Don't Look Back: The Donovan Interview
By Paolo Vites
Hello. Actually I met you when you were here in Milano last time when you were here to promote your Sutras album.
Oh, very good.
I remember talking with you in the short press conference after the show. It was great.
Yes, thank you.
So it was about seven or eight years from your last album. What happened in these seven years?
Oh, many things. I was busy promoting the album in the USA. I worked on my book. I have a book coming out next year. I continued to work on my archive of my music and I created a label called 'Donovan Discs’ and I created a website. So I was quite busy but I wasn't in the studio until 2 1/2 years ago when I made this new record.
You said you did your own label but are you planning to re-release your old albums with extra tracks or something like that?
Something like that. Like this: 'Donovan Discs' is looking after my archive which no one has heard. The lost tapes… and the first lost tape we released was called 'Sixty Four' on the website which is www.donovan.ie. so on this website there is my first archive, number one.
Oh great. I will check it. I didn't know.
Yes, 'Sixty Four' it's called. My first nine recordings... before commercial records and this was a great find and then 'Donovan Discs' also made 'Beat Café' but this time it's not for sale on website. It’s on the Appleseed label in the USA and the world. So the label is doing two things. It’s making my new record but it's also going to handle the archive. But the catalog, the actual catalog of my past is going to be handled by Sony in America and they will release the box set next year. That will be with outtakes, yes.
Fantastic news. I can't wait for that ...and hopefully there will be also in your archives some recordings in concert thru the years or just...
Yes! We have concert recordings also. So the plan is to begin to release more next year of the archive.
Fantastic. So, about this new, great album 'Beat Café’, I should say that I enjoy a lot.
It was kind of a surprise. And of course it is not a surprise knowing about your history.
Musically speaking it is a very interesting album. How did the idea for such a particular project come out?
Well, John Chelew, the producer... (he is a) roots producer, he won three Grammy Awards, he is a very good roots producer. He worked with Blind Boys of Alabama, Richard Thompson... he worked with John Hiatt. He worked with very good musicians and he called me up and he said he just made a record with my good friend, Danny Thompson. So Danny called me and said, ‘This John Chelew, he wants to take you in the studio and wants to do the magic Donovan and Danny Thompson sounds’ and this sound, how it works is Danny plays this acoustic bass which is antique, Victorian bass called 'Victoria' and I play acoustic. Danny Thompson and Donovan, we made records... so many good records over the years. He also was on 'Sutras'. John said, 'Would you like to try experiment with Danny?' and I said 'I'm ready.' Danny is the master bass and I'm the master acoustic! Ha-ha-ha! So the three masters got together in Hollywood and we made seven recordings, one after another which became 'Beat Café.' Now the theme of 'Beat Café' became important because it was like a Bohemian record, making like improvisation, but not old jazz, not old blues but a new kind of a way of recording.
Yes, actually listening to a song like 'Love Floats' is a very interesting experimental-kind of music.
Yes, it sounds a little bit like Jimmy Smith or Georgie Fame on the organ. It sounds like rhythm and blues but then it's got this other sort of world music thing going...and atmospheric vocals and so we experimented there on 'Love Floats'.
Yes, that's great. How easy was it to reach such a sound? I mean...
Well, it's easy when you've got Jim Keltner and Danny Thompson and...and Donovan.
To make a good sound, the producer is very important and the studio is....very very VERY important and it was analog and it was analog and then some digital experimentation later with loops, but not digital, loops, you know we looped a bit but most of it was very easy to record with these guys.
Yes, that's great. Actually, as I say, the sound in some moments like this song 'Love Floats' sounds very, very modern, if I can say... because it reminds me of some kind of trip-hop music...
I don't know if you listen to that kind of music...in England there is a very interesting scene, I don't know how much you...
Yes, we wanted to experiment with modern...
And it's interesting because that kind of music is usually electronic music, while you play acoustic instruments.
Yes! So it's like a modern loop, dance thing in some places in 'Love Floats' but we're using acoustic loops rather than electronic. We said we must stay as pure as possible to the acoustic sound because that's what we were looking for.
That’s great. The title track, the 'Beat Café' song, talking about the lyrics, you describe so well the atmosphere of the Beat Café. I was wondering, when you were growing in Scotland there were the same kind of Bohemian scene that there was in New York City or San Francisco coffee houses.
Yes, they are different in different countries and the American was the model of the beat generation but we had a beat scene in Britain. I was ten years old when the family moved from Scotland to outside London and there was a Bohemian Jazz Club, Blues Clubs, folk clubs, poetry, art schools, coffee house that was London but it was very different from America in the sense that the cafés of America and Paris...in London it was pubs. There were some cafés/coffee houses. It was pubs where the music Café was played but it was same kind of Bohemian thing. You see, Bohemia is an incredible experience. It’s begun way back in 1840 in Paris...in the cafés of Paris and a new kind of figure, a new kind of man and woman was walking the streets and they called them Bohemians because they hung out in the Bohemian cafés in the Latin quarter where the gypsies played and of course gypsies are called Bohemians 'cause they come from Bohemia and so the Bohemian scene was very strong in the UK also.
So it's possible to say you were more influenced by these European approach than the classic beat writers like Kerouac Ginsberg?
I was influenced by Kerouac and Ginsberg and Burroughs as well and they were American, yeah, but when you look, Kerouac, his family comes from Brittany and France. So he's like Kerouac a French-Keltic poet. So there was a connection and of course, the connection of Ginsberg and the classic poetry of Europe. So it was very europeanized and so we loved the Americans because of jazz. You see America created jazz. They mixed poetry and jazz. So those three poets opened those doors.
The song 'Yin My Yang', to me it sounds like a classic Donovan song. How did this particular song came out?
How I write? How I record?
How did the idea come about?
The idea came from, I guess, the music. I have so many different styles. I love different styles from the folk to the blues, to the jazz, to the Latin America and this has got a Latin American rhythm but it's unusual Latin. It's Donovan Latin and it has this very easy Bosa Nova feel, but with a difference, a kind of dak-dak-dak. More like, I should say, more like tango. It's like a tango, as well and the words come from the Bohemian books on Zen Buddhism and Eastern philosophy and the Buddhism of Ying and Yang. So I making some jokes with spiritual and philosophical words. 'Yin My Yang' is a love song.
Also, another of my favorite tracks at the moment is your version of the 'Cuckoo' the classic version of the song. I remember the Pentangle doing a version of this one many years ago.
Oh yeah. Well, Danny, of course was in the Pentangle.
It was, maybe an idea from Danny Thompson to record?
No, it's a famous song, of course. We, who come from the folk scene, love it.
People jam on it because it's so simple and infectious. It's great. So the idea came... I didn't have a plan. No plan to make 'Cuckoo', but of course the Bohemian Cafés have jazz, blues, classical, poetry, painting, sculptures, dancers and they have folk musicians. So when we heard this in the studio, it was a jam. Jim Keltner heard me tuning up and I started picking for the tuning up. I started picking the 'Cuckoo' and he said to me 'What's that mountain thing?' You know, 'mountain' meaning Appalachian mountain/banjo coz he knows a lot about music. I said it's called 'The Cuckoo' and he said 'Why don't we record it?' So we went in the studio and we played it twice and that was it! The masters, Danny already knew it from the Pentangle, of course. I already knew it and Jim learned it and so it was great. At one point we said 'Should we put it on the album? It sounds so different' and Jim Muscleman of Appleseed records said 'It MUST go on the album! It's part of the 'Beat Café' and so the 'Cuckoo' is one of my favorites now, also and when Jim Keltner listened to the track he was so pleased. I said, 'Why are you smiling?' Jim Keltner said 'I've finally outcashed Johnny Cash!' Because Jim always wanted to make a record with Johnny, but he never did and now he gets a chance and it sounds when I listened to it playing just like the drummers on the Johnny Cash records.
That's a great story. That's absolutely a great version.
Yeah, thank you. I love that track. It's one of those you record two times and that's it.
What about the Dylan Thomas poem? I mean it makes perfect sense talking about Bohemian…the poetry....but why did you chose that particular poem?
Well, Dylan Thomas is our Bohemian poet of the 50's, I guess...of the 1950's and very influential, incredible, Welsh, British/Welsh, Keltic and a great influence on me and others. Many young poets were influenced and of course the Jazz and the poetry of the west coast, San Francisco where Kenneth Roth and Lawrence Ferlinghetti in the late '40's they pioneered reading poetry to jazz and of course Dylan Thomas grew up in the jazz age and so we put the two pieces together and I particularly like this poem 'Do Not Go Gentle' because my father passed away in the last four years.
He was...lived a long life and he read me poetry and so this is my tribute to my father. Just like Dylan Thomas' poem is a tribute to his father.
Inside the record you wrote 'The journey leads to where you've always been.' Do you feel that with this album you've completed your journey in a way or…
Um...I don't think....
Musically speaking, of course.
Yes, the journey continues. It's not complete yet. There is this other thing going to happen next year called the Forty Anniversary and the book and the documentary and the box sets and all that, but 'the journey continues' I celebrate 'Beat Café' this year because it was the beginnings. It's…out of the Bohemian Café came all the wonderful sounds and ideas that have changed the world of music and the arts and changed the world for better, but out of that Bohemian Café came me and I'll celebrate my journey as a popular artist next year and talk about all the subjects again of anti-war, civil rights. All my songs, they speak of the movements. The civil rights, the anti-protest songs, the anti-war songs then the discovery of the holy plants inner world and psychodelia and then meditation and ecology and feminism and cosmic conscientiousness and on and on. So after next year, my journey will continue into 2006 and I have another project which will take me in the studio to develop the journey further. So the journey goes on and the journey always leads to where you've always been. It's an expression to say that the e spiritual world is inside always. Always the spiritual world is here and always the music will return to the roots. It will always go back to where you've always been and so my journey goes on but it always goes back to the center...to the root of folk and roots music.
You say that you are writing your book. I understand is a biography. I read in an English magazine that you wrote a short article about Bob Dylan's biography. Have you had the chance to see Bob Dylan in concert in recent times?
Sure and I read the complete book and he also speaks of his early Bohemian days which is fascinating and a lot of my book speaks of the early British Bohemia which is fascinating for me as well and....recent concerts? No. Five years since I saw Bob but I think the concert probably is similar to the same concert today and he's very much into the electric rhythm and blues, which he loves, but recently I heard he was doing acoustic...a couple of acoustic songs on the stage and I'd like to see that, but I haven't seen a concert for some time.
How do you like his recent albums?
I love the Daniel Lanois. I think he's the perfect producer for Bob.
I have just a couple more questions if you have some time. Just a personal curiosity. Not many people know that the Allman Brothers Band famous 'Mountain Jam' is inspired by your 'There Is a Mountain' song. So I'm just very curious to know if you ever discussed with the people in the Allman Brothers Band about that particular song. The 'Mountain Jam' is a kind of landmark to the Allman Brothers Band. the Allman Brothers Band music is so different from your music...I thought maybe you were friends?.
No, we didn't...we briefly met when once, with one of the Allman brothers', his name is Gregg. Who's the other brother's name?
Who's the guy who died?
Duane. Gregg is still alive?
It was Gregg when he was with Cher and that was fifteen years ago (not really, this is a note by me, it must have being at least 30 years ago). He was dating Cher and they were in Berlin and I didn't get a chance to talk but I said 'hello' and I said 'thank you' for that jam' because it's fantastic when a great band covers your song. 'Season Of The Witch' also has been jammed by Steven Stills and Al Kooper in a super session and the 'Mountain Jam' of course and it's so cool to have these kinds of songs that bands groove on. Led Zeppelin used to rehearse…begin the rehearsal with 'Season of the Witch' because it made the balance of the band correct. The arrangement was so simple and so full of groove that the drums and the bass and the guitars and the keyboards could be balanced easy and also the band could enjoy the sound check....ha-ha....and not play their own songs. They could play that and so I love 'Mountain Jam', yeah
Talking about 'Season of the Witch', it's one of my favorite Donovan songs. Other songs like 'Hurdy Gurdy' , you have special musicians on those… Jimmy Page actually recorded with you.
And also Jeff Beck.
What you remember about recording with those people, I mean…
Well it's fabulous. Jimmy Page was in The Yardbirds and then he...the band broke and he left and he became a studio player and that's how he made some money. We did some sessions in London and I was very lucky to have Jimmy on my records and he was extraordinary. He IS an extraordinary player and he played on 'Sunshine Superman' and 'Hurdy Gurdy Man' and he played on some other items which I think I have in my archive which I'm trying to find. Then Jeff Beck, he's amazing. My wife, Linda had a friend called Cecilia Hammond and Cecilia Hammond married Jeff Beck so Cecilia Hammond, the model and Jeff were living together many years and I always loved his playing and Mickey Most, my producer was recording Jeff Beck on the album ' Beck-Ola ' and he invited Jeff and the band to come in and do a single with me and we came in the studio.
Jeff was late and the song was 'Barabajagal' and the drummer of Jeff Beck's band....what was his name...Mitch Miller...no no...can't remember his name, but the drummer was playing the beat and the tempo of 'Barabajagal' when I walked in and...Mickey Waller is his name....and I said 'Mickey, how are you doing?' and Mickey said 'Alright, Don. How are you?' I said 'You've heard the tune then?' and he was tuning the drums and playing the drums to the same exact pattern that 'Barabajagal' needed and I said 'Well, you're playing the tempo.' He said 'No I haven't heard a bloody thing' and I said 'Well, that's the tempo.' and he said 'Well that's good' and then I went into the studio and there was Ronnie Wood who was playing with Beck at the time and he plugged in and said 'What's the chords?' and I said 'Here they are.' He said 'Right, got it' and Nicky Hopkins on piano said nothing to us. He was just reading a comic book called 'Silver Surfer' and that's when he made a band called 'Silver Surfer' later and then I just played the chords. The band played it once and said 'Right, where's Jeff Beck?' and Jeff was late and Mickey Most had a table with hor d'ourves and wine and beer and coffee and tea and we were all waiting for Jeff and then he arrived and he said nothing. He was Jeff Beck. He just had jeans and these boots on and Mickey Most said 'Ok Jeff, get out your guitar.' and Jeff looked around the studio and he said ' Where's my fuckin' guitar?' and the band said 'Oh no! It's locked in the van!' So Jeff Beck arrives at the 'Barabajagal' session with NO Jeff Beck guitar and so he says to Mickey Most 'Look, just phone up and rent me one.' So they phoned up and rented the best Fender Stratocaster they could find in London and they brought it in and we recorded it…in three takes. Jeff was incredible. He only had to hear it once and he knew what to do and the two girls, Madelyn Bell and Leslie Duncan did the backup vocals and I made a record with Mickey Most and Jeff Beck and it was the most unusual Donovan record. I think there is another most unusual Donovan record. It is called 'Epistle to Dippy'. That one may be the weirdest one. Ha-ha.
It's SO experimental with classical and rock guitar and strange chords. I tuned the guitar into very weird chords and so, just like 'Beat Café', I experimented then and I continue to try and experiment. For instance, on 'Beat Café' the experimental song 'Whirlwind' (he makes guitar sounds) It's like a kind of backwards...I'm playing a riff like a blues riff but backwards and that works. It's a good experiment, that one. On the 'Beat Café', talking about guitar players, we wanted Jimmy Page for the 'Beat Café' project
And we sent so many telephone calls to him and we wanted him to play acoustic because that was the project, but he had a bad back and he was busy. He couldn't come and at one point I said to John Chelew, the producer 'Look, why not I'll play the guitar?' So I play all the lead guitar on 'Beat Café' and I'm so glad because I'm a little shy about playing lead. I play fantastic pick finger style guitar.
You did a good job
But I never really played the lead styles. So I tried to play the lead and we put the guitar thru Leslie speakers to try to make the guitar sound very unusual and anyway I enjoyed playing lead and I'm so sorry Jimmy didn't join us on 'Beat Café' but hey I think I discovered a new guitar player called ME! Ha-ha
Just the last question, since you were such good friends with the Beatles, in a few days it will be the sad anniversary of the deaths of George Harrison and John Lennon too. If you don't mind I'd like to ask you a few words to remember your friends?
Well, John is sadly missed and yet his music goes on forever. He was a casualty of fame and the worst kind. My book next year speaks of my relationship with John and the freedoms we lost when we became famous and the dangers of fame from fans and from excess, but John...we miss him. George, well he was my closest of the Beatles friends and the spiritual path and his songs and the spiritual path and my songs were the same path. We miss George, but his music, also, goes on forever and George would be the first to say 'Don't worry about my body. I don't believe in bodies. 'George would say. 'The body is just a vehicle. We pick it up and we drop it and we go on into our future lives.' So George is reincarnated or else he's in one of the heavens. Maybe he's on cloud nine. Ha-ha. But we miss them both but they would be the first to say 'Don't be sad for me. You get on with your own live and make this world a better place to be.'