Donovan Leitch racked up plenty of honors over his career that indicate the power of his pop music, which listeners could describe as trippy, catchy, folky, poetic and transcendental all at once.
Among the Scottish-born singer/songwriter/guitarist’s credits are spots in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Mojo Maverick Award, the Ivor Novella Award and LifeTime BBCFolk Award, not to mention his numerous Top 20 hit songs, including “Sunshine Superman” and the follow-up, “Mellow Yellow.”
On Sunday, Donovan brings his 50th Anniversary Celebration tour to Wilkes-Barre for an intimate show at F.M. Kirby Center for the Performing Arts. He recently spoke with electric city by email about some of the events and inspirations that shaped his storied musical catalog from the last five decades.
Q: Your tour celebrates 50 years. Tell us about how it feels to watch your music endure through every fad, emerging style or major culture shift of the last half-century. Why do you think it has survived the tests of time and taste?
A: The human journey remains the same from ancient times to now. My songs are of the same human journey. The ways to distribute music, art, literature and films have new platforms, but one thing never changes: the need for live music and the need of artists to create. Age has nothing to do with it, really; my songs are timeless.
Q: What design and vibe do you have in mind for this tour as far as the live performance planned?
A: Solo; cross-legged on my sheepskins; acoustic. Most all of the great songs are written on one instrument we songwriters all sat in parties on the floor playing. I know, as I asked Jimmy Page and all my other song pals. So, I decided to do my 50th (anniversary shows) as if you are sitting with me, at ease. The essence of the songs and some stories, too, that my best pal, Gypsy Dave (Mills), said, “No one will believe them. But then, truth is always stranger than fiction.”
Q: Tell us something about your days spent with John Lennon and other musical contemporaries and luminaries, and what it’s like to hear the influence of your music, your style and your presence incorporated into others’ work.
A: The Beatles and I know we come from the ancient Gaelic past: the Irish-Scots-Welsh. This heady Gaelic mix powers popular songs over the centuries. Gaelic poetry, music, theatrical and radical skills are evident on both sides of the Atlantic. It was obvious we five would be on the same path and invade popular culture with the Bohemian manifesto. Don’t be fooled by folk songs and pop suits and haircuts — there is a deeper flux that is loosely called the “British Sixties,” and it is Gaelic energy that has been preserved, as the Romans did not invade Ireland or Western Scotland. We five read the same books of the mysteries and sought out a guru to show us how to enter the Fourth Level of Consciousness within us all, to check what all the Vedic and mythic teachers reveal and open the Third Eye, to view the true reality with what is called (in the Indian Upanishads) Transcendental Super Conscious Vision.
In the Gaelic Mysteries, the invisible true reality within is called Avalon and the Living Crystal Faery Realm. We are poets in service to the tribes of man. We know that all change begins within. And we place in our songs guiding sounds to awaken the millions who have reincarnated into the planet to be done with the Lower Consciousness and be awake to and aware of the future: preservation of all life. Most humans live on three levels of consciousness: Waking, Dreaming and Dreamless Sleep. The Fourth Level is our natural Evolution of Consciousness unfolding, and we five — and many others — are involved in enlivening it sooner than later, for obvious reasons. For, to realize we are all the Unified Field within, dispels duality, and we see we are all the one indivisible wholistic event. I knew when I was making the “Sunshine Superman” album, it was the benchmark for all that would follow in folk, Celtic, jazz, psychedelia, rock, poetic, mythic and meditational music. All were announced on “Sunshine Superman,” I the herald of things to come. And my muse and wife, Linda, by my side, we two destined to meet again this life and continue the Great Work.
I was brought up by my Scots-Irish father reading me poetry of noble thought: Burns, Shelley, Wordsworth, Keats, Yeats, and the rambling poets, Service and Davies. And I listened to the songs of my family, songs handed down. I am aware of the immense influence of our Gaelic tradition. And I intuitively know that the poet’s role is to reunite the tribe with the source. It is always the shaman poet’s role to heal the invisible wounds. The teachings of the Northwestern shores of Europe — Scotland, Ireland Wales, Cornwall and Brittany — are well-known throughout history, and reincarnation a reality. And so my influence on others is because I incorporate and fuse the traditions of the Gaelic teachings. My students know they are receiving the real thing from the source. At the age of 14, I remembered who I had been in the previous life, and saw clearly I am a teacher of the future fusion of the world of spirit, art and culture.
Q: Is there a certain moment during a show you strive for each time? When you know you’ve officially connected with your audience?
A: When I walk onstage, it is a reconnection that happens. Not because they know the songs, moreso because the solo poet sings to the Inner Consciousness of the audience. And with the sounds of my mellifluous voice and moving vibrations of the guitar, it harmonizes all of us and heals any imbalances, which is why I like to go out in concert, because I need this as much as my audience. This means the audience and I, we balance each other. It’s symbiotic. And really should be — the true effect of art on us all.
Q: Will you share some of your favorite moments, anecdotes or memories from the last 50 years?
A: 1968: Twenty-thousand people in Madison Square Garden, just back from India, dressed in my Ashram gear. I walk onstage solo, and a wave of attention moves me like a strong wind, and I need to immediately sit cross-legged in case I fall over. I sing my softest song I know, “Isle of Islay.” Very rare New Yorker silence, and the audience are in awe. That night, I “broke the gate” at the Garden, earning more than any other solo artist in the Garden’s history (at the time). Before the concert, my New York Irish cops drove me through the traffic jam around the Garden. Later, one cop backstage told me, “(Ronald) Reagan was in his limo in the traffic jam on his campaign for California governor, and Reagan thought the traffic jam was for him.” My 10 Irish cops backstage all laughed.
Q: What would you like to say to your most faithful listeners and fans of the last 50 years? To your newest and youngest?
A: I thank all my friends who have followed me, and say welcome to my new, younger friends who have just discovered my poetic music. Many times I am thanked for helping, with my music and poetry, those difficult times on the journey through one’s present life. The ancient book of changes, the “I Ching,” says, “Music releases the obscure emotions of the heart.” If you come to my concert, you can experience it in person.
— patrice wilding
If you go
What: Donovan in Concert: 50th Anniversary Celebration
When: Sunday, June 4, 7 p.m.
Where: F.M. Kirby Center for the Performing Arts, 71 Public Square, Wilkes-Barre
Details: Tickets are $25, $35 and $45, plus fees, and are available through the box office, online at kirbycenter.org or by calling 570-826-1100.