A Chat With Psych-Folk Phenom, Donovan

The "Mellow Yellow" singer is heading on the road to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Sunshine Superman.

Rumors just swirl around folk-rock legend and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, Donovan.

There’s the longstanding myth that Paul McCartney provided backing vocals on his 1966 hit “Mellow Yellow,” which achieved a comeback in 1999 when it appeared in a now iconic GAP commercial. Then there’s the legend that the Scottish troubadour helped choreograph the formation of Led Zeppelin. Some say Donovan is responsible for the guitar playing on the Beatles’ The White Album, while others have credited him for influencing Bob Dylan and beating him to the punch in terms of switching from acoustic guitar to electric.

But perhaps the biggest claim of all about this hippie era musician is that his top-selling album, Sunshine Superman, helped single-handedly usher in the psychedelic revolution.

This year, the eclectic album turns 50, and to honor its golden anniversary, Donovan is hitting the road for a 21-city tour. SF Weekly caught up with the singer ahead of his Wednesday, Oct. 12 show at The Regency Ballroom to talk about the album, working with guitarist Jimmy Page, and why The Simpsons keep using his music.

SF Weekly: Where did the title for Sunshine Superman come from?
Donovan: In Glasgow, we collected American comic books, and very important to me was Superman and the Green Lantern, whom we mention in the song. I was also reading German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None, who was saying that in the future [there] will come an extraordinary superman that would have the power to actually change himself and the future. Also, I had fallen in love with a girl in London, Linda [Lawrence], who became the Sunshine Supergirl.

SFW: How did you join forces with the album’s late and great Mickie Most, best known for producing such British invasion classics­­­­­ as the Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun” and Herman’s Hermits’ “I’m Into Something Good”?
D: I knew my music wasn’t really folk music; it came from the tradition of jazz and blues. Then one day I had the great blessing of meeting Mickie Most, who was introduced to me by Allen Klein, the great manager of the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, and Marianne Faithfull.
So he said, ‘OK, let’s make a record. What have you got?’ I played him a song, and he said, ‘What’s that?’ I said, ‘I call it ‘“Sunshine Superman.’’ He said, ‘That’s it. That’s the single.’ He wasn’t stupid.

SFW: Then one day Jimmy Page walked into your recording session?
D: Back then, everything was recorded live, so John Cameron, our arranger, had to arrange Sunshine Superman, and that means hire session men. We’re all sitting in the studio, and in walks Jimmy Page. I didn’t know Jimmy then, but he’s joining The Yardbirds and is one of the rhythm and blues boys who’s going to be very important.
Much later, Page said to me, ‘It’s all in your guitar. John Cameron actually heard what was in your guitar, and that was my bass part.’ So we hit the studio and recorded it, and Mickie Most overloaded the bass so much.

SFW: What inspired the track “Season of the Witch”?
D: It’s a certain chord structure I learned from [UK folk pioneer] Bert Jansch in London. Bert influenced so many, not just Jimmy Page and me, but all the way across the water to Neil Young.

SFW: How did the sitar end up on the album?
D: I had a trip at a party in late ‘65, and I couldn’t get out for two days. I was lying on an Indian carpet looking at the paisley patterns and listening to Ravi Shankar. I realized I had to pull in all forms of Eastern music to the album. I wanted to make this extraordinary hybrid and break all the rules.

SFW: What was the greatest challenge in making the album?
D: We were recording at CBS Records in LA, starting in May of ‘66. So when the two engineers, in white coats like doctors, heard the bass begin on “Sunshine Superman,” they came up to Mickie and said, ‘Excuse me, Mr. Most. We have to stop the session because the bass is just too loud.’
Most said, ‘Sit down a minute. Your boss in New York, Clive Davis, just gave me three million dollars to record three British bands. Do you think if I called him up right now and asked him for a little more bass, he’d give it to me?’ The two lab coats looked at each other and said, ‘OK, Mr. Most, you could have more bass.’ ”

SFW: Can you clear up the longstanding debate about who went electric first: you or Bob Dylan?
D: Everyone says Dylan went electric before anybody. But, before he played electric at the Newport Folk Festival in the summer of 1965, I was in London and I plugged in a jazz guitar and played electric. But that’s not really important.

SFW: So were you a major influence on Dylan?
D: Dylan, he’s way out on his own. The only casual link was Woody Guthrie. We both loved Woody Guthrie and actually recorded a couple of his songs. But the difference between Bob Dylan and myself is that he’s got one foot strongly in the ‘50s, and it seems like my foot was firmly placed in the ‘60s, like the Beatles.

SFW: Are you responsible for John Lennon’s clawhammer guitar picking on The White Album?
D: In India, John Lennon saw me picking. It wasn’t that they copied it; it was that others had been brought up with a sense of ‘You can’t do this. You have to do that.’ So there’s a form that they haven’t broken yet, but I never had the form.

SFW: Did you bring future Led Zeppelin members John Bonham, John Paul Jones, and Jimmy Page into the same recording session, leading to the formation of their band?
D: No, I can’t say that’s true. There was a lot of hearsay back then.

SFW: Did Sunshine Superman single-handedly initiate the psychedelic movement?
D: Did I take more trips than anybody else? I don’t know. But what I did do [was bring] elements — jazz, blues, folk, Indian music, etc. — together.

SFW: Tell us about the 50th anniversary tour.
D: I should sit cross-legged on a sheepskin on a riser with a couple of acoustic guitars. What I want to do is come out, because I’m one of the three consummate solo performers of all time, and sing the songs. You will be transported.

SFW: You licensed “Atlantis” to be used on an episode of Futurama in 2000. But four of your songs — “Jennifer Juniper,” “Season of the Witch,” “Mellow Yellow” and “Wear Your Love Like Heaven” — have appeared on four of The Simpsons episodes. Is that meaningful to you?
D: I give permission to TV, film, and commercials to use many of my songs, because I understand it is reaching the largest audience in the world.
The Simpsons appeals not to just one age group, right? Well, somehow this family called the Simpsons represents a dysfunctional family, but it’s not really a dysfunctional family, because they always overcome every situation and turn it into humor. So, I think the Simpsons are very much needed in modern society, because through a cartoon you can actually say things that you can’t say in real life. That’s what I do in my songs.

SFW: Which episode from The Simpsons do you think best utilized your music?
D: OK, so Homer’s in the bedroom smoking a joint, and in comes the wife and says, ‘Oh drugs,’ and he says, ‘It’s medicinal.’ Then the walls of the bedroom fall away, and suddenly, edit, and he’s in a pink VW bug, and he’s driving into the cloud, and then my song “Wear Your Love Like Heaven” comes on. So, in that five-second sequence, my song was heard. But it’s enigmatic, because “Wear your love like heaven?” What does that mean? That, to me, is using media in the most powerful way that one can to present the [idea] of self-awareness and change.

Donovan plays at 8 p.m., on Wednesday, Oct. 12, and Thursday, Oct. 13, at The Regency Ballroom. $32.50.

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