Donovan 1966 photo bw WikiCommons 1500 crop

donovan knows a beach where it never ends

DONOVAN CAME ON FAST in 1965 with three Top 10 hits in the UK: “Catch the Wind,” “Colours,” and “The Uni­versal Sol­dier.” None of these came close to du­pli­cating that suc­cess in the US, where Donovan re­mained a pe­riph­eral figure on the waning folk scene. That didn’t pre­vent many who did know of him from la­beling him a “Dylan im­i­tator” for both his music and his adop­tion of working man’s clothing as his reg­ular “look.”

The first is un­der­stand­able: al­most anyone singing folk songs with a guitar and har­monica would have been com­pared to Dylan at that time. And “Catch the Wind” did sound like an out­take from The Free­wheelin’ Bob Dylan album. But Donovan had been wearing prac­tical at­tire since 1963, be­fore most of Eng­land knew of Dylan.

Being la­beled an im­i­tator in any field of cre­ativity is dif­fi­cult for an artist to be rid of. Donovan shed that label with ease when he en­tered the studio in De­cember 1965 to begin recording his new single “Sun­shine Su­perman.” It was nothing like his ear­lier work and im­plied that he was looking as much (more?) to the Bea­tles and Rubber Soul than to Dylan and Highway 61 Re­vis­ited for in­spi­ra­tion and di­rec­tion.

 

“[Donovan is] a Scot­tish bloke. He’s been around and he plays very good guitar. He’s better than you.” (Alan Price to Bob Dylan, 1965)

 

When re­leased, “Sun­shine Su­perman” would be one of the first pop-rock sin­gles that more than hinted at psy­che­delia. With it, Donovan be­came a har­binger of the new era of con­scious­ness ex­pan­sion and spir­i­tual awak­ening.

(If I wanted to be hokey here, I could claim that Donovan was a mes­senger for the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.)

Not only did Donovan dis­card the more ob­vious mu­sical in­flu­ences of Dylan, but he also dis­carded the very phys­ical look that had marked him “folk singer.” In its stead was a hip pop singer with long hair and col­orful Carnaby Street at­tire.

Un­for­tu­nately, Donovan was at log­ger­heads with his record com­pany, Pye, and the single’s re­lease was de­layed until July in the US and De­cember in the UK. This greatly di­min­ished the im­pact of the record’s in­no­va­tions. Had it been re­leased when it was ready in Feb­ruary, it would have beaten the Byrds’ “Eight Miles High” to the claim of being the first psy­che­delic record to be an AM radio hit.

It was the first psychedelic-related single to make it to #1 on both Bill­board and Cash Box. (Co­in­ci­den­tally, “Eight Miles High” was also first recorded in De­cember 1965 and saw its re­lease held up due to a dis­pute be­tween the Byrds and their record com­pany.)

 

Donovan SS monoLP

Dono­van’s Sun­shine Su­perman was one of 1966’s most am­bi­tious and artistic al­bums in a year filled with am­bi­tious and artistic al­bums.

Blow your little mind

“Sun­shine Su­perman” opens with a mem­o­rable line: “Sun­shine came softly through my window today. Could’ve tripped out easy, but I’ve changed my ways.” Any rock or pop song from the mid-’60s with the word “trip” in it in begs to be in­ter­preted as an al­lu­sion to LSD.

Donovan hedged his bets here, saying he could have tripped “but I’ve changed my ways,” im­plying he didn’t. So is Donovan singing about his doing drugs in the present, or is he ac­knowl­edging he did drugs in the past but he no longer does?

A later line seems to re­in­force the acid al­lu­sion of the song: “I’ll pick up your hand and slowly blow your little mind.” The phrase “blow your mind” was also often used in the ’60s as a ref­er­ence to an acid ex­pe­ri­ence.

One of the main fea­tures of my new pub­li­ca­tion on Medium, Tell It Like It Was, is the “Top­per­most of the Pop­per­most” se­ries. It con­sists of ten ar­ti­cles that list all of the #1 records on the Cash Box Top 100 charts from 1960 through 1969. Each entry in­cludes com­ments from three con­trib­u­tors: John Ross, Lew Shiner, and me.

In the chapter on 1966, we look at the lyrics to “Sun­shine Su­perman” and come to no final con­clu­sion as to Donovan’s exact in­ten­tions. Here is the entry for that record from the as-yet-unpublished chapter on 1966 (in­dented be­tween the hor­i­zontal lines):

 


Could’ve tripped out easy

Neal: “Sun­shine Su­perman” was the first #1 record that seemed to openly al­lude to LSD. Whether or not the song is about acid de­pends on how you in­ter­pret such lines as “Could’ve tripped out easy but I’ve changed my way,” “I know a beach where it never ends,” “you can just sit there thinking on your velvet throne about all the rain­bows you can have for your own,” and “blow your little mind.”

My rule of thumb about so-called drug songs is that any rock or pop record from the ’60s with words such as high or trip in it can be as­sumed to have more than one meaning. That is, if get­ting high on pot or taking a trip on acid makes sense in the con­text or set­ting of the song, then it prob­ably is an al­lu­sion to that drug.

Un­like most pop lyri­cists, Donovan ac­tu­ally has some poet’s blood in his veins, so al­lu­sions are usu­ally in­ten­tional and not ac­ci­dental. Donovan later ad­mitted:

“Sun­shine did come softly through my window the day I wrote it, just like in the lyrics, but sun­shine can also mean LSD,” re­called Donovan I’d just readThe Doors of Per­cep­tion, Al­dous Huxley’s book about taking mesca­line, and wanted to get to the in­vis­ible fourth di­men­sion of tran­scen­dental super-conscious vi­sion. I tried LSD, mesca­line, and fi­nally med­i­ta­tion.” (The Guardian)

Lew: “Could’ve tripped out easy” is, I be­lieve, ac­tu­ally “Could’ve tripped out easier,” which makes a lot more sense in con­text: The Sun­shine came softly through my window today (and tripped me out). I could have tripped out easier (by taking acid) but I’ve changed my ways (gone nat­ural). I looked at some of the lyrics sites, and most of them have “Could’ve tripped out easy a-but I” which makes no sense at all.

Neal: As Lew’s ob­ser­va­tion does make more sense out of the lyrics, I set about trying to de­ci­pher that one phrase. I lis­tened to a va­riety of sources in­cluding mono 45s and mono and stereo LPs and these are the lyrics I hear (ital­i­cized and the punc­tu­a­tion is mine):

Sun­shine came softly through my a-window today,
could’ve tripped out easy a-but I’ve a-changed my ways.
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.
’Cause I made my mind up you’re going to be mine.
I’ll tell you right now, any trick in the book, now baby, a-that I can find.

Everybody’s hus­tling just to have a little scene.
When I say we’ll be cool, I think that you know what I mean.
We stood on a beach at sunset, do you re­member when?
I know a beach where, baby, a-it never ends.
When you’ve made your mind up for­ever to be mine.
I’ll pick up your hand and slowly blow your little mind,
’cause I made my mind up you’re going to be mine.
I’ll tell you right now, any trick in the book, now baby, a-that I can find.

Su­perman or Green Lantern ain’t got a-nothing on me—
I can make like a turtle and dive for your pearls in the sea.
A-you can just sit there a-thinking on your velvet throne
‘bout all the rain­bows a-you can a-have for your own.
When you’ve made your mind up for­ever to be mine.
I’ll pick up your hand and slowly blow your little mind,
when you’ve made your mind up for­ever to be mine.

The use of the prefix “a-” in so many words pops up in many old folk-type songs (“Froggie Went a-Courtin’” comes to mind) and seems to be ei­ther an at­tempt to du­pli­cate the ca­dence of the “common man,” or just a de­vice to make the singing flow smoother.

The “a” is easy to hear in each in­stance ex­cept the one in ques­tion: on one listen I hear “could’ve tripped out easy a-but I’ve a-changed my ways,” on the next I hear “could’ve tripped out easier but I’ve a-changed my ways.”

On the sur­face, Donovan’s lyrics are about falling in love with a woman that he would spend years pur­suing (“Cause I’ve made my mind up you’re going to be mine”). The drug al­lu­sions may have been in­cluded in­ten­tion­ally to make a clever love song into a drug song simply for the at­ten­tion it would get from the media and the fans.


 

Donovan 1966 sitar

While Donovan was an ex­cep­tional guitar player and no doubt learned the sitar, it was Shawn Phillips who played sitar on the Sun­shine Su­perman album.

Sunshine Superman album

From Jan­uary into May 1966, Donovan recorded the tracks that would be­come the Sun­shine Su­perman album. Like the single, its re­lease was held up for months. When it was is­sued in the US (but not in the UK) in Sep­tember by Epic Records, it was a tour de force pre­sen­ta­tion of Donovan as an eclectic, avant-garde artist.

The music owed only a nod to his former folkie roots and had a dis­tinct jazz flavor—especially the acoustic bass playing—along with rock more nods to psy­che­delia and what was called “art rock” at the time. It com­bined su­perb songs with ex­cep­tional arrange­ments by John Cameron and cre­ative pro­duc­tion from Mickie Most.

 

Sun­shine Su­perman was far be­yond any­thing pre­dicted by Dono­van’s ear­lier al­bums, and was one of the year’s most ex­tra­or­di­nary achieve­ments!

 

Donovan, Cameron, and Most in­cluded var­ious fla­vor­ings to the arrange­ments: there was jazz (es­pe­cially the afore­men­tioned bass plus a sax­o­phone), In­dian (sitar, tam­bura, and tablas), and clas­sical (harp­si­chord, oboe, and or­chestra).

Sun­shine Su­perman was Donovan’s best album at that point in his ca­reer, an achieve­ment far be­yond any­thing pre­dicted in his ear­lier al­bums. It was one of the year’s most ex­tra­or­di­nary achievements—and 1966 was chock full of ex­tra­or­di­nary achieve­ments!

Sun­shine Su­perman was re­leased by Epic in the US in Sep­tember 1966, four months after it was ready. But it wasn’t re­leased in the UK in its cor­rect format for more than thirty years! For some in­sane reason, Donovan didn’t have the multi-tracks for the album mixed into two-track stereo. Epic Records cre­ated a fake stereo ver­sion (“Elec­tron­i­cally Re-Channeled for Stereo”) for the US market. A “true stereo” mix wasn’t done until the Spe­cial Stereo Edi­tion com­pact disc in 2011.

 

NewRollingStoneRecordGuide book 600

The New Rolling Stone Record Guide from 1983 stated that “Lis­tening to Donovan’s al­bums is like being con­signed to re­live the most in­sipid parts of the Six­ties.” It was stuff like this—almost stupid enough to qualify for an Hon­orary “Stupid About Elvis” Award—that hurt Dono’s rep­u­ta­tion for years.

Hippy-dippy what?

“Sun­shine Su­perman” the single and Sun­shine Su­perman the album brought at­ten­tion and ac­claim to Donovan: over the next few years, he was one of the biggest pop stars in the world. Be­gin­ning with the chart-topping “Sun­shine Su­perman,” he had ten Top 40 hits in the US, four of them reaching the Top 10.

All his al­bums sold well and he was a top con­cert draw. Then the Six­ties ended and so did Donovan’s stay at the top­per­most of the pop­per­most. For decades, it seemed as though Donovan’s ac­com­plish­ments in the ’60s were ei­ther over­looked or openly dis­par­aged by the writers that John Ross has dubbed the Crit Il­lu­mi­nati.

For ex­ample, The New Rolling Stone Record Guide from 1983 (Dave Marsh and John Swenson, ed­i­tors) opens its entry on Donovan with this: “Lis­tening to Donovan’s al­bums is like being con­signed to re­live the most in­sipid parts of the Six­ties.” I re­call that the first edi­tion re­ferred to Donovan as “hippy-dippy,” hardly a mod­i­fier that would send readers un­fa­miliar with his work in search of his al­bums.

From 1984 through 1995, Donovan didn’t re­lease a single major studio album. Without new music and with lots of bad press, he was ef­fec­tively for­gotten.

 

Donovan Sutras1

One of my fav­er­avest al­bums of the past thirty years, Su­tras evoked the ‘feel’ of the spirit of The Six­ties from the mo­ment the music began.

Donovan’s Sutras

In 1996, Donovan re­leased Su­tras, an album that was a breath of the Spirit of the Six­ties from the opening chords and the first sound of his al­most un­changed voice.

I loved the album after one lis­tening, but then, I’m easy. Here is the album opener, “Please Don’t Bend” (the breath that I am re­fer­ring to above) and the album’s closer, “The Garden” (in­ex­plic­ably left off of the US com­pact disc).

Here are the Wikipedia contributors—who cer­tainly sound like fans of Dono’s music and upon whom I rarely turn to for in­tel­li­gent comment—on his res­ur­rec­tion since the album’s re­lease (lightly edited be­cause I can’t help my­self):

“By the mid-1990s, the reis­sues of Donovan’s ’60s al­bums and the Trou­ba­dour: The De­fin­i­tive Col­lec­tion boxed set in­tro­duced him to newer gen­er­a­tions, which helped re­build his fan base. Donovan agreed to have [Rick] Rubin pro­duce his next album, and the recording ses­sions com­menced in 1995, and the deeply med­i­ta­tive Su­tras was re­leased late the fol­lowing year.

Su­tras can be seen as one of his most co­herent solo ef­forts since his cre­ative pe­riod shortly after learning Tran­scen­dental Med­i­ta­tion and the pe­riod he spent in India with the Bea­tles. For all its lack of com­mer­cial suc­cess, Su­tras gal­va­nized Donovan’s fan base by reestab­lishing him as a cur­rent artist re­leasing new ma­te­rial.

“The in­ternet, in par­tic­ular, served a vital role in uniting his fans after the re­lease. Donovan paid close at­ten­tion to this move­ment and spent the next five years re­or­ga­nizing his busi­ness around the in­ternet to better reach his fans.” (Wikipedia)

 

Medium Donovan website 600

The photo that greets vis­i­tors to Dono­van’s of­fi­cial web­site.

Hurdy Gurdy Man

In 2005, St. Martin’s Griffin Press re­leased The Au­to­bi­og­raphy of Donovan: The Hurdy Gurdy Man. Ac­cording to the publisher’s pro­mo­tional ma­te­rial:

“Donovan is ac­knowl­edged as one of the most sig­nif­i­cant cul­tural icons of the ’60s. The book pro­vides a frank ac­count of his early ex­per­i­ments with drugs and his search for self. He re­veals the story of how he de­vel­oped friend­ships with Baez, Dylan, and the Bea­tles, with whom he a shared spir­i­tual so­journ to med­i­tate with the Ma­har­ishi in India.

“Donovan’s au­to­bi­og­raphy of­fers first-hand in­sights into his music and po­etry, rec­ol­lects his rise to fame and the way in which des­tiny was to play a hand by re­uniting him with the lost love of his life through a chance meeting.”

The book placed him in a sym­pa­thetic light, as a quin­tes­sen­tial Child of the Six­ties. Its frank­ness con­cerning his ups and downs, his drug use, and his per­sonal life (es­pe­cially the al­most mag­ical tale of he and his wife), gained him more sym­pa­thetic re­views.

But the style that Donovan chose to use sounds like he re­cited his mem­o­ries into a tape recorder and didn’t bother to hire a pro­fes­sional ghost­writer or ed­itor to put it into some kind of mean­ingful shape.

While I love Dono, the book at times make him seem, well, kind of hippy-dippy.

 

Medium Donovan SunshineSuperman LP Sundazed 900

Sun­shine Su­perman pressed on 180-gram, high-quality, translu­cent or­ange vinyl by Sun­dazed Records (2005).

The spirit of Donovan

Donovan con­tinued to make fine sin­gles and solid al­bums but nothing came close to “Sun­shine Su­perman” the single and Sun­shine Su­perman the album. For­tu­nately, more and more fans and his­to­rians have come to re­alize the ge­nius of both over the past few decades. Both records rank among the finest achieve­ment in a year that may have been the most cre­ative in the his­tory of rock and pop music.

Donovan was a huge in­flu­ence on John Lennon and Paul Mc­Cartney, teaching them a new style of guitar playing that dra­mat­i­cally af­fected the com­posing and playing of the songs that made up The White Album. When­ever you are lis­tening to The White Album or any of the boot­legged out­takes, you are not only lis­tening to the Bea­tles, you are also lis­tening to the spirit of Donovan Leitch.

Fi­nally, Donovan was one of the first pop stars to go full flower-power, don­ning robes, beads, and neck­laces. He was also one of the first hip celebri­ties to show open in­terest in med­i­ta­tion and mys­ti­cism, Bud­dhism and the I Ching, and an­tiq­uity and ex­trater­res­trial vis­i­ta­tion.

And here I could also claim that he was preparing us for the dawning of the Age of New Age-isms, but again, I won’t.

In early 1968, Donovan shared a spir­i­tual so­journ with the Bea­tles to med­i­tate with the Ma­har­ishi Ma­hesh Yogi in India. Click To Tweet

Donovan 1966 photo bw WikiCommons 1000jpg

FEATURED IMAGE: This photo of a care­fully posed Donovan was taken in 1966, al­though I am not cer­tain of where or when. Per­haps it was in­tended for use in pub­li­cizing “Sun­shine Su­perman” …

 

 

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