Donovan: Why I went to India with The Beatles
BY JADE WRIGHT
13 AUGUST 2015
Photo by Michael Collopy
Few performers could be more fitting for International Beatleweek than Donovan.
The singer and songwriter was a friend of all of the fab four, travelling to India with them on their spiritual pilgrimage and even helping each other write songs.
“We were part of that same scene,” says Donovan, 69. “We sang songs of peace and brotherhood. We were all interested in the music that came from India, that sound that inspired the White Album and so many of my records. John, George and Paul all asked me to teach them how to play the sitar because I had one in London when no-one else had seen one before.
“We’d sit together and meditate, then we’d write songs. It was a great time.”
John Lennon and Ringo Starr of The Beatles (back row centre) stand with Rolling Stone Brian Jones (far left), folk singer Donovan (second left), Cilla Black (second right) and Paul McCartney (right) as they pose with the Apple managed band Grapefruit at a launch party to celebrate their debut, 'Dear Delilah' on RCA. 19 January 1968
To say they were prolific songwriters would be an understatement.
“We are all three songs a day men,” he says. “If a day passed and we hadn’t written three songs, something was wrong.
“We used to say if Paul fell onto the piano he’d have written a song before he’d got up. It was a creative time. The songs were there, in the ether, just waiting for us to breathe them in.”
Donovan found himself as the lads’ neighbour in London.
“In that time around 66 and 67 before it went really crazy we all lived nearby,” he says, fondly. “Brian Epstein had bought the Beatles their houses - the small houses, before they got their mansions.
“This was the time where they could still walk around. they were famous but not crazy famous.
“We’d be in and out of each other’s houses. One day I was sitting writing songs and the doorbell rang.
“Paul was at the door, wearing a suit with no tie. He had his guitar round his neck. ‘What are you doing?’ he asked.
“I said ‘I’m writing songs.’ He said: ‘I’m writing songs too. Can I come in?’. So he did.
“We sat on the floor, cross legged, and we wrote songs. I think it was Spring 1966.
“He said ‘Don can you help me with a song?’. There was a line missing in this song. There always was a line missing - that was how he liked to write. He’d leave a little gap and it was never finished until someone else completed it. Sometime it was Ringo or Mal the roadie who would finish it off.
“He started to sing: ‘In the town where I was born, lived a man who sailed to sea...’. He got partway through and stopped. I said I didn’t know. I’m three years younger and I always felt like their little brother. I was a bit shy so I went into my bedroom and tried a few things out. I took a deep breath and went back in. I sang ‘Sky of blue and sea of green, in our yellow submarine’. He liked it and it stuck.”
In February 1968, Donovan travelled with The Beatles travelled to India, to learn about Transcendental Meditation at the ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
Along with their wives and girlfriends, they invited Donovan, Mike Love of the Beach Boys, and flautist Paul Horn.
“It was an amazing time,” says Donovan. “I spent a lot of time with John, George and Paul. We’d write songs outside with peacocks wandering around. John knew I liked to write children’s songs so we worked on what became Julia together, the song for his mum. George and I worked on Hurdy Gurdy man. It was a magical time.”
Donovan still keeps in touch with Paul and Ringo.
“We’re all supporters of Transcendental Meditation and we do work for the David Lynch Foundation. We’re still friends now.”
Donovan will be playing Liverpool twice in the nrxt few months.
First as part of International Beatleweek and then for his international tour - his first in 30 years. It will celebrate his 50 years in music.
“I’m delighted to be coming back to Liverpool.” he says. “The relationship I have had with the city over the years has been phenomenal
“I am delighted too to be celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of my work.”
Born Donovan Leitch in Scotland in 1946 has been pop star and folk troubadour, a flag bearer for all things psychedelic. He was 18 years old when he had his first hit, Catch The Wind, for which he received the Ivor Novello Award. Following his first top five record, Donovan scored 10 other hit singles Colours, Universal Soldier, Sunshine Superman, Mellow Yellow, The Hurdy Gurdy Man, Lalena, Jenifer Juniper, There is a Mountain, Wear Your Love Like Heaven, Barabajagal and Atlantis.
In many ways, his career has been a series of firsts. In addition to creating the first psychedelic album (Sunshine Superman in 1966), he was the first Rolling Stone Interview in the first issue of Rolling Stone magazine in 1967. He was the first solo artist to sell out Madison Square Garden, and coined the phrase Celtic Rock.
He’s been inducted into The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and The Songwriters Hall of Fame, and received The Mojo Maverick Award from Jimmy Page.
“I’ve always said I’m an alternative,” he laughs. “But I wasn’t sure what I was an alternative to. I asked my wife Linda and she said ‘if anyone asks what you’re an alternative to, ask them what they’ve got. You’re alternative to everything.’ She knows me better than I know myself.”
Donovan plays International Beatleweek at the Cavern Club and the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall on October 13. For details see http://www.cavernclub.org/beatle-week-events/ and www.liverpoolphil.com
India, 1968 (l-r): Jenny Boyd, Jane Asher, Paul McCartney, Donovan, Mia Farrow, George Harrison, the Maharishi, the Beach Boys’ Mike Love, John Lennon & Pattie Boyd
(L-R) George, Paul, Shah Jahan (who entertains the star guests), Donovan, Pattie Harrison, John and flautist friend Paul Horn. Photo: Disc And Music Echo Magazine
Donovan and the Beatles in India in 1968. “George is playing my J-45 here,” says Donovan. “I taught him the descending chord forms that became ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps,’ and I showed John and Paul the clawhammer technique that became ‘Dear Prudence’ and ‘Blackbird.’ This prompted George in The Beatles Anthology to say, ‘Donovan is all over the White Album.’” (www.guitarplayer.com)
Donovan & Paul McCartney