donovan knows a beach where it never ends

Estimated reading time is 13 minutes.

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. That didn’t prevent many from labeling him a “Dylan imitator” for both his music and his adoption of working man’s clothing.

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 has] been around and he plays very good guitar. He’s better than you.” (Alan Price to Bob Dylan in 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 below):


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!

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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