Donovan has never seemed to be quite of this world, since his best-known songs take place either in the skies (“First There Is a Mountain”), underwater (“Atlantis”), or within inner space (“Sunshine Superman”). That trippy, Tolkien-esque sensibility made it easy to write him off as a ’60s relic, which is what many people did after that decade ended. Indeed, the singer’s recent book, The Hurdy Gurdy Man: The Autobiography of Donovan (St. Martin’s), cuts off in 1970. As he explains over the phone, “By then the mission was complete. The whole idea was to join those poets of the ’40s and ’50s — Ginsberg and Kerouac and McClure and Burroughs — with improvisational jazz and popular culture. We had done it, so there was no need to continue. A lot of us were exhausted and broke, and we hadn’t counted on losing our private lives.”
HURDY GURDY MAN: After the ’60s, he says, “A lot of us were exhausted and broke, and we hadn’t counted on losing our private lives.”
But the ’60s are over and Donovan is still here — and unlike his friendly rival Bob Dylan, he has pretty much the same voice and the same outlook. He’s been the subject of a major reissue campaign that included last year’s four-disc box To Try for the Sun (Sony) and a series of expanded single discs out as imports. Last fall he hit the Somerville Theatre on his first full-band tour in decades, doing faithful versions of all the hits plus tracks from latter-day albums like 1995’s Rick Rubin–produced Sutras. He’ll be back with a smaller acoustic band at Berklee this Saturday.
As last year’s show and especially the UK reissues made clear, there’s always been more to Donovan’s output than the hippie image would allow. After all, he greeted the start of the ’70s by working with the ultimate anti-hippie, Alice Cooper: that’s him singing the (uncredited) duet vocal on “Billion Dollar Babies.” “I saw him and thought, ‘This is mad, it’s wonderful, it’s Hammer horror movies.’ He came into the studio when I was making the Cosmic Wheels album and I had some pre-pubescent girls to do a chorus. He said, ‘Let me conduct those girls,’ and got them to sing nastier than I would ever have.”
You won’t hear Alice on the six reissued albums — which stretch from 1966’s Sunshine Superman to 1969’s Barabajagal, each with a stack of added songs — but you will hear how far Donovan’s catalogue went beyond the singles. There’s acoustic blues, pure psychedelia, and proto-heavy rock. (Barabajagal has Jeff Beck on three tracks.) Neither is everything sweetness and electrical bananas: “Young Girl Blues” (from the Mellow Yellow album) is “Eleanor Rigby” taken to swinging London, its heroine shut away from the party (“Coffee on, milk gone, such a sad light and fading/Yourself you touch, but not too much/You hear that it’s degrading”). Performed stark and solo on the disc, it’s the most sympathetic thing any male songwriter wrote about female loneliness in 1967.
Equally surprising is the album he’s now working on, to be called Ritual Groove. “It’s going back to my Celtic rock persona, using real instruments and doing deep transcendental ballads. It’s very chill, but it’s Donovan chill.” In a season when the Decemberists can sell out the Orpheum, that sounds as contemporary as it gets — complete with the Donovan influence.
DONOVAN | Berklee Performance Center, 136 Mass Ave, Boston | November 18 | 617.931.2000
: Music Features
, Alice Cooper, Bob Dylan, Jeff Beck, More