Woodstock Film Festival - Music in Film - Conversation with Donovan - Oct. 3, 2008
Music in Film – Conversation with Donovan
Friday, October 3, 2009
Donovan and Doreen Ringer Ross. Photo by Brian Geldin.
Folk rock music legend Donovan known for such songs as Mellow Yellow and Hurdy Gurdy Man sat down with BMI’s Doreen Ringer Ross on Friday during the Woodstock Film Festival, for a conversation about his music career, affiliations with the film world, and the new documentary Sunshine Superman: The Journey of Donovan that screened at the festival on Sunday. I didn’t get a chance to see the documentary, and I also missed the concert Donovan gave Saturday night as I attended the festival’s award ceremony, but it would have been a really nice complement to have done both. It was quite a treat anyway to hear all the stories Donovan told at the panel. Going back to listen to the transcript, I learned a lot about the musical generation that came before me. Below are some highlights of that discussion.
Ringer Ross: How did Sunshine Superman: The Journey of Donovan come about?
Donovan: I’m really pleased to be here. I also have to thank Doreen for replying to my call when I said, ‘where should I present the film?’ this time of year when the distributor was keen to release it, and why not? It’s taken six years to make…The film began two years before my autobiography came out in 2005. Hannes (Rossacher, the director) and I spoke and he said, ‘do you think you’ll be doing a documentary?’ and I became aware of his work…The Untold Story of Freddy Mercury…I invited him into my basement in Ireland and he saw this footage, and he said, ‘nobody’s seen this footage?’ and I said, ‘no’ and he said, ‘OK Don, let’s begin.’
Ringer Ross: Who shot the archival footage of you on the beach in the documentary?
Donovan: Imagine 1966…(a year after) the black and white period of British emerging pop music…Charles Squire (the director of the independent television show Ready Steady Go) said, ‘can you come back down to the life you used to live and we’ll film it.’ It was brave to try to reconstruct it only 18 months after the event…Basically, there were two documentaries, Don’t Look Back, which wasn’t released for a couple of years I believe, Dylan’s documentary that I was part of, and my own documentary which was made called A Boy Called Donovan.
Ringer Ross: Can you speak about the beat writers you read and where you got started on your ideology that permeated everything?
Donovan: From my book, I wanted to comment on the social historical, musical, spiritual event. And that even really for me in all my songs was the Bohemian Manifesto invading popular culture with a will, to invade and bring back to culture poetry…wanting to bring meaning back to the populace…When you think of the early books I was reading, it became clear to me that the early Bohemian scene in America, the beat poets, they were fascinating to me. As a young man of 15, I entered British Bohemia, but all the books were American…They were all thinking that meaningful words in poetry would be returned to popular culture through jazz…I thought it’s going to be difficult to improvise poetry and jazz at the same time…it would be through folk music that meaningful poetry would come back to pop culture.
Ringer Ross: How did you hook up with The Beatles?
Donovan: (Gypsy Dave Mills) and I became really close with these four guys…We had common interests, absolute commitment with experimenting with art and music and a great interest in the roots of the suffering of the human condition. We were reading the same books…George Harrison and I especially. When we hooked up before India, it was through Bob Dylan, because Gypsy (Dave) and I made a B-line to meet the American folk musicians. It was George and I more than the other Beatles that realized, ‘ok, this book that I’m reading (Autobiography of a Yogi)’…he gave it to me, and the book that I was reading, The Diamond Sutra, I gave it to him. We both understood that meditation, the inward glance to actually turn the attention within with a mantra, was the way to understand why the human race was suffering…but we needed a Yogi…his name Mahariji Mahesh Yogi. George and the boys were initiated and I met Mahariji in the states and I was initiated and then we were invited to India. We took four acoustic guitars…and then it began a whole new kind of songwriting or should I say a return to the roots kind of songwriting.
Ringer Ross: Did you record Hurdy Gurdy Man with Led Zeppelin?
Donovan: Not exactly, let’s say the genesis of it. It’s too simple to say that those four guys were my back up band, but the elements are there. John Paul Jones and (Jimmy) Page. Page was a session guy. John Paul Jones was a session guy and an arranger…What actually happened with the sound in Hurdy Gurdy Man was an acoustic ballad of mystic qualities, opening a track which developed into a heavy metal chord structure, which would become a signature of sound, and so I kind of opened the door. I don’t know how I was opening it. Two of the members of that band were in that session. Stairway to Heaven would have a similar structure.
Ringer Ross: How did you feel when Hurdy Gurdy Man was used in David Fincher’s Zodiac?
Donovan: There’s a spooky quality to some of my music. It’s not all about peace and love. Season of the Witch also has this spook to it…there isn’t three weeks that goes by to this day where I don’t get a call and the publishing house doesn’t get a call for request for a song in a film…It’s not new. It’s been happening throughout my career because my songs have a filmic quality about them and a dramatic feeling. A friend of mine said in Zodiac, Hurdy Gurdy Man saved them $100,000 worth of shooting because dramatically it was juxtaposition to actually present that scene. The first fan that contacted me that said, ‘why did you let Atlantis be used in Goodfellas in the killing scene?’ and of course I told the truth, it wasn’t the money, it was because of Scorsese…the fan said it’s violent scene and a peaceful song…and then I realized juxtaposition is the whole thing…and they asked David Lynch the same thing, ‘so you’re meditating…and yet you make such violent films.’ And he said, ‘I get this question all the time.’ You don’t have to suffer as an artist to show suffering…I can join that movie world because I was leaving it up to directors and (music supervisors) to make the choice.