Friday, February 8, 2019

DONOVAN WAS GREAT, DONOVAN WAS GREAT

To a large extent, I think Donovan's work needs an honest reappraisal. He did, at one point, go off the rails and became such a hippie and an apparent adherent all things transcendental that he was ruthlessly mocked. Flowing, floral pattern robes that drag along the flower, an overkill of love beads, an equal overkill of freshly cut flowers, bare feet, a hair cut that made it looked like the man had combed his mane with an egg beater, all this plus a very expensive acoustic guitar are clues to someone of not inconsiderable talent who'd started to take himself too seriously. Consideration of his good work suffered, sadly, and like Melanie, a good songwriter with an interesting ear for poetic and plain-spoken yet nuanced lyrics, a developed sense of melody and an expressive singing voice is unfairly set aside. Three  songs bear out the more problematic, less anthemic quality of Donovan's writing."Sunny Goodge Street", "Epistle to Dippy" and "Young Girl Blues" are quite a bit more cynical and knowing that his subsequent reputation suggests.

 "Sunny Goodge Street" is a panorama, obviously, of a particular urban hip scene so commonly portrayed in flashy and groovy terms in the 60s, but Donovan's version of it makes it seem unpredictable, violent, utterly paranoid and incoherent. It is closer to Burroughs than to Scott McKenzie's saccharine rendering of John Phillip's saccharine to hippiedom "San Francisco (Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair"). Donovan seemed to understand that the counterculture was as much as a creep scene as it was a gathering moment for truth seekers, poets and sincere sensualists who desire both sex and innocence. While the cost of attaining the sorts of forbidden knowledge drugs and the attending hype was unknown, Donovan, last named Leitch by the way, had a foreboding that was rarely expressed by a generation of musicians that was fatally self-infatuated.
 "Epistle to Dippy" is nothing less than a direct address of a try-anything scene maker who dashes from drug to scene to fad in an irrational attempt to oust run their own vacuity, their utter lack of soul or genuine sensibility. This is as acidic a portrayal of the poseur as has been written, more potent than the Beatles' politely poo-poohing tune along the same theme, "Nowhere Man". The difference is that D.Leitch is in the trenches, an intrepid reporter perhaps,a Norman Mailer who dared to take the same drugs as those he observed and had enough wits afterward to recall the excruciating banality of a prismatic perspective.


"Young Girl Blues", in turn, is marvelously turned by Marianne Faithful into a bittersweet recollection of an ingenue who had gotten tired of her own hipness and the chronic scene-making; the lyrics are an acute portrait the raging banality of such an ostentatiously noisy and hip scene. Donovan senses, I think, the isolation none of the scene makers can break away from or cure with brand names, loud music, and chemicals. A fair amount of his songwriting holds up, I think, and it holds up for the same reason Norman Mailer's "Armies of the Night" or Tom Wolfe's "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" hold up; they are all , in their own respective ways, exquisitely etched portraits of the Sixties that bypassed the mass-mediated brainwashing fostered by Time and Life magazines and presented the whole notion of Youth Culture and revolution as something that was no less problematic than the  Establishment that the ragtag gaggle of miscreants, socialists, opportunistic gurus, draft dodgers, ersatz feminists and the usual assortment of authentic bums and layabouts claimed needed to be changed. Details, blisters, resentment, a sharpened sense for sensing out the fake, the harmful, the mendacious.




What all this means, I suppose, is that it may be time for a major consideration of this man's work, from his days as an obvious albeit inspired Dylan imitator with "Catch the Wind" to becoming something significantly worthy of note during that rich period of the Sixties, a poet/lyricist with a genuine sense of how to compress complex situations, competing sensations and ambivalence (the urge to engage the world as it unfolds coupled with an equal instinct to distance oneself from it) into brief couplets, resonating, terse lyrics and fascinatingly fractured imagery; this was like nothing less than hearing lyrics by T.S.Eliot had the  banker scrambled his dueling attraction/repulsion with quality doses of LSD. What Donovon offered the world, one might say, for that brief sliver of time when the pen did not fail him, was a Wasteland where flowers could still grow through the debris of the ruined streets. In this world , though, the flowers were strange, menacing, something we haven't seen before. 

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