Just as Jean Girard so memorably noted in “Talladega Nights,” “God needs the Devil. The Beatles needed the Rolling Stones, even Diane Sawyer needed Katie Couric,” one could add that “Bob Dylan needed Donovan.”
It’s been 56 years since we saw Dylan and Donovan side by side during Dylan’s famous knockabout 1965 tour, chronicled in D.A. Pennebaker’s landmark doc “Don’t Look Back.” As Donovan turns 75 this month and Dylan 80, they remain the hip folk opposites, dark and light, moon and sun, sour and sweet.
Which is why the best way to celebrate Donovan’s May 10 birthday and his timeless art, is a quick breeze through His Back Pages (sorry, Bob) where it’s plain to see there was and is much more to the Minstrel Boy than his hippy flower power and paisley image allows.
Donovan may still wonder what’s so funny about peace, love and understanding, but his incisive songwriting has always had room for ominous premonitions, dread, darkness, ennui and loss.
An immensely gifted ballad portrait artist, Donovan was also a devoted follower of his own fashion, which happens to be both as ancient as the starfish on the ocean floor and as cool as the Carnaby Street styles and the Soho jazz joints of the ’60s, from whence his cool Mose Allison-influenced vocals and the free-flowing small combo arrangements of key collaborators John Cameron and Mickie Most first sprang.
Donovan’s originality is matched by his integrity, an organic quality of innocence and pacific idealism that may have once seem affected, but has remained the rock-solid foundation of his art. Perhaps it’s the reason why Dono’s best tracks keep turning up regularly in films and top artists such as Lindsey Buckingham, Vern Gosdin, Joan Baez, Sarah McLachlan, Glen Campbell, Marianne Faithfull and Lana Del Rey have effectively interpreted his tunes.
Here are 10 Donovan songs to help wish our own septuagenarian Pied Piper a Happy Birthday!
Like Donovan’s late ‘60s hits “Hurdy Gurdy Man” and “Atlantis,” “Season of the Witch” (1966) proves that Donovan can pack a rocky punch with an edgy undercurrent of weirdness and unexplained creepiness. From the album “Sunshine Superman,” it was mostly recently reanimated by Lana Del Rey for Guillermo Del Toro’s and Andre Ovredal’s 2019 “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.”
Just as Donovan has his shadow side, Edgar Allen Poe wasn’t all coffins, corpses and ravens. Sometimes he stepped onto a sunnier side of the street, daring to dream of bliss, and “Eldorado” from Donovan’s 1996 “Sutras” album produced by Rick Rubin, is the result.
Donovan’s 1965 album “Fairytale” is essentially the proof that the ‘60s had its own Billie Eilish since Donovan emerged while still a teenager and thanks to UK television, was a hit with the public even before he had a record deal. “A violent hash smoker shook a chocolate machine” on the album track “Sunny Goodge Street” and the world knew a very special new artist had arrived.
Donovan mid-’60s run of hit songs helped persuade Epic Records and Clive Davis in 1967 to back his play with an elaborate double-record set, “A Gift From a Flower to a Garden,” boldly including an entire album of songs, “For the Little Ones,” which he composed specifically for children. Today, Donovan is focusing his energies on a new animated film project for tykes, “Tales of Aluna,” https://vimeo.com/531596390/168dc7338a and one listen to “Epistle to Derroll” will help you connect the dots across the decades.
Perhaps it’s because I never got the Donovan songs about London in the Swinging ’60s out of my head the entire time I lived in the capital of Blighty in the staider early 21st century, along with 1965 “Mellow Yellow” album tracks “Museum” and “Sunny South Kensington,” “Hampstead Incident” shows Donovan in the ’60s could match Ray Davies’ masterful English street scene songs in melody, incident and sense memory.
Also, from “Mellow Yellow” “Young Girl Blues” ranks near the top of Donovan’s best work and provided Marianne Faithfull with the tailor-made line “I am but a young girl working my way through the phonies.”
The jaunty, good-natured vibe of “Bert’s Blues” aka “Good Guy” from Donovan’s key album “Sunshine Superman” in 1965 backed up the album’s bouncy hit single with tons of world-weary attitude, and strangely demonic imagery:
“Fairy castle stark and black in the moonlight,
The jingle jangle jester rides his stallion
Seagull flies across my eyes forever.
Sadly goes the wind on its way to Hades.”
Which can’t be good, right?
From the album “Beat Café” and sadly overlooked in 2004 by “the record-buying public,” as the saying goes, “Love Floats” proves as infectious, experimental and cheerfully way out there as any of Donovan’s best groove songs and if you figure out what the lyrics mean, I am easy to reach at Variety.
By 1973, the Summer of Love was six years in the rear-view VW bus mirror, which may help explain why Donovan’s terrific “Essence to Essence” album, produced by no less than Rolling Stones’ “pimpresario” Andrew Loog Oldham, didn’t register on the charts. But “There Is an Ocean” remains as haunting, enigmatic and purely Donovan as anything the Bard in Blue Jeans every put on wax.
Donovan’s songs about teenage life on the road with his pal, the late Gyp “Gypsy Dave” Mills hold up beautifully as simple, ebullient odes to freedom, youth and determination to tread the path of Experience.
From the album “Fairytale,” and released as single while Donovan was caught between recording labels, “To Try for the Sun” failed to chart in 1965.
Listen to the beautiful interpretation by Southern California one-hit wonder (“Hey Joe”) band, The Leaves and then tune into Lindsey Buckingham’s sonically surreal version decades later and marvel at “What’s Bin Did and What’s Bin Hid,” as Donovan called the album he released a few days after he turned 19 years old.