Sunshine Superman Donovan Marks Five Mostly Mellow Decades
The Hurdy Gurdy Man today.
Photo courtesy of the Mitch Schneider Organization
Of all the artists who came to prominence during the time of Flower Power, perhaps no one evoked the era, spirit and outlook more than Donovan. The Scottish troubadour began his musical journey as an earnest folkie in the Woody Guthrie mode (even writing “This Machine Kills” on his acoustic guitar, a nod to his hero’s “This Machine Kills Fascists”), and hanging out with Bob Dylan and Joan Baez while placing “Catch the Wind” and a cover of the antiwar “The Universal Soldier” on the charts.
But by the mid-'60s, he had turned in his workingman’s cap and denim shirts for flowing robes, beads and a hairstyle that got shaggier and curlier. And as his music turned to more mystical and psychedelic themes, Donovan racked up hits like “Sunshine Superman,” “Mellow Yellow,” “Wear Your Love Like Heaven,” “There is a Mountain” and “Jennifer Juniper.” He also dipped into heavier fare like “Season of the Witch,” “Hurdy Gurdy Man" and the poem-song “Atlantis.”
Men of a certain age also owe him a debt of gratitude for fathering the actress Ione Skye, best known as Diane Court in Cameron Crowe's 1989 movie Say Anything. Hers was the face that launched a thousand boom boxes aloft. As this year marks the 50th anniversary of the release of his Sunshine Superman record, the 70-year-old Donovan has embarked on a nationwide tour that includes Wednesday's stop at Houston's Wortham Center. He answered some questions via email on his life, music and how his music inspired Tommy DeVito to stomp the life out of Billy Batts in a certain Martin Scorsese-directed mob picture.
Houston Press: There’s a famous 1964 interview with Ringo Starr where he’s asked what he wants to do with his life when this pop star thing fades, and he says – in all seriousness – open a string of hair salons. Back then, there was no thought to the possibility of a pop star having a 50-year career. Do you marvel at the longevity of your life in music?
Donovan: I came from the bohemian world, and what I have is a calling and a vocation. As a poet, I invaded popular culture. I have always felt my work to be educative and I, as a poet, am in service to society. My work is still resonating because I sing of universal themes.
Tell me how the recent “Donovan Day” went in Los Angeles.
Another singular honor, different from having a street named after one! For the day next year, I have already created a project and a song to focus on the Los Angeles ethnic community, and want to continue to introduce Transcendental Meditation to help students who are under stress, the main community being Latino. It was moving to me in City Hall, where so many spoke of how my songs have helped them through their life’s journey.
You started out as a folkie, but soon switched to a more psychedelic/mystical sound. What was it about this then-new style of music that appealed to you most as a performer?
I am known to have initiated the psychedelic revolution and introduced mystical themes with my album Sunshine Superman before the Beatles and others. I did not join it. I [came] to it from previous lives.
I know you and a lot of contemporaries in the ‘60s felt that music could really change the world and society. And while that didn’t succeed on a grand or permanent scale, do you feel it did in other ways?
The sixties revolution did succeed in bringing the methods by which change can begin. The books of the Inner Mysteries speak of leading humanity to know the cause of suffering, which is simply an ignorance of the true reality of unity. The sixties was a question, not an answer. The question was, “Why are we suffering?” We conscious artists reintroduced the knowledge of how to dive inside where all the solutions begin. The knowledge is now available. And it is now being applied in consciousness based on education, with Transcendental Meditation. Check out the David Lynch Foundation.
Your music has showed up in some unlikely places in films, some of which don’t exactly have peace-and-love themes. What did you think of the usage of “Hurdy Gurdy Man” as the main theme for Zodiac or “Atlantis” being used in a violent scene in Goodfellas?
I encourage my music to be put in films and television and ads to reach the largest audiences in the world, like my huge ad for alternative wind energy with General Electric or my Gap ad uniting youth of every color. The use of peaceful songs in violent scenes is called juxtaposition, pointing to the suffering but not condoning it.
For your Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 2012, you went in with a pretty diverse group of people — Beastie Boys, Guns N' Roses and the Small Faces/Faces. What’s your favorite memory of the evening?
Reading a poem as my acceptance speech, showing poets everywhere that they are valid.
Similarly, what was your favorite memory of your time in 1968 at the retreat in Rishikesh, India, to study under the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Your classmates included the Beatles, Mike Love of the Beach Boys and Mia Farrow.
Expanding John, Paul and George’s songwriting horizons by teaching them my finger style guitar techniques and unique chord structures. [You can hear it] in “Dear Prudence,” “Julia,” “Blackbird,” “Mother Nature’s Son” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
Over the years, I’ve talked to many musicians who appeared in the Bee Gees/Peter Frampton film Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. You were in the jam-packed all-star singing finale at the end. What do you remember most about filming that day?
I didn’t stay long and it was quite fun, but I had to run. I was overjoyed to meet Del Shannon, who has made some classic records.
Do you have any particularly outstanding memories of being in Houston, and if not, then Texas?
Austin is quite a town, and SXSW is unique. Texas is very influenced by Scottish music, my early hero Buddy Holly was born there, and Giant is a great movie! And in Houston, I will be singing [my song] “Remember the Alamo” for sure!
Finally, what are your plans after the tour wraps up?
A long break, and then I release Buried Treasures, a huge horde of unreleased recordings — 150 songs I had forgotten that I wrote! And next year I will release a brand-new record. You can find out more on my website, at Donovan.ie.
Donovan performs at 8 p.m. Wednesday, September 21 at the Wortham Theater, 501 Texas. See www.houstonfirsttheaters.com for more information.
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