Until well into my adulthood, I had little impression of Donovan except that he was someone from the ’60s who’d had at least a few top 40 hits, and whose music—what I knew of it—I liked more than not. In other words, the same thing I would have said about maybe fifty individuals or bands from that era.
I’ve been a huge Beatles fan since childhood, but though I liked a lot of other music from back then, I’d never particularly singled anyone else out to anywhere near that degree.
Then in the late ’90s I picked up my first two Donovan CDs—Sutras, which was fairly current, his first studio album in well over a decade; and Donovan’s Greatest Hits, the standard compilation from 1969. I liked the collection of hits—about half of which I knew from oldies stations and such—quite a bit, but if anything I liked the haunting, introspective, classy Sutras even better, at least once I listened to it enough times and got used to it and how little it sounded like his ’60s music to me.
I was hooked. I adopted Donovan as a favorite of mine, and over the next few years picked up just about everything he’d ever released, both from when he was big and when he was largely forgotten.
I don’t love all of it, but I remain a big fan. A few years ago I even drove all the way to San Francisco (4-5 hours each way from where I was living at the time) to a small club to see him perform in person for the only time in my life.
Part of the appeal for me was the sort of underdog or nonconformist angle of taking up for someone who is far from universally acknowledged as an important artist.
Critics have always been mixed when it comes to Donovan, with some praising him at the time as one of the top figures in the music of the ’60s, and others dismissing him as having never produced anything beyond a few mildly catchy, frivolous, hippie bubble gum tunes. His reputation has remained mixed with critics ever since. Certainly he is not praised with anything like the unanimity of his supposed rival Bob Dylan—“official” opinion being that Dylan won that contest long ago by a knockout.
The public was as fickle toward him as it almost always is. There are a tiny number of artists who hit it big when they are young, and remain at least somewhat popular and relevant decades later—Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney, etc.—but most, like Donovan, are the hot thing for a few months or years and then disappear into total obscurity.
If anything that was more extreme than usual with Donovan. He was very big for several years in the ’60s, and then as far as the public was concerned, he ceased to exist around his mid-20s.
The few people today who have any clue who he even is mostly think of him as the quintessence of everything that in retrospect strikes them as silly and naïve about the ’60s—the “flower power” uncool version of hippiedom. Not even the respected Grateful Dead kind of ’60s nostalgia, but more a “guilty to admit we ever liked this sort of thing” nostalgia.
And here I am, coming to the party a few decades after it ended, deciding to cast my lot with the side that history more or less has already decided against.
But what the heck. I still listen to his music regularly, and I still prefer him to 99% of the other recording artists of my lifetime, definitely including Dylan. Other than that of the Beatles, especially Harrison and Lennon, his music has been a bigger part of my life than probably anyone’s.
Now, finally, on to The Autobiography of Donovan: The Hurdy Gurdy Man.
Several things struck me about Donovan’s autobiography, which I’ll mention in no particular order.
Perhaps the single most noticeable thing about it—which I’m sure is a turn off to many readers—is his constant reiteration of just how big he was in the ’60s, how popular he was with the public, but especially how seriously he was taken by his peers.
This is a big time name-dropping book. If he had any degree of friendship with a famous figure from that era, if he ever worked with them, if they ever uttered the slightest praise of his work, however casual, he notes it here. From John Lennon to Jimmy Page to Jimi Hendrix to John Sebastian to Joan Baez and on and on, Donovan wants you to know that they all treated him as one of them, one of the “elite” of the music business, someone to take very seriously. Even Dylan for that matter.
Many times in the book he points out that he was the first to do this or that, that he influenced this whole genre of musicians, etc. He’ll have you know he was recording psychedelic music and world music before those terms existed, that he was espousing flower power views years before most people think that attitude or ideology even existed, that he went electric with his folk music well in advance of Dylan, etc.
What to make of all this? I’m not as bothered by it as many people would be, but on the other hand, it’s not like because I’m a Donovan fan I’m cheering him on and agreeing with all the self-praise.
No question it’s overblown. He’d have to be some combination of Elvis and Jesus Christ for it not to be. But on the other hand, he probably has been underrated by history, perhaps grossly so, and it’s understandable that he would fight against that, even if exaggeratedly, by citing all the big shots who spoke highly of him.
There’s something sort of admirable about the sincerity of the emotions behind it. Imagine for the sake of argument that what he’s saying is roughly true, that he was one of the handful of most influential artists of his time, one of the ones who most “mattered” to his peers, but that through whatever combination of quirks of history and groupthink most people have now pigeonholed him at some substantially lower level. If you were him, wouldn’t that bother you? Wouldn’t you want to set the record straight?
He just happens to be unsubtle about expressing that. He has to be aware how that comes across (he even acknowledges in the book that he knows he’s pretty full of himself), but he puts it down on paper anyway, because that’s the way he feels. So I could have done with less of that, but I respect the honesty of it in a way.
Which is not to say that I’m convinced everything in the book is true. I don’t mean the value judgments of how good or bad, how important or unimportant, his music was, or even some of the quotes about him, which are in the public record in newspapers and magazines of the time. But I mean some of the specific anecdotes, where there is no record except what he says here.
I recall coming across a couple reviews when this book came out, saying that one or more of the people he talks about denies the truth of some of what’s recounted in the book, though I don’t remember the details.
It wouldn’t surprise me if there were inaccuracies like that. Though even if there are, I think it’s at least as likely that he’s misremembering than that he’s lying. He did an awful lot of drugs back then, and he’s always been more of a spiritualist or fantasist type than a hard core rationalist. He just seems the sort who would subconsciously alter things to make a better story and convince himself that’s how they really happened.
The story where he’s zipping around London in the dead of night with the Beatles in four identical sports cars feels especially apocryphal to me, though of course I don’t know that it’s untrue, or what else, if anything, is.
You’d think, by the way, that one of the things he’d be most keen to contest would be the notion that he’s a has-been who belongs back in the ’60s and never did anything of significance after that. So it strikes me as ironic that this autobiography, except for a very, very brief afterward, only takes his life to about 1970, ending just as he ceased producing hits. He was in his 60s when the book came out, yet it covers his life only through when he was about 24.
That’s another thing that struck me in reading this book: It’s easy to forget how incredibly young these folks were when they were at the top. Donovan is slightly, though only slightly, younger than the Beatles, Dylan and a lot of the biggest names of that era, so at times he comes across as kind of their little brother. But they were all little more than a bunch of kids.
Think about your level of maturity, how you treated people, how emotionally developed you were, how much wisdom you had, when you were 17, 19, 22. That’s how old these people were when, after struggling for months or years in obscure clubs trying to make it in the music business, all of a sudden they were selling millions of records, touring the world, appearing on TV regularly, functioning willingly or unwillingly as role models, and having countless people hanging on every word they said in interviews, lending it all some grave importance.
Though Donovan does not present his years at the top negatively, you very much get the impression that the part of his life that remains uppermost in his heart is the “coming of age” period when he was about 16 or 17 when he pretty much lived as a hobo. I gather it was only a few months, but he and his kazoo-playing sidekick Gypsy Dave slept under the stars, panhandled, worked the occasional odd job, and hooked up with whatever teenage beatnik chicks were willing.
I never had a lifestyle very close to that, but in a much more general sense, I understand where he’s coming from. There are periods of your life when maybe you were unhappy part of the time, you had turmoil, you had discomfort, you had conflicts with people, you weren’t as good a human being as when you were more mature later, and yet somehow they feel like a peak.
For me, the period of my life from about age 17 to age 25 is one that in almost every sense you can make the case was at least as much a low point as a high point, yet somehow it feels like that’s when I was most alive, that’s when I had some sort of essence that I’ve never had before or since but wish I did.
When I read his description of his wandering beatnik days, that’s very much what it feels like. He wasn’t emotionally capable of the kind of relationships he’d be capable of as a mature adult, he wasn’t creating the kind of art he’d create later, he certainly was a lot more physically uncomfortable—cold, hungry, etc.—than he’d be later, yet something about his life then still stands out to him as special. You sense that if he could freeze time anywhere and live the rest of his life like how it was then, he’d go back to being a teenager bumming around with Gypsy Dave.
I had to chuckle in recognition at some of his description of his youthful self. The pursuit of pussy is such a universal. Decades later when it comes time to recount it all, he remembers pursuing this girl, and wondering if that girl liked him, and fumblingly trying to push things past second base with this other girl, because those are so often the moments that had the most intensity at the time. When you’re a 17, 18, 19 year old guy, falling in love and falling in lust are generally the most important things in your life, the things that most occupy your consciousness.
I know you can say it’s all quite sexist and patronizing and objectifying and so on, but it’s a very real part of the life experience of most guys. And his version isn’t the predatory, contemptuous kind of obsession with sex of some guys, where women are lesser beings only fit to be used and discarded, and of whom one should think less precisely because you can manipulate them into sex. This is more the awestruck appreciation of beautiful women, the attitude that it’s a privilege whenever you can somehow get close to one.
To me there’s a childlike sweetness to his adventures and misadventures with women as a youth. It took me back to when I felt something very similar. (Not that I’ve ever a hundred percent moved past feeling that way about beautiful women.)
One of the main themes of the book is an attempt to turn his eventual marriage to his “muse” and still wife today Linda (former girlfriend and “baby mama” of Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones) into a classic love story, a matter of soulmates destined to be together.
I suspect that’s about 50% reality and 50% fantasy, though even at half-reality it’s heartwarming and romantic.
I just think that these things can be reinterpreted quite easily in hindsight. It’s easy for him now to say that when he was with all these different women, having a lot of sex, proposing to some or thinking about it, impregnating some, living with some, breaking up and getting back together with some, that he “always knew” Linda was “the one,” that there was always something drawing them back together, etc., etc. Chances are, if things had worked out with one of the others instead, she’d be the one that “from the very beginning” he somehow instinctively knew was his muse, and that all his love songs were about even when he wasn’t consciously thinking about her when he wrote them.
So it’s all very sweet, and absolutely I’m happy for him that he’s been able to spend decades with the love of his life, but again a certain amount of this is surely Donovan the storyteller intentionally or unintentionally shaping things to highlight the cosmic coincidences and eternal love story elements and such.
Donovan pretty much accepts the “criticism” that his music had a softness to it, that it didn’t have the edgy anger, the shock value, the pain and protest, of some of the most notable music of the era.
That’s fine, he says, because he always intended it to be positive and uplifting. He wrote the occasional Vietnam protest song, but for the most part he was indeed the “flower power” type of ’60s artist. He wrote fairy tales, love songs, spiritual songs, children’s songs, forerunners to New Age songs, playful songs, etc.
It’s what made him seem a less “serious” artist in the eyes of some, but that’s how he felt, that’s what he wanted to express, and for quite a while it’s what many millions of people around the world wanted to hear.
The book is marred by a significant number of typos by the way, a kind of amateurishness I always find jarring in a book.
Donovan, in his admittedly egotistical way, is a likable fellow. There’s a sincerity even to his flaws. He’s someone who is convinced he’s one of the more significant figures in popular music history, and that more importantly he’s given voice to some positive messages and values and attitudes through his work that have resonated with a lot of people and made the world a better place.
And I don’t know that he’s half wrong.