May 6, 2004

Sunshine Superman Lands in Hoboken

Donovan was scheduled to play at the Hoboken Street Fair last Sunday, May 2, and because the promoter of the event is a friend of mine, I had the privilege of picking him up at JFK. It was a mind blower. A major psychedelic experience.

It was a rediscovery for me, but also a new discovery on a whole new level of a major culture hero of the '60s.

It wasn't that I had forgotten him. I still someimes listen to a cassette recording of ancient scratchy LPs of Sunshine Superman and Mellow Yellow, which I still consider to be two of the most creative and original albums ever. But so much has happened since that time, more or less submerging that time.

But it hadn't occurred to me in the contemporary context what a seminal artist he was at that spectacularly eventful time. He was really on the cutting edge of the emergent world culture during the late '60s, when many things happened that were unprecedented.

He flew into Kennedy on Aer Lingus, flying coach from Ireland where he lives now. His flight was a half hour early, and I was trying to get on the Web site and absurdly making a sign to help locate him -- as if I wouldn't recognize him -- and suddenly when I found out the plane was coming in, I was running late, had to get gas and cash and drive through the traffic hell of Lincoln Tunnel-Midtown-Midtown Tunnel-Long Island Expressway-Van Wyck Expressway and I had about an hour to do it.

I was frantic on my way out there, squeezing my own guts out in a vice of rage, getting stopped still on the Long Island Expressway -- of course! I should have camped out the night before at JFK.

Miraculously I got there at just about the time the flight came in and ran in like a madman. When I got there there were hundreds of people waiting at the gate, many holding up signs. All the flights were coming in together through one door, and then the arriving passengers were splitting off in two directions divided by metal blockades that made it impossible to cover both exits at the same time. You had to go back and forth, or stand at one end and keep watching the passengers that went out the other way.

I asked several people which flight was just coming in as people filed out, and no one knew for sure. "It's all international flights," someone said. I was running back and forth frantically. I went to the information desk and found that the flight had indeed landed a few minutes before. But then there would be customs, baggage claim -- my mind raced. What if Donovan is here and no one was there to meet him. I was freaking and then my cell phone went off in my pocket and I grabbed it. It was my friend who promoted the concert. She was sounding as though she was restraining herself from blowing a gasket. "Where are you?"

Long story short, she told me he had just called her and he was standing at the information booth. That meant he was only a few feet away, near where I had just left. I walked over half dazed still talking in the cell phone -- "OH GOOD! If he's there, he's just a few feet away, I'll walk over and -- OH. There he is. Okay, I've got him." I abandoned the cell phone conversation and there he was. Donovan. The real guy, right now, in real time. Once I saw him I wondered why I ever thought I would have trouble recognizing him. He looked like -- Donovan. He had his wavy hair, even had a guitar over his shoulder.

I don't even know what I said to him, but he apparently could see that I was frantic and said, "Oh, I've just arrived. Everything is fine." And suddenly, I relaxed, and I knew everything was fine. Indeed it was. Donovan just told me.

It was amazing, not in the sense of being star struck and hung up in the image of Donovan that was marketed, but just being there with the real guy, who really is as magical as the guy who attracted so much attention in those days. The guy is an angel and it takes about .5 second to get that.

He was totally down to earth, unaffected, centered. And kind and compassionate, but not in a gushy way, in a very calm, natural way. He made you feel good.

I told him I had discovered him with the Mellow Yellow and Sunshine Superman albums. "I was turned on to you at the point where you went from folk to --" I was at a loss for words. From folk to what? Bob Dylan went from an acoustic performer to an electric one and they called it Folk Rock and many artists followed in that genre. But Donovan was something else. The words "Folk Rock" fall completely flat. Donovan picked up my sentence for me.

"When I went from folk to fusion," he said. I was into jazz and world music, and everything. I was a poet really, and I was into words and seeing how they worked as musical expressions."

Fusion! Of course! He was playing around with sitar on Sunshine Superman about the same time as George Harrison, but Harrison had to elbow his way through to John Lennon and Paul McCartney to get anything on a Beatle album, and Donovan had the whole album to play around with his ideas.

The Beatles were great fusers of musical styles, borrowing freely from about everything, but one style they shied away from was jazz. Lennon had almost a class warfare thing about jazz from back in the Cavern days when they had to vie with jazz bands to get Pete Best's mom to let them play.

McCartney's dad was an old-time dancehall musician, and McCartney was more open to jazz than Lennon, but the Beatles' albums never really approached that whole broad vein of music from swing and cool jazz and on, though they finally do join up with the tradition again at the point of the avant garde players.

But Donovan was really into jazz and drew deeply from it in those two albums, which were roughly contemporary with the Beatles' Revolver and Sergeant Pepper. (See Donovan Discography.)

I said to him, "You melded all those styles, jazz, indian music, rock and roll, but it was never superficial, it wasn't like you were imitating different styles."

"We never tried to sound like anything or anyone," he said. "We just put all those elements together and used them however we felt like without regard to how they were usually thought of. So we would have harpsichord, but it would be playing jazz..."

"How did you do that? How did you get all those styles woven together like that so cohesively and credibly?" I asked.

"We used session guys," he said. "Jimmy Page played guitar on a lot of those. John Paul Jones played bass. That was before they put Led Zeppelin together. A lot of people played on them. Elton John. Cher, before she came forward."

I was dying to know who the keyboard player was on Mellow Yellow and Sunshine Superman. He went from jazzy harpsichord to classical-sounding harpsichord and played some of the niftiest piano and organ riffs I ever heard.

"That was John Cameron," he said. "He was the arranger. See, when I started telling Mickie Most [his producer] what I wanted, he said, 'We've got to get you an arranger.' He didn't know music. So he got this guy John Cameron and the three of us worked together."

Cameron was to Donovan in a way like George Martin was to the Beatles. But while Martin was a serious classical player, a member of the London Baroque music society, and could play blues and rock and roll, Cameron went from classical to jazz, and the flavor is strong on those albums.

Donovan played at the DeBaun Auditorium at Stevens Tech in Hoboken. He had a big green guitar. Up close you can see he's a little older, but from a distance on stage he looks the same.

He did a solo set and then was joined by local musicians led by ex-Bongo Jim Mastro and they did some of the rockier pieces, like Sunshine Superman, Hurdy Gurdy Man, Superlungs my Supergirl.

EMI is putting out a six-CD compilation of Donovan from '65-'69, he said. They have to negotiate with Sony to bring in out in the States, so it's still up in the air how it's going to work. Someone is doing a coffee table book he said, someone who had done books on Bruce Springsteen and the Rolling Stones. It will be a huge volume full of pictures and memorabilia.

He's also working on an autobiography of the same period, and the early years, what he calls "the beatnik years," Donovan's years of hard traveling with Gypsy Dave. It will talk about many of the events of the time, including his hanging out with the Beatles in India, where they worked together on songwriting on things that appeared on the White Album.

It is said that Donovan showed John Lennon the fingerpicking pattern he used for his song to his mother "Julia." He is also said to have come up with the lines "sky of blue and sea of green" in the song "Yellow Submarine." All of this is pretty rich historical data now and the autobiography should be fun when it comes out.

Donovan has a new record coming out in July and he'll be touring to support it. He'll be playing a date at the old public theater in New York that is now called Joe's Pub.

During his acoustic set he sang the song by Buffy Saint Marie, "The Universal Soldier," and it almost brought tears to my eyes.

Before I dropped him off at his hotel, I told him that he should bring out a big CD set with great liner notes that told about who played on what tracks in the early days. That wasn't told on the early albums, and in fact those names were relatively unknown then. Now it's history. He said that is pretty much what they are doing with the six-CD collection. "It's called The Mickey Most Years," he said. "So much happened during that period."

Then it all got pushed down somehow," I said.

"The '70s happened," he said.

"But all that is coming back again now," I said. "They are going to bring the draft back, and this time it's going to take young women as well as young men."

His head shook slightly and he winced a bit. "God. You've got so many Americans coming home in boxes now. It's got to be wearing you all down. We're feeling it in Britain now too."

Donovan has a new record coming out in July and he'll be touring to support it. He'll be playing a date at the old public theater in New York that is now called Joe's Pub. For more info on dates and projects, check out Donovan's Home Page.

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