An Interview with Donovan
The man they call “Mellow Yellow” has made it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. While he admits he didn’t have any sleepless nights waiting for the news to arrive, he is thrilled that he has been inducted.
Donovan’s journey to enshrinement in Cleveland, Ohio began when he was a teenager and rejected the life of a normal man in favor of that of a Bohemian. He lived in the fields, learned guitar finger picking techniques from a very smelly man in a graveyard and moved from place to place, soaking in all he could in terms of the arts, philosophy, spiritually and music.
When he got famous, he hung with the Beatles when they visited the Marharishi, recorded “Billion Dollar Babies” with Alice Cooper and got word from Gibson Guitars that they are making him a replica of a guitar that was stolen ages ago.
While Donovan’s astrologer may have predicted this would be a good year for him, few people in this realm could have predicted the wandering minstrel would be on top of the world, once again, in 2012.
Jeb: You are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Have you taken it all in?
Donovan: I suppose that it is a bit like an Academy Award, as one is awarded by one’s peers. It is wonderful. Of all the awards that I have received in my career, this one is very, very singular and very, very large. It is quite pleasant, really. It will focus a searchlight on my work.
I love awards just for that reason; this one is huge. When my work is highlighted, then a younger generation will discover my work. When the word “Donovan” is Googled then twenty seven albums will appear for them to discover. This is an extraordinary thing because the young people will be able to discover my music. My mission has always been to continually be of assistance to young people everywhere. My music and my poetry are filled with stuff that they can use. This award has double meaning as it has a very personal feeling attached to it, as well as being a great honor to my work.
There is poetic justice to it all, as well. My work will be reevaluated by a whole new generation and they’ll find in it comfort that they can use. Whether they are musicians, students or just young people in general, my work is positive and I am so glad that they will be exposed to it.
Jeb: Is being in the Hall of Fame important to you? Was this something that you had hoped for over the years?
Donovan: To be honest, I didn’t have sleepless nights because I was not in the Hall of Fame, but it is wonderful to be nominated.
Jeb: You also have The Essential Donovan coming out on Legacy Recordings. Your music influenced a lot of people.
Donovan: Guitar players, for instance, seem to be turned on to my stuff. Geezer Butler of Black Sabbath made a great comment on it. He said, “I was having difficulty learning the Beatles songs. I tried Donovan’s songs and that is when I was able to get going.” John Mellencamp, who was so kind when he took me on the road for six gigs to honor me, told his audiences, “I was sixteen years old when I heard Donovan and it is because of him that I am doing this today.”
Guitar players love recording with me because I’m quirky. I have a lot of fun and I break all the rules. I have been on stage with Jeff Beck, Allan Holdsworth, Jimmy Page and all of these great guys. I’ve got a steady rolling rhythm. I am a great rhythm guitar player and I say that without an ounce of humility [laughter].
Jeb: Where did you develop your sense of rhythm?
Donovan: I was a drummer before I became a guitar player. I wanted to be Gene Krupa. What happened was that I discovered that I couldn’t hitchhike down the road with a drum kit on my back. When I borrowed a friend’s guitar, and had a go on it, I loved it. I do rhythms on the guitar that are as steady as a metronome. I also do paradiddles on the guitar and, without even thinking, I make interesting combinations of calypso, jazz, blues and Latin style rhythms. I play funk when I play and I think other guitar players just get off on it and they enjoy playing with me.
Jeb: With so many styles of music, I have to ask what you listened too in order to influence your talent?
Donovan: I started as a drummer, as I said, so I listened to jazz. When I went to London I was listening to calypso and the blues. There was a huge Caribbean community in England that went way back. There were so many different kinds of music going on in London at the time, especially on Portobello Road, where we used to go to get a little bit of weed.
The Caribbean families would have weekend parties and we would all hang out. I learned a lot about those rhythms then but, at the same time, I absorbed everything else that was going on at the time.
Jeb: Were your parents an influence?
Donovan: Neither my father nor my mother played a musical instrument. My father read poetry and my mother sang a few songs. I began absorbing my mother’s record collection that was full of [Frank] Sinatra and Bing Crosby. My father had Billie Holiday and 1930’s jazz quintets. I was listening to Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers. At the same time, without really realizing it, I was exposed to folk music, as in Glasgow every relative sang songs from Ireland or Scotland.
Jeb: You had all of this going on within you. How did you pick up your unique guitar style?
Donovan: When I was about fifteen years old, I became part of the Bohemian scene. The older Bohemians had houses where everyone would hang out. They had places that were crossroads for other Bohemians who were traveling through town. There was one Bohemian who saw me play my guitar at a few parties and he thought I was good, so he introduced me to his record collection.
The same thing happened to Bob Dylan. When he traveled from Duluth to Minneapolis there was a guy there who turned him on to his vinyl collection. In the vinyl collection that I was turned on to, there was everything from the 1920’s onward. There was blues, folk and spoken word. There was Ravi Shankar, there was Eskimo music, Pagan music and African music – there was everything you could imagine. I couldn’t afford these records, so I stayed there two days and I listened to everything. It quickly became clear that I had absorbed a tremendous amount of music when I started to translate this all onto the guitar.
I also listened to folk music in all of the folk clubs of the day. The American players would come through and that is how I discovered Jack Elliott when he came through, he was playing with Deroll Adams, at the time. I became aware of what he was doing. Jack was playing a black picking style that he learned from Doc Watson. I was able to see this up-close at the clubs. Del was playing a style on the banjo that was extraordinary and was something that I had never heard before. I then saw Scottish folk singer Alex Campbell and Martin Carthy. Martin was the one that Bob Dylan went straight to when he arrived in England. Martin was also the one that Paul Simon went straight to when he arrived in England. Martin knew all of the child ballads and you could really learn a lot from him from the way he picked his little Martin guitar; it was very, very influential. He taught “Scarborough Fair” to Paul Simon. He may have taught Dylan “Lord Randall,” which would be Dylan’s “Girl From the North Country” when he changed the words to the song.
I was sitting in the folk clubs watching but, often, when the guitar player would notice you watching, he would turn his hand so you couldn’t learn his stuff – these were secrets that were kept. There were no videos or books that taught you how to do it. When they would have a few drinks, then they would forget to turn their hands away and I could learn from them. I would eventually have to meet a real guitar player to learn all of the goods but that is how I started out.
Jeb: Talk about your finger picking style as a lot of guitar players were influencedby that, including Paul McCartney when he wrote “Blackbird.”
Donovan: I had seen it but it moved too fast for me to learn what was going on. I didn’t know for a long while that the style, which is called the Clawhammer, was invented by Omar Carter, of The Carter Family in the 1920’s. He transposed banjo picking to the guitar. I guess it was because they had a big family and everybody wanted to play. I suppose he invented it to stand out a bit. I didn’t know all of the history of it at the time.
One day, a guy came into town who was a Bohemian named Dirty Hugh. He was very tall and he never washed but he had a guitar case. When he opened it I saw he had a Martin Dreadnaught. I had never seen one that up-close before. He picked up the guitar and he started playing the Clawhammer. No one would go near him because he smelled so much. I went up to him and told him that he should teach me. He said, “If you really want to know it, then I will teach you. Bring a bottle of wine and meet me in the graveyard tomorrow night.” I had no money and was sleeping in the fields but I managed to get a bottle of wine. The graveyard was by the Roman ruins. I was in St. Albans, which is a thousand year old city, and the ruins were even older. People would meet in the graveyard because the local policemen would see you were there but they wouldn’t move you away.
I met Dirty Hugh in the graveyard and he said, “Here is the pattern of the Clawhammer.” It took me three days to learn it. When I finally learned it he said, “Well, that’s it then. You will now take this and you will do it your way, but now you have the basics.” That is the story of Dirty Hugh who taught me the Clawhammer.
Jeb: How did you go from being a Bohemian, sleeping in fields to becoming a professional musician and songwriter?
Donovan: I hitchhiked away without a guitar, at first, to St. Ives. One summer, after doing a few odd jobs and realizing that I wasn’t ready for that, I was supposed to go to school to be a painter. I knew that was not my journey and one day I ran into a guy who was a guitar player and I swapped my boots with him for his guitar. I was left wearing a pair of sneakers. I had the guitar and I wanted to learn everything. My girlfriend had a Joan Baez record and I would put it on and try to learn everything – this was actually before I met Dirty Hugh. This was my first guitar and it was quite funky. It really was not much of a guitar. It was a classical guitar and the guy who had it put steel strings on it but it still had classical wooden pegs on it. It was a bitch to tune. I would be on the beach for hours trying to tune that thing. Eventually, that guitar disappeared and I borrowed a guitar from a school mate’s girlfriend. That was the guitar that you see in the pictures. It was a Zenith with F holes.
At that point, I knew I had to do this. I really got into it. Hitchhiking wasn’t a problem when the cars wouldn’t stop for me because I would sit there on the bank – we are not talking about freeways, as the roads at that time were very narrow. Anyway, when the cars wouldn’t stop I would just sit on the bank of the road and learn more about the guitar.
Jeb: You are a talented lyricist. We have talked guitars so now let’s talk where you lyrical skills evolved from.
Donovan: I had a father that read poetry to me my entire childhood. I thought everyone, at age five, had a father that read poetry to them every day. I found out later that was not the case. The Scotts are very well read, however. Everyone in the family could also sing and tell a story and I was product of that upbringing.
As far as the quality of my lyrics, and the imagery that I have, no one ever sat me down and taught me how to do that. The skills come from somewhere. I recognize the skills of the poets my father read to me. I had all of these valid forms read to me but I when I say, “Smashing into neon streets and their stoneness. Smearing their eyes on the crazy colored goddess” I have to wonder where it came from. I was not just absorbing it, I was writing it.
I was also absorbing all of the Bohemian poets like [Allan] Ginsburg, Jack Kerouac, Michael McClure and Ezra Pound. I was reading all of the British poets including Dylan Thomas, Christopher Logue, William Butler Yeats and people like that. I had discovered the spoken word albums and when I had a bit of money I would buy those albums and learn from them.
When I add it all up, when I see how skillful it is and that I was so young when I was doing it, then I think it has to be what us Celtic, Irish and Scotts believe in, which is reincarnation. We believe that if a child shows a skill that is has got be encouraged because that child may be the reincarnation of a poet or a singer. It is a very common theme in Ireland to give a child a violin, for instance. I do not know if this happens anywhere else in the world but the music stores of Ireland are filled with baby violins. The respect is very high in Ireland for singers and poets, so they encourage it. I was encouraged very earlier on with my poetry.
The actual making of songs was a skill that I also developed by studying the structures of hundreds, even thousands, of songs and trying them out.
Jeb: Another aspect of your music is spirituality.
Donovan: It wasn’t just vinyl that was in the households of Bohemians, they also had books. The older artists were very interested in helping the younger artists. It was very essential to absorb the music if you wanted to make it. At the same time, there were books on the shelves. These books were passed from the older Bohemians, who were often teachers of art or writing. The earlier generation of Bohemians, from the ‘50s, were helping the new generation of Bohemians from the ‘60s.
Books were passed around. One of them that was passed around was Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. That book influenced many people – millions of people – around the world. He used the word “Zen” in his book and that led to books on Hinduism and that led to Yoga and meditation.
It was fascinating because the East had preserved it, especially in India, Japan and China, and the West had lost the way to enter the inner world of meditation. It could only be put down to the fact that Christianity had arrived and squeezed all of the natural spirituality away from the people. You can see scratches in rocks in Ireland that are three thousand years old where people are meditating.
When reading these books you wondered why all of these paintings showed people whose eyes were half closed and why they all had a smile on their faces. When you read deeper into the books then it spoke. It said that there was a place inside of everybody called The Deep Consciousness. It is called Super Conscious Transcendental Vision. What the people in those paintings were doing was looking inside. There is a beautiful place inside of yourself that will relax your complete nervous system. All of the problems and difficulties will be revealed to you like a science fiction story or a fairytale. In Ireland they actually called them fairytales. They called them the Land of Eternal Youth. Ancient Greeks called it the Land of the Gods and the American Indians called it the Spirit World.
There is a philosophy in Bohemia that says if you can access this place inside, and you have a mantra, then you will not only feel peace inside of yourself, but you can teach it to others. Maybe then the world’s problems of greed and ignorance and all of the world’s suffering can be helped if everyone learned this. It became an extraordinary part of the Bohemian way of life in the 1960’s and that sort of spirituality entered my songs.
Jeb: Did you travel to India with the Beatles at that time?
Donovan: Lennon and McCartney are Irish names and we discovered that we had very similar backgrounds. They had a love of poetry and art. They came from Liverpool, which is full of music and poetry. When we met, we found a lot of similarities in wanting to read these books. George Harrison gave me some books and I gave him some books. We used to joke about which was best when neither were best, as they both were great.
Slowly, it became clear that this band and I had a lot in common, which would lead to seeking out someone who could teach us to meditate. This was part of our journey. The main journey was to present our music, but the music became so successful that it was actually threatening our private lives. It put us in extreme positions of having no where to go where people would not recognize us. There was no place to go to hide. We found ourselves in similar situations. Mainly, I think we were fascinated with the amazing compositions and songs that each of us were creating. There was a bit of a rivalry there, too. In the Celtic world they call it The Celtic Boast.
We only ever wrote to impress our peers. We were not writing to sing to the world. We wrote to ourselves first, and then to our friends, and only then did we perform our music for others. To test the songs out, you played them for your friends. It ended up that millions of people around the world were listening to our songs, which was something we could not believe was happening. We were very skillful at writing three songs a day throughout our teens and that brought us together as well.
Jeb: Later on you ended up on the song “Billion Dollar Babies” by Alice Cooper. That is very different than your solo music. How did that come about?
Donovan: I am experimental. I will try combinations that others won’t and have a lot of fund doing it. I was making Cosmic Wheels with Mickie Most at Morgan Studios in 1972. Alice Cooper was downstairs in Morgan Studio making an album; I didn’t know who he was. Word came up that a band was downstairs and that they would love to meet me. I went down there and Alice had a guitar player in his band that was playing a little bit like Keith Richards and I thought that was fascinating.
Alice introduced himself to me and he played me the track. It was power chords, of course. I wasn’t new to power chords, as I had already made “Hurdy Gurdy Man,” which people said had a very Celtic Rock sound. It had a big powerful guitar in it but it was nothing like American rock. I was listening to the song and it had this huge sound to it. Alice said, “Would you like to try a vocal?” I thought he meant a background vocal. I said, “It is very hard to climb on top of those guitars. I am going to have to do a falsetto.” I had learned by this time, from Chris Squire of Yes, who is a friend of mine that falsetto was essential for a singer in this type of rock band. It was essential for Jon Anderson in Yes and for Robert Plant in Led Zeppelin. I asked Chris why this was so and he said, “You have to climb above the guitars. You have to get way up there, as the guitars take up all of the midrange.”
When I was with Alice I knew I would have to climb up over the guitars and Alice told me to have a go at it. I had listened to Yes, Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple and other bands like this, including Roger Daltrey, as he had to do this too in the Who. I went in and sang this piercing falsetto and sang, “Biiillllion dollllar babbbbieeeees.” I can do things with my voice like that. Alice said, “That’s it man, let’s record.” I think I did about half the vocals on that song.
I have met Alice again over the years. It was really extraordinary to be a part of that song. “Billion Dollar Babies” went to number one. I also did the talking part on the song, “We go dancing nightly in the attic.” It was all like a horror movie; it was all tongue in cheek. I love Gothic mysteries. It has that spookiness. I was working with spookiness with Cosmic Wheelsand the song “Sleep.” I experiment with my voice a lot and I think of all of my songs as little movies.
The interview above was taken from Classic Rock Revisited by Jeb Wright