Donovan Reflects on 'Sunshine Superman' 50th Anniversary, Hanging With The Beatles & Jimmy Page, Flower-Power Era
"It’s very clear that what a Donovan song has, it appeals still to all ages because I sing about the human condition, and the human condition doesn’t really change."
It’s been a big week for Donovan, creator of such '60s nuggets as “Hurdy Gurdy Man,” “Season of the Witch,” “Mellow Yellow” and, of course, “Sunshine Superman.”
Sept. 3 marked the 50th anniversary since “Sunshine Superman” -- a song that took the British singer and guitarist to the top of the Billboard charts -- hit No. 1. To commemorate, the city of Los Angeles declared Sept. 3 as “Donovan Day.” The commemoration of the song, as well as the golden anniversary of the Sunshine Superman album, are the impetus for a new tour that begins Wednesday night (Sept. 7) at Ft. Lauderdale’s Parker Playhouse.
As part of the two-month tour, in addition to two concerts in the Los Angeles area, Donovan -- who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012 -- will appear at the Grammy Museum’s Clive Davis Theater on Oct. 10. Proceeds from the show will go to the Grammy Museum’s music education initiatives. Tickets go on sale to the general public Sept. 23.
Long a practitioner of transcendental meditation, Donovan will donate a portion of the proceeds of his entire fall tour to Donovan’s Children’s Fund, his charity housed within the David Lynch Foundation, which brings transcendental meditation to at-risk students throughout the country.
Donovan is at work on a new album, his first since 2010’s Ritual Groove, that he hopes to release early next year. “You could say it’s a return to the Donovan vocal and the Donovan guitar being very vocal in the track, and the lyrics will surprise everybody,” he coyly teases.
In addition to discussing his new album, Donovan took a look backward at the song that became synonymous with the psychedelic era, time spent with his buddies in The Beatles, and the enduring love story he and his wife, Linda, have shared for more a half-century.
Why did “Sunshine Superman” strike such a chord with people and still does with younger generations?
That’s usually a question to be answered by someone else other than me -- for guys and gals like you journalists. But it seems to be very clear that each new generation that comes -- not only audiences, but young bands as well -- are very encouraged and enthused and inspired by my work. When you look at it closely, it’s very clear that what a Donovan song has, it appeals still to all ages because I sing about the human condition, and the human condition doesn’t really change. My work is not frozen in a time called the 1960s. Someone described my music as “hopeful melancholy.” The melancholy in my music has within it a secret ingredient, and it’s called hope. It’s very possible that you could describe “hopeful melancholy” as the magic ingredient in Donovan’s work that will appeal to all ages and all time.
Southern California is a major player in “Sunshine Superman” since it was written here, right?
[Linda and I] were walking the beach. “We stood on a beach at sunset” is the line in the song, and the sun was going down, but it’s a double meaning. “We stood on a beach at sunset” means Sunset Blvd. and the Pacific Coast Highway. It would have been Santa Monica beach, or maybe even Malibu, but the ideas came then. Why? Because Linda and I were destined not to marry at that point. [Rolling Stones co-founder] Brian Jones and Linda had a child and were about to marry almost when Brian had to make an extraordinary decision whether he wanted fame or love with Linda. I’m very happy that he chose fame. Linda and I were destined for each other. That song was really kind of a plea for her to marry me at that time. The lyric says “It will take time, I know it. But in a while, you’re going to be mine. I know it. We’ll do it in style.” There was going to be a time of parting and that parting, by the way, saved our relationship, because through super-fame, none of my brothers or my sisters in the fraternity of music in the '60s, their relationships never survived it. So Linda and I had a break from '66 to '69, when we met again. “Sunshine Superman” marks the beginning of a really true love story that works out in the end. She’s the Sunshine Supergirl.
What do you remember about recording “Sunshine Superman” and being in the studio with [Led Zeppelin's] Jimmy Page?
Mickie Most, my producer, asked, “What do you want on it?” I said, “Harpsichord. I want jazz guitar.” He said, “OK, I’ll bring a great guitar player, a jazz band and classical instruments.” John Cameron arranged it. We arrived at the session at Abbey Road, and next door was The Beatles. We started the session, and in walks Jimmy Page. I couldn’t believe it. Here was an extraordinary situation. Jimmy had to play a jazz style on this, and he did. That was amazing, that session, and it took one hour to record the music, and Mickie Most knew we had something special.
You were 20 when “Sunshine Superman” came out. You went from being a folkie to a poster child for the flower power era. How did it change your life?
I already had top 10 records before “Sunshine Superman,” with “Catch the Wind” and “Colors,” but this was a real breakthrough for me. It was a consciousness change for songwriting, as people are now saying I initiated the psychedelic revolution with this album, Sunshine Superman. Before it had been fame, and then super-fame came. And then it became super-super-fame. One loses one’s personal life really; you’re recognized everywhere. But I embraced that. You see, I embraced that very early as a young boy of 16. I was headed out hitchhiking to find my way in the world and to be of some service to the world as a singer/poet. Although my life changed physically, inside I remained the same -- the young gypsy boy traveling the world singing my songs.
By the time you were around 24 or so, you stepped back, and you and Linda, now together, moved to Ireland. Had you had enough?
It looked like I had given it up, although I continued through the '70s making nine albums and still touring quite extensively in the first years. But nobody who experienced '64 to '69 in the music world, especially with super-fame, would ever be able again to follow that excitement that followed the 1950s. By '70 and '71, most of the people I knew who were creating the music, we were rather exhausted, and some of us didn’t make it.
You studied transcendental meditation with The Beatles in India and even taught John Lennon and Paul McCartney an acoustic finger-picking technique that you’d studied. Do you see similarity between your music and theirs?
The similarity between my music and The Beatles’ music is it has within it a very positive quality. It’s woven with humor. You see, The Beatles and I are very different songwriters from the rest of songwriting. The Beatles and I were very closely linked. When we met, we knew that we had been writing songs of a different color. Inside the songs of early Beatles and very much so early Donovan, there’s a link to wanting to be of some assistance and help to the world. We actually come from Irish background: The Beatles are the Irish in Liverpool, I’m the Irish in Glasgow. And we’re poets. A poet’s role is always to be educated, to be of service to society, and I think that’s probably the main reason. And that led to meditation.
In 1966, your album came out, as did The Beatles’ Revolver, The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, and Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde. What was going on that year creatively that we have these albums that 50 years later still resonate?
Three things came together: There was the invasion of pop culture, with what they called folk music. Folk music you might call Donovan and Dylan, OK? It invaded pop culture with meaningful lyrics. That means everything. That meant protest, that meant civil rights, that meant explorations of the levels of consciousness. The second thing was the pop music world didn’t quite expect what was going to happen with the bohemian invasion of bohemian ideas, and that was self-change and responsibility for the future. Nothing in pop music was like that. And the third element was we were really good. In 1966 we proved to everybody that the engineers, the producers, the songwriters and the fans were ready for something extraordinary and that’s what happened. The '60s burst wide open in '66 into full color!