Glasgow’s Greats: Donovan

We turn back to Glasgow’s musical legacy today as we enter in to the last few weeks of our stay here. Remarkably, the sun is shining (although it is early, and any weather can still happen). Never mind; it’s always sunny when you listen to a chap like Donovan, isn’t it?

Donovan Philips Leitch, the singer, songwriter, and guitarist perhaps best known for his 1960s psychedelic-tinged folk music, was born in 1946 in the Maryhill district of the city.

Donovan performing

Donovan plays to a US audience in 1966

Maryhill is just down the road from where we’re staying in Bearsden, and the bus must necessarily pass through it if we go into town. It’s historically working class, but I get the sense from passing through it these past months of a neighborhood in renewal. Much of Maryhill Road, the neighborhood’s main street, is flanked by Victorian tenements. Yet Maryhill is home to a mixture of housing stock, some of which indeed gives the impression that a tourist oughtn’t be there after dark (although this is less an issue in the summer, when it doesn’t properly get dark). There’s a gorgeous, new-looking park where on a nice day people can be seen playing on the lawns or paddling down the stream. There are derelict pubs that, since we arrived in April, are actively being renewed. There’s a mega-Tesco, which I sense has been a kind of anchor in its few years there, bringing services, stability, and investment into the area. Home to middle-class, social, and student housing, it still gives a rough-around-the edges sense.

Donovan spent the first 10 years of his life in Maryhill, during which time he contracted polio, and was left with a limp from the treatment of it. In an recent interview with the Herald Scotland, Donovan recalls this being a “scary” time, as dark, grey skies, dirty granite steps and bombed-out buildings cut a post-war swath of the landscape.

Sunshine Superman album

Sunshine Superman, the record that started it

The family relocated in 1956 to Hertfordshire, England, and at 14, Donovan began playing guitar. By 1964 he held a publishing contract, and began recording. The following year he struck up a collaboration with the famed British producer Mickie Most, and was well on his way to stardom. His 1966 Sunshine Superman album, featuring the eponymous single, is often considered to be the first psychedelic folk album. Mellow Yellow, again featuring a hugely popular eponymous single, was released the following year.

Despite his chart successes with songs like “Sunshine Superman,” and “Mellow Yellow” – or perhaps because of the thinly veiled subject matter of such songs – in mid-1966, Donovan became the first British pop star to be arrested for cannabis possession. He was implicated in an expose by the News of the World tabloid, which was later found to be feeding information about the drug use and preferences of the day’s pop stars to the police, with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones soon to get caught up in such scandals. As a result, Donovan was refused entry to the US for a  period of time which made himvunable to appear at 1967’s seminal Monterrey Pop Festival.

Donovan continued to release psychedelic pieces such as “Hurdy Gurdy Man,” reportedly in an effort to reach the audiences of heavier-sounding bands like Cream and The Jimi Hendrix Experience. It became one of his biggest hits, reaching the Top 5 in the US and the UK.

Donovan head shot

Donovan

In late 1969, Donovan split from Most following an argument at a recording session. From there his sound began to evolve, drawing more greatly on world music. Although he continued to write and record, the rise of the late-70s punk era damaged Donovan’s momentum. Punk was in many ways an impassioned backlash against the “optimism and whimsy*” of hippies, and Donovan was effectively its poster-boy. In time, his fortunes and reputation recovered, and Donovan continues to write and record today.

Over the past decade, Donovan voiced himself in an episode of Futurama, received and honourary Doctor of Letters from the University of Hertfordshire, and was inducted into both the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame.

Most recently, he headlined the acoustic stage at the 2015 Glastonbury Festival, and has released a 50-year retrospective.

We’ve famously been through all manner of Glaswegian weather while writing this post. As it alternates now between raining and bucketing down, I can’t help but wonder whether Donovan’s psyche developed such a sunny predilection as a way to cope. He’d be the outlier in a place that much prefers to write and sing about the rain.

*Thank you, Wikipedia, for phrasing this with such perfect eloquence.

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