Donovan: Molten Truths

2005 is shaping up to be a busy year for Donovan. He’s got a new album, Beat Café, his first since 1996’s Sutras. He’s got a book set to come out this year, and he’s preparing to do a 40th anniversary tour that will begin in October and will continue into 2006.

Many think of Donovan merely as a gentle folksinging hippie of yesteryear. Yet his work has been suffused with jazzbo ramblings and hard-rocking psychedelia.

“It is a songwriter’s joy to sing to one’s fans,” Donovan said recently. “Especially the amount of songs I’ve written, especially the amount of albums I’ve made, and especially the various differences in my songwriting, from the folk styles—jazz, blues, children’s music, spiritual path, poetic, ecology, goddess songs. I seem to be a fully-fledged poet, like in the old days. I can write a song for any occasion, and probably I’ve got a song for every occasion already written. It’s my job.”

Donovan at Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids, Mich. / Photo by Bernadine Carey-Tucker

Donovan at Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids, Mich. / Photo by Bernadine Carey-Tucker

This spring, Donovan tagged along with John Mellencamp on a tour of the Midwest. On these dates, Donovan wasn’t an opening act, he was a guest who appeared in the middle of the show backed by Mellencamp’s band. It was a rare opportunity to show off the harder-rocking side of Mr. Leitch. Caught in Grand Rapids, Mich. in the midst of the Mellencamp tour, Donovan was upbeat.

“We’re rocking the USA. It’s 7,000-10,000 seats, and they’re all sold out,” Donovan said. “John’s a gracious host and he invited me specially because he reckons me, Dylan and Guthrie as the three major influences on his songwriting.

“Of course, I also have previous artists that influenced my songwriting and I would loved to have invited them to my shows. But they had gone, a lot of them, although I did play with Pete Seeger and I valued him as an influence. I didn’t meet Woody Guthrie, but I did play with Derroll Adams. Derroll Adams was the sidekick of Jack Elliott; Jack Elliott was the first disciple of Guthrie”

“So to actually invite a mentor to join you onstage is rather special, and he’s been introducing me as the one that taught him to write songs. But also he said at 15 he became a Donovan jukebox. And, on the beaches at 15 years old, singing Donovan songs, it would only take him two Donovan songs, his girlfriend would be in his arms. A lot of people had told me that, that after the rock ‘n’ roll of an evening, they’d put a Donovan record on and sure enough, they would get very very close to their loved ones.”

Donovan is touring in support of his newest record, called Beat Café. The record hearkens back to the frenetic jazz feel favored by the Beat Generation—the prime influences on the hippies (in fact, if you go up to an old hippie and call him a hippie, he’ll likely get annoyed and say “No, I was a Beatnik”). According to Donovan, the Beats and the hippies and many of the other cultural outriders over generations have come from Bohemian society.

“The world of ideas seems to be developed in Bohemian cafés,” Donovan said. “Since thousands of years ago, there’s always been a group that’s gathered and they’ve been exploring the inner world and exploring the world of art and ritual and philosophy and science. And in modern times, it would seem that in 1846 or so, a new figure was seen walking the streets of Paris, and Balzac the writer described him as a ‘Bohemian.’ And the reason why he did that was, this young man—and soon young women—were disaffected youth, they were disillusioned by the new industrial world which was going to point to the future and it was going to make life so much better. But at the time, factories were burning all over Northern Europe and cities, and children were working in the mines, and the working class were dying at 36 years old. So this wasn’t a brave new world at all. Maybe for the rich, and maybe for the aristocrats, but the young man walking the streets of Paris felt like an outsider. He felt like he couldn’t join society and he wanted to make sure they knew it, and he wanted to make a stand against it. And the only place he could go, being an outcast, was where all the other outcasts were—in the Latin Quarter, in Paris, and those outcasts were called gypsies. And so the gypsy cafés were attracting all these young disillusioned youths. And so, in those cafes they were called gypsies, and where were the gypsies from? Bohemia, so they say…And so Balzac called this fellow a Bohemian, and then it caught on.”

That scene became a magnet “to all the disaffected, all the disillusioned youth and all the interesting outcasts of all the western world,” Donovan said. “And every decade, from 1900 onwards, these cafes were spread around Western Europe and then America, and Australia, and of course in Britain we have Bohemian cafes. And out of it came, of course, philosophy, psychiatry, new literary movements, and of course the world of art.”

By Donovan’s reckoning, the poet is the cultural vanguard of society.

“In a way, the poet is actually the one in the forefront,” he said. “Of all the artists, the poet is, because the poet lays down the word and the poet sings the song. And in the old tribes, it was called the shaman.”

He added: “As a young man, I looked to America and the three poets—Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs—who, once more, were fighting society again for freedom of thought and freedom of expression. It seems like Bohemia has got a symbiotic relationship with society. What it does is, it rejects society, it rushes to the world of art, and it creates its own Bohemian society. But then society is going to be fed by the ideas of Bohemia, because Bohemia creates the, how shall we say, the solution to society’s problems, because society can’t see its own problems and those that see the problem have to leave society. Because they can’t join the problem, and they go and enter Bohemia. And so out of Bohemia came jazz, blues, rhythm and blues, folk music, classical music, world music.”

This concept began to fascinate Donovan as he was working on his book (which is due out this fall on St. Martin’s Press in the U.S. and Random House in the U.K.). At the same time, he was working on his new record with bassist Danny Thompson and drummer Jim Keltner. The sessions were loose, free, and jazz-tinged.

“And I realized that what I was doing—as I was writing the book about some Bohemian ideas, I started exploring musically these ideas, so it was very connected to the book. So Beat Café explores the smoky, bluesy, jazzy atmosphere of the café and we explore poetry and jazz, as you know, spiritual chant, rhythm and blues, experimental poetry, and how would I say, the special Donovan sound of fusing all these ideas together. So Beat Café is an experiment, and I want to pass the idea on to younger people, younger players, and younger persons to say you must continue this Bohemian café, it’s a state of mind, but it’s also a café, and it’s the only place you can develop these ideas.”

Donovan hopes to encourage the youth to continue the Bohemian tradition.

“Every generation is basically no different from the one before,” he said. “It looks like a different world, but when you take away everything from downloading and iPods and 900 television channels and Nike fashions all over the world, when you take away the outer thing, you still have the same generation growing up and listening to music. When you take away everything from the distribution of music, you still have music. There is no real change. Rhythm and blues comes from the roots of blues and jazz, and it’s still in form in all popular music. So it’s not a big jump to actually say ‘The young should not forget that they have to create Bohemia,’ because it always will be about seven percent of every young Western generation that will rebel, that will reject what’s going on.”

He added: “Each generation produces young people, and they have to be heroes of their own life, heroes and heroines. My songs when I was 18 can appeal to an 18-year-old now, because they’re approaching that stage of hearing the call to adventure. When you heed the call, something extraordinary happens. You have to keep going, you cannot go back and settle into what is expected of you. You have to move ahead, you know, you have to leave your family. Passing on the Bohemian tradition is very easy because there will always be seven percent that want to do it, and there will always be those who end up in the world of art or seek out the world of art because that’s where they feel they should be.”

© 2014 Brian J. Bowe. All rights reserved

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About brianjbowe

Brian J. Bowe is a veteran journalist, author, and educator whose work examines the interplay of journalism and culture in multiple settings. Bowe earned his Ph.D. in Michigan State University’s Media and Information Studies program, where he was named the 2013 Outstanding Ph.D. student. His research interests include media framing, the media’s agenda setting function, and news coverage of Muslims. His research has appeared in top-tier journals such as Public Understanding of Science, International Communication Gazette and American Behavioral Scientist. In 2010, he co-produced the award-winning short documentary The Death of an Imam. He also co-authored and served as assistant coordinator of the Social Science Research Council-funded project Migrations of Islam: Muslim-American Culture in the 21st Century. Bowe has written extensively about music. He is the author of Judas Priest: Metal Gods, The Ramones: American Punk Rock Band and The Clash: Punk Rock Band. All three books are part of Enslow Publishers’ Rebels of Rock series of young adult biographies. He is the co-editor of CREEM: America’s Only Rock ’n’ Roll Magazine (Harper/Collins), and has written liner notes for releases by Iggy & the Stooges, the MC5 and Was (Not Was). He served as editor of the online resurrection of CREEM Magazine and has published in regional and national publications such as Harp, Blurt, MLive and the Metro Times.
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