Donovan: ‘I waited to see if Greta Thunberg’s generation would have their own songwriters’
The 1960s folk troubadour on fame, money, success, drugs and Greta Thunberg
Donovan in the late 1960s. Photograph: David Redfern/Redferns/Getty
Donovan, born Donovan Phillips Leitch in Scotland in 1946, was famous enough before he was 18 for the world to be on first-name terms with him. You don’t have to be a boomer to remember Mellow Yellow, although it may help if you want to remember his famous stand-off with Bob Dylan in Don’t Look Back, a really poignant moment of the old folk against the new. (Dylan, new folk in this narrative, is actually older by four years, Donovan is keen to stress.)
Now 73 and living near Mallow, in Co Cork, he has wild grey hair and a gentle, thoughtful face; he looks, in real life, like an atmospheric black-and-white photo of a folk singer. His conversation is as wild as his hair, completely ungoverned by conventions such as sticking to the point or answering the bloody question. His mind comes into focus every now and then, when he wants to tell me what to write, how to write it and how to ask a question. I have actually since considered some remote therapy to try and figure out why this annoyed me so much.
Anyway, he is out of retirement with Eco-Song, a tribute album to Greta Thunberg that he has recorded with his wife, Linda. No, wait, it’s not a tribute album; it’s an album of songs from across his career with an eco theme, waiting to be turned into a “stage opera”. He and Linda want to take it to schools, to universities, want the youth performing it up and down the land. They have a plot strung around the songs – four young students in Cork, meeting up on a Friday night, after a climate strike – but, for the time being, the songs have been released as a standalone CD. A month ago, in an entirely different world, he was planning to take it on tour.
Everything – jazz, blues, folk, pop music, literature, feminism, ecology – I just absorbed it like a sponge, and I was prepared, because I had had poetry of noble thought read to me as a child
We met before the lockdown in a London hotel; the coronavirus crisis was serious enough then that we bumped elbows as I came in, unserious enough that we forgot not to shake hands at the end, serious enough that his roadie immediately handed him some hand sanitiser. Donovan wanted to explain why he and Linda have dedicated themselves to Thunberg.
It starts in quite an unlikely place, this explanation – with Mary Shelley, who first sounded the alarm about the dangers of science while all the great poets were silent. (“She was the wife of the poet Shelley, we know that now,” he says, in a tone of aching significance, though surely we knew that then). “And her monster, science, is now raging throughout the earth.” Okay… “It was a young woman who sounded the alarm back then. And I rang the bell, 50 years ago, in 1968, alone among my song-poet peers.”
I think he means the bell for nuclear disarmament. His lyrics, from the start, often had a pacifist edge, along with social conscience; he performed at benefit gigs for striking shipbuilders, contributed two songs to Ken Loach’s Poor Cow (which was to domestic violence what Cathy Come Home was to homelessness).
Mellow Yellow may be the song that floats to the top of the memory, but “electrical banana/ is gonna be a sudden craze” is by no means the summit of his lyrical endeavour. “We actually invaded pop culture with meaningful lyrics,” he says. He was very anti-nuclear – and still is – but I could get no further detail on which bell he is talking about, that he rang and none of the other song-poets did. Never mind that now.
“And then, 50 years later, in 2018, a wee lass called Greta rings the bell again. At first she’s alone. Linda and I waited to see if her generation would have their own songwriters. But they had none.” (I would love to drill into this large statement, that there are no songwriters in Generation Z. But Donovan expressly forbade any questions until the tea had arrived.) “Rebellions and movements need songs. And Linda and I found it extremely significant that it was Mary, not the poets, and it’s again a young woman, it’s Greta, pointing to the disaster approaching.”
The male domination of science and industry has meant that there’s no nurture, anywhere; nature has been raped and pillaged by the male sensibility. It’s always a woman who sounds the alarm – although, in this timeline, Donovan appears to be an honorary one. Ah, tea. So, about this eco-mission…
In fact, it is a bit of a stretch to talk about “retirement”, as it is only five years ago that he was releasing a greatest-hits album to celebrate 50 years since his first release, and even more years of being Donovan, “a kid with a guitar, and a song, and a hat, and a harmonica, the traditional troubadour, minstrel, bard, in the old Gaelic tradition”.
He grew up in Glasgow, of Scottish and Irish descent, in a song-filled house that was also alive with his photographer father’s unpublished poetry. He has had periods of intense introspection, deepening his relationship with transcendental meditation with sundry Beatles, mainly George Harrison, and periods of hightailing it to Bhutan and Nepal to meet Buddhists in exile, but since he got his first contract, in 1964, he has never really stopped releasing music. It’s the mission, he explains. He has to go wherever the mission takes him. Nevertheless, you’d call the 1960s his heyday, the decade of Epistle to Dippy and The Hurdy Gurdy Man, often playing on his own, doors swinging open wherever he went.
Anyway, the tea is here and I am allowed to ask a question, except: “First I’m going to read you something. It takes four minutes. I’ve measured it. It’s the mission that has brought Donovan and Linda back in the saddle. If you want me to expand, I can. ‘Tell me more,’ you should say.” He then reads me the speech, which is essentially a longer version of what he had already told me about the young-women-plus-Donovan bell-ringers before the tea.
As the encounter turns into something more like a recognisable conversation, he circles again and again back to the start of his career, meeting Linda, losing her, finding her again. He is the most fantastic name-dropper, but if you ask him for any more detail… “Ah, celebrities,” he says, knowingly. “You want to hear about the celebrities.” “It’s amazing, isn’t it, how that connects with…” he’ll begin, before haring off to the absolutely least connected thing. He is delightful and maddening, although maddening can get the upper hand. Sod it, let’s start where he wants to start – at the beginning, with his unholy talent.
While The Beatles were doing their famous 10,000 hours gigging in Hamburg, he didn’t need to do all that (although he did play Hamburg once, in 1965 – “It was like a Popeye cartoon: the street was like madness, sailors and tourists and police. Halfway through singing my first song, the wall behind me collapsed and the club behind broke into mine, and everybody was fighting”).
I’m a Taurus, and the Taurus’s area is the throat, and I’m very highly skilled with vocalising. I can really impress and project a very special feeling
“I realised television was for me; I picked it up very quickly. Everything – jazz, blues, folk, pop music, literature, feminism, ecology – I just absorbed it like a sponge, and I was prepared, because I had had poetry of noble thought read to me as a child.”
He was recording a demo in London when Brian Jones, the founder of The Rolling Stones, walked in. “He knew that I was something that was going to happen, and he said to Ready, Steady, Go” – like a 1960s Top of the Pops, only bohemian – “‘If you don’t have him on, you’re going to be sorry.’”
He thus got his first TV performance before he had even released a single, and slips into the third person, awestruck. “And suddenly, he connected with millions of people. How did he do that? And the cameraman loved it, and the directors loved it, and the producers loved it. How did I learn it so early? Because, what I’m about to sing to you, you already know.” The Gaelic singer-songwriter tradition is actually four: “poetry, music, theatre and radical thought”.
Or perhaps it was astrological: “I’m a Taurus, and the Taurus’s area is the throat, and I’m very highly skilled with vocalising. I can really impress and project a very special feeling.” And then he veers into reincarnation: “Did I learn this before I was born? Or is it a continuum, that you are actually not a person but a force, you are an energy, and this energy is manifesting itself in a character called Donovan, but I don’t own it, it’s part of a tradition?”
That night on Ready, Steady, Go was fateful for another reason: he met a woman called Linda Lawrence in the green room, “all dressed in black, pure, white, blanched face, a bohemian girl. My dream.” They were both just 18, but things were already quite complicated. She wanted to marry Brian Jones, with whom she had a child. “She wasn’t his first girlfriend – he had two or three kids already. He was like the god Pan; he was spreading kids around every six months.”
That’s one way of putting it, I guess. Jones drowned in a swimming pool at the sadly young age of 27, in 1969, although not before he had counselled Linda that, even though “where he was going, she couldn’t follow”, she should choose someone other than Donovan as her next partner, someone mature.
Whether heeding this or for some other reason, she went to Los Angeles on her own (later moving her young son over to the US to be with her), and Donovan, bereft, went to Japan. Because “can you believe that in 1969 the government were taxing the Beatles and I and others 96 per cent?” Why, yes, I can believe it, because I recall a whiny Beatles song about it. “Taxman,” he croons momentarily.
“But, still, we were rich. I don’t think we ever saw any real money, because we were moving so fast and doing exactly what we wanted to do. We never had a purse.” Ah, hippies; too cool to have a wallet, never so cool as to forget about money altogether. “As long as I didn’t put my foot on UK soil I didn’t have to pay any income tax. It wasn’t the money; it was the principle.”
The Japanese tour was flat, not for audiences but for Donovan, who was miserable. It wasn’t drugs, and he wasn’t overly crazy on alcohol, he just had a broken heart, and it’s hard to stay interested in your mission through one of those. “Without the mission I wasn’t in good shape,” he says. “Gypsy Dave was always with me.”
Gypsy Dave crops up a lot when he talks. He was there at the start, apparently, when they were sleeping rough in Liverpool. (“Well, on benches in graveyards, with a sleeping bag; but that was the rough. The smooth was in St Ives, sleeping on a beach under the stars.”) Dave makes sage remarks throughout the Linda separation (“There are plenty more fish in the sea”), but it remains hard, maybe because of his handle, to remember that he was a real person, the sculptor and songwriter Gyp Mills, rather than a kind of spirit animal.
Anyway, it was Dave who insisted that he couldn’t keep on gigging in Japan when his heart wasn’t in it, that he had to go home. “My agent, Vic Lewis, said: ‘As soon as you put your foot on [the British airline] BOAC in Tokyo, you’re on British soil – the whole tax plan is out of the window. I was about to earn more than any British artist had ever earned on a year dropout – $7 million. Today it would probably be a lot more. Vic was on his knees in the airport, because he stood to get 10 per cent.”
I quite like this tableau, the mystic bard shuffling sadly on to a plane, forgoing his ancient principle of opposing a supertax, as his agent prostrates himself on the ground for his lost $700,000. Where’s Hans Holbein when you need him?
So he was home, and Linda had come back to England, too, after life in the United States got too dicey. The drug dealers were moving in, and he takes an interesting detour through the end of the psychedelic dream. “The drugs were quite safe to begin with, but as the 60s progressed it was becoming big business, and a lot of our songs were singing about it. So it became like we were the ones who were commercially promoting it.”
The pair reunited in 1970 in a touching scene involving a cow. “We walked up to the woods, me with my guitar, and we sat in the field, and we didn’t say anything. Until I said: ‘Do you want to get married now?’ And she said: ‘I still feel the same.’ And I started singing a song, and a cow came up and licked Linda’s face while I was singing. I’d never heard of anything like that happening. And you can’t make that up.” It must be a Taurus thing.
Everything you need to know is already inside you – you just need to access it. Will our self-awareness come too late to halt the climate crisis? ‘Greta says no. Her generation is saying no. It is an extraordinary mission’
If his first decade of fame was all about love found and lost, its eventual resolution liberated both Donovan and Linda to delve into the deeper significance of the human condition: transcendental meditation. “Me, David Lynch, Paul McCartney, but don’t focus on me, focus on what the teaching says. This might be part of your article.” Okay… “There are three levels of consciousness – waking, sleeping and dreaming – and we move between the three of them. But there is a fourth level, superconscious transcendental vision.”
If you never access that, you never truly relax, and this, in a roundabout but mainly nonverbal way, explains why the world is in such a mess and we stockpile nuclear weapons. “Yet why have we not already destroyed ourselves? Why has it not already happened?” Go on then, wise guy. “Well, it’s extraordinary in itself.”
On the plus side, everything you need to know is already inside you – you just need to access it. Will our self-awareness come too late to halt the climate crisis? “Greta says ‘no’. Her generation is saying ‘no’. It is an extraordinary mission, and the mission is eco. And I think that’s it.”
Encounter completed. I don’t know what Greta Thunberg is going to make of this intervention. But I hope Donovan’s tour goes ahead in the future, if only because I am hoping for a future in which all tours go ahead. – Guardian
Donovan’s album Eco-Song is available to download at donovan.ie. The rescheduled show at Cadogan Hall, in London, is due to take place on October 12th