Still a mellow fellow

DONOVAN'S arrival in the UK last week to celebrate his 60th birthday doubled as the launch for his 40th anniversary year in music, which promises no shortage of activity for the 1960s icon. Tomorrow, four seminal LPs are reissued, a biography will follow in the autumn and we meet in the middle of a 26-date tour for his latest album, Beat Café.

He may have a lot to promote, but tracking down Donovan has not been easy. I catch up with him at the BBC's Bristol studios, where there is bit of Smashie and Nicey dynamic between Donovan and the resident DJ. There's also an American filmmaker documenting the tour, and I'm introduced to Donovan's eminent right-hand man from the 1960s, Gypsy Dave.

We eventually get together on the studio roof. Sitting in the sunshine, with his now greying mop, the singer is reflecting on becoming an honorary doctor of letters at St Albans. "Thirty-nine years before that I was sleeping in the graveyard there. I took it because I take responsibility for every other songwriter who has no fame, but they have commitment," he says.

The four reissued albums, spanning 1965 to 1970, cover Donovan's superstar period. The Celtic poet's stock had fallen by the time he took a tax break at the end of the 1960s. The counter-culture ideas and philosophies of the time were deemed naive and dated as the period drew to a close, with the death of Brian Jones and the acrimonious split of The Beatles. Punk would later hammer the final nail in the coffin of the decade's sanguinity, and it wasn't until the late 1980s that psychedelia was allowed even the slightest return, in bands such as the Stone Roses, Happy Mondays and later Oasis, and Donovan's fellow Scots, Belle and Sebastian.

"That's one band I'm hoping to meet soon," he says. "It feels natural for me to reappear on my 40th anniversary because I encouraged a lot of these young players out there. I get this student art rock feel from them, and that's where it all came from in the '60s and where I'm coming from on this new album. It's the culture that preceded the '60s. It was a better music, style, better looking boys and girls and better vibes all round.

"Whether it was Dylan in New York or The Beatles in Liverpool, it couldn't have happened at a better time because it was the beginning of television and mass radio."

What played a major role in shaping this enlightened icon of the 1960s was an eventful post-war childhood growing up in Glasgow, where he was actively encouraged to sing and perform. "I really had an extraordinary upbringing. From the age of two my father would read me poetry - everything from Burns to Blake - and he played me jazz, so I had rhyme, rhythm and syntax even then. Everybody sang folk songs at Hogmanay, Christmas, weddings and birthdays. I was singing from about the age of six and used to perform for the women in the steamie accompanied by a blind piano player.

"My mother was Catholic and my father was a Protestant. I loved the mixture in myself; the sad Irish laments and the lilting Scottish songs. I remember my granny had huge arms with tattoos because women in the 1920s used to go and get tattooed at the docks. It was a wonderful life. I remember the darker side to it; these grey buildings, the alcoholism, women fighting on the streets with blood and glass everywhere."

Donovan has always described himself as a Celt, and this influence was integral to the psychedelic movement in the 1960s. After a three-week stint on Ready Steady Go, he soon had a string of hits under his belt. 'Catch The Wind', 'Colours' and 'Universal Soldier' followed in the Dylan mould, but it was an association with Britain's answer to Phil Spector, producer Mickie Most, that created psychedelia.

"I wanted my ideas to go into pop culture and so I made my songs more accessible by welcoming the relationship with the hottest pop producer in the business. The songs would appear frivolous, but when you listen to the lyrics they would make you think differently about the world," says Donovan.

Far from sounding nave, the four reissues are essential listening. 'The Hurdy Gurdy Man' is an obvious precursor for Led Zeppelin. While The Rolling Stones were influenced by black America, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, Donovan and The Who all stemmed from a Celtic tradition, and these reissues underline Donovan's contribution to the era. "Jimmy Page is on 'Hurdy Gurdy' and 'Sunshine Superman'. He comes from the same musical roots as me, even though Zeppelin was powered up. 'Hurdy Gurdy Man' was the first Celtic rock record," says the singer.

While reports vary, Donovan is adamant that three quarters of Led Zeppelin played on 'Hurdy Gurdy' and their manger, Peter Grant, listened in from an office next door to the studio. It was the same Celtic sound that endeared Donovan to The Beatles. He shared in their loss of private life as superstardom replaced the bohemian lifestyle. At the end of the 1960s he married his muse, Linda Lawrence, ex-girlfriend of Brian Jones and mother to his son Julian, whom Donovan later adopted.

After that it was just a case of moving on. "I became the most famous Celtic singer of the 20th century really. I just didn't think I could continue to repeat the songs again and again."

As one of the few survivors, now seems as good a time as ever to reclaim some of that influence and take a wider look at the tradition in which Donovan played a fundamental role. During the mid-1960s, Paul McCartney was a regular visitor at Donovan's flat in Maida Vale, where he would sound him out for ideas.

"Paul came round one day and found me writing some songs and he sat down to play me some of his. I enjoy the distinction of being the only singer that added a lyric to a Beatles song," says Donovan. "Paul said he had a little ditty called 'Yellow Submarine' but he was missing two lines.

"I immediately knew what this song was about. It wasn't a submarine at all, it was about this life that we were living, locked away from the public in our own world. The rest of the world was outside and our friends were all aboard. The only people that really understood were those that were on the same boat. I learned the song quickly and came back with the "sky of blue and sea of green" line.

Significantly, Donovan still retains his Pagan and Celtic spiritual beliefs that he developed in the 1960s, which should create particular resonance for his intimate show in Findhorn.

"The Findhorn Community is everything I believe in," he says. "It's an alternative society with bohemian ideas. You have to experiment with ways of living that are sustainable for the future and we will have to adopt them. When I get up there, I hope that somebody is there from the old days."

Supporting him in Findhorn and at his Edinburgh show will be his daughter, Astrella Celeste. "She has been writing songs for a good few years now," he says. "She avoided the child stardom thing; we didn't encourage it but we knew the talent was there."

Astrella's sister Oriole has a child to Shaun Ryder, with whom Donovan enjoyed a significant association throughout the 1990s. "I was in a pub in Manchester with Shaun having a drink and this guy came up and said 'I'm going to be just like you and I'm going to do what you do', and I looked at this guy, he was real confident. I just looked at Shaun and he never said a word. So I said 'Who's that?' 'He's just some fooking singer in a band' was Shaun's response. The next Friday, Oasis are on Top of the Pops and it was the guy from the pub; Liam Gallagher. And soon it was happening all over again."

Donovan plays The Queens Hall, Edinburgh (0131-668 2019), Wednesday, 7pm. 'Sunshine Superman', 'Hurdy Gurdy Man', 'Barabajagal' and 'Mellow Yellow' are reissued on EMI

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