October 18, 2008
WOODSTOCK, N.Y. - Standing in the rain wasn't going to dampen
He had come to a field in this Catskills arts colony to be
photographed, looking every bit the '60s troubadour of "Mellow
Yellow" fame with a calf-length, black velveteen coat and long
graying curls. The flower-power effect was only heightened when a
Woodstock Film Festival staffer - Donovan was here to perform and to
flog a biographical DVD - handed him a bright pink umbrella.
Donovan was inspired.
"I'm singing in the rain," he started softly. Then with feeling,
"Just singing in the rain!" Donovan was dancing, waving the
ridiculous umbrella and, yes, laughing at the clouds - still a
Sunshine Superman at age 62.
The bright psychedelic spotlight faded a while ago, but these are
busy days for Donovan. In Woodstock to promote the DVD "Sunshine
Superman: The Journey of Donovan," he also talked enthusiastically
about his upcoming double album "Ritual Groove" and a planned tour of
North America and Europe. And while folks at the film festival seemed
more interested in asking him about the '60s - mostly about his pals
in the Beatles - that was OK too.
At a festival question-and-answer session, Donovan told how George
Harrison suffered stiff knees while learning the sitar. He even sang
an unrecorded verse of "Hurdy Gurdy Man" written by his old Beatle
chum. He talked about leaving a private audience with the Maharishi
Mahesh Yogi as the Grateful Dead were walking in and how he first
heard the sitar music of Ravi Shankar during a wild night out.
"I got very, very involved in a paisley patterned carpet, I
remember," Donovan said to laughter. "It took me a long while to come
out of that carpet."
The DVD by director Hannes Rossacher covers a lot of the same ground.
It tells the story of a scruffy teenager from Scotland with a guitar
and a cap who, inevitably, was compared to Bob Dylan, when he hit it
big in London in 1965. The folkie gear was soon enough ditched for
Carnaby Street-wear as Donovan produced a string of catchy '60s pop
gems like "Mellow Yellow" and "Sunshine Superman."
The DVD also solves the minor mystery of who Saffron was and why
Donovan was so mad about her. Actually, it's not strictly a who, but
a what: the young artist really liked saffron bread. The film does
not explicate "electrical banana."
In retrospect, Donovan seems like a Swinging London Zelig. He can be
seen playing guitar in Bob Dylan's hotel room in "Don't Look Back,"
the documentary of Dylan's 1965 tour of Great Britain. He went with
the Beatles to India to see the Maharishi. Donovan taught John Lennon
a finger-picking technique used in "Dear Prudence." Some of the
studio musicians on "Hurdy Gurdy Man" went on to form Led Zeppelin.
While accounts vary, Donovan says Jimmy Page played guitar on the track.
Donovan says that in the London music scene of the '60s, everyone
influenced everyone, and he takes credit for some of the influencing.
He notes that the psychedelic stylings on the Beatles' album "Sgt.
Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" came after "Sunshine Superman." And
there was at least a hint of competition along with the groovy vibes,
as Donovan makes clear in talking about "Superman" during an interview.
"My producer Mickie Most said 'Don't play it to Paul McCartney,'" he
said. "Of course, I did."
Donovan's star waned after the '60s, though he still recorded and
performed. Notable was the late '90s album "Sutras" produced by
fellow meditation enthusiast Rick Rubin, who is famous for his
reclamation work on old pros like Johnny Cash and Neil Diamond.
Donovan also is one of those artists whose melodies routinely pop up
in films and TV. He says he gets a call at least every three weeks
from people asking permission to use one of his songs. They're
typically used by filmmakers as a shorthand to evoke the 60s, but not always.
Martin Scorsese memorably used the happy sing-along "Atlantis" in
"Goodfellas" as a hoodlum is kicked to death. More recently, "Hurdy
Gurdy Man" heightened the creepiness of a murder in 2007's "Zodiac."
And his old chestnut "Catch the Wind" was used in a recent General
Electric commercial promoting wind energy.
Donovan loves having his songs matched with images.
In that same vein, Donovan hopes that young filmmakers will use songs
on his new album in their own creations. Meanwhile, he lives in
Ireland's County Cork and is continuing the process of "tidying up"
his legacy after more than 40 years in the business. The process
kicked off with an autobiography a few years ago, extends through the
new DVD and includes organizing and digitizing his old song tapes,
some of which were long lost.
"It's kind of retrospective time, gathering the complete works," he
said, "not that I'm packing to go anywhere."