The Rockologist: Donovan went from Forrest Gump to Rock Hall's sunshine superman

With all the media attention surrounding Axl Rose thumbing his nose at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this week, it’s been a little sad to see the induction of 2012 fellow honoree Donovan Leitch become swallowed up in the hoopla. It’s too bad, because in many ways, Donovan’s influence upon several generations of rock and roll musicians has been much more far reaching than that of Guns n’ Roses.

All due respect to Axl and that Slash guy he seems so hell-bent on ignoring, but the Gunners made one truly great album in Appetite For Destruction, before disintegrating before our eyes in the usual fog of over-inflated ego and rock star excess. Donovan, on the other hand, can claim a legacy that has touched both the lives and the artistry of rock legends from the Beatles and Dylan, to Jeff Beck and Led Zeppelin, and beyond.

The fact that Donovan’s name isn’t spoken so much in the same breath as those guys — at least not these days, anyway — doesn’t change the historical facts. In fact, you could call Donovan’s story something like rock ‘n’ roll’s own version of the movie Forrest Gump.

If you reference old pictures of the Sgt. Pepper-period Beatles taking up with the Maharishi in the 1960s, you’ll find Donovan’s smiling face right alongside the Fab Four, the Beach Boys, Mia Farrow and the rest in most, if not all of them. Rumor even has it that during those heady days at the transcendental meditation ashram, Donovan taught George Harrison some of his folkie, finger-picking guitar technique.

In D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back, the famous documentary film of Bob Dylan’s 1965 British tour, there is an early scene where Dylan can be seen asking “Who is this Donovan?”

Dylan then goes on to label the then still-rising Scottish folk-rock star as “my next target.”  When a record executive arrives at Dylan’s hotel to hand him an award, Dylan refuses it, saying instead to “give it to Donovan.” Reportedly, Dylan eventually came around to Donovan’s music.

Several of Donovan’s early recordings — mainly after Clive Davis signed him to Epic Records — also feature a who’s who of rock royalty, including what went on to be two of rock’s most celebrated bands. Jimmy Page is featured on several Donovan singles, and on at least one of them, “Hurdy Gurdy Man,” he is backed by all of what would become Led Zeppelin (Page, John Paul Jones, and John Bonham) with the sole exception of Robert Plant. Likewise, on the song “Bababajagal (Love Is Hot),” Donovan is backed by the original Jeff Beck Group (Beck on guitar, Ronnie Wood on bass, Mickey Waller on drums, and session keyboard great Nicky Hopkins). The only guy missing is Rod Stewart.

These great songs, along with all of his most memorable sides both for Epic and his original label Pye Records, are represented on The Essential Donovan — a comprehensive 36-song collection of Donovan’s seminal period of 1965-73. Included are everything from his earliest, folkier songs like “Catch The Wind” and “Colours” to the mid-1960s, Mickie Most produced psychedelic pop of songs like “Sunshine Superman,” “Wear Your Love Like Heaven,” “Mellow Yellow” and “Atlantis.”

It is on these latter songs in particular, where Donovan’s gift for simple, but effective folk-pop melodies — aided greatly by Most’s widely criticized at the time ear for a commercially appealing hook — is most evident. Mickie Most was actually the best producer someone like Donovan could have asked for at the time.

Donovan’s unique ability for topical, but simply phrased lyrics which addressed the socially turbulent issues of the day, without clouding them with the ambiguity of, for example, Dylan, likewise shows why — at least briefly — he was the more commercially consistent artist. Taking a cue from of one of his own greatest influences, Pete Seeger, Donovan seemed to uniquely understand the genius of making your lyrical point simply, but effectively.

In addition to the hits, The Essential Donovan — due out on April 17, 2012, from Legacy Recordings — also features a number of deeper cuts, including gems like “Season Of The Witch,” which has been famously covered by artists ranging from the great version heard on the legendary Super Session album featuring Mike Bloomfield, Al Kooper and Stephen Stills, to latter day artists like Courtney Love and Hole. Several previously unreleased recordings, including live versions of  “Sunny Goodge Street” and “Sand And Foam” (from a 1967 Anaheim concert), are also included here. The deluxe package also features extensive liner notes from Donovan himself, as well as a scholarly essay from Anthony DeCurtis.

Of course, as the 1960s came to a close, so did Donovan’s most fertile period as a commercially viable artist. He did enjoy a brief, modest comeback in the early 1970s — which oddly enough, was manifested in the first post-psychedelic wave of glam-rock. Both David Bowie and Marc Bolan modeled their earliest folk-rock recordings on the Donovan blueprint.

Bolan was probably the most obvious about it. His elfin stature and acoustic space-pop during the Tyrannosaurus Rex period, was for all practical purposes nothing more than a modernized update of Donovan’s psychedelic pop.

Likewise, Bowie’s pre-Ziggy period — particularly on the Space Oddity and Hunky Dory albums — owes more than a little to Donovan’s more subtle form of 1960s androgyny. In America, Alice Cooper went even further — enlisting Donovan himself as a guest vocalist for the title track of his own breakthrough to the commercial big-leagues, the Billion Dollar Babies album. The Alice Cooper rub was also likely a contributing factor in Donovan’s last modest commercial hit, 1973’s Cosmic Wheels album.

Subsequent comeback attempts like the early-1990s, Rick Rubin produced Sutras album, mostly came and went with little commercial fanfare from the general record-buying public.

Times had obviously changed — hell, by this time, people didn’t even buy their music in record stores anymore.

But Donovan’s influence remains as strong as ever. It is most evident today in the modern folkish psychedelia you hear on records by artists like Devendra Banhart, Fleet Foxes, and even the Shins — none of whom could have ever even existed, if Donovan hadn’t paved the way before them. The artistic tie which binds artists like these, is their unique ability for simple, yet universally understood artistic understatement. Donovan was the original master of that.

And when John Mellencamp — another longtime admirer — inducts Donovan Leitch into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this weekend, you can be sure that Donovan himself will accept the honor with all of his usual quiet dignity and unassuming grace.

Axl Rose might want to take note.

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Glen Boyd

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