In his early teens in about 1960, Donovan Leitch found himself at a party that opened up a whole new world to him.
It led him into the world of the Beatnik, where poetry and music fused with the folk movement, and later into the mainstream, where Donovan found fame.
Through hits such as The Hurdy Gurdy Man, Mellow Yellow and Sunshine Superman, Donovan (he lost his surname early on) is often acclaimed as one of the pioneers in bringing psychedelia to a wider audience.
As he told The Guide, on the phone from a songwriting retreat in Kerry, Ireland, he began absorbing music at home from a young age, where his parents would play Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra records.
He explains: ‘That was when I was a kid, but when I was a teenager I started absorbing Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers. Really much more important though was a night when I was 14.
‘I stayed away for two nights at a Bohemian party, and this is like ‘40s-’50s Bohemia, and I realised this is where I wanted to go and the world I needed to be part of – society was not what I wanted to join. I wanted to join them and learn about art and poetry and literature and philosophy.
You can look at the ’60s and think of it as something that happened in the past, but I think of it as an enormous wellspring of fusion that happened that was so different from what was happening before, and I don’t think it’s going to go awayDonovan
‘At this party, my parents don’t know where I am – I was kind of on the loose that weekend. One of the guys saw I was interested in the music and he said to me: “If you’re serious, come here”, and he took me into his music room. All along one wall, 25ft long, was vinyl. I went through it all – I couldn’t afford these records. They were from the ’20s, ‘30s and ’40s, it was jazz, folk, Indian music, poetry, South American, Flamenco. It went on and on, and I absorbed it – Baroque harpsichord music, Caribbean congas, everything.’
And he is now celebrating 50 years in the business with Retrospective, a double-album gathering up the hits and his own favourite songs, as well as a tour, which stops at Portsmouth Guildhall on Saturday, October 24.
As the ’60s counterculture gathered steam, Donovan found himself at the centre of the movement in the UK. Inspired by the US beat names like Alan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, as well as Eastern philosophy and spiritualism, he found a musical outlet for his words in the world of folk.
As he recalls: ‘Combining music and poetry couldn’t come through jazz as that was too improvisational – it would come through folk.
‘Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, come May 1965, that’s what we were doing, we were invading popular culture with poetry.’
He played with the likes of John Paul Jones and Jimmy Page, who were later in Led Zeppelin, and was friends with The Rolling Stones and The Beatles. He taught the latter group’s members the fingerpicking style of guitar playing while they were in India studying meditation at the ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Rishikesh.
While half-a-century is a hefty chunk of anyone’s life, Donovan is at ease with the passing of the decades: ‘It sounds like a lot of years. But I have to tell you I didn’t notice the years passing.
‘As far ahead as one thought, when I began, we never really thought more than next Tuesday. Really, part of the’60s was to live in the moment.’
However, he’s happy with his legacy, and a style that he once had described to him as ‘hopeful melancholy.’
As he says: ‘If I feel down, I’m a poet, I’m sensitive, I have a way to express myself, but millions can’t.
‘They listen to a Donovan song, and they feel the melancholy, but through the song, there’s the direct hopefulness of getting through it.’
He is also widely credited with kickstarting the arrival of psychedelia in the mainstream: ‘Sunshine Superman was made half in ’65, half in ’66 and this record has been cited by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, etc, as single-handedly initiating the psychedelic revolution, but I opened the door first to a return to Gallic/Celtic mythology, an interest in meditation, and the extraordinary inner-journey in psychedelics, mushrooms, and LSD.
‘My generation were diving in to try and find an answer to this absolute human insanity of two world wars, the nuclear bomb and quickly destroying the planet’s eco-system.
‘This was all very much in the minds of millions of young people, but no-one had really voiced it yet. I think my influence was more like an encouragement.’
Still seeing himself as ‘a poet, first and foremost’, he feels those heady days were a time that was ripe for change.
‘The ’50s was full of very meaningful jazz but there were no lyrics, and the explosion of the ’60s, I don’t know what it can be put down to, but it was time for all these doors to be blown down.
‘If you take a bunch of records from 1965/6 and 1955/6, there’s extreme differences. Poetry and radical thought has entered popular culture.’
And he thinks his influence and that of his peers can still be felt.
‘You can look at the ’60s and think of it as something that happened in the past, but I think of it as an enormous wellspring of fusion that happened that was so different from what was happening before, and I don’t think it’s going to go away.
‘There are new psychedelic bands arriving all the time.’
Donovan also believes that he and his peers retain a relevance today: ‘A new generation needs to turn on to my music and The Beatles, and Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, because of the poetic, radical meaningful part of our music. Not many singer-songwriters today are addressing the subjects that are really important.’
...his generation being ‘overthrown’ by punk
On the contrary, I thought it was great that they were taking this on. Every generation needs a certain genre and sound to express itself and at that point it had to be said.
We were interested in the same subject matter of yoga and meditation, and we had the connection that we were born in sea port towns – they were in Liverpool and I was in Glasgow – that were completely Irish influenced.
...entering the Rock’n’Roll and Songwriters Halls of Fame
Well, one doesn’t wake up every day saying I wish they’d induct me, but it does point a new generation to my music.
An Evening With Donovan is at Portsmouth Guildhall is on Saturday, October 24. Tickets £27.50-£33. Venue opens 6pm, auditorium 7pm. VIP packages £500-£2,500. Go to portsmouthguildhall.org.uk