Imagine a world where recorded music is both expensive and hard to find. No easily accessible CDs or tapes and certainly none of your new-fangled streaming or downloadable MP3s. That was the world we record buyers inhabited back in the 60s. No megastores, Amazon, internet shopping or Spotify for us. No eBay, record fairs or car boot sales/swap meets either. LPs were a major cash investment and as such were often restricted to birthdays or Christmas.
Thankfully, at that time London had a fair sprinkling of import record shops where cashed-up vinyl junkies could find solace. Here it was possible to pick up (albeit at a price) highly desirable US pressings of LPs that were either not yet released in Britain, or if they were available, the US versions invariably featured sumptuous heavy duty gatefold sleeves, posters or other inserts denied to UK buyers.
Now, due to a complicated legal situation, the details of which I’ll spare you here, Donovan’s UK releases were something of a dog’s breakfast at this time and for a couple of years much of his output was only available to British fans in the form of pricey US imports. Hence, from 1967 to 1970 I was a regular at One Stop Records in Dean Street, Soho, picking up import copies of LPs which would not be released locally for many months, if at all.
Then, in December 1967 I hit Donovan pay dirt. There it was, nestling in the new arrivals rack: A Gift From A Flower To A Garden, a sumptuously packaged double LP box set with eye watering, psychedelic artwork. Inside was an elaborate lyric sheet folder containing beautifully illustrated individual textured lyric sheets for each song. One of the LPs featured 10 delightful pop psych gems while the other contained a dozen solo acoustic tracks. The title was embossed in silver on the spine and it had a picture of Donovan holding hands with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi hand-glued on the back. Was this lovingly-crafted artefact pop’s first-ever boxed set? If there had been another I certainly hadn’t seen it. But most importantly, it would not be released in Britain for another five months! What could be more desirable?
There was just one problem, the hefty £5 asking price was prohibitively expensive, the equivalent of £84 ($111) today. Working as a lowly messenger boy in Soho I was earning the princely sum of just £8 (£134 or $178 today) a week. Forking out over half my weekly pay-packet to buy the Donovan LP would mean serious budgeting involving skipped lunches and in the days before electronic ticket barriers, some creative tube travel. But it was clearly meant to be and although it took a few weeks, I managed to scrimp and save to buy the precious object and still have it today, along with a couple of backup copies and of course the CD.
My Donovan preoccupation had started in 1965 with the early acoustic folk albums and continued unabated into his acid-drenched psychedelic period, by which time it had become a full-blown obsession. So when I read in NME or Melody Maker that Don was booked to perform a showcase concert at the prestigious Royal Albert Hall in January 1967 I knew I had had to be there.
The event was titled, with more than a little hubris, “The Sonnets of Donovan” and featured our man dressed in a floor-length embroidered robe performing on acoustic guitar with backup from the great Harold McNair on flute, Danny Thompson, double bass and bongo player Candy John Carr. Also present was Shawn Phillips 12 string guitar/sitar and Tony Carr drums. John Cameron played harpsichord and provided arrangements for a string quartet on some songs.
Much of the set list was unfamiliar to the British audience, drawing almost exclusively from the Sunshine Superman and Mellow Yellow albums, both unreleased in the UK at that time. At one point I got very excited to hear Donovan announce “I’d like to bring on a good friend now, Mr Jimi Hendrix!”. Imagine my surprise and confusion when a short-haired black man in a smart suit appeared onstage. Turns out it was actually the jazz singer Jon Hendricks and I’d simply misheard what Donovan had said. I’d never heard of Hendricks at the time (hey, I was only 16) but he was clearly a pretty cool dude and, as I later found out, an important figure in the jazz world who was resident in London in 1967. Don and Jon duetted on Preachin’ Love, the UK B-side of Mellow Yellow.
Concert security was virtually none existent in those days and at the end of the show I casually jumped up on the low stage and walked down the tunnel to the backstage area unchallenged. Outside Donovan’s dressing room there was a noisy scrum of people coming and going as the man held court inside.
We should remember that this one-off solo concert was a landmark event in the folk world and in early 1967 Donovan was currently the toast of London. His progression from denim-clad folkie to chart-topping psychedelic troubadour had been rapid and unprecedented and it was rumoured that George Harrison and Paul McCartney were in the Albert Hall audience that night.
I spotted Julie Felix (then enjoying her own BBC TV series) leaving the dressing room and several other famous faces from the world of pop and TV came and went. After a while I noticed an older couple standing forlornly outside the dressing room. It transpired they were Donovan’s parents Donald and Winifred Leitch. I began chatting twith them and asked why they weren’t inside basking in the aftermath of a triumphant evening. In strong Scottish accents, they explained that they had no intention of going in the dressing room while “HE” was there. It transpired “HE” was Don’s buddy, roadie and travelling companion Gypsy Dave. It seems they didn’t approve of Gyp at all, thinking he was a bad influence on their son.
Now we fast forward 30 years and 10,000 miles to Fremantle, Western Australia. It was July 4th, 1998 one of those dates you always remember, smack bang in the middle of the Aussie winter and of course it had been raining heavily all day. A little thing like a monsoonal downpour was not going to deter me tonight, however. Donovan was playing a rare intimate solo show in front of no more than 500 people at a tiny club in the Perth suburb and even if it meant standing in the rain for an hour or two I was determined to grab pole position at the front of the queue. The bag of LP and CD sleeves I had brought to get signed were safely tucked away inside my shirt to protect them from the elements.
The club was laid out a little like Ronnie Scott’s in London with tables up the front and standing room only at the back, so my early arrival ensured a prime spot within touching distance of the stage.
Kicking off with his 1965 debut hit Catch The Wind, all the familiar tunes were presented in roughly chronological order, each one having its own tale to tell. Hurdy Gurdy Man, for instance, was prefaced by a delightful (if oft-told) anecdote concerning the Beatles, Beach Boy Mike Love and Mia Farrow. We heard how Donovan wrote the song in India alongside the Fab Four during their 1968 sabbatical to study meditation under the Maharishi. In the spirit of the times, George Harrison contributed a verse for Hurdy Gurdy Man, but this was ultimately edited from the original single due to the guitar solo running over length. Needless to say, the crowd went ballistic as the Quiet One’s long-lost verse was finally aired.
A trio of songs from Donovan’s then-most recent album, the Rick Rubin-produced Sutras sat comfortably amid the array of hit singles, proving he can still find his way around a gentle, melodic ballad when the need arises. One wonderfully spontaneous moment occurred when someone in the audience yelled out a request for Intergalactic Laxative. To everyone’s delight, the infamous Cosmic Wheels ditty cropped up midway through a generous 10 song encore. “I can’t believe I wrote that song,” Don chuckled as the applause finally subsided.
But it was the hits the people had come to hear and they didn’t go home disappointed. Colours, Soldier, Jennifer Juniper, Josie and Wear Your Love Like Heaven all sounded just as fresh and vibrant as ever while others, such as Atlantis, Mellow Yellow, Barabajagal and Sunshine Superman – great songs all – suffered a little from the basic solo acoustic guitar treatment.
At this particular club, it was customary for the artists to come out into the bar afterwards to sign autographs, chat, take photos and generally mingle with the fans in an informal kind of way. I’d seen this happen at concerts by Richard Thompson, Bert Jansch, Fairport Convention, Ralph McTell and many others over the years, so expected the same from Donovan. I was wrong.
The show ended and after what seemed like an age, a folding card table and chair were set up at the front of the stage on which were piled a stack of Donovan’s then-current CD Sutras. Those wishing to meet him and/or get items signed (preferably after buying a copy of Sutras from the foyer, presumably) were instructed to form a line leading to the table. Then the man himself came out and sat down. He looked fantastic in satin and crushed velvet and I’m sure I caught a whiff of patchouli oil. As the line began to shuffle forward in hushed reverence my immediate thought was “this is what an audience with The Pope must be like”.
I noted that most people in the line were offering up miserable, ill-thought-out items to be signed: ticket stubs, scraps of paper or damaged posters they had hurriedly ripped from the wall of the foyer seemed be the norm, while a few copies of Sutras were also in evidence. Then it was my turn.
Out came my carrier bag containing 8 or 9 original 60s LP sleeves and around the same number of CD booklets (which I had thoughtfully removed from the jewel cases). Far from being impressed at this show of love and devotion for his impressive body of work, Donovan seemed momentarily stunned. He looked aghast at the pile of sleeves, then looked back at me, then back to the sleeves and sighed. His body language said, unmistakably, “Do I really have to sign all this stuff?” Now remember this is before eBay took off, so there was no suggestion that I was getting the records signed to resell. I really think he found it a tiresome chore to sign so many items.
He did sign them all, but there was no discussion and certainly no acknowledgement of the records themselves. Just a limp handshake and that was it, before I shuffled off into the rainy night. Well, they do say you should never meet your heroes, don’t they?