Rambling minstrel

John Walsh meets... Donovan : The quintessence of hippiedom, his career drooped like a sunflower at dusk when the kaftan culture came to an end. But now he's back with a new, hip producer, and moving into a 'different mode'
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One evening in 1967, legend has it, in the back bar of a pub in Hampstead called the Holly Bush, a tousled adolescent in a wool forage cap picked up his guitar and began to sing. "Yellow is the colour of mah true love's hair," he confided in Dylanesque tones. "Blue is the colour of the skah-ah-eye/ in the morning/ when we rise..." But before the gentle troubadour could move on to address the colour of the sparkling corn, the landlord had had enough and threw him out. He didn't like his face, his hair, his guitar or his teenage assumption that he could sing in a public place without a booking. Then someone whispered that the spreadeagled warbler was called Donovan, and the song he was singing was a Top 10 hit - whereupon the landlord invited him back inside and bought him a tray of drinks. "Sorry mate," he allegedly said. "Didn't realise you was famous."

These twin reactions pursued Donovan Leitch through much of his career. For every fan of his faux-naif little ditties, there were three or four who itched to give him a clip round the ear. His songs often featured nursery tunes ("Jennifer Juniper", "Mellow Yellow") and baffling lyrics: who could forget the first time they heard, "The log upon my garden gate's a snail that's what it is/ ... First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is"? But you could tell he was deep into something mystical and Blakean, and he sang the oddest songs in a super-precise, rather camp little voice that was terribly British, and he embodied something we groovy teenagers liked: wandering. He was the roving minstrel, the rambling songster, the peripatetic gypsy, the ambulant chanteur, the kinetic bard, combining courtly-medievalism with Sixties cool. Girls liked the combination, partly because Donovan didn't seem to threaten - his songs promised walks on the beach and holding hands rather than anything more shag-orientated.

But Donovan was also the quintessence of hippiedom - or at least the watered-down British version of Haight Ashbury - and when the whole kaftan culture packed up in 1970, his career drooped like a sunflower at dusk. He went on to make records that cunningly interspersed hippie grooves with more earthy concerns (like "The Intergalactic Laxative" on his 1973 album, Cosmic Wheels, a song about the problems facing astronauts who wish to visit the lavatory), but by the late Seventies it was all over. He and his wife Linda spent the Eighties living in Ireland and America, and getting by on CD sales of his backlist.

But now he's back, boys and girls, with his first album for nearly two decades, a fantastically hip American producer (Rick Rubin) and a prolonged tour across Europe and on to America and the stage of the Filmore East. Can he convince the cynics of the British press that it was more than a nostalgia trip?

"Absolutely not," he says emphatically. "It would be impossible to convince the British press. A man always has to leave his homeland, go to another time zone, another culture, to get a different recognition - to be accepted as someone who's following a different path, who's moving into a different mode."

If you're wondering where you've heard this vocal pattern before, let me help. It's a combination of the I Ching, the Zen prophesy manual, and the obiter dicta of George Harrison, the Beatle whose mystical vapourings have been riotously documented over the years. Donovan in the flesh appears considerably more down to earth than Harrison, but he strives for visionary effect all the time. The air is thick with shamanic tales, spiritual paths, Buddhist enlightenment, yogic fliers. "Scientists and thinkers," he assured me, nonsensically, "are coming to understand that, underlying every philosophy and scientific law is one common factor, and this factor they call the spirit, or a Field of Energy, or 'the Goddess'. And I can link this to Celtic music. Up to the 1700s, the bardic tradition was still taught in Scottish schools - poetry, music, philosophy and history. We were functional in the tribe... The effects of music at ritualistic times of the year... I don't feel I'm a flashback. I'm trying to embrace the future, as we all must now."

His curiously feminine face, the eyes rather sunk and stoned, gives nothing away. He could be reciting from a New Age pamphlet bought in a field in Glastonbury. "It isn't called 'New Age' any more," he interjects. "It's called the 'Human Potential Movement'." Donovan himself is less a devotee of the movement, more an aspirant boss. In mystic-visionary land, he'd far rather be a chief than a brave. You can tell by the subtly self-reflective way he explains the figures in his songs ("The Hurdy Gurdy Man is the yogi, the One Who Comes Singing, the One who Appears a Fool, the Trickster, the One Who Looks Ridiculous But Sings About Profound Things..."). So does the reverence with which he invokes the names of writers on Zen matters, particularly when he sneaks his own name in among them. At one point he said, "Maybe there are people like Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung, Donovan and Alan Watts, who are conduits of belief, who pass things on..."

Wasn't all this a little hard to square with the life of the pop star on the road, the life he left behind, 20 years ago? Not at all. "The idea of the mystic solo, meditating away on his own, is only one path of yoga. Very early on, I chose the path of Life. One path is austerity and isolation, the other is Life. But they both lead to the same place." For a hedonist and aspiring rock star, this is obviously very good news. Donovan has, however, been worrying about his motivation and, as he does many times in our conversation, he goes off into a fusillade of what's-it-all-about? questions, a kind of one-man Socratic dialogue. "What am I coming back to? What is the question? What is it I wanted to do in the beginning? The idea of coming back is daunting inasmuch as I have to ask these questions. But Linda said, 'It's to offer as many people as possible an alternative...' She's very simple in her answers and so that was that." One can only speculate on the nature of the conversation at the Leitch breakfast table.

The new album, Sutras, will disappoint any fans who thought Donovan might embrace the New Lad culture for his comeback. No trace of energy or feeling, no pulse or ripple of felt life, disturbs the millpond surface of this enervated Buddhist tract. Faint ethereal figures, like "The Clear-Browed One" or the pilgrim shadow of "Eldorado" wander on- and off-stage, as Donovan invokes the seashore, stars, moon, night, and the interchangeable paraphernalia of nature, as he looks for "deep peace" and "the Evernow". His voice is weirdly youthful and unchanged, but the songs (minimally accompanied by some flash American musos and our very own Nigel Kennedy) are as insubstantial as dreams. "What is it - what is it - that's for sale in this album?" asks Donovan with his habitual tic of self cross- examination. "As far as I'm concerned, it's a healing sound. It's a kind of healing that Celtic bards have been proficient in..."

His insistence on Celticism and his constantly-reiterated spiritual and gypsy credentials reveal a man who has spent his life mythologising his every move. Donovan was born in Glasgow in 1946. His father Donald was a tool-setter for Rolls-Royce, working on Spitfires and Hurricanes in the war. "He was a radical thinker," remembers the son, "of the working class but self-taught, so there was literature in the house. He's still alive at 86." The family moved south when Donovan was 10, "part of the migrations of the mid-Fifties to the New Towns", and he grew up in Hatfield. His Scottish roots provided the only colour in this childhood, "at parties with my parents' friends. That was the scene, finding myself under the table with a shandy, with the cousins and brothers and sisters. My uncle played a little guitar, but music was really frowned on, as the instruments of the Devil. To sing and clap and dance was all right, provided you didn't move your hips..."

His desire to decamp from Hatfield was fuelled, surprisingly, by his father. "He used to read me poetry from an early age. He was always reciting. He had the bardic tradition of a powerful memory, and could recite half- hour-long poems, monologues and suchlike. He was fascinated by rambling poets, like Robert Service, and read me lots of Burns and the visionaries, Keats and Shelley, smatterings of the romantics. He liked WH Davies [author of Autobiography of a Super-Tramp], who lost his leg and took to wandering. And this all connected, for me, with the songs of Woody Guthrie - as soon as I heard the travelling songs of America, the pioneering spirit, which of course you also get in Kerouac, it all came together and made my feet itch."

And so the rambling boy was born, living out his father's troubadour fantasies, but for real. Pitched into a mild Home Counties Bohemia at 15, on the campus of Welwyn Garden City College of Further Education, Donovan hung out in art and pottery classes, listened to jazz records and the Everly Brothers in the Common Room, and clocked the girls. "They all wore black stockings, black mascara, black skirts, had long black hair and white white skin. The boys were mostly in Hush Puppies, check shirts, cord jackets. It was kinda middle class. I was more Kerouac - denim jacket, Norwegian rollneck sweater." He gave up the course before the end and took off on his travels, a cool 16-year-old without prospects, money or home. He had in the meantime discovered mysticism: "There was a revolution going on. We were marching, we wanted to ban the bomb, we wanted to change everything. I sat around and listened to the heated arguments of my youthful colleagues-in-arms. But when I opened the books of Alan Watts, everything changed in another way. I saw that fundamental suffering wasn't going to be solved by changing the government of a country; it would be like changing the rider of the same wild horse. So I became aware of the human condition, and the systems by which you can understand the constant chattering of the mind and how it creates suffering..." And we're off again, rambling indeed. This epiphany wasn't, it seems, an unmixed blessing. "It isolated me from my former comrades. It even isolated me from my parents." He took off, heading for St Ives, and spent the summer hitch-hiking and living rough. The actual wandering seems to have been confined to a single year, but Donovan has successfully implied that it's been his life. What really happened was that he made a lengthy odyssey into American folk music, learning to play everything by Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Joan Baez. By the time he was discovered at 18, given a slot on Ready Steady Go!, and saw his first single, "Catch the Wind", make No 4 in the charts in February 1965, he was a seasoned folkie, at the exact moment it was all changing, thanks to one man - a singer with whom he was quickly bracketed, to his detriment.

"I sounded like Bob Dylan for about five minutes," he says now, "and it was blown out of all proportion. Sure, I emulated him, but I emulated a lot of others too, like Pete and Woody and Joan. Dylan appeared on the scene in 1962 and encouraged us all to excel. I was interested in fusing folk music with pop music and so was he. I'd hitched around the place, like Woody had done; I didn't realise Bob had done it too. And yes, it was uncomfortable, as a young man, to be compared with someone and criticised, but it only fired me the more. It tempered my steel. I stood up and spoke and said who I was." Indeed. The evidence is there in Don't Look Back, DA Pennebaker's riveting documentary of Dylan's 1965 visit to London. The irritable protest singer is seen in a cab reading a copy of Melody Maker bearing the heading "DYLAN DIGS DONOVAN" and later at a concert tells the audience that he had found the young bard lurking in his closet. And in a slightly toe-curling scene, Donovan sings Dylan his sweet but utterly slight ballad, "To Sing For You" ("Call out to me as I ramble by/ I'll sing a song for you"), at the end of which Dylan, with the faintest contempt, sings Donovan his epically superior "It's all Over Now, Baby Blue", with the assurance of Mozart crushing Salieri.

"He was curiously small when I met him, that was my first impression," Donovan says. "And dressed in black like a Merseybeat singer. Everyone tried to talk like him." The reason for his animosity, it seems, was a combination of amphetamines and "Joan Baez always said Dylan was a bit shocked to find another guy around, to steal his thunder. There was a pop singer inside Bob Dylan. He really wanted to be Little Richard, we know that now."

And as he hung out with Hendrix and the original members of Led Zeppelin, Donovan's own career was motoring along nicely, Zen lyrics and all. There was no cloud in the firmament announcing the arrival of his nervous breakdown and years of lying fallow. Looking back now, he cannot resist namechecking "my 13 Top 20 singles" and is happy to play them still. There's something oddly childlike about his desire to be, or be taken as, a gypsy, a rebel, an outsider, a shaman, a healer, a hurdy-gurdy man. It's hard to say if it's the years in Los Angeles or the proud child in his soul that leads him into a risky final summation: "I'm probably the most successful Celtic bard of my generation, who projected this style and this image and this casketful of magical songs all around the world. And now I'm back with an album I'm really pleased with on my own terms. But at the same time, it is Number 27..."