Donovan: Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Buddha and me

As the world celebrates Dylan's 70th birthday, the star known as the 'British Bob' reminds John Walsh how it was he who taught Lennon and McCartney a thing or two, prompted the Pop Art movement and even instigated our very own Summer of Love

In December 1966, a single called "Sunshine Superman" shot up to number two in the British charts. It sounded unlike anything pop fans had heard before – a cacophony of oddly matched and seldom-heard instruments, predominantly a harpsichord and a sitar, plinking away over a backbeat of conga drums. Above the backing, the voice of Donovan Leitch intoned a seductive melodic riff about getting the girl of his dreams:

"Sunshine came softly through my window today.
Could have tripped out easy but I've changed my way.
It'll take time I know it, but in a while
You're gonna be mine, I know it, we'll do it in style..."

We thought it was gorgeous at the time, but didn't realise how significant it was to prove. Instead of pleading for love, or asking the girl to spend the night, the voice of "Sunshine Superman" was cool and detached. It treated the love object as a queen, but knew she could be conquered, sooner or later. It mentioned, in passing, Superman and the Green Lantern, the Marvel Comic heroes, turtles diving for pearls, a girl on a velvet throne thinking of rainbows.

Some months before the Beatles' Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and Pink Floyd's Piper at the Gates of Dawn, it was the first appearance on the music scene of British psychedelia, a combination of druggy rapture, a slightly stoned appreciation of nature and a wistful, if not terribly alpha-male, desire to shack up with one's lady friend. The album that followed, months later, offered more instrumental exotica (tablas, celeste, electric violin, saxophone, bouzouki) and seemingly random arrangements that combined jazz, folk and neoclassical strings. And a voice that was so clipped and mannered and full of el-o-cution (just listen to the start of "Season of the Witch"), it was like an instrument itself.

When, a year later, the hippie explosion began in San Francisco, California, and reverberated across the Atlantic, and British youth started to grow their hair, wear beads and convene flowery "happenings" in the grounds of English stately homes during the 1967 "Summer of Love", they could look to Donovan as the chap who seemed, almost by accident, to have started it all.

He was, by then, already known as a singer-songwriter. A year before, he'd appeared on Ready Steady Go!, the groovy TV pop show and, signed to Pye Records, had brought out two hit singles, "Catch the Wind" and "Colours", wistful love songs sung in a studiedly poetic delivery. Music fans looked at Donovan – the leather jacket, the fisherman's cap, the harmonica cradle, the song with "Wind" in the title – and decided he was trying, a little too hard, to be Dylan. The label of "British Dylan" stuck for some time and clearly pissed off its victim, who argued that he and Dylan had both been influenced by the same singers: Woody Guthrie and Ramblin' Jack Elliott.

The situation wasn't helped by a documentary of Dylan's 1965 tour called Don't Look Back, in which, during "Talkin' World War Three Blues", Dylan sings, "I looked in the closet – and there was Donovan." Dylan later tried to make amends, saying, "I didn't mean to put the guy down... I just did it for a joke." But it must have felt a relief when Donovan found himself at the de facto head of British psychedelia – and, with his 1967 double album, A Gift from a Flower to a Garden, flower power – aeons away from the anxiety of Dylan's influence.

Nearly half a century later, both men have significant birthdays. Dylan is 70 years old this coming Tuesday; Donovan hit 65 on 10 May. And whatever Dylan is planning for his special anniversary, Donovan is about to perform his masterwork Sunshine Superman album in its entirety at the Albert Hall.

We meet around the corner from the Hall in a trendy hotel. When I arrive, he is in the bar, devouring a noodle dish with gusto. He wears his 65 years lightly, with his maroon shirt, his long straggly black-grey hair, his merry eyes and his instant gallantry towards the lady photographer. He's in a state somewhere between excitement and agitation about the concert. Why is he doing it now? And why Sunshine Superman, and not his later Mellow Yellow album, or A Gift From a Flower to a Garden?

"Well, I realised that there was a trend going on. [Pink Floyd's] Roger Waters was scheduled to do The Wall. Yusuf – Cat Stevens – was threatening to do Tea for the Tillerman at the Troubadour in LA. Linda [his wife Linda Lawrence] and I celebrated our ruby wedding last year. I said to her, 'What d'you want to do?' and she said, 'Let's do Superman in its entirety.' And she was right. Because it's our album. It's a love story."

Indeed it is. The second track is a long, looping ye olde medieval faerie tale called "Legend of a Girl Child Linda", while later tracks invoke the shade of Guinevere. And it's an album of a dozen different moods, from the breathily numinous to the hard-rocking. How did it come about?

"Allen Klein had signed me up after seeing me on The Ed Sullivan Show, and he introduced me to Mickie Most [then England's most successful pop producer] and Mickie said, 'OK, what you got?' and I told him what I had in mind. He said, 'Whaaat? You want a six-minute orchestral suite? And a jazz-fusion track? And a harpsichord?' He said, 'Stop – I've got to introduce you to somebody.' It was a guy called John Cameron, just down from Cambridge. When John and I met, I told him I'm hearing this and this and this. He said, 'It's a movie, isn't it?' and I said, 'Yes, it's a movie, a film soundtrack.'"

What, I ask, is "Bert's Blues", a deeply odd jazz number featuring clashing time signatures, doing on a folk album? "I was listening to a lot of bebop," says Donovan defensively. "And to Miles Davis. Everyone thinks I was just in the folk world in 1966, but in 1963 and 1964 I was absorbing enormous amounts of music, from baroque to jazz to blues to Indian music. In my so-called folk period, you'll hear a mixture of jazz and folk and poetry on a track called 'Sunny Goodge Street'." He pauses for breath. "Dare one blow one's own trumpet? Yes, one dares. What we were doing was unique and tremendously new and fresh. We did half of it late in 1965, in Abbey Road Studios. Half the musicians were classical and the other half were these blues guys ["these blues guys" included Jimmy Page, five years before he formed Led Zeppelin] and I was in the middle, conducting."

It's clearly an ecstatic memory for him. But frustratingly, the whole Superman project was derailed in December 1965 by a legal dispute with Pye Records over licensing rights. Nothing happened for months. Donovan played a few minor gigs in America, went on the folk icon Pete Seeger's TV show, came home, hung out with his friend Paul McCartney and contributed the line "Sky of blue and sea of green" to "Yellow Submarine". Only in late 1966 was the second half of the album completed, in America. It came out there in August and sold a million copies. The single "Sunshine Superman" was released in the UK, but the album had to wait another nine months, to appear bang in the middle of the flower-power revolution.

Donovan recalls the months of his creative hiatus. "They asked me to come over and do a gig at the Troubadour in May 1966. Shawn Phillips [the US folk singer and sitar-player] and I hit town. Everyone who was anyone in LA came to the gig and watched me and Shawn k doing what we'd been doing as roommates in his flat in London, creating this fusion of guitar and sitar." Donovan is quick to point out that it was Phillips who taught George Harrison to play the sitar. "We were invited round to his house to show him a few things. Shawn was with Ravi Shankar before George met him."

This is a familiar conversational tic with Donovan, who likes to explain that, whatever was going down in the 1960s, he did it before anybody else. He'll point out that he went electric before Dylan, he taught Lennon and McCartney to improve their guitar technique, he was the first 1960s pop star to be busted for drugs, he met the Maharishi before anyone else, his referencing of Superman in a song was a precursor of Pop Art. In his autobiography The Hurdy Gurdy Man, he slyly notes that, shortly after he met Andy Warhol, the Velvet Underground's first album (produced by Warhol) was released with a banana on the cover – an obvious reference to the "electrical banana" in his song "Mellow Yellow"...

There is a lot of strenuous courtship and romanticism on Sunshine Superman – which is ironic because, at the time it was made, Linda had been fending Donovan off for three years. Though he continued to pursue her – with time off for relationships, and indeed children, with other women – the torture went on for another two years. A former girlfriend of Brian Jones ("a troubled man who had bad health problems, even before the drugs") by whom she had a child, Linda turned down Donovan's many proposals of marriage, insisted on her independence, slept with him, then wouldn't sleep with him, and drove him nuts for five years.

Wasn't Linda a rather problematic muse? "But she was the muse," he says, "the true love, the love of one's life. As the lyrics of the song say, I knew it would take time. And I walked away and got involved with someone on the rebound, and had children with my American girlfriend. [He and Linda finally married in October 1970.] But the wound created the songs. They poured out of me. Publishers and record companies love a broken heart."

He pauses. "Maybe I should explain to you the three kinds of love. It's from the Tibetan..."

There follows a lengthy disquisition on instinctive, emotional and conscious love which, while jolly interesting to adherents of Buddhism, doesn't get us anywhere with Linda. This is also very typical of Donovan. An affable and charming man, he tends to engage in long monologues about music traditions, art, philosophy, poetry, culture and shamanism. He sees himself, I think, as a teacher or guru, passing on the wisdom of ages. His autobiography is full of vainglorious pronouncements: "I was making the music and writing the songs which reflected the emerging consciousness of my generation," he writes. "I was here to... present the bohemian manifesto to the world."

In the book, he describes how his father, who worked as a tool-setter in the Rolls-Royce factory in Glasgow, used to cradle him in his arms and read him poetry: Robert Service's poems of the Klondike, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Blake, Yeats and the works of the "super-tramp", WH Davies. For most men, it would be no more than a sweet memory of childhood. For Donovan, "What my father read me was to do with very powerful social change. There have been many bohemias in the history of man, and one was the radicalism of the 1800s, which my father read me poems from. And I was fired with it, until the actual intention to be a voice, to feel I was a voice, to actually be a voice for a generation was a very easy thing. I knew that I was part of it. I'm in service. Poets are. I am in service to the trade."

"Bohemia" is a favourite word of Donovan's. He doesn't use it to refer to a historic region of the Czech Republic. He means it as anywhere that visionary types meet to pass on arty knowledge. His own private bohemia was in the unlikely environs of St Albans where, in 1963, he and his vagabond pal Gypsy Dave stayed up all night talking about freedom and escape and the open road to St Ives, the scene of his rambling-minstrel summer, dossing by day and sleeping in caravans by night.

"Gypsy Dave and I knew that bohemian ideas were aching to enter popular culture again. We knew it from Ginsberg and Kerouac and Burroughs. They were all asking, how do you bring poetry back to popular culture? Because when you do, and marry it with music, you bring about social change. There was always a mission involved in bohemia. Bohemia isn't somewhere an artist runs to escape society. It's a place where like-minded artists gather to plot the downfall of dogma and ignorance."

Given his high-mindedness about his productions, I wonder whether he minds "Sunshine Superman" being used for a Magners' Irish Cider TV commercial a couple of years ago. The answer: not in the least. "I allowed my songs to be used in commercials, because I realised that communication was what was important. That's why Dylan walked over the line, and Joan Baez and I [in choosing to go electric] – while other folk singers were saying, 'We can't do this, it's Babylon,' we knew that folk music is for the folk and music is for the people."

As we say cheerio, I ask him: did he think, at the time he made Sunshine Superman, that it would last into the 21st century? He looks at me with amusement. "Nobody, John," he says, "knew what was going to happen next Tuesday. When I asked Ringo what he was going to do when it was all over, you know what he said? 'Open a chain of hairdressing shops.' Because his wife was a hairdresser. It was just a laugh. If it only lasted till next Tuesday, well, that was fine. Now was everything."

It is a lovely moment of straight-talking from a man who often strives to recast his early life as a series of visionary impulses, radical decisions and innovatory behaviour patterns – and who believes in the interconnectedness of everything because he sees everything as relating to himself. Behind the gauzy rhetoric, though, lies a shrewd and canny operator who wrote some of the best songs of the 1960s and inspired thousands of uptight English people to wear kaftans and hold flowers beside tinkling streams. That's some achievement.

Donovan performs 'Sunshine Superman' in its entirety with the London Contemporary Orchestra, alongside some of his greatest hits, at the Royal Albert Hall, London SW7, on 3 June. For tickets: royalalberthall.com

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