Donovan To Be Inducted Into Songwriters Hall Of Fame

May 23, 2014
Originally published on May 23, 2014 1:27 pm

Transcript

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WEAR YOUR LOVE LIKE HEAVEN")

DONOVAN: (Singing) Color and sky brush and blue. Scarlet fleece changes you. Crimson ball sinks from view. Wear your love like heaven. Wear your love like heaven. Wear your love like heaven. Wear...

BIANCULLI: Next month, the singer-songwriter Donovan will be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. He joined the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame in 2012. Donovan wrote several folk rock hippie anthems of the '60s, such as "Sunshine Superman, "Mellow Yellow," "Hurdy Gurdy Man" and "Wear Your Love Like Heaven."

After experiencing fame, in the '70s, he retreated to a more secluded life, but continued to record every few years. His latest album, "Shadows of Blue," recorded in Nashville, was released last year.

We're going to hear an excerpt of Donovan's 2004 interview with Terry Gross. Let's start with his very first recording, a 1964 demo version of a song by Buffy Sainte Marie. As this recording demonstrates, during his early performing days, Donovan was often thought of as Britain's answer to Bob Dylan.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "CODINE")

DONOVAN: (Singing) An' my belly is craving, I got shakin' in my head. I feel like I'm dyin' an' I wish I were dead. If I lived till tomorrow, it's gonna be a long time. For I'll reel and I'll fall and rise on codine. An' it's real, an' it's real, one more time.

(Singing) When I was a young man, I learned not to care. Wild whiskey, confronted I often did swear. My mother and father said whiskey is a curse. But the fate of their baby is many times worse. An' it's real, an' it's real, one more time.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

That's Donovan, recorded in 1964, a demo recording, his version of a song by Buffy Sainte Marie.

So you were pretty kind of folk oriented at the very start. How did that start to change?

DONOVAN: Well, although I'd begun performing as a folk singer, I was biting into the guitar with my guitar pick. And I didn't realize at first but what I was trying to do was come up with a kind of a Celtic rock, a kind of a fusion where the pop sensibilities and the blues, jazz as well, I could blend into my folk style. At the same time, I was also writing, of course, poetry, an enormous amount of songs started pouring out. And the jazz I was listening to in college, Miles Davis and Charlie Parker and essentially, Billie Holiday from the jazz world and the classical music and The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and when Hendrix came along, listening to Jimi.

The change was not sit down and write "Sunshine Superman," but out of my songs I met a producer called Mickie Most and John Cameron was the arranger and we began to make that album, "Sunshine Superman," which was so eclectic and so experimental and at least a year and a half before "Sgt. Pepper."

GROSS: Well, since you just mentioned "Sunshine Superman," why don't we hear it? And this is your recording from 1966.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUNSHINE SUPERMAN")

DONOVAN: (Singing) Sunshine came softly through my a-window today. Could've tripped out easy a-but I've a-changed my ways. It'll take time, I know it, but in a while you're gonna be mine, I know it, we'll do it in style. 'Cause I made my mind up you're going to be mine.

(Singing) I'll tell you right now. Any trick in the book and now, baby, all that I can find. Superman or Green Lantern ain't got a-nothin' on me. I can make like a turtle...

GROSS: That's Donovan recorded in 1966. I have a very profound question for you and that is, where did you get your clothes in the '60s when you were on TV and radio and touring all the time?

DONOVAN: We used to go down to the vintage, what you call vintage clothes shops and it was Portobello Road. And Brian Jones, who invented The Rolling Stones, was the first to raid the old velvets and the feathered boas and the corduroy jackets and the clothes from a bygone age. But all of us came out of art school so we were very into the image. And so The Who would dress up in pop art with targets and Union Jacks. They'd get their clothes made out of flags. 'Cause what the art students are wearing this year probably a lot of young people will be wearing next year.

GROSS: My guest is Donovan. His hits of the '60s include "Catch the Winds," "Sunshine Superman" and "Wear Your Love Like Heaven." Let's hear one of the songs he recorded in 1966.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MELLOW YELLOW")

DONOVAN: (Singing) I'm just mad about Saffron, Saffron's mad about me. I'm just mad about Saffron. She's just mad about me. They call me mellow yellow. Quite rightly. They call me mellow yellow. Quite rightly. They call me mellow yellow.

(Singing) I'm just mad about 14. Fourteen's mad about me...

GROSS: Now I just apologize in advance for asking you a question you've probably been asked more times than you could care to count. Your song "Mellow Yellow," which was a big hit in 1966, a lot of people assumed that that was about getting high by smoking banana peels.

DONOVAN: The reference to smoking bananas completely shocked us all at the time. Wonder where anybody got that idea? You can't get high smoking banana peels. And then...

GROSS: I guess it's the line the electric banana.

DONOVAN: Well, smoking of the peels, I didn't realize why that had been so is tied with my song until two, three years ago I was in Cleveland in the Rock 'n Roll Museum and I was sitting next to Country Joe McDonald and we started talking. And Joe said to me, hey man, by the way, it was me. I said what do you mean it was you? Mellow Yellow, man. And, you know, the bananas, smoking bananas. I said Joe, I got a feeling that I'm not going to like what you're going to tell me here.

(LAUGHTER)

DONOVAN: Tell me. He said, well, man, in San Francisco 1966 what we thought was we'd put the band on the back of the truck and we'd go down to an old yard I know and it has all these carnival floats that they threw away. And we found this giant banana and we put it on the truck and we started up the band and we drove down through Haight-Ashbury playing the music, advertising a gig.

But just to make sure that people knew we were coming, we announced to the press that you can get high smoking bananas. And he said that would've been the end of it, but that Friday you released the single "Mellow Yellow."

GROSS: A-ha.

DONOVAN: I said, Joe, thanks. Because I've been asked for 35 years why do you say you can get high smoking bananas. Because I guess millions tried it.

BIANCULLI: We're listening to an interview Terry recorded in 2004 with Donovan, who next month will be inducted into the Songwriter's Hall of Fame. He told Terry his most popular song among other musicians was this one.

DONOVAN: "Season of the Witch" seems to have been adopted again and again and again by so many bands because it makes them feel good when they play. And Led Zeppelin used to use my song "Season of the Witch" to warm up every rehearsal before every performance, so Jimmy Page tells me.

GROSS: Interesting. Do you know why?

DONOVAN: It's just too extraordinary chords, A7th and D9th and it's funny - when the...

GROSS: Would you just play those chords so we can hear them?

DONOVAN: Yeah. I can play them. When we first start playing guitar when you're a young musician, you get hooked on a phrase or a musical phrase or a set of chords and this is the set.

(SOUNDBITE OF SET OF CHORDS)

DONOVAN: Now, when you're a young band and you start playing this, then you realize you're still playing this about two hours later, something must be good about these two chords.

(LAUGHTER)

DONOVAN: But it also allows you to play many different things when you're just vamping and jamming on these chords. Americans also have recorded it. Dr. John has recorded it for that movie "Blues Brothers II" and also the Allman Brothers I think did my song "The Mountain." But it was Al Cooper and Stephen Stills...

GROSS: Right.

DONOVAN: ...who recorded it as well.

GROSS: Right.

DONOVAN: But it's a spooky song and it actually spoke about being busted before I was busted - one of those prophetic things. (singing) Oh, no. Must be the season of the witch. Must be the season of the witch. Must be the season of the witch.

GROSS: Now...

DONOVAN: That was "Season of the Witch."

GROSS: Had you heard those two chords together in other songs or did you hear something in those two chords that inspired you to put them together?

DONOVAN: This chord, the D9th...

(SOUNDBITE OF CHORD)

DONOVAN: ...I'd heard from Bert Jansch. Now, it's a very important chord in the world of folk blues and jazz because there's many songs that use it by going...

(SOUNDBITE OF CHORDS)

DONOVAN: ...here's the D9th. So it's part of the traditions of jazz and blues. (singing) There is a house in New Orleans. (speaking) It's in there. It's also in (singing) Hit the road, Jack, don't you come back no more, no more, no - (speaking ) It's in many of the blues progressions. And, hey. So it actually is a very established, emotional chord in many blues, yeah.

GROSS: Well, Donovan, thank you so much for talking with us.

DONOVAN: Thank you, Terry.

BIANCULLI: Singer-songwriter Donovan speaking with Terry Gross in 2004. Next month, he'll be inducted into the Songwriter's Hall of Fame. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.