074: Donovan, ‘House of Jansch’

A couple of my erstwhile acquaintances have recently been bad-mouthing Donovan, and them’s fighting words for me. Yeah, yeah, I know, hippie-dippie, limpid, Dylan wannabe, yadda-yadda. They know not of what they speak. Donovan Leitch is one fine artist, with an admirably muscular aesthetic that his maligners would easily recognize if they’d just lay aside their preconceptions for a moment and listen to the right music.

The “Rolling Stone Record Guide” says, “Listening to Donovan’s albums is like being consigned to relive the most insipid parts of the Sixties. Pretentious falderal.” Gee, he should listen to the music before he writes. And if he did, he should stop writing.

I wrote a very similar lament about the very widespread misapprehension of James Taylor, so many people judging him by his Greatest Hits. Why would anyone let the record companies choose what songs of an artist to listen to? Okay, I do so on occasion for initial exposure, but I certainly wouldn’t stop there, not with a serious artist. Donovan may not be an artist of JT’s breadth, depth or stature, but there’s some stunning stuff beyond the best-known dozen.

LtoR: It, Wannabe

Donovan Leitch (b. 1946, Glasgow) broke onto the charts in 1965 as ‘the British Dylan’, with some very fine sensitive-soft acoustic neo-folk hits, ‘Catch the Wind‘, ‘Colors’. But even on his first two LPs, the gems were hidden underneath these hits. Try ‘Sunny Goodge Street’, a dreamy jazz/folk amalgam years ahead of its time. (For extra credit, this also beautiful stripped down live solo treatment.)

Then came the two big hits, ‘Sunshine Superman‘ and ‘Mellow Yellow’, each of them charming or annoying, depending on your mood (or State Of Mind, as it were). For me, the charm certainly wore off by the 3-millionth listen.

Not so with the LPs that spawned them. “Sunshine Superman” and “Mellow Yellow” each contains ten songs, with nary a dud among them. Both are beautiful, intelligent, solid and memorable. Both are drug-inspired, but there’s not a vapid, self-indulgent note in either. Each song is finely crafted, with a hard core of intelligent artistry.

After these two albums Donovan went on to record more hits (‘There Is a Mountain’, ‘Lalena’, ‘Atlantis’), and then to wallow through decades consigned to the periphery. But he did some fine, fine work, and deserves to be remembered for that.

Much of the credit for the sheer beauty of the sound of “Sunshine Superman” and “Mellow Yellow” must go to producer Mickie Most. I’m not usually one to rave about studioship, but the recording here is a work of art in itself. Every instrument, every sound, is a pleasure to listen to – especially Donovan’s acoustic guitar itself. The sitar is employed far more convincingly than any contemporary, including George Harrison. Strings and brass embellish the palette with the greatest of restraint and the finest of taste. The acoustic bass and brushed drums are often employed even on the grittier cuts, providing an utterly entrancing mix of jive and resonance. (Give a listen to how ‘Sunshine Superman‘ mixes acoustic and electric sounds so effectively.) Admittedly, these are sounds created in and for a marijuana cloud. But they stand just as tall and proud in the clear light of day, over half a century later.

Beatles, Donovan chez Maharishi

Take for example ‘House of Jansch’, a tribute to folk/jazz legend Bert Jansch (pronounced ‘Yansh’), partner of John Renbourne in Pentangle.

It’s based on a fun, off-beat acoustic guitar riff with a seventh jabbing you in the chest at the end of the sentence. The cast includes ye olde standup bass, percussion provided solely by brushes on cymbals, a flute or two and a saxophone, and what I think is a celeste, which is a keyboard version of the glockenspiel (but I’m not betting the family farm on that one.)

Don’t ask me what the song ‘means’, I have no idea. Just sit back, take a toke or not, and enjoy the trip.

For your further listening edification:

From the sitarish, trip-drenched “Sunshine Superman’: the seemingly carefree ‘Ferris Wheel‘ (with the warning “Take time and tie your pretty hair, the gypsy driver doesn’t care if you catch your hair in the ferris wheel’); the hippie-hipster ‘Bert’s Blues‘, ultra-cool but replete with baroque strings, appears on “The Queen’s Gambit”soundtrack. Or even one of the weaker cuts, the soon-to-be standard (Kooper-Bloomfield-Stills Super Session, Vanilla Fudge, Brian Auger)  ‘Season of the Witch‘.

Bob, Don, Mary

From the brassier and brasher “Mellow Yellow”: the allegory-laden ‘Three King Fishers‘ (the bongo/sitar/violin/acoustic guitar combination in the break is worth the price of admission), (For extra credit: coool live version); “, the naked, harrowing ‘Young Girl Blues‘; the recreation of a trip in minor in ‘Sand and Foam‘.

Girl ain’t nothing but a willow tree
Swaying in a summer breeze,
You’ll never change what has to be.
Girl ain’t nothing but a willow tree.

Sometimes I don’t know what I said till I did,
I want to be the father of your kid.
Dragonfly he sleeps till dawn,
I knew I’d be here when love has gone.

Crystal ball is what I wish for you,
Get it straight, I love the both of you.
Someone’s goin’ through a cold turkey.
Girl ain’t nothing but a willow tree.

I give your baby a contact high
I love another is what I sigh -ha-
Looks like rain, I do declare,
Your baby wants to take my chocolate eclair.

I couldn’t cry, I could not laugh,
Incident about a silken scarf.
I know what a jealous trip can be.
Girl ain’t nothing but a willow tree.