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Still Hopeful After All These Years : Pop: Donovan's optimism hasn't ebbed since the '60s, and he's happy to be an influence on younger artists. He will perform Sunday at the Coach House.

August 03, 1991|JIM WASHBURN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It might as well be 1968. Over the phone, Donovan certainly doesn't sound as if he's aged a day since. There's the same youthful optimism, the newer-than-New-Age concerns, the same soft but utter self-confidence that once made him the groovy avatar of flower power. You half expect him at any moment to break into a cheer of "Hail Atlantis!"

Donovan--Donovan P. Leitch if you recall--is now 45 and in the midst of a small tour that includes a stop at the Coach House on Sunday to promote a recent CD release, "The Classics Live." True to its title, the disc contains "Catch the Wind," "Jennifer Juniper," "Atlantis," "Wear Your Love Like Heaven" and other gifts from his garden. Here again, he sounds unchanged, the same assured and assuring performer heard on another live album ("Donovan in Concert") recorded 23 years earlier at the Anaheim Convention Center.

Back in the days when he sported caftans and garlands, Donovan described himself as a "hope merchant," a title he says still applies.

"Yes, I encourage ," he said. "The distinct effect when you listen to my albums is there's a mood through the songs which is supporting and encouraging and uplifting and drawing people into their positive ."

He's been receiving some encouragement himself of late. The live CD has been well-received in Europe. Last year, the hot Manchester-scene band Happy Mondays wove some of his "Sunshine Superman" lyrics into a song brightly titled "Donovan." The band also recorded his "Colours" and has been having the man himself open shows on their English tour. Covers of Donovan songs have since been released by England's No Man and Texas' B.H. Surfers.

He is completing a studio album of new songs, with musical assists from the Waterboys, Pink Floyd's David Gilmour and star classical-cum-pop violinist Nigel Kennedy. Like seemingly every other veteran rock figure, he's writing his memoirs and has a musical in the works.

When he first hit in 1965, the young Scot with the corduroy cap and harmonica rack was dubbed a Dylan imitator. He quickly distinguished himself, however, with a progression of innovative, ludic recordings that drew on Celtic traditional music while pushing forward into ethnic rhythms, string arrangements and fuzz-toned guitars. The latter were provided by the likes of Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck and current Tustin resident Allan Holdsworth (both he and Page played on "Hurdy Gurdy Man"). He maintains that his 1965 "Sunshine Superman" album influenced everyone from the Beatles to the Velvet Underground.

Donovan headlined the Hollywood Bowl--reputedly even stopping the rain for his performance--and hobnobbed with the Beatles and rock's other top royalty. (He was with them in India, where George Harrison gave him a verse for "Hurdy Gurdy Man" that Donovan has only recently begun including when he performs that 1968 hit.) He was a spokesman for the dawning Aquarian age, for a world beginning anew with consciousness and bliss.

And there was a Donovan backlash. When everyone else was picking up bricks in the wake of the violence-ridden Chicago Democratic National Convention in 1968, Donovan was left holding the love beads. Critics who once praised his pastoral child's visions instead dubbed him out of touch, irrelevant and arrogant. Wrote one of Donovan in 1969: "I don't mind having pop stars for gods; I just wish they weren't self-appointed." Phil Ochs even wrote a song putting him down. He stopped having hits and after the early '70s was cast adrift by the major labels.

While Donovan's fans might have been distressed by this turn from fame, one person who wasn't particularly upset was Donovan himself.

"I didn't really miss it," he says now. "From day one, from the first concert, I realized that I was famous, and that wouldn't go away. Success and media fame don't necessarily go together. Do I miss the bright lights? No, because I've played in concert every year for 25 years. So I've always had job satisfaction on stage. And I actually enjoyed the '70s very much, spending time with my family. Records were released (some on small European labels) all the way through the '70s, and fans bought them.

"There may never be another chart (hit), I don't know. But I didn't miss the drop in attention, because I've had plenty of it. And I now have respect, and now I'm part of the history, and I feel good about that, that I've influenced and encouraged younger artists to play. I really have achieved most of what I've wanted to achieve in music."

He bristled, just a bit, when asked if Happy Mondays--not the most serious of bands--and its audiences seemed genuinely interested in his music or approached it more as a novelty.

"Novelty? What do you mean? A lot of the young bands are picking up on the songwriters of the '60s and '70s, genuinely being influenced, like the way we were influenced by the folk, blues and jazz that came before us. It's a natural event. I don't really feel like a novelty, no. I did it for fun. The lads are very fun to be with."

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