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THE MAN'S A MAN FOR `A THAT
on 17 October 2007
This Donovan autobiography is a quick read, chokkers with chuckles and nostalgia, patchouli on every page. Yes, I must admit that I was amused by the old plucker's penchant to `Big It Up' - even Little Richard, Paul McCartney and Liam Gallagher don't come close. Apart from such wildly exaggerated claims which depict The Don as the Lodestone of most popular and classical forms of music - ok I admit a compulsion to slight exaggeration - here was a man who had made it, in the words of John Lennon `to the toppermost of the poppermost', a man who was making buckets of bullion, who enjoyed the company of The Beatles, had meditated, medicated and no doubt levitated with a couple of them and had shown them a finger pickin' trick or two at the ashram, man. Here was the Sunshine Superman who had leapt (in rage?) naked onto the back of an English bobby, yet, who now finds it necessary to resize his image to the grandest proportion. What? Who wouldn't?? Opportunity and motive, mate.
Since the late sixties the fickle focus of fame has eluded Donovan in its spotlight, apart from a flicker or two in the seventies and nineties. By his own account he dropped out after he married Linda, although from recollection he made several attempts to jump back in. Despite his undoubted successes in record sales and concerts, plus a reputation as a nice chap, pop history has not been overly kind to this magus of flower power and `bohemian manifesto'. His output in retrospect has been portrayed as fey, foppish, a wee bit silly and indulgent. Other major singer songwriters of his era have fared better in critical review, artists such as Paul Simon and Bob Dylan, (both of whom Don noted were short in stature...), and Chuckling Len Cohen - all three from the `lost tribe of Israel', as distinct from the `lost tribe of Celts' from whence Don came, via the tenements `o Glasgae, och aye. Point is, when you are wielding the pen, metaphorically or actually, you have the power to rewrite history to your satisfaction, sorry....recollection, to replace that smashed bulb in the spotlight, to shine on your crazy diamond.
I noted in another review that `autobiography is a lying art', in the words of that great Aussie Clive James. In the hands of Dylan it is great literary entertainment, and you accept that you are viewing events through Dylan's cinematic perspective i.e. historical accuracy has little to do with it. If you want that you can check his myriad biographers for consensus of opinion, but doubtless that will differ from Bob's version of events. The question here is purpose. Take Don's version of playing for Dylan as recorded in the Pennebaker film 'Don't Look Back'. Don recalls playing his song 'To Sing for You' while His Bobness remained still, showing due respect. Bob returns with Don's requested 'It Ain't Me Babe', which seals what Don experiences as an ancient folk ceremony. I recall Dylan asks `You wrote that?' in somewhat ambiguous tone, then lets loose with `It's All Over Now, Baby Blue'. It's a question of sequence perhaps, recollection, and who has the scissors.
Donovan was not the originator of `world' music, or `Celtic rock', as he claims. These titles stand for what? Indigenous musics, fused or not, change from region to region and folk instruments and music had been previously incorporated into classical, jazz, film scores and pop. Celtic rock? Pogues, Thin Lizzy, U2, Capercaillie, Moving Hearts, Van? Can't hear Donovan there. I'm not sure that he was even a folk musician in the true sense, a relocated Scot singing Woody Guthrie - carrying which tradition? What he did achieve were some very good songs, some lovely melodies and arrangements, fine vocals and guitar playing and yes some imaginative use of other genres. His arranger John Cameron undoubtedly contributed to a large extent. The Sunshine Superman/Mellow Yellow albums were excellent examples and I was surprised that one of them wasn't included in the recent Mojo top 100 `Records that Changed the World'. Fellow `reincarnated Celtic Bards' The Beatles of course did well, as did Nick Drake, the immortalized poetic singer songwriter, who is cited as an originator of `wispy acoustic folk'.
It is unfortunate that Donovan needed to pump it so hard, to inflate the image once again in this industry albeit where ego is not a dirty word and is in fact a prerequisite for entry. I wonder what happens to that ego, an ego of one who sits near the top, when sales fall and your style of music becomes passé and the music press and new artists ridicule, when old `so called friends' avoid you because to be associated is no longer hip, when people don't recognize you, when the clout and clap wane. A common story in show biz. I wonder if that happened, how you would react? An honest biography would be enjoyable, and doubtless fascinating. Meantime, get on board. Beep beep (didn't Donleavy say that....er also?).