John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

The Curious Charm of Donovan

He plays Thursday at the Pabst. Here’s hoping he performs “Lalena.”

By - Jun 7th, 2017 03:12 pm
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Donovan

Donovan

I had an offer to interview Donovan. Something to do with this column, I suspect. I turned it down out of respect for the artist and journalism as a profession. I never did interviews and I’m not sure I wouldn’t be a little tongue-tied around a legend like Mr. Leitch. He is famously a Beatle-buddy and as near to Bob Dylan as it gets. He was the first candidate for the next Dylan, something Bob may have sensed when he famously made the younger minstrel look foolish and fey in the documentary Don’t Look Back. But Donovan survived, not only because he was such a resilient and sunny hippy, but also because he was genuinely talented.

Donovan was everywhere, including the top of the charts, in the 1960’s and I heard him him talk ever-so-nonchalantly at a show at UWM about hanging out in India with the Fab Four and The Mahareshi. His reputation may fade a little with each decade, but his most embarrassing moments were no worse than anybody else’s — and his brightest ones could blind you.

Take Lalena,” it’s a very good example, even if it wasn’t his biggest hit. In this video he sings live (I think) and his tremolo, my new obsession because it’s so out of reach, is stellar. It’s as quavery and disarming as the one the Bee Gees, who I wrote about last week, conquered the world with. This technique, a way to make the human voice positively angelic, may be learnable, but I suspect it’s inherited. It doesn’t always work, but on this song it’s devastating.

Donovan, a Scotsman, came up at a time when the British Folk Revival was being swamped by the spectacular success of British pop music set off by the Beatles. You can place him directly at the center of the venn diagram where those two influences collide. Another beneficiary of that oddly overlapping moment was Paul Simon, who spent time in the UK with his partner Art Garfunkel. They both fell under the spell of great fingerpickers like Bert Jansch and Davey Graham. But Simon was from Long Island so, technically, he was re-invading.

Young artists of that time looked to the folk tradition, searching for authenticity. It was fueled in England by the Skiffle craze, while in America, groups like The Weavers and the TV show “Hootenanny” kept fading cultures from disappearing. That quest was sincere even if the idea of any of these college educated artists going back to the farm was hard to imagine. But old traditions were revitalized and when these journeymen moved into new territory, they were grounded in something bigger and richer.

Whether they were conscious of it or not, bands in England were on a parallel course, pursuing more recent traditions that were fading fast. They may not have thought of rock from the 50’s as folk music, but it was. So we also owe a debt to these haphazard saviors for keeping our rich homegrown styles alive. Back here where it all started, there’s no shortage of musicians who’ve worked back through British cover versions and discovered the stunning originals.

By the time Donovan synthesized all his influences and hit the charts, he was writing some first class material. Over time, he bent more and more toward the pop side and his writing only got better. This song from 1968 hit shortly before he transitioned into an ephemeral wizard-being in long robes and flowers. That was the point where some, including yours truly, went out for a smoke, but so what? He may have invested a little heavily in the Peace and Love sector, but this song proves that momentary cultural distractions are not the the thing we should focus on. Like Chuck Berry, Donovan knew that once you had a great name, the song was almost done. Nadine or Lalena… it makes no difference, you’re predisposed to fall head over heels.

When the sun goes to bed
That’s the time you raise your head
That’s your lot in life, Lalena
Can’t blame ya
Lalena

Arty-tart, la-de-da
Can your part get much sadder?
That’s your lot in life, Lalena
Can’t blame ya
Lalena

Run your hand through your hair
Paint your face with despair
That’s your lot in life, Lalena
Can’t blame ya

Lalena

When the sun goes to bed
That’s the time you raise your head
That’s your lot in life, Lalena
I can’t blame ya
Lalena

Arty-tart, oh so la-de-da
Can your part ever get, ever get much sadder?
That’s your lot in life, Lalena
I can’t blame ya
No, no, no, Lalena
Oh, Lalena

© Donovan Leitch

This sweet minor key rumination is as melancholy as the last day of summer. Lalena, poor, sweet girl, has taken a wrong turn and all is lost. The nightlife she’s drawn to is an accelerating roller coaster and she’s going to get thrown. The keystone line, the one that made me pick this over some other great ones, begins each chorus: “That’s your lot in life, Lalena.” It’s Karma or the caste system, or some other unavoidable doom. The song is only a sketch, but who’s to say a fully fleshed out story would have said more? Behind Donovan and his Spanish guitar, the quaint Baroque arrangement fills in where the lyrics leave off. And that voice, always disarming, takes you all the way down. This song will always evoke something dangerously world weary. If only you could reverse it and bottle it, you’d have the world’s best energy drink.

If I were to muster up the nerve to interview him, I’d want to ask Donovan if he was a Tim Hardin fan. I suspect he was a aware of songs like “Reason To Believe,” and “Misty Roses.” They share a deep resignation, a sense that the world is an unsolvable puzzle. Hardin gave in to his battle fatigue and died young. What was it with folkies in the 60’s? They were such a fragile lot. Like jazz artists, they went to the end of some dark alleys and never came out. Not our boy Donovan, though. And thank goodness… for every “Lalena” he had at least a couple like “Sunshine Superman.” It helps to have range.

Donovan performs at the Pabst on Thursday June 8 at 8 p.m.

Sieger On Songs LIVE at Cream City Music

Phil Lee

Phil Lee

Don’t miss Sieger On Songs LIVE at Cream City Music, hosted by John Sieger with special guest singer songwriter Phil Lee. Hear these two noted singer-songwriters turn a couple of their favorite cover songs inside out to see what makes them tick — that’ll also play some of their own.

Cream City Music: Wednesday, June 14th. 7 p.m.
12505 W. Bluemound Rd., Brookfield, WI
LIVE streaming broadcast on Facebook

9 thoughts on “Sieger on Songs: The Curious Charm of Donovan”

  1. Thomas Gaudynski says:

    John,

    I was just thinking about Donovan last week after reading in the NYTimes about cleaning the whale in the natural history museum. Donovan’s song “Museum” from “Mellow Yellow” (1967) has the lyric “Meet me under the whale in the Natural History Museum,” I think that’s what she said, a little bit sad about having to leave them.

    As with many of your selections, underrated. And yes, he and Simon, like many of us, couldn’t believe Bert Jansch or, more unknown in the US, Davey Graham, except perhaps guitarists. The rest of us could just sing along.

    Thanks

  2. mbradleyc says:

    I’ll be there!

  3. tim haering says:

    “They were mellow, they were yellow, they were wearin’ smelly blankets, they looked like Donovan fans.”

    “Atlantis, you remember Atlantis. Donovan, he guy in the brocade coat, used to sing to you about Atlantis. YOU loved it, you were so involved then. That was back when you used to smoke a banana. YOU would scrape the stuff off the middle, you would bake it, you would smoke it, you even thought you were getting ripped from it.”

  4. Thomas says:

    In addition to curious charm, Donovan has remarkable charisma. I saw him perform on a side stage at SUMMERFEST some years ago. It was a ten p.m. show. There were many drunk and loud people in the audience. Donovan spoke quietly and repeated a mantra about a vibe in THE BEAT CAFE. Incredibly, the audience got quiet over time, and they ultimately sang sweetly along with him on such tunes as “Wear Your Love Like Heaven.” Donovan calmed an unruly beast with that set by establishing a BEAT CAFE on a side stage late one night at SUMMERFEST. In the process, he reminded those in attendance of the wonder of his words and music.

    Thanks, John, for promoting Donovan in these times. He needs to be seen and heard now.

  5. Christina Zawadiwsky says:

    I just saw this concert at the Pabst (first balcony seats), and everyone in the entire audience was singing along (knowing all the words to the Donovan songs!). He did NOT disappoint as a performer and a poet, and all these many years that have gone by have just made him stronger, more experienced, more articulate telling us stories between songs about his life and unfolding them with a sense of the same discovery that we felt in hearing them, never knowing what was going to happen next! I didn’t have the money to pay for the Meet and Greet afterwards (who does?), but I wish I could have given him my favorite book of my own poetry that i’d published, since we have an affinity for a certain type of symbolism (and I’m sure I couldn’t just send him a copy and know it would get to him nowadays, the way i corresponded with Leonard Cohen when he and I were young poets – though he was older than I was – publishing in all the literary journals). Donovan’s a true original who loves sharing with you his life experiences and what he’s garnered from them, there in his dark maroon shirt and jeans, and he believes that you yourself have all of your interesting life stories to share too – one could feel this from the audience identification with his songs – a packed house, indeed! Bravo! I’ll remember this night for many years to come, as will my brother, who was my companion this evening, and there was a great rapport with everyone afterwards, strangers remarking to each other about segments of the show!

  6. Christina Zawadiwsky says:

    Also, I would have interviewed Donovan in a heartbeat! He’s very down to earth and curious about everyone, and all of us would have been happy to get your “take” on him – you’re a good writer, and one who cares about depth, and I wish you had done it, for our sakes!

  7. Christina Zawadiwsky says:

    And he did sing Lalena, very sadly, with the lights darkened on stage.

  8. Christina Zawadiwsky says:

    “That’s your lot in life, Lalena,” is the operant line, and he’s truly sad about her life and what she has to undergo. Nothing like a live performance, where one learns SO much!

  9. Christina Zawadiwsky says:

    John Sieger – but I forgot to tell you that I interviewed over 660 artists for my TV series, Where The Waters Meet, which lasted over ten years and won many awards; wrote for The Tribune and The Reader in Chicago; did film and book reviews online for many years; enjoy interviewing in general (for the TV series I interviewed international, national and local artists); and of course my main work is my poetry and fiction, at which I’ve done well. I think Donovan loves to celebrate the common man (especially the common man with originality) and wants to be asked questions that he hasn’t been asked before. It was a great pleasure to see him in concert – were you there, John Sieger?

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