A decade before Bruce Springsteen held the title of “the new Dylan”, a British teenager named Donovan Leitch lay claim to it, even befriending the man himself. Donovan rose to fame strumming earnest folk songs and psychedelic rockers in the late 1960s, recording his first album when he was in his teens and gaining international stardom by age 20. Inspired by Woody Guthrie and Buddy Holly as well as his peers, Donovan collaborated with and befriended some of the great musicians of his time, such as The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, The Mamas and the Papas, The Animals, Jeff Beck, Ron Wood, and members of Led Zeppelin. After a short, successful career, this particular “new Dylan” seemed content to fade into the background, withdrawing from the spotlight in the 1970s and releasing few albums after that. As a result, Donovan’s rightful place among the great folk-rockers of the ‘60s and ‘70s has been somewhat overlooked.
I never knew much about Donovan aside from the oh-so-‘60s party tune “Mellow Yellow”, and I had always thought of him as just some silly hippie. I would smirk at my mother’s copy of Donovan’s Greatest Hits and its close-up shot of the young Donovan with his wild hair, large honest eyes, and boyish grin. Though Donovan was silly, it was a good silly, and his songs were not only catchy; they really said something about the spirit of a certain era of rock ‘n roll. Epic/Legacy’s new three-disc box set (including a live DVD and previously unreleased recent material) will perhaps put Donovan back on the minds of all the Dylan and Beatles-worshippers who have neglected his influence.
The box set, though a big project to tackle for any but the most obsessed Donovan fans, is extremely well put together. The first disc is the one that will attract casual fans: it contains the early Dylan-esque folk tracks “Catch the Wind” and “Josie”, as well as the fantastic über-hit “Sunshine Superman”, which I instantly recognized from years of oldies radio and my parents’ records. This song is, to me, as emblematic of the 1960s as any of The Beatles’ hits. Also heard here are “Season of the Witch” and the strangely endearing “Mellow Yellow”. One highlight of this box set is its killer liner notes, written with obsessive glee by Rolling Stone writer Anthony DeCurtis. He lets the fans in on Donovan’s days partying in swinging ‘60s London, as well as little known collaborations (like Paul McCartney’s barely audible cameo on “Mellow Yellow”).
What is startling about Donovan, both in the story of his life and in his music, is how honest everything is. There is no mystery about him, which is most likely why he was never a cult figure like Dylan. He is not evasive, not depressed, and his lyrics are not cryptic. When he writes a song about a woman, he calls it “Jennifer Juniper”, “Legend of a Girl Child Linda” or “Celia of the Seals”. He doesn’t change names, nor does he hide behind metaphors. Song One on the second disc, the hopeful “Epistle to Dippy”, was written for Donovan’s childhood friend, nicknamed “Dippy”. When Dippy heard the song, he and Donovan got back in touch with one another. This is Donovan through and through: earnest and well intentioned. Throughout Disc Two this is displayed in hits such as “Hurdy Gurdy Man”, and the flute-laden “Lalena”.
Disc Three showcases more of Donovan’s confessional folk from the early 1970s, most of which draws on the Celtic influences of his Scottish upbringing. A trio of more recent tracks, 1994’s “Please Don’t Bend”, 2003’s “Love Floats” and 2004’s “Happiness Runs” show him growing with the times, but not neglecting his classic style. Especially “Happiness Runs”, an updated version of his 1969 song, which sounds like something any modern folk hero would die to create.
These three discs are not only packed with the hits of Donovan’s heyday, but are also full of surprises. His delicate Celtic timbre, combined with his honest lyrics and sunny melodies, make him much more than a silly hippie or a 1960s throwback. He is an important musician with a real place in rock history. Don’t let the earnest smile fool you; with Donovan, happiness is just as beautiful as sadness.