It might as well be 1968. Over the phone, Donovan certainly doesn't sound as if he's aged a day since. There's the same youthful optimism, the newer-than-New-Age concerns, the same soft but utter self-confidence that once made him the groovy avatar of flower power. You half expect him at any moment to break into a cheer of "Hail Atlantis!"
Donovan--Donovan P. Leitch if you recall--is now 45 and in the midst of a small tour that includes a stop at the Coach House on Sunday to promote a recent CD release, "The Classics Live." True to its title, the disc contains "Catch the Wind," "Jennifer Juniper," "Atlantis," "Wear Your Love Like Heaven" and other gifts from his garden. Here again, he sounds unchanged, the same assured and assuring performer heard on another live album ("Donovan in Concert") recorded 23 years earlier at the Anaheim Convention Center.
Back in the days when he sported caftans and garlands, Donovan described himself as a "hope merchant," a title he says still applies.
"Yes, I encourage ," he said. "The distinct effect when you listen to my albums is there's a mood through the songs which is supporting and encouraging and uplifting and drawing people into their positive ."
He's been receiving some encouragement himself of late. The live CD has been well-received in Europe. Last year, the hot Manchester-scene band Happy Mondays wove some of his "Sunshine Superman" lyrics into a song brightly titled "Donovan." The band also recorded his "Colours" and has been having the man himself open shows on their English tour. Covers of Donovan songs have since been released by England's No Man and Texas' B.H. Surfers.
He is completing a studio album of new songs, with musical assists from the Waterboys, Pink Floyd's David Gilmour and star classical-cum-pop violinist Nigel Kennedy. Like seemingly every other veteran rock figure, he's writing his memoirs and has a musical in the works.
When he first hit in 1965, the young Scot with the corduroy cap and harmonica rack was dubbed a Dylan imitator. He quickly distinguished himself, however, with a progression of innovative, ludic recordings that drew on Celtic traditional music while pushing forward into ethnic rhythms, string arrangements and fuzz-toned guitars. The latter were provided by the likes of Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck and current Tustin resident Allan Holdsworth (both he and Page played on "Hurdy Gurdy Man"). He maintains that his 1965 "Sunshine Superman" album influenced everyone from the Beatles to the Velvet Underground.
Donovan headlined the Hollywood Bowl--reputedly even stopping the rain for his performance--and hobnobbed with the Beatles and rock's other top royalty. (He was with them in India, where George Harrison gave him a verse for "Hurdy Gurdy Man" that Donovan has only recently begun including when he performs that 1968 hit.) He was a spokesman for the dawning Aquarian age, for a world beginning anew with consciousness and bliss.
And there was a Donovan backlash. When everyone else was picking up bricks in the wake of the violence-ridden Chicago Democratic National Convention in 1968, Donovan was left holding the love beads. Critics who once praised his pastoral child's visions instead dubbed him out of touch, irrelevant and arrogant. Wrote one of Donovan in 1969: "I don't mind having pop stars for gods; I just wish they weren't self-appointed." Phil Ochs even wrote a song putting him down. He stopped having hits and after the early '70s was cast adrift by the major labels.
While Donovan's fans might have been distressed by this turn from fame, one person who wasn't particularly upset was Donovan himself.
"I didn't really miss it," he says now. "From day one, from the first concert, I realized that I was famous, and that wouldn't go away. Success and media fame don't necessarily go together. Do I miss the bright lights? No, because I've played in concert every year for 25 years. So I've always had job satisfaction on stage. And I actually enjoyed the '70s very much, spending time with my family. Records were released (some on small European labels) all the way through the '70s, and fans bought them.
"There may never be another chart (hit), I don't know. But I didn't miss the drop in attention, because I've had plenty of it. And I now have respect, and now I'm part of the history, and I feel good about that, that I've influenced and encouraged younger artists to play. I really have achieved most of what I've wanted to achieve in music."
He bristled, just a bit, when asked if Happy Mondays--not the most serious of bands--and its audiences seemed genuinely interested in his music or approached it more as a novelty.
"Novelty? What do you mean? A lot of the young bands are picking up on the songwriters of the '60s and '70s, genuinely being influenced, like the way we were influenced by the folk, blues and jazz that came before us. It's a natural event. I don't really feel like a novelty, no. I did it for fun. The lads are very fun to be with."
He resides in County Cork in southern Ireland, in the country between Cork and Dublin. He keeps abreast of the music scene, staying friendly with both Van Morrison and Sinead O'Connor. His favorite younger band is the Waterboys. He likens their Celtic-rock fusions to his own '60s efforts.
His new, as-yet-unfinished and untitled album isn't his first time working with the Waterboys. That group, Gene Loves Jezebel and former Robert Plant guitarist Robbie Blunt all contributed to a 2-year-old effort, titled "One Night in Time," which the singer said is still languishing in the vaults at Polygram Records. The label had signed Donovan to a seven-year contract, then dropped him after a management shake-up.
"The Classics Live" was released in the States on a small independent label, Great Northern Arts, and, all things considered, Donovan is feeling inclined toward small labels for his future releases.
"The labels are so different now from the '60s and '70s," he said. "They are run by accountants and lawyers. The record companies didn't know what to make of rock at first--you've heard all the stories of the Beatles being turned down--then they got wise and thought they could manufacture it. It's all big corporate business now."
On this tour he is chiefly playing his oldies--both hits and lesser-known album tracks--though the new songs he does perform have been very well-received, he said.
"The new album will be very much recognizable as a Donovan album. There are fusions of the different styles I've always been interested in: a little classical, a little jazz, lots of folk styles, and there's rock with ethnic drums. And it's the same subjects that I've always been interested in: the environment, social issues. There's a peace song, songs of love, songs of social concern. I haven't really changed that much."
He isn't overly distraught that the new era he was predicting in the '60s is taking its time in arriving.
"It's best to be optimistic--pessimism is bad for your health," he said. "I'm still an optimist. The subjects ushered in with the new consciousness in media in the '60s have filtered through to the most conservative radio and television stations now. That is good. Any kind of communication is good; any kind of airing of the difficulties of modern life is good, things which may have been taboo or unconscious subjects before.
"Now the world is more conscious of itself. I still feel a part of that movement. Whether that becomes overkill and we become immune to the problems, I don't know, but at least it's out there, being spoken about. That's what came out of the campuses, coffeehouses and the concerned youth of the '60s. It's better than it was before 1963, I can tell you that."
Looking toward the millennium, he said, "You can look at it and see positive and see negative. Let's just hope that the year 2000 is something to go for, where the programs that are slowly being put in place to save the environment work out, and the ones to have East and West join up will pull down this constant threat of superpower war. Let's hope, in the oddest sense, that Russia wants to earn money, and that with money, the criterion might be that you need a planet to actually live on to spend money, so let's keep the planet.
"Let's hope the regional wars dealing with greed and oil end. And that somehow, somehow, the faith of Islam comes together with the faith of capitalism," he said, laughing. "These are all big ifs, but what can you do? There are children being born all the time, and they have to have some kind of future. It doesn't look good, but people are seeing the planet as one now, and we can only hope."
Donovan will play Sunday at 8 p.m. at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. Tickets: $17.50. Information: (714) 496-8930.