After last week’s post about the excess of musical talent in my family, my friend Slavena posted on Facebook, “Well Paul, maybe you could excel in writing…..”
She was trying to cheer me up, and also, maybe, tell me that she likes the way I write.
Of course, what she doesn’t know – and neither do you – is that my dad, in addition to being a phenomenal pianist (and holding down a day job at the Southern Electricity Board) also wrote about 70 crime novels that sold millions.
Which is not to mention that my brother Dudley is now trying to get his first novel published.
So, no Slavena, my family won’t even let me have writing to myself!
But at least I have this blog, where I can talk about what I want to.
And this week I want to ask you:
So, where do we stand on Donovan?
Bit of a bore now? A bit full of himself? Talks self-importantly, making frequent references to his influence on The Beatles.
Certainly hasn’t made any music of note for a very long time.
Now, where do we stand on Nick Drake?
Beautiful young man, genius songwriter, brilliant guitarist, left a wonderful legacy. Tragic he died so young. So sad.
Given all that, where do we think we’d stand on Donovan had he died after 1968’s A Gift From A Flower To A Garden?
My guess? We’d all be bewailing a tragic loss.
But no-one listens to Donovan any more. His first two albums were incredibly influential on young starter-guitarists like me, and then, in 1966, Sunshine Superman took it to another level. But after 1970 – well, it’s a long way down.
Which just goes to show, as some mega-cynic once said, that dying young is a great career move.
This all came to mind because my friend John Howard mentioned he was reading Gabrielle Drake’s biography of her brother Nick. I found myself thinking “I’d like to read that”.
But then I asked myself, “Why wouldn’t you want to read a biography of Donovan?” And the answer was: actually, I would.
Just for context, Donovan had released five albums, one of them a double – before Nick Drake started recording his first.
What’s Bin Did And What’s Bin Hid was released in May 65. For emerging folkies like me, it was a revelation. I didn’t want to sing sea shanties, but Bob Dylan was too intimidating. The Times They Are A-Changing held a definite message, but it wasn’t one you could hope to credibly carry at age 16.
Catch The Wind, on the other hand, was beautiful, simple and easy to sing. And the album which that song leads you into had at least five other songs you could incorporate into your set. Car Car was like a child’s nursery rhyme – but it was written by Woody Guthrie, so everyone would happily sing along; no credibility problems back then.
Six months later, Fairytale was released. Apart from the hit single, Colours, it showed – as was common back then – artistic and musical development from the first album.
In particular, Sunny Goodge Street was quite jazzy. It was also lyrically a little oblique for 16-year-olds from Wolverhampton with its references to hash-smokers, Mingus, and ‘smashing into neon streets in their stonedness’.
I would hazard a guess that this song was a touchstone for 17-year-old Nick Drake, still three years away from beginning to record his first album, which was eventually released in 1969.
Not to take anything away from Nick Drake, but back then singer-songwriters were ten-a-penny (as we used to say pre-decimalisation).
At Music Week, I was the only teenage staff writer. So all the folk, progressive, underground and far-out stuff came my way.
Before you even heard their albums, you would have been to see Al Stewart, Roy Harper and Cat Stevens. You could watch James Taylor, Randy Newman, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen. Certainly, after their debut release there would be important showcase gigs.
It’s beyond doubt that at least one of Nick Drake’s albums came across my desk. What I said about it, what I thought about it I can’t possibly remember.
I might well have raved about his first, as I did about Joni Mitchell’s, Leonard Cohen’s, Kris Kristofferson’s, Randy Newman’s – it’s a long list.
But the thing about Nick Drake was, he didn’t follow through. He didn’t gig and he wouldn’t do interviews. In a maelstrom of emerging talent – it was an absolutely extraordinary time – he didn’t get lost; he actively hid.
You might say, “But it should really be about the music”. And I might reply: “Oh, get over yourself”.
Nick Drake’s albums emerged into an overcrowded world of pop, folk and rock music that was exploding in an unprecedented display of talent, the existence of which was previously unimaginable. Who knew?
But my main point today is not to knock poor benighted Nick Drake. Forty years later, we can all see that if he’d gigged, if he’d done the publicity rounds he might well have been a contender.
Or he might not. Many weren’t, for various reasons. But what is clear forty years later is that he made music that survives all fashions, all fads.
And it is also clear – to me at least (and I think John Howard) – that if Donovan Leitch had died after the release of his 1968 double album, A Gift From A Flower To A Garden, today we would all be talking about what a loss Donovan was.
The fact that he’s still around to bore us with his tales of how he taught Lennon and McCartney to fingerpick – resulting in songs like Blackbird, Julia, Dear Prudence and Mother Nature’s Son on the fabled White Album – only goes to say how damaging to your heritage it can be to live too long.
So, to somewhat redress the balance, here’s Donovan and Sunny Goodge Street. Have a listen, and then we can start the arguments about whether Nick Drake might have been influenced by Mr Leitch.
And, for comparison, here’s Nick Drake’s At The Chime Of A City Clock.