ALREADY IN autobiographical mode -- his 40th anniversary in music is coming up next year, which means books, documentaries and box sets -- Donovan Leitch remembered he's got the Beat. Had it even before he tried to "Catch the Wind."
That was the title of Donovan's 1965 debut single, which entered the British charts the same week as Bob Dylan's "Times They Are A-Changing." Donovan got to No. 3, Dylan to No. 9.
Inevitably, there would be comparisons -- the common Woody Guthrie-Jack Kerouac inspirations, the denims and the peaked caps atop curly cascades of hair, the racked harmonicas and acoustic guitars, the raspy/whispery vocals, the socially conscious lyrics and, ultimately, the utterly original voices.
Almost 40 years on, folks still talk about their initial meeting at London's Savoy Suites during Dylan's first British tour in May 1965, captured in D.A. Pennebaker's seminal rock documentary, "Don't Look Back."
Despite a shot of him reading a Melody Maker story "DYLAN DIGS DONOVAN" (he dubbed "Catch the Wind" "a great record"), the famously fractious Dylan seems contemptuous ("Donovan who?" he asks). In a pivotal encounter shot in his hotel room, Dylan answers Donovan's gentle love ballad "To Sing for You" with the blistering rant "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue." Apparently insecure about his own professional standing, an arrogant 23-year-old Dylan shoots down the 19-year-old competition: When Dylan spits out "It's all over now," he's looking right at Donovan.
Not shown in the movie: the mostly genial exchanges between the two young troubadours, or shots of Donovan, Joan Baez and Beat poet Allen Ginsberg lettering the cue cards Dylan flipped in the classic film-opening "Subterranean Homesick Blues."
"We were on the carpet -- the Persian carpet, of course -- of the Savoy," Donovan recalled recently. "Ginsberg was asked to write out the lyrics, and I helped him. I'm an artist -- many of us [performers] are, so there I was doing my calligraphy. And Dylan said [here he cannily imitates Dylan's familiar raspy voice] 'Hey, Donovan, he's got good script!' "
They were different on many levels, of course, Dylan the apocalyptic pessimist of "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," Donovan the eternal optimist of "Sunshine Superman."
"And he was urban and I was pastoral," Donovan adds. "The Woody Guthrie thing is sort of a cliche now -- we both came from that root -- and the Kerouac [influence] was very strong, but the difference is quite marked in our mixture of the two at the time. I sounded like Bob for about five minutes, but it's become a part of history. Now it feels okay; at the time it was, whoops, I don't know what I can say."
Wisely, Donovan stepped out of Dylan's shadow and asserted his own gentle voice, lacing it with Celtic and Eastern influences while fusing elements of folk, rock and world music. Between 1965 and 1969, he actually had more Top 30 American hits than Dylan (nine to Dylan's six), including the chart-topping "Sunshine Superman" (with Jimmy Page on guitar) and the No. 2 "Mellow Yellow" (with whispered support in the chorus by an uncredited Paul McCartney). Songs like "Wear Your Love Like Heaven" and "Jennifer Juniper" were gentle ballads, but like Dylan, Donovan left acoustic folk behind to experiment with rock: 1968's "Hurdy Gurdy Man" found him backed by three-quarters of what soon became Led Zeppelin, while 1969's "Goo Goo Barabajagal" featured the Jeff Beck Group. And who can forget the swirling psychedelia of "Season of the Witch"?
Still, the lingering, lasting image of Donovan is that of the minstrel championing hippie, trippy pop ditties. In its own debut edition, Rolling Stone described him as "the prince of flower power," a phrase Donovan attributes to Ginsberg.
"He was referring to the jewel in the lotus and the flowering of consciousness, the Buddhist flower of awakening," Donovan says. "I presented the lifestyle and the philosophy, but I think Allen gave it its title, flower power. He was good with those phrases."
As for the Beat influence, it was in place long before Ginsberg became a friend. Born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1946, Donovan moved at age 10 with his family to the outskirts of London. An imaginative life was championed early as Donovan's father, a tool setter at the Rolls-Royce factory, read him the works of such visionary poets as Yeats, Shelley, Coleridge and Blake. After growing up exposed to traditional Scottish and Irish songs and stories, Donovan would discover America's pioneering Beat writers (Kerouac, Burroughs, Ginsberg), as well as England's, notably Colin Wilson, whose influential "The Outsider" was published in 1956 and, Donovan says, "anticipated a whole change of consciousness and the discovery of a whole inner world."
By the time Donovan went to college at 15, academia proved far less interesting than the art school bohemia of jazz, poetry, philosophy and religion. And neither could compete with musical aspirations that began to surface in the early '60s (initially inspired by the folk revival sweeping both England and America), or the call of the open road that seemed to embody at least one definition of "bohemian": "One who lives a vagabond, unregimented life without assured resources, who does not worry about tomorrow."
Donovan didn't, hitchhiking around the British Isles as a teenage wandering minstrel, playing (and waiting tables) at local pubs and clubs, sleeping on beaches.
"There was some bohemianism in my father -- he was a socialist who read me the stories of the hobo poets Robert W. Service and W.H. Davies. And he was a bit of a wanderer, being a Sagittarius," Donovan recalls. "It was a bit shocking at first when the police brought me back from hitchhiking away down the road at 15. [My parents] were shocked, but they were very happy when I returned as an accepted poet and singer."
Which happened quickly after Donovan, who didn't yet have a record deal, got an unprecedented three-show stint on the popular television show "Ready, Steady, Go!" That got him a deal and within months, "Catch the Wind" went to No. 3 and Donovan found himself sharing the stage with British and American pop and folk royalty. He was 18 years old.
All this leads (albeit circuitously) to Donovan's new album, "Beat Cafe," which pays tribute to creative subcultures stretching back to Paris in the 1850s and including the existentialists of the '30s, the Beats of the '50s and the counterculture of the '60s. And it all happened because Donovan had to look back as he prepared "my canon of work" for next year.
What Donovan calls "a truly intentional reevaluation and rediscovery of the vitality and the influence of bohemian movements on popular culture" was inspired by a long-worked-on autobiography due for publication at the end of 2005. "The book explores before my first hit record, before the Beatles and Dylan and all those who were infiltrating the pop culture with bohemian ideas with the intention of introducing tools of change.
"As I explored the bohemian aspect of the popular culture explosion in the '60s, I found it was very important to laying out 'Beat Cafe' as a preface," he says. "Of course my particular Bohemia would be late '50s and early '60s, so there is a turning of the media dial to 'Beat,' but it really encompasses [the history of] the bohemian movement from 1846, how it informed and supplied the vitality and challenged hypocrisy and greed, usually through one of the arts, and how usually this challenge was resisted and then accepted, and a whole new river of freedom in the arts poured through."
In preparing "Beat Cafe" with double bassist (and longtime associate) Danny Thompson, legendary drummer Jim Keltner and keyboardist-producer John Chelew, "I realized we were exploring musically, as well as intellectually and spiritually, the bohemian effect," Donovan explains. Built on a spirit of collective improvisation, the album warmly conjures the smoky jazz, blues and poetry vibe of bohemian cafes in the finger-snapping groove of the title track and "Poor Man's Sunshine," the hipster musical setting of Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle," the resurrection of the traditional folk song, "The Cuckoo," and "Shambhala," a meditative homage to pal George Harrison.
"Beat Cafe" is Donovan's first album since 1996's well-received "Sutras," which had been his first American release since 1983's "Lady of the Stars." The hits had stopped coming in 1970, and though he continued to record (13 albums between 1970 and 1983), Donovan seemed content withdrawing to painting, photography and family, and touring occasionally in the '90s.
According to Donovan, long waits between albums have two meanings.
"When I'm inspired -- and [producer] Rick Rubin and I were very inspired to create that meditational, mantric mode on the 'Sutras' album -- then I will present it," he explains. "But I'm basically quite lazy. I never really wanted this to be a steady job. I couldn't see myself doing it week in and week out."
It doesn't hurt, of course, to be living in an 18th-century rectory in Cork, Ireland, with your muse and wife of 35 years, Linda (inspiration of "Catch the Wind" and many other songs), and daughters Oriole and Astrella, who are now learning the family business. (Daughter Ione Skye and son Donovan Leitch, from a previous relationship, gravitated to acting.) Two years ago, Donovan formed Donovan Discs and Donovan Publishing, which he says his daughters will take over "in time." There's plenty of work to do on the autobiography, an accompanying documentary and two box sets, one a six-CD collection from EMI from his early years and another from his American label, Sony.
Meanwhile, Donovan & Family are exploring a 400-tape archive of unreleased studio sessions, demos and concert recordings, "10 to 20 albums worth of material that I had forgotten I'd recorded. This is a job for the daughters," he laughs.
The first fruits of their labor is "Sixty Four" (available from www.donovan.ie), containing some 1964 demo sessions. "It was an amazing discovery because one expects juvenilia," Donovan reports. "It's a bit rough at the edges, but at age 17, I was quite smooth, and I had quite a repertoire rehearsed, from folk blues to English traditional," as well as songs by Tim Hardin and Buffy Sainte-Marie. "I'm fascinated to hear how I was recording quite professionally right from the very first day."
DONOVAN -- Appearing Wednesday at the Birchmere. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Donovan, call Post-Haste at 301-313-2200 and press 8121. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)