Donovan was the Cosmic King of the sixties. His hits are familiar to many generations, and they include the folky "Catch The Wind" and "Colours," the psychedelic "Sunshine Superman" and "Mellow Yellow," and the rocking "Season Of The Witch" and "Barabajagal" with the Jeff Beck Group. He was a contemporary of Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan (sometimes even referred to as the British version of the latter). Through the years, he has been an often-covered songwriter, and also has appeared on the big screen musically in the cult favorite Brother Sun, Sister Moon, and personally in the films If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium, The Pied Piper, and Don't Look Back. But most important, he has appeared as himself in Futurama, that legendary performance being the single reason for the show's renewal. Possibly.
Tonight, Donovan--with his family and quite a few of his friends and admirers--will take the stage at Los Angels' famed El Rey Theatre, performing a benefit concert for The David Lynch Foundation whose mission is to introduce "Quiet Time" and its benefits into schools worldwide.
Mike Ragogna: So, you're performing with your family and friends for a charitable event tonight at The El Rey. What's the purpose of the event?
Donovan Leitch: It's one more in a series for The David Lynch Foundation. David and I have been traveling the world these last few years presenting a program that's working so well.
MR: Which program is that?
DL: The meditation that The Beatles and I brought back from India is now called "Quiet Time," and it's being presented and used in programs in schools, turning down the stress levels, turning up the test scores and graduation numbers. It's really doing cool things. We always knew it was great, but to actually see it in action through the foundation is wonderful. And this Friday, there'll be a gathering of friends of my music, and we'll be onstage playing the latest benefit.
MR: Is this an international effort?
DL: Oh, yes. It's been introduced around the world over the last thirty to thirty-five years.
MR: ...as Transcendental Meditation.
DL: Yes. The medical profession has recognized that TM has the most instant, de-stressing effect, and not only on students. This is a program that is now being presented through The David Lynch Foundation.
MR: Isn't David a long-time meditator?
DL: David has been practicing TM for thirty-five years, but didn't necessarily want to announce it until about six years ago.
MR: What happened then?
DL: He saw 10 million students between the ages of six and eleven on the ADHD drugs. That was 100 million doses a day, 70 million a week, 280 million a month. He knew from his contact with TM programs in the medical profession that there already was a way to give mediation to these kids. So, he announced that he would begin The David Lynch Foundation.
MR: When did you become involved?
DL: I wasn't involved with TM at the time, though I continued meditating and doing my own promotion of peace through my music. David saw me and Linda meditating on NBC on Easter two or three years ago, and he called me and now we're together doing the program.
MR: How is Quiet Time being taught in schools?
DL: The real nitty-gritty info for those now reading can be found at dlf.tv.
MR: What will they see when they go there?
DL: Lots of stuff. (laughs) Various programs. Right now, in Los Angeles, there is a street kids program for those that dropped out, were dealing drugs, or selling sex. This program is well-advanced and moving ahead.
There is a school in Fairfield, Iowa--begun thirty years ago--which is the model school where all students and all teachers are meditating. Even the guy that sweeps up at the end of the day and the parents are using this technique, Quiet Time--ten minutes in the morning, ten minutes in the afternoon--with amazing results. Imagine the nervous system turned down to low. The stress disappears, and the student feels more self-esteem. It's been proven again and again. On dlf.tv, all the videos and contacts are available.
MR: Does this new concert at The El Rey tie-in to last April's New York show?
DL: Last year, our last presentation was at Radio City where Paul McCartney and Ringo joined us. They still use the TM that The Beatles and I brought back from India.
MR: At that concert, you were joined by Sheryl Crow, Ben Harper, Eddie Vedder, Moby...did they all just learn? Or is this another TM wave? It seems to happen every decade.
DL: Some of them already meditated, this has been going on for some time. A lot of creative artists meditate. Howard Stern joined us last year about the benefits he's received, (Jerry) Seinfeld was on stage too. This is a smaller version in Los Angeles, but it'll have no less of an impact because it looks like it will be broadcast. A couple of ex-Guns N' Roses will be there, a couple of young artists like Poe, they'll be there. And they've all (got) tunes of one of my songs, which is rather delightful to join me on.
MR: And during the concert, you'll be singing with your family, right?
DL: For the first time, three of us will be on stage. I've been onstage with my daughter Astrella, and I've been singing around campfires with my son Donno (Donovan). But for the first time, the three of us will be onstage at The El Rey, so that's quite a first.
MR: Will you be performing Donovan songs exclusively or will other songs make the cut?
DL: Well, actually, I'll be doing the Buffy Sainte-Marie song "Universal Soldier." I always like to do that. It's a fine song. It still means the same thing now as it did then in the sixties. Though I'll be doing my catalog, there will be other artists performing their own (material) for about forty minutes before I come on. But during the concert, I'll not only be doing the well-known songs, but I'm bringing forward some songs that my fans haven't heard or maybe they missed, plus a couple of new ones. The backing band will be Jerry Vivino and the boys from the Conan O'Brien band. Danny Saber will appear, Carla Olsen who's a female guitar player of great note, and actually there are some surprises that I'm not supposed to know about.
MR: Where so many artists reach a certain level of success and seem to fade away, you remain an icon of an era.
DL: Yeah, yeah, I didn't go away. (laughs) Essentially, my music has always been experimental and breaking the rules, and my music has been taken to the hearts of not only one generation, but each succeeding generation who sees in it a way to look at their lives--in one sense, melancholy and reflective, but in another sense, positive and moving ahead. My music has that. By the way, from the age of 18 or 19, I found that I was committed to communicating.
MR: And over the years, you must have collected your fair share of plaques.
DL: One of them, which was very touching to me, came from the French Republic. I was made an Officer of Arts & Letters. Now, this is a very high honor in a country that recognizes literature.
MR: That's understandable since your poetry, as well as that of your contemporaries, literally changed the way everyone looked at the world.
DL: The poetry in the music is so important. You've got to understand that when my generation arrived, we were called "folk" singers--like Dylan and me and Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell who were composers--we actually wished to marry the poetic lyric with popular song. The Beatles came from a city steeped in literature, influenced by the Irish migrations--Lennon and McCartney are Irish names. So, when The Beatles met Donovan and Dylan, what happened was popular music would now be infused with meaningful lyrics through the marriage. When it happened, it was immediately established that there would be a much clearer understanding of the world's problems because we were the singers that the world listened to. And all these years later? I'm still here! (laughs) It does not matter that the years pass, it seems. I have new works, and I have works that have surfaced that have been buried.
MR: Are you being internet savvy in promoting your music?
DL: My website has occupied my time because I've fully embraced the social web, yeah.
MR: I never got to compile your material during my various label jobs, but I know much of your catalog. In your music, there's a side of you that often is pretty funny, though most people don't think of you that way.
DL: I have a very poetic understanding, but as Jimmy Page said, "I like Donovan because he has a sense of humor as well."
MR: I especially remember albums like Cosmic Wheels.
D: The seventies material returned to me, so I'm now transferring it at the highest rates from analog. And Cosmic Wheels sounds real cosmic, man. Actually, it was bouncing off the speakers with an enormous sound. I just couldn't believe it. There are 400 master tapes that are being transferred with at least 46 songs and recordings that I'd forgotten I'd written or even recorded. This is amazing to find such things, and it's very exciting.
MR: Are you currently working on any new material?
DL: I've just created two new songs--would you believe it--with David Lynch producing the audio. It was unplanned, impromptu. And you know, David does make music for his films.
MR: Yes, I'm a fan of his use of atmospherics and minor keys.
DL: Well, he has this studio and we've been hanging out and we've made two recordings. We're uploading one of them this week to iTunes--just one, very simply saying here's a new Donovan work. But the donovan.ie website is seriously online now, and that's been launched this past January with a concert from Munich which was on for a month (as a) webcast. The material that I'm recording now, I'm very excited about, and there'll be more new material coming.
MR: Who's handling the transfers?
DL: There's a company called FX in London that's doing McCartney and I, and they're doing the highest rate transfers. My goodness, it sounds great. Of course, Abbey Road has some extraordinary outtakes. We were all worried there about Abbey Road for a little bit, you know.
MR: It seemed like the whole world was.
DL: Paul bought it.
DL: Why not? Somebody's got to do it!
MR: (applause) So, about the songs...
DL: The idea of the meaningful lyric. Translated, of course, it means the conscious responsibility of a poetic pop song that is addressed to millions. This is the extraordinary connection that we intended. There's no way that you can look at a Donovan or a Beatles or a Dylan or others of the kind and say we didn't really want to do it or it was a mistake or a good bit of luck. We stood up and actually intended to communicate, there was no other way we could live our lives. And to have established such a communication, then the internet and the social web comes along...there's a confirmation to us all. Communications around the world are definitely on the wings of music.
MR: Although it seems that conscious music has taken a back seat to "functional" music, like for workouts or as background ambiance.
DL: Yeah, yeah, I know that. But at the same time, the meaningful lyric or that which addresses issues of today is still here and will always be here. I just recorded with Matt of Guns N' Roses, and he's got a thing called Global Sound Lab which is going to make recordings. But each one is a charity record for a different part of the world.
MR: I don't think that's ever been done before.
DL: Basically, it's too late to call this new band "entertainers" because they're already booking the tour in tents and festivals, and the issues are in the songs. But they're not serious issues in one sense, they're entertainment. In the other sense, we've got to help each other!
MR: Sometimes, it's almost like you have to dress-up the issue in order to educate.
DL: No, no, the understanding always was the supposedly naïve, harmless 45rpm single would come and go as an entertainment, but it would carry a message.
MR: When you look back at songs like "Barabajagal," "Wear Your Love Like Heaven," and "Atlantis," what is the difference between Donovan then and Donovan now?
DL: Nothing. I still felt the same edge when I wrote the new song "I Am A Shaman." Leonard Cohen said there's only one song he ever wrote. What he meant was when we set our theme when we're young, we continue that theme and make variations. I still feel as edgy and pushy and punchy and gentle and poetic as I ever felt.
Donovan's website: donovan.ie
The David Lynch Foundation websites:
ABOUT TONIGHT'S CONCERT...
WHO: Donovan And Friends
WHAT: A Benefit Concert for The David Lynch Foundation
WHERE: The El Rey Theater, 5515 Wilshire Blvd, Los Angeles.
7:30 pm - Doors open.
8:30 pm - Bruce Nathan (Every Boy) on vox Billy Masters (Suzanne Vega) on guitar Adam Topol (Jack Johnson) on drums Chris Joyner (Sheryl Crow/Wallflowers) on keys Jeff McElroy on bass
9:00 pm - Blessed the Strange
9:35 pm - Jack Maness (Sublime)
10:00 pm - Donovan & Friends - Donovan will be joined by daughter, Astrella Celeste, Jerry Vivino, Scott Healy & Rick Reed (from the Conan O'Brien Late Night Band).
Throughout Donovan's set, he will be also be joined by special guests, Lanny Cordola & Matt Sorum (of Guns N' Roses and Velvet Revolver), Peter Noone (Herman's Hermit), Amrita Sen, Danny Saber (Black Grape/Alice Cooper), Poe, and Carla Olson (Textones) Grape/Alice Cooper), Poe, and Carla Olson (Textones)
11:30 pm - The Paris Escovedo Project11:30 pm - The Paris Escovedo Project
(Psst...for all you frustrated Mello Yello fans whose favorite beverage lost the soda war to Mountain Dew, rumor has it that Donovan will be the voice of the re-launch of a new incarnation of the drink. It's very hush-hush, so ix-nay on the Ello-yay...)
And remember, as Donovan once sang, "First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there's one." But you knew that.
Follow Mike Ragogna on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ragz2008