As an aficionado of pretty much everything from the hippy dippy era, I was of course obliged at some point to get at least slightly into Donovan. It was mandatory. I remember my roommate encouraging me to pick this up because he loved the song “Season of the Witch.” Turned out that the version he loved was the lugubrious churn by Vanilla Fudge, but no matter — if one was going to be immersed in late ’60s music, one had to have “Sunshine Superman,” one had to have “Mellow Yellow,” one had to have “There Is A Mountain.”
Which raises the question: did one? Did one have to have these songs? Some material from that era ages better than others, I must say, and this doesn’t age particularly well to my ears. The lyrics are trying pretty hard, and are pretty on the nose: “Caterpillar sheds its skin / to find the butterfly within.” Oy. Listen, if you love it, that’s fine, but it just doesn’t speak to me, and it never really did. “It is music of its time,” Lee just called in from the kitchen, where she’s being subjected to “Jennifer Juniper” as I type this. It’s . . . fine.
There was a time when a bizarre set of circumstances led me to spending several days on Long Island with a college friend, who was good enough to drag me around to meet her friends and attend Long Island parties. I went to school with a lot of kids from Long Island, and those kids were exposed to some music that we just weren’t getting up in Syracuse. Some new wave band would pop up in The Daily Orange’s music reviews, and someone from Lawn Guyland would inevitably proclaim they had seen them at this venue or that bar. They seemed much more on top of the trends than those of us who called the Salt City our year-round home. So, spending some time there and going to my first Long Island party on the verge of 1982 — not a huge gathering, maybe eight or nine of us. Getting our drinks, arranging ourselves on the floor of someone’s living room, the move is made to put on some records and get the party started, and I think: this is gonna be great. Joe Jackson’s “Stepping Out” was near the top of the charts that week; Long Island’s own Stray Cats were in the top 10 with “Rock This Town.” There was all kinds of great music that could have hit that turntable that night, maybe something I’d never even heard of.
The host pulled out “Donovan’s Greatest Hits,” treated it with great reverence, and put it on the turntable. That may have been the first time in my life the phrase “I could have stayed home for this!” crossed my mind. But it was true. And while they were lovely people and I had a very nice time, my recollection is the music did not get better.
Hey! Kids! You CANNOT party to Donovan. My god. Do not try. Consider this my public service for this week.
The cover is terrible, by the way, an underexposed picture of Donovan Leitch on the front and bare-limbed trees on the back. Inside are some lovely photos of a younger Donovan.
In case you were wondering if this album was, in fact, a hippie fest, the title is set in Arnold Böcklin, the hippiest of the art nouveau typefaces, one that was absolutely beaten to death in the ’60s to convey free spirit, eastern mysticism, and dope. And yes, I’m certain I had a sheet or two of it in Letraset presstype.
Postscript: One of the problems with these songs is that, even if I don’t like them, they’re very catchy, and I knew that playing this album was likely to stick one or two of them in my head. That’s just how earworms work. So I was out on a bike ride yesterday and, yes, of course, as I climbed Mount Misery (it’s a big hill), “There Is A Mountain” started rolling inexorably through my head. But the lyric that I quoted above didn’t come to mind, and for a while I was utterly convinced that Donovan’s actual lyric was “Alligator sheds his skin / to find the crocodile within,” and I thought: that makes no sense whatsoever. How could that be the lyric? That’s not how alligators and crocodiles work. Maybe it was the heat, but I was not questioning my memory of the lyric, just Donovan’s sanity.