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An Interview with Donovan

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In 1965, Donovan, then a nineteen year old folksinger, entered the British pop charts with his folk ballad Catch the Wind. He was quickly dubbed Britain's Bob Dylan. In the next five years he produced many hit singles (Sunshine Superman, Mellow Yellow, Atlantis etc.) and albums. Pictured in flowing robes and beads on his 1968 album, A Gift from a Flower to a Garden, he became an icon of the times, a symbol of Flower Power. In the past year he has made a comeback with a world tour promoting a new album, Sutras. New Renaissance editors A.V. Avadhuta and Gary Levinson interviewed him before a concert in Mainz, Germany.

NR: If you hadn’t have been so famous before we probably wouldn’t have heard about this concert, but we have heard your latest album, Sutras, and it seems to have a spiritual message.

Donovan: Yes. When I met Rick Rubin, my current producer, I was looking for a producer with sympathy, and I found someone who was very sympathetic. He was also named the “producer of the year” (1994) by Rolling Stone. His interests are yoga, vegan diet, Kundalini yoga. He also has a library of mystical books. So the most popular producer in the world met me and we had these spiritual feelings. He asked me, “What kind of album should we make?” And I said, “One we like.” As the album progressed, it became clear that we should make this kind of album. Not rock 'n roll, jazz, folk, ethnic, classical or world music; not go for the pop chart. So we made this album Sutras and shocked everybody.

NR: You were very prominent in the 1960s and into the beginning of the 1970s, but then in the period after that a lot of people do not know what happened to you.

Donovan: By 1970 I stopped. Six years of fame was enough. I had done everything. It was extraordinary, you couldn’t get any more famous and more successful. I had to "yin the yang". I was very yang (outgoing) in the 1960s and then I became very yin (introverted) in the 1970s and then I met Linda, my muse and we married and had children. I made nine albums in the 1970s but didn’t tour. In the 1980s I disappeared completely and it must be described as a fairy tale. Like a legend. The 60s is the young dreamer, young aspirant going to seek the spiritual gold, the El Dorado, and then finding it, finding the goddess, Linda. But I had to go into the forest. And I went into the forest and the 1970s was going inside myself and learning much about myself. I also had a spiritual path, a personal spiritual path. But there was a world spiritual path I was singing about. In the 1980s I went into the deepest part of the forest and just came out when the 1990s started. It was difficult, in a forthcoming book which I am preparing I will I speak about this period in more details. It seems like I was gone, but I was there just going through my changes.

NR: In the early part of your career you recorded Buffy St. Marie’s anti-war song, The Universal Soldier. It showed some concern for society and reflected the times. Today do you also have a view on society and what your role might be?

Donovan: When I was 14 or 15 I wanted to be a protest singer like Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. My father was a socialist and worked with the unions. I thought change was to change the government and to change from one system, capitalism, to socialism and to make the poor of the world happy. but when I opened the book The Way of Zen by Alan Watts and I opened up the Diamond Sutra, and Lao Tsu’s Tao te Ching, I realized that the problem of suffering was much deeper than governments and social problems. The problems were very deep. They were nothing short of changing the way we look at reality. Therefore I became a teacher, or a reflection of the teachings. Phil Ochs, the great protest singer, said I had given up protest, and Joan Baez said to Bob Dylan, “He’s given up protest.” But what I had given up was looking for the answer in social change. The change was to be a spiritual change. The suffering was coming from an erroneous view of reality which meditation is teaching. We are one, we are all brothers and sisters, but the people of the world do not know this. So this was the teaching, but how do you teach it? As young people, John Lennon, George Harrison, myself, Carlos Santana and other spiritual seekers in pop music, we wanted to know the answer but we found a question: How do you convince the rest of the western world that they are ill, they are mentally ill, that they have a sickness and that they have lost the way? How do you teach that? You cannot teach that in the normal sense. You have to encourage a spiritual call, so we devoted ourselves to making songs which would have a spiritual call inside of them, hoping to awaken an awareness with this music. And other people in the arts felt the same, also in books, New Age writers and many many others felt this. Today I can’t comment on what the problem is in China, Russia, or Africa without realizing again and again the Diamond Sutra, which says that we look at the world and see it as separate but in fact, this is an illusion, but the reality is that we are one shining being. Until this can be understood, I can’t see any change. But I see some change now. There is a world consciousness. In the "old" New Age, they talked about the Age of Aquarius being an age of enlightenment. And now when a man goes to the moon he sees the earth. Before when someone did meditation he or she could meditate on the earth and the moon but now a man and a woman can see that we are on one planet and that the water is polluted and that the air is dirty. So these are changes that are important. But when we spoke about these things in the 60s people said we were dreamers. So, positive, my vibration is positive on Sutras.

NR: Speaking of Sutras, what is the reaction of the public? You have been on tour one year with this album.

Donovan: It’s not selling like hotcakes. 50,000 copies, but I don’t think that it is not good. It is a difficult album to be sold in the pop world. It is not a pop album. But it is slowly moving into people’s collections. My fans, people of my age, and the young people which is more important. The young people are discovering it for themselves. So it is another Donovan album but it has that feeling that you could listen to it again and again. It has different levels. At first when you listen to it is one way, and you listen to it another time it is another way. I think it is more like a health product. You buy some herbs or oil or a video of yoga. Put on Sutras and you can feel a healing coming from it, so these things are difficult to sell en mass.

NR: And your concerts, who comes to them?

Donovan: My fans, people of my age, and then younger, but from the very first concert I had in 1965 there were five different age groups. Young, very young, my age, middle age, and then old and very old. Somehow my music attracts all ages.

NR: What methods do you use to realize this "oneness of all".

Donvovan: It is an understanding that I seem to have, and as a musician I am a student of spiritual sound. My friend Romeo, who is a Nepalese painter of thangka (Buddhist religious paintings) said that I seem to have the musical call, I can call people to a spiritual awakening. This understanding is very deep. You have to look at it in terms of previous lives. You don’t learn this in one life. I don’t teach in the normal way of teaching meditation, but with certain musical sounds I can place a listener in an altered state of consciousness, like a mantra.

NR: Speaking about mantras and chanting, in 1968 you became famous when you went to see the Maharishi and then you took some instruction with him. Have you had other teachers or do you have a specific path which you follow now for your spiritual development?

Donovan: The Maharishi taught us meditation and we were interested before that but we didn’t know how to meditate. From then on I learned some Tibetan open-eye meditation and breathing in Boulder, Colorado. Then I learned some visualization from Celtic mythology. But mostly I concentrate on the very simple TM method which is really breathing and a mantra. As I do this over the years I feel it enters my life. That is very important thing which the Maharishi taught us. But Gurudev taught the Maharishi, but who taught Gurudev? We go back and back and back until the guru is the great guru of us all, and then we musicians hope to gather these forces and harmonize them through our music. Most of the music that I have made is still living and moving through the atmosphere of people’s lives, and one day in 1983 I said that I do not have to make anymore music, I should stop because my music is still moving. But I couldn't stop, I had to keep on making music for me.

NR: Is that the principal reason you are on tour now?

Donovan: To present Sutras. I started in October of 1996 on radio and television in America and then in concerts in Europe and America. I was looking to see what is the best way to present this music, on radio, TV or in concerts, but then I realized that what was happening, was that this was new music which was fine but what it was representing was reminding people of feelings that they felt in my early music. So I am not sure if I am promoting me, or Sutras. I think I am promoting the message that comes through me for 30 years and that Sutras becomes the flagship, but there are many other ships in the flotilla. All my songs are saying kind of the same thing. One artist, I think it was Neil Young, was asked to sing a song, and he said, “It's all just one song, but we call them different songs.” A man’s life and work is his life of music and so Sutras is kind of a deep part of it. My next record, I am not sure what it will be.

NR: How do you feel about playing your early works and do you have plans for future projects?

Donovan: I have no problem playing my early works. Some I don't play because I don’t feel I can do them as well as I did on the record but most of them I do in concert. My next project is actually to gather all my records that are out there in different albums and bring them into one collection.

This article appeared in New Renaissance, Volume 7, Number 4. Copyright © 1998 by Renaissance Universal, all rights reserved.  Posted on the web on 5 April, 1998.

 
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