It was 1968. The mythos of American pop-culture holds this to be a golden age – a time when the youth were invested in society and when artists metamorphosed from mere entertainers to become spiritual – practically divine – entities. The “Summer of Love” had just happened. The blood of Altamont had yet to spill, and Charles Manson had yet to sully the rosy veneer of communal idealism. It was also around this time that advertisers began to realize the market cache of the hippie aesthetic and, without a moment’s hesitation to the thought of commodifying a genuinely positive social movement, sell sell sell.
The now-fabled confluence of Donovan, The Beatles, and Mike Love (of the Beach Boys) in Risikesh, India also occurred in 1968. They had journeyed to the subcontinent to meet with transcendental meditation guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and gain some insights into the lucid dream we call reality. It was here that Donovan taught George Harrison and Paul McCartney his unique fingerpicking style that couples the structural consistency of British Isles folk with American blues chord progressions. It’s worth noting that McCartney wrote Blackbird during this time, and Donovan’s influence is never more clear.
But most importantly, this is where Donovan was first introduced to the concepts of Eastern religion – a watershed moment in both his personal and professional lives. He said, “As a young man, I was very prepared by my father because he read me poetry … and I had felt a sort of search awaken in me. I come from a Celtic background who believes in reincarnation, the bards and the troubadours of ancient Ireland that I was well aware of from a very early age, and when I read [about] Zen Buddhism it turned me on to the word meditation.”
Forty years have passed. If American society escaped from the cave in the sixties, it’s certainly now come a’scamperin back – tail firmly tucked between legs – to watch shadow puppets dance on the wall once more. Thus, Donovan: Live in Los Angeles. The concert was a double bill: film director David Lynch sponsored the event to support his new book on the healing powers of Transcendental Meditation. The pairing of Donovan and Lynch was long overdue: meditation has been a shared passion for decades and this was their chance to get the message out. Personally – and I emphasize personally – the feel the set was lacking (lacking what I wanted to hear, anyway). Donovan was playing for a worthy cause, yes. He also clearly aimed to please rather than challenge. He stuck to his guns: the set consists almost entirely of top 40 hits from the Mellow Yellow and Sunshine Superman era. His setlist panders to the tie-dyed nostalgia of the baby boomers who bought the tickets (which makes sense) but, sadly, he completely skips over the raw folkiness of his Fairy Tale-era recordings or the sublimely surreal children’s songs of For Little Ones and HMS Donovan.
As a caveat, I will say that it’s completely selfish of me to impose my beliefs on what Donovan should or shouldn’t do. He is an amazingly talented songwriter who has created beautiful music – music that I’ll always cherish. And I think, at least in this case, the “ends” were greater than the means. If it meant playing Hurdy Gurdy Man and Mellow Yellow (again, songs that I don’t particularly enjoy, but others do, so their value is by no means diminished) to raise awareness and support for a cause so profoundly important as spirituality in society, Donovan made the right choice.
Here’s a clip from the DVD: