Troubadour of Perception
As the final credits roll in Zodiac, David Fincher's cinematic procedural about San Francisco's never-caught Zodiac Killer, Donovan's "Hurdy Gurdy Man" plays in all its quivering glory. The syrupy psych gem is used to sinister effect, something that doesn't surprise its author in the least.
"That's what juxtaposition is," says Donovan (last name Leitch) over a trans-Atlantic line from a hotel in London. "Sometimes they use gentle songs in a tough scene. I've let my songs go to movies, TV and commercials for years now." He observes that sometimes they are used in a very direct way, as when a prominent GE commercial licensed "Catch the Wind," his first single, to address alternative energy.
Meanwhile, the breezy "Jennifer Juniper"—often mistaken for Belle & Sebastian—memorably scored a montage in the film Election; everyone from Luna to Lou Rawls has covered "Season of the Witch"; and "Mellow Yellow" and "Sunshine Superman" are staples on oldies radio stations. It's as if this troubadour is lurking in every corner of our collective consciousness, from media outlets and '60s nostalgia to the recent bumper crop of sleepy psychedelia and flowery freak-folk acts.
"I know Devendra Banhart and some of the others," says Donovan of his musical heirs. "We run into each other at festivals in Europe. It's a great buzz. Folk is the beginning of everything, before you ever go into the studio. It's very good for young artists. It's cheap, to begin with. You stand up there with your guitar, and away you go."
Now in his early 60s, the Scottish-born songwriter has been blessed with a fruitful life and career, beginning as an early contemporary of Bob Dylan's before becoming a friend to and collaborator with the Beatles. His revolutionary yet organic blending of Bert Jansch-style British folk and Woody Guthrie-inspired protest songs with psychedelic imagery and jazzy bursts of flute opened people's eyes and ears, even as he maintained the pop/rock catchiness necessary to chart 11 straight Top 40 hits between 1966 and 1969.
Though his record sales waned after he parted ways with producer Mickie Most, Donovan remains a towering figure in folk music. Recent years have found him looking back, whether in the form of the autobiography The Hurdy Gurdy Man or the upcoming documentary tentatively titled Sunshine Superman, some five years in the making. "It's celebrating the music, the life, the work," he says simply.
Slowly but surely, Donovan is also assembling his follow-up to 2004's Beat Café, the would-be comeback album he recorded with Rick Rubin, the producer responsible for the late-career transformations of Johnny Cash and Neil Diamond. "I guess I've always been working on an album," admits Donovan. "Someone who writes as many songs as I do is always working."
Another ongoing project has been helming the musical wing of the David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness-Based Education and World Peace. Donovan has performed at lectures given by the director, and together, he and Lynch have helped get transcendental meditation into schools around the world. "We present it as a stress-buster," he says. "Schools are in trouble, and kids are stressed-out."
He points to the website www.stressfreeschools.org and observes that an entire school in Washington, D.C.—from students to teachers—adopted meditation for just 10 minutes in the morning and afternoon and saw dramatic results. "When the Beatles and I went to India, we were looking for something just like that, that would calm the world down a bit," he says. "We put it in our music, especially George Harrison and I. And it works."
Sure enough, many of his songs could be read to underscore the internalized, transporting power of meditation, from "Celeste" ("My songs are merely dreams, visiting my mind") to "There Is a Mountain" ("First there is a mountain/Then there is no mountain/Then there is"). It so happens that this year marks 40 years since his momentous visit to India with the Beatles. Donovan has planned a summer tour around the anniversary.
For now, he's doing just four solo performances—including one in Orange County—to keep himself in shape musically. "I'm getting myself into action," he says, as mellow and affable as ever.
Donovan performs at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, (949) 496-8930; www.thecoachhouse.com. Fri., 6 p.m. $32.50.
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