Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Donovan was good, Donovan was great

 To a large extent, I think Donovan's work needs an honest reappraisal. He did, at one point, go off the rails and became such a hippie and an apparent adherent all things transcendental that he was ruthlessly mocked. Consideration of his good work suffered, sadly, and like Melanie, a good songwriter with an interesting ear for poetic and nuanced lyrics, a developed sense of melody and an expressive singing voice is unfairly set aside. Three  songs bear out the more problematic, less anthemic quality of Donovan's writing."Sunny Goodge Street", "Epistle to Dippy" and "Young Girl Blues" are quite a bit more cynical and knowing that his subsequent reputation suggests.

 "Sunny Goodge Street" is a panorama, obviously, of a particular urban hip scene so commonly portrayed in flashy and groovy terms in the 60s, but Donovan's version of it makes it seem unpredictable, violent, utterly paranoid and incoherent. It is closer to Burroughs than to Scott McKenzie's saccharine rendering of John Phillip's saccharine to hippiedom "San Francisco (Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair"). Donovan seemed to understand that the counterculture was as much as a creep scene as it was a gathering moment for truth seekers, poets and sincere sensualists who desire both sex and innocence. While the cost of attaining the sorts of forbidden knowledge drugs and the attending hype was unknown, Donovan, last named Leitch by the way, had a foreboding that was rarely expressed by a generation of musicians that was fatally self-infatuated.
 "Epistle to Dippy" is nothing less than a direct address of a try-anything scene maker who dashes from drug to scene to fad in an irrational attempt to oust run their own vacuity, their utter lack of soul or genuine sensibility. This is as acidic a portrayal of the poseur as has been written, more potent than the Beatles' politely poo-poohing tune along the same theme, "Nowhere Man". The difference is that D.Leitch is in the trenches, an intrepid reporter perhaps,a Norman Mailer who dared to take the same drugs as those he observed and had enough wits afterward to recall the excruciating banality of a prismatic perspective.


"Young Girl Blues", in turn, is marvelously turned by Marianne Faithful into a bittersweet recollection of an ingenue who had gotten tired of her own hipness and the chronic scene-making; the lyrics are an acute portrait the raging banality of such an ostentatiously noisy and hip scene. Donovan senses, I think, the isolation none of the scene makers can break away from or cure with brand names, loud music, and chemicals. A fair amount of his songwriting holds up, I think, and it holds up for the same reason Norman Mailer's "Armies of the Night" or Tom Wolfe's "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" hold up; they are all , in their own respective ways, exquisitely etched portraits of the Sixties that bypassed the mass-mediated brainwashing fostered by Time and Life magazines and presented the whole notion of Youth Culture and revolution as something that was no less problematic than the  Establishment that the ragtag gaggle of miscreants, socialists, opportunistic gurus, draft dodgers, ersatz feminists and the usual assortment of authentic bums and layabouts claimed needed to be changed. Details, blisters, resentment, a sharpened sense for sensing out the fake, the harmful, the mendacious.

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