"Well, I'm still a mellow guy," he responds, laughing. This is the most concise answer I will get from the legendary singer/songwriter, who is breaking an eight-year recorded silence next week with the triumphant unveiling of his new album, Beat Cafe, at Cafe Du Nord. It seems the man responsible for hits like "Season of the Witch," "Atlantis," and "Sunshine Superman" has got a lot to say, despite the fact that our conversation opens like so:
Garrett Kamps: What I'd like to do for this piece is to have it be like a radio interview, where I'll ask a bunch of short questions and you can give me brief answers and I'll just print the whole thing.
So much for that idea. Actually, I'm not even sure if Donovan hears me. And if he does, he doesn't seem to care. He is on a mission with this interview. He wants to share with the world the story of Beat Cafe. The problem, though, is that Donovan's not much for concision. All told, I manage to ask five questions in half an hour. For most of the interview, Donovan just talks and talks -- speaking in his earnest, breathy Scottish accent, like an enchanted wizard -- about everything and nothing. For example, what follows is a verbatim excerpt from our conversation (I promise I'm not making this up):
GK: Your legacy is one of peace and protest wrapped up in song, and it seems like we're in a time where we could use some of that stuff. So I'm wondering, maybe from the discoveries you made making [Beat Cafe] or from the legacy that you've left behind, what advice do you have for the new generation of singer/songwriters?
Donovan: Well, they often say about modern art -- modern art really stopped in about 1936 or something. All developments were already developed. What we would then have in modern art is explorations in the new way of seeing reality. This bohemian manifesto was released and doors were opened many decades ago, and so we're seeing the unfolding of it. This way of looking at it: Where is the present bohemian cafe society? It's like, through a dialogue, trying to enthuse new youth to create their own virtual Beat cafe -- when Joan Baez, who is out on the road again, was asked, "Do you still believe, and why are you still singing what you sang when you were younger?" Well, it has to be sung and it has to be presented, because it has to be a counterbalance to the incredible hypocrisy and greed that still feeds our modern society. And you have, in America, and now we have him in Europe, your own new poet with a baseball cap, Michael Moore. He is now a valid voice which millions can identify with. [long pause] Check out what we do as singer/songwriters influenced by the folk music.
Yeah. Seriously. If that's a train of thought, I'd prefer to get out and walk. But I suppose it's this kind of unapologetic quirkiness that has always distinguished Donovan as a musician. When the Scotsman broke into the exploding folk scene of the 1960s with his single "Catch the Wind," everyone immediately labeled him a Bob Dylan clone -- and who could blame them? "Wind," with its hushed vocals and finger-picked guitar, was about as Dylan as you could get. But branding Donovan with a scarlet "BD" was wrong, wrong, wrong. He may have sounded like Dylan in the beginning, but as his career progressed he grew increasingly into his own weird sound.
To wit: The conjecture about the song (and nickname) "Mellow Yellow" is that it was inspired by a commercial for a sexual aid; "Season of the Witch" featured Jimmy Page on lead guitar and celebrated the dawn of the LSD age; 1967's A Gift From a Flower to a Garden was the direct result of Donovan's travels to India alongside John, Paul, George, and Ringo, after which the songwriter renounced drugs and turned himself into a makeshift yogi (the cover of Garden depicts him standing in a wheat field dressed in a gilded robe holding a bouquet); and who could forget the epically trippy "Atlantis," from the 1969 album Barabajagal, not to mention detours like 1983's "Lady of the Stars," one of the most underappreciated power ballads you're liable to come across from that era?
Now 58, the guy is back, and while his explanations of his new work run fragmented (or poetic, depending on what you're smoking) circles around themselves without getting anywhere, I can sum them up for you: Beat Cafe is an evocation of the spirit of bohemian romanticism and idealism. And guess what? It's pretty damn good. Recorded in L.A. with renowned jazz bassist Danny Thompson and veteran session drummer Jim Ketner, the album impressively navigates a number of different sounds, including jazz, rock, soul, folk, and even a little hip hop.
The brooding, elliptical psychedelic trance-folk of "Whirlwind" is particularly on the mark, as is the wily, stand-up-bass-driven "The Question," the chorus of which, with its boom-bap beat (there's the hip hop), is the spitting image of something Soul Coughing might have come up with. Where the record falters is when it wears its ambitions on its sleeve, as on the title track, with its Stray Cats-esque strut and idiot-shiver-inducing lyrics: "Do you want to go/ To a beatnik cafe where the lights are low/ The music is cool and the chicks are slow/ Barefoot baby with a painted toe/ As the reefer blows/ Go chick go." Whoops. Same goes for "Two Lovers," with somber, weighty lines that sound like outtakes from a Leonard Nimoy album: "When two lovers touch hands/ They touch the two of them, touching hands." Hey now. Ultimately, though, the work accomplishes what it aims to, conjuring the sound and spirit of a bunch of boho musicians letting it all hang out.
And speaking of letting it all hang out, wait till you see what Donovan has planned for the series of shows at Cafe Du Nord July 13-15. Not only will attendees be the first to hear the songs, but Du Nord will be the first and only place that you can obtain a copy of the album before it arrives in stores in September. It's all part of Donovan's master plan to spread the love this summer, a plan that involves transforming Du Nord into his idealized version of a "bohemian cafe," complete with accordion players on the sidewalk outside and "lots of surprises" inside. He's even asked the staff at the venue to dress up in sailor outfits. (After talking to a bartender about this last week, I can tell you that not all of the employees are thrilled about that last point.)
"I began this very small," Donovan says of his new project, in a rare moment of articulateness. "It's an underground release in San Francisco, the Beat city; the reverberations of it, I hope, will influence the artists in the city to galvanize in some way -- don't feel isolated, come together. ... It used to be very threatening in the '60s. Students were killed on campus. Long hair was considered so revolutionary that it was considered a threat. Me and my generation of songwriters were victimized and busted for smokin' pot, of all things. They tried to stop everything. But now, 40 years later, we have the same hypocrisy and greed in the media and in society -- they are still here. I come as if called, in a way."