Donovan Leitch is in a ‘Retrospective’ mood, his beautifully-dressed mid-2015 2CD anthology collects twenty-nine pristine track, sparking memories for me of 2004 when we talked, around the time he was launching a series of ‘Beat Café’-themed gigs re-igniting his deep ‘Beat’ credentials, explaining to me why he was performing beneath huge monochromes of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs, and the real importance of what he terms the continuing ‘Bohemian Manifesto’…
A previously unpublished interview feature of 2,100 words (approx)
beat: the timeless code of the self exiled
beat: the timeless code of the self exiled
always, bohemians and beats challenge hypocrisy and greed. they represent an
attitude of dissent, focusing a bright light on the absurdities of society. usually
expressed in lifestyle through one of the arts, bohemian and beat self-exiles
continue to gather the free atmosphere of the café
(Donovan, sleeve-notes to ‘Beat Café’)
Hunched in the sun outfront of a wine-bar some short stumble from the venue where he’s due to perform, Donovan felt-tips an autograph for a girl in micro-skirt and deep deep cleavage, then scrawl-stretches back in the chair. “Well, I wanted to have a little break before the show, OK? Shall we get the drinks in? I’ll ask the waiter. I’ll have a glass… a wee glass of red wine. Carbonel Merlot.” A pause for the drinks to arrive while she walks away looking down gloatingly at the autograph. “I’m chilly, but she must be freezing,” he enthuses gleefully, “nice style”… we drink some Drink-me. In liquid sunshine.
He’s a scuffed Blondel, in a Leeds city precinct. A study in his natural habitat. A medieval delicacy, and a Beatnik cartoon. Sometimes, both can be archetypes. Both mythic. Tonight, he’ll play here in shimmering spirals of psychedelic lighting, beneath huge monochrome images of three Beat-Generation writers. Jack Kerouac with his deep darkly sensual eyes, a young short-haired Allen Ginsberg wearing a striped tie, and the supernatural stare of William Burroughs. There’ll also be a flickering candle impaled in a drained wine-bottle, wax tendrils curling. A virtual Boho Café. And the more he plays his new songs, the more the cool groove of his ‘Beat Café’ (2004) album makes sense. Those brushed-drums and bop-vibes. The Django-guitar and Beat ambience. The free improvisation that flickers around “Love Floats” in the effortless tight-but-looseness of Danny Thompson’s resonant double-bass pulse as Don urges ‘let me come in’, his voice spaced in a tasteful echo of dual-tracking and chanted incantation. Beat Girls. Dharma Bums. Existentialism. Françoise Hardy. ‘City Lights’ editions. ‘Blue Note’ albums. Barefoot and beret. Galois. Jean-Luc Godard. Yes, this night the Leeds ‘City Varieties’ becomes a virtual ‘Six Gallery’ on San Francisco’s Fillmore Street that 7th October 1955 night where Ginsberg first delivered “Howl” to a stunned and astonished audience.
“The word is important” he stresses. “It’s back to the word. And who are the manipulators of language? Poets.” Quite rightly… and most acutely confrontationally apparent when he ignites the “Do Not Go Gentle” Dylan Thomas poem, departing it live from the CD-version in free-jazz forays with unexpected surges, vocal riffs and repetitions that don’t go exactly where they at first appear to go in the spaces between. Dylan – Thomas not Bob, advises ‘old age should burn and rave’. And poetry? – remember Don’s hit single “Atlantis”? These are some intriguing variations for a well-cool Mr Leitch, while staying well-within his already-defined continuum. Donovan. He digs us digging him in Leeds.
Elsewhere, reviewing Bob Dylan’s ‘Chronicles’ for ‘The Observer Music Monthly’ (October 2004), he writes ‘(Dylan) was born on the shores of the Great Lakes in northern Minnesota; the lakes have ocean-going harbours, and Bob grew up in much the same environment as his contemporaries in Britain, people like me in Glasgow. Wasn’t this extraordinary?! Wonderful descriptions of the Bohemian life in Minneapolis/St Paul and New York also reminded me of my own background. The writing is so sharp and atmospheric – sleeping on sofas, or ‘dossing’ a we called it, playing in Folk Clubs and cafes – Bob takes you straight there…’ Except tonight, it’s Donovan taking you there.
Sure, his highest-profile inputs to the across-the-counter culture happen inside that enchanted circle of the 1960’s, lysergic saunters like “Sunshine Superman”, “Catch The Wind”, “Mellow Yellow”. Since then he’s assumed a lower profile. Some prefer to view their romantic poet-troubadours from a safely posthumous perspective. But in a career move ducking below those expectations, he’s still very much around. To begin, he’s a similar age to me, but carries it better. We small-talk, enjoy the vibes, “being inside, before a show, I get claustrophobic” he grins impishly. “Especially in those wonderful Music Hall dressing rooms. They’re small. They’re so SMALL!” Once, asked where to find the secret of life, he defined it “somewhere between C and A-minor”. He could be right.
Like the drugs thing. Think of his most frequently covered song, “Season Of The Witch”. Most versions, and there have been plenty (including Courtney Love’s Hole) stress its dark edgy supernatural elements, certainly its use in the second ‘Blues Brothers’ (1998) movie drips with voodoo. Yet the way Donovan tells the tale, it’s more ‘season of the witch-hunt’, written about the series of drug-raids targeted at the newly-emerged bright young things. “Of all the Pop and Rock Stars of the 1960’s, I was the first to be busted” he confides. “My book tells how I was the first to be targeted by the Drug Squad, and how following me were the Stones, the Beatles, and lots of other people.” Telling how, one 4am ‘on a cold London dawn’ they came to raid a naked and ‘skinny little me’, wrecking his Maida Vale Beatnik pad in their search for two-ounces of grass, before the arresting officer takes him aside… and asks for his autograph.
“Everybody knew me that day” he adds wryly, as the story hits the press. But “we weren’t promoting drugs. We were doing what every bohemian does – with these drugs we were exploring. I smoked marijuana, took mushrooms, mescaline, LSD and few pills. LSD was still legal until 1966.” Michael Hollingshead – a Tim Leary convert, is credited with giving Don his first LSD dose. “I was never into heavy amphetamine, and tried heroin only once. We took Peyote and mescaline to explore the visionary world and look into the reality of the pagan tribes and shamans, the holy plants of the pagan tribes, especially the Native American tribes.” As that Signet paperback ‘On The Road’ edition says, it ‘tells all about today’s wild youth and their frenetic search for Experience and Sensation. Complete and Unabridged’. Yeah, there’s a beat-up beatific hipster air – still, about Donovan.
“Beatniks out to make it rich…”
(‘Seasons Of The Witch’)
“I’m pleased with the results of my ‘Beat Café’ album (Appleseed Recordings APR CD 1081),” he offers, “and its concept is the preface to my show, to illustrate and explore where I came from, and where my contemporaries came from. And well – the Beat poets, they are the older brothers of the sixties poets. They came before us. Those poets are our Big Brothers, our older brothers. And actually, all Twentieth Century movements come out of the Bohemian Cafes – from Modern Art, Socialism, Spiritualism, to Dance, theatre and movie-makers. The cafes of the Twentieth Century produced the artists and the thinkers who move society on. This is how it works.”
Of course, here he’s drawing on ‘Beat’ routes that were already evident in the stoned melancholy of “Sunny Goodge Street” (1965), a track from his second album in which he’s ‘listening to sounds of Mingus mellow fantastic’ with Terry Kennedy’s sparse arrangement using double-bass, cello, brushed drums, and flute. And doesn’t Allen Ginsberg lyrically cameo in his “Sunny South Kensington” (virtuoso Danny Thompson already there on double-bass) a couple of years later? Sure he does. Not to mention those ‘Beatniks out to make it rich’ from “Season Of The Witch”. From the moment he “met Bohemia, I said ‘this is where I belong. This is bohemia. The girls look better. The guys dress better. There’s art, there’s poetry, and the music is better’.” Right, so now he’s off with the Dharma Bums in a virtual Beat Generation café with a ‘poet in a beret, as the sax he blew, and the bongo boy – go man go,’ to a finger-clicking ‘Fever’ groove that just oozes hipster cool. This is versifying that pours ‘out of my head, and onto the page’, now… as then…
‘A Boy Called Donovan’ is a 58-minute TV-film from January 1966 (screened overhead tonight prior to the performance) preserves rare glimpses into a lost St Ives boho culture, its black-&-white frames of vagabond Beat lives as tactile – yet now inaccessible, as the aroma of the marijuana they’re toking. It portrays Donovan as a ragamuffin beatnik choirboy, an endearingly naïve anti-conformist rough-sleeping in Epping Forest, hitch-hiking down the A30 to the ‘witchy finger of Cornwall’ to St Ives (looking ‘…just like a Rupert book’). ‘I ran away from home because I didn’t want to work, and I still feel that way. I only want to do things when I want to do them. I want to do everything, but at my own pace.’
I recall watching this film first time round. And it still has that ‘take the elevator in the brain-hotel’ effect, similarly get-out-&-do-it as a first-time reading of ‘On The Road’. ‘Occasionally, in the early-sixties, brave types among us would go off to Morocco and bring back a bag of Kif black. Or you’d get it coming in from Africa and India, no doubt strapped inside the pipes on the ships coming into Manchester. In London we were part of the folk-blues scene. There were heavy drugs around and each group of ravers or beatniks had one or two extreme users.’
So that now “my ‘Beat Café’ is an exploration of those Bohemian influences on popular culture. When you listen to the album, you hear the jazz influences, the Blues influences, the Folk influences, the spiritual chants, and the importance of poetry in popular culture. If it wasn’t for the three Beat Poets – Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs, the doors wouldn’t have been opened. If it wasn’t for those three Beat Poets the doors wouldn’t have been opened for the singer-songwriters of the sixties to come in. Dylan follows Kerouac… then there’s the Beatles and Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, Bert Jansch – and me. I consider Lennon a poet, we all consider Dylan a poet, and if some people don’t see the poetry in my songs… well, they got plugs in their ears.”
‘We poets are as good at prose as we are at poetry’ he asserts. He was there in June 1965, among the select small-yet-hip audience at Soho’s ‘Better Books’ for Allen Ginsberg’s animated reading in the counter-culture’s early specimen days. And now Donovan has his own book, which is his autobiography ‘The Hurdy Gurdy Man’ (Century 2005), spewing forth his own story. “Yes, I took it on, as all my contemporaries did. Took on the mission to introduce bohemian ideas to popular culture. Because bohemia provides the possible cures for the illness of society. Karl Jung – the psychologist, says ‘the modern societies of the world suffer from a grand complex which has been imposed upon them for thousands of years by church and state’. That situation had to be addressed.
But we didn’t realise the un-tapped restraint that the world had endured in the 1950’s, the conventions, the conditioning, all that was breaking, we were breaking it! So – there’s a calling. And we were called. With the result that now, what’s let loose upon the world is freedom. Freedom to express yourself in any form that you want. And that’s what the sixties – in my book, says. It changed the world, and re-established what I call bohemian ideas. That means, true ideas. It’s a door that was opened. Doors of perception. That was Aldous Huxley’s book – ‘The Doors Of Perception’.” ‘If the doors of perception were cleansed’ wrote William Blake in ‘The Marriage Of Heaven And Hell’, ‘everything would appear to man as it is: infinite.’ Aldous Huxley grabbed that quote to name his visionary book, “…and the American band The Doors took their name from that book. So, my book addresses a lot of things that were going on. And my ‘Beat Café’ explores the way the music and the poetry came together again, and informed the sixties. So what I want to do is to re-present my works, alongside the 1960’s bohemian manifesto that me and my brothers and sisters promoted into popular culture. Check me out.”
The things people do to fill in the space between birth and death, eh? Bohemiana. Who ya kidding?
Hey, far out…
‘I’m as cool as candy, I cannot be licked,
never tell a Beatnik, he’s bound to get you nicked,
they know everything, but they just don’t know
how to make life sing…’
(Donovan, “Good Time/ Good Trip”)
by ANDREW DARLINGTON
(Salvo Records SALVODCD226, June 2015)