd collect all the records. At 16, I plugged into a (college) campus for nine months and became aware of the older Bohemians who introduced me to the jazz club, the folk club and the coffee house and the art school and soon the blues club. After that it was easy for me to fuse (styles); I just wanted to see how far it could go. The base is always the same - the guitar and the vocal.

At some point early on, you made the decision to write songs, which many folk singers of the early 1960s did not do.

I much more wanted to be recognized as a poet than as a musician. Poetry is still looked upon as something ineffectual, narcissistic. In actual fact, the Bohemian poets in the '40s, their mission was to return poetry to popular culture. When you bring a poet into popular culture, two lines from a poem can alter a whole nation, it can bring a government down. The beat poets were wrong when they thought poetry would come back on the wings of jazz. Some poets were improvising with jazz improvisers in clubs, but improvisational poetry only works within improvisational music. When folk jumped into bed with rock, the form of the folk ballad would allow the new lyric (to thrive), first with Bobby Dylan then with myself and Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young. The Beatles realized it, too. They were from the Irish tradition of social activism (in poetry) but didn't know it. I somehow knew it, because my father had brought me up reading poetry to me of social change. Before I heard Woody Guthrie, my father was reading poems of social consciousness to me -- Wordsmith, Coleridge, Shelly. I got fired with the zeal that we could bring something (literate) to the fans of pop music to get their teeth into.


You arrived in the U.S. as a folkie but sign to Epic and become a rock star. A conscious decision?

It came to a boil in May 1965 when Joan (Baez), Bobby and I met (as documented) in (the film) "Don't Look Back." At the time, folk singers, classical and jazz musicians released albums, pop music went on 45s. I was a bit ahead, releasing a single. That bit of harmless plastic, the 45, I realized was cheap, available and millions of Baby Boomers bought them. There was already something going on that I was joining (socially conscious folk-rock music). But the folk singers rebelled,saying 'We're not plugging in our banjos and guitars.' Nobody understood that folk could meet pop or rock.

It wasn't until 2004 when you did "Beat Café" that you really exposed the importance of poets on your work. Why did you decide the time was right for that project?

I was exploring the Bohemian cooking pot that was going on when folk and jazz and poetry were mixing in these special hangouts. (Producer) John Chelew suggested that I and (the bassist) Danny Thompson (record). He said 'That's unique when you and Danny play a drone. I'll pay for it. Come in and we'll do the drone for an hour.' Before I went in, I couldn't do just a drone. We were recording at Capitol so I thought I'll write a song for Danny that will be like Peggy Lee's 'Fever.' I'll get a bass line going and I'll write about when we used to play in the clubs. It was simple. We went into the studio and did the track. My wife, Linda, was in the studio. She knows her stuff and says there's only one drummer who can join this thing, (Jim) Keltner. In came Jim. Set up his whole kit never knowing what it was about, having never played with Danny. He's got the big kit set up and I went (sings bass line). He looked at me laughed, 'OK I'm in.' And we sang about life in the beat cafes.

Good as the album is, the shows were even better - you mixed talk about poets and their affect on your writing.

San Francisco was particularly touching because Michael McClure was there. He jumped on stage and did (a poem). In New York, in Joe's Pub, a girl stood up on a table and pumped it out. Nobody knew her. I took it on tour in the U.K., but it wasn't the same. Before I took it on tour, I said it can only be in a small room, a Bohemian café and there just aren't enough of them.

You've been active this year, getting out to places such as the Sundance Film Festival to perform at the BMI Snow Ball and at the musical instrument trade show NAMM. What will come out of this activity?

The music supervisors have always been friends of mine and (publisher) Peermusic is introducing me to all these (projects). I would love to do a soundtrack with the right director - I have a love of cinema and by extension TV and commercials. I'm fascinated that Gibson wants to make me a custom cherry red J-45, which I used for every album up through 1969. It was stolen in 1970 -- a fan walked into a stadium in 1970 and out with the J-45. It's never been returned. I carried around the J-45 nostalgically as a second guitar while I played my new custom guitar, the moon shaped guitar designed by Tony Zemaitis. When Gibson heard there was a wanted poster out, they decided to make a guitar. To have a custom guitar and then possibly a line of guitars for my fans, that's a lovely thing.