Thursday, December 9, 2010

Donovan

Even when Donovan first started out and was being unfairly dismissed as a "Scottish Dylan" because of his folksy, Woody Guthrie-influenced style1, his general vibe was already pretty delicate and ethereal — adjectives that, in all likelihood, few would be tempted to associate with Bob Dylan or his music at just about any stage in his career. The differences between Dylan and Donovan are more obvious in retrospect than they were in 1965 because we now have the benefit of knowing the direction in which Donovan's music went in his post-1965 career; still, those differences are pretty obvious even in Donovan's early songs if you make the effort to look past the superficial similarities in his and Dylan's respective singing styles.
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"Catch The Wind" is one of Donovan's earliest hits, just as "Blowin' in the Wind" is one of Dylan's. In both songs, the wind is a metaphor for impossibility, but whereas in Dylan's song it's a more general and ponderous type of impossibility — what would it take to effect meaningful change in Our World? Who knows?2 — in Donovan's it is a far more personal thing, catching the wind standing as metaphor for the impossibility of the narrator's winning the love of the girl he pines for. Dylan lacked the ability, or perhaps the guts, to write songs that revealed a level of vulnerability comparable to that of this song3, preferring, instead, to indulge choleric displays of spleen ("Positively 4th Street:"; "Like a Rolling Stone") rather than risk being emotionally forthcoming.

"Colours", another early Donovan hit song, is still distinctly folky and Dylan-inflected, yet it foreshadows, in lyrical content if nothing else, the direction in which Donovan would head in the future.

Colors seemed to have meaning in and of themselves for Donovan — different colors overlapping and blending harmoniously together in a Love-Infused, Hippy-Dippy Sky being quite literally Donovan's idea of a Heaven Overflowing With Osculations From Ecumenical Deities in the song "Wear Your Love Like Heaven" — and many of his subsequent songs would refer or allude to various colors in the lyrics and/or the titles4.
"WYLLH" is one of my all-time favorite songs ever and even though I routinely fail to wear my own personal love like heaven, I try to and I still think it's pretty good advice, all-in-all.

"Colour" is the first word of the lyrics to "Wear You Love Like Heaven" and the song is, among other things, a catalog of odd-named colors — "alizarian crimson"; "rose carmethene" — that the narrator sees in the sky, the sight of which eventually leads him to a vision of universal racial harmony.  A bit of a stretch, but still a nice song.

"Sunshine Superman":
Songs like "WYLLH" and "Sunshine Superman" might lead you to believe that much of Donovan's inspiration was, let's say, "chemically-induced". In fact, even though Donovan was one of the first English pop stars to be arrested for drug-possession (pot, in 1966; in 1967, Keith and Mick were famously arrested; John and George in 1969), his drug-consumption was pretty conservative by 1960s pop musician standards. His hippie sensibility seemed to be more innate than drug-induced.

In addition to colors, Donovan's lyrics tend to invoke concepts, ideas, and just plain things (for lack of a better word) that are light, gossamer, physically (but not psychologically or emotionally) insubstantial, ephemeral: wind, sunshine, flowers, emotional states. Even when his lyrics invoke something as seemingly substantial as a mountain ("There is a Mountain"), they do it in such a way as to reduce the mountain to a state of mind, the song/koan being more about perception than anything as cloddishly earth-bound as an actual mountain.

Donovan was the flower child who never stopped being a flower child, even when most of the rest of the counter-culture left Flower Power behind around 1968 and turned more toward Revolution and open calls for political and social action. In 1968, Donovan was still singing about "The Hurdy-Gurdy Man" (who "came singing songs of luh-huh-huv") and "Atlantis"5 ("Way down below the ocean where I wanna be") and seemed as committed as he ever was to the idea that love would conquer all; moreover, he seemed blissfully unaware or unconcerned that other, less lovely6 things were going on in the world. He was still floating peacefully off into the sky on a lilac-scented cloud, seemingly unalarmed that nearly everyone else had already jumped off7.

"Atlantis":

There is something charming and — to my mind (for whatever reason) — quintessentially Celtic about Scotsman Donovan's tendency to occasionally put the acCENT on the wrong sylLABle to make his lyrics scan correctly ("born high forever TO fly"; "elec-TRIC-al  banana"; "colour in sky Prush-SHAN blue/ Scarlet fleece chain-JESS hue" — not an exhaustive list, by the way); it does almost as much to make him seem a Renaissance troubadour as his rusticity and tendency to use such anachronistic contractions as 'Tis, 'Twas and 'Twould do— a tendency that, from him, somehow manages not to seem an affectation.
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There's a purity to Donovan's music and his vision that continues to appeal to me, even though many might consider his music hopelessly of its time. I think it transcends its time.
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I'm including "Mad John's Escape" here only because it happens to be one of my favorite Donovan songs but you rarely hear it.

Who other than Donovan could make a breakout from a reform school sound this psychedelically guh-ROOOOO-veeeee? "Good boy, Mad John!"

From the album A Gift From a Flower to a Garden.

Nuff said.

Mad John came down from Birmingham
Very hastily [breathing sounds]
And from Borstal he had ran
He made it down to Torquay
Good boy Mad John!

Mad John holed up in an allotment shed
In a railroad siding
In came the man for the watering can [water water]
He didn't see John hiding [hide hide hide hide]
Good boy Mad John

Mad mad mad John
Mad mad John
Mad mad mad John
Mad mad John [Mad John, Mad John ... etc.]

Mad John met Jill in a transport cafe
By the juke box loud
And over double eggs chips and beans
They made a solemn vow [O, John!]
And Jill paid the bill

Mad John came down from Birmingham
Very hastily [breathing sounds]
And from Borstal he had ran
He made it down to Torquay
Good boy Mad John!

Mad mad mad John
Mad mad John
Mad mad mad John
Mad mad John [Mad John, Mad John ... etc.]
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1 The accusations of "Dylan imitator" stemmed in part from the fact that Donovan and Dylan shared musical influences, especially Woody Guthrie. In his early hits, like "Colours" and "Catch the Wind", Donovan does indeed sound like Dylan ... but in part because Dylan sounded like Guthrie. Donovan quickly abandoned the Guthrie/Dylan style of singing and playing, which was smart because, unlike Dylan, Donovan could actually sing. (He was also, unlike Dylan, a competent harmonica-player, whereas Dylan, to my ear, might just as well have been playing a rusty iron lung to get the wheezy noises he typically got with his harmonica fills. Donovan pretty much gave up the harmonica when he jettisoned the folk music style.) Dylan also relatively quickly abandoned his Guthrie-influenced Singer of The People pose but there was nothing he could do about that nasal croak of a singing voice (although he sounds almost good on Nashville Skyline, particularly on "Lay Lady Lay"). Donovan was capable of finding the melody in his own songs, whereas Dylan was more admired for the poetry of his lyrics; it took others — Peter, Paul and Mary; The Byrds; The Turtles — to discover the actual melodies in Dylan's songs, most of which, in Dylan's original recordings, were buried under that nasal whine of a voice, or, in some cases, were barely there to begin with.

Donovan, incidentally, makes a cameo in the 1967 Dylan documentary film Dont Look Back (there's no apostrophe in "Dont" for some reason). The film is basically about the events surrounding Dylan's 1965 performance at the Royal Albert Hall in England. In one scene, Donovan performs a song in Dylan's room and Dylan is incredibly dickish to him, or, to put it another way, Dylan acted just like Dylan. Dylan later also makes a mocking reference to Donovan during one of his concerts. These were perhaps indications of how threatened Dylan himself felt by Donovan at the time.

To give Dylan credit where it is due, he didn't stop the release of this documentary even though a good portion of it seems dedicated to showing what an egotistical dick Dylan was.

2 Dylan's version of "Blowin' In the Wind" gets a bit tedious after awhile, not just because he begins nearly every verse line with "Yes 'n' ..." but because the song itself is overburdened with numerous obviously rhetorical questions yet Bob must have been asleep in debate class the day the teacher revealed that rhetorical questions don't need to be answered; because Bob dutifully answers them all with "The answer my friend/ Is blowin' in the wind"; and then, in case you didn't catch it the first time, he sings it again.

This reminds me of that episode of The Simpsons in which Homer finds his long-lost mother who'd left home when Homer was a child because she was a '60s activist on the lam. She bonds with Lisa over her activist philosophy and, at one point, she and Lisa are singing "Blowin' in the Wind" in front of Homer:

Mother Simpson: (singing) How many roads must a man walk down before you can call him a man?
Homer: Seven!
Lisa: No, Dad, it's a rhetorical question.
Homer: Rhetorical, eh?..... Eight!
Lisa: Dad, do you even know what rhetorical means?
Homer: Do I know what rhetorical means?

If you're going to answer a rhetorical question that starts "How many ...", your answer should include a number. Therefore, Homer's answers are better than Dylan's.

3 Of course, Dylan got much better at this later in his career, on, e.g., Blood on the Tracks (especially "Tangled Up in Blue" (his use of color here being almost Donovan-esque (see above)) and Desire. And, to be fair, it should be noted that Donovan lacked the allusive profundity that Dylan's best lyrics frequently displayed, from very early on in his career.

It also need hardly be said that it is as unfair to Dylan to expect him to be like Donovan as it is to Donovan to expect him to be like Dylan. I expect neither.

4 One day in May 1966, Paul McCartney visited Donovan and played him the nearly-finished "Yellow Submarine". Donovan suggested "Sky of blue and sea of green" when Paul was stuck for a lyric. Donovan was perhaps influenced by Paul's song, as well, because the former's "Mellow Yellow" was released in October of 1966.


The lyrical similarity between the two songs pretty much ends with the word "yellow", though, since Paul wrote "Yellow Submarine" as a "children's song" for Ringo to sing; but Donovan's song deliberately alludes to a vibrator (the "electrical banana" in verse four); possibly to the odd practice of smoking banana peels in the endless quest for a new type of high; and, it has also been alleged, the original lyrics to the second verse were "I'm just mad about 14-year-old girls, they're just mad about me" (it's known that Donovan sang it this way at least once when he performed it live). So "Mellow Yellow" is not the innocent children's song "Yellow Submarine" is.

Of course, I'm sure there are people who would argue that "Yellow Submarine" has some hidden meaning, too. People did that a lot in the '60s, even with kids' songs.

"Puff the magic dragon"? "Little Jackie Papers"?

Sounds like a pot-smoking song to me.

5 Of course, this forty-five sleeve makes one wonder if there were Nazis in Atlantis:

6 Even Donovan's clothes got in on the love act. Some of the lyrics to his 1968 song "I Love My Shirt":

Do you have a shirt that you really love,
One that you feel so groovy in ?
You don't even mind if it starts to fade,
That only makes it nicer still.
I love my shirt, I love my shirt,
My shirt is so comfortably lovely.
I love my shirt, I love my shirt,
My shirt is so comfortably lovely.


He goes on to note how "comfortaBLEE love-LEE" his jeans and his shoes are.

This, as you can see, is easy to mock, but there's an innocent earnestness to it that makes you feel a bit churlish, maybe even dickish, for doing so.

7 Or were scared off when Mick screamed: Hey! You! Get offa my cloud! But that was 1965 and probably an entirely different cloud.

It is perhaps significant that, in 1970, Donovan had a daughter whom he named Ione Skye (yes, the actress). (Other kids' names: Astrella Celeste and Oriole Nebula.) He was still inviting people back on to his cloud.

1 comment:

  1. I think I preferred when I thought you were on vacation.

    ReplyDelete