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CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

Donovan, Lynch: Mellow fellows

January 23, 2007|Ann Powers | Times Staff Writer

Since word got out that David Lynch and Donovan would appear together in three cities -- New York, Washington and Hollywood -- people have been buzzing about the unlikeliness of the pairing. What could the master of subconscious cinema share with the flower-power Hurdy Gurdy Man, beyond a devotion to Transcendental Meditation (TM), the spiritual path this mini-tour promoted? It was like putting Anne Rice and Bob Newhart on tour together because they're both Catholic. But Sunday at the Kodak Theatre, some signs emerged that Lynch and Donovan share more than a spiritual path.

The free event opened with Lynch in an "Actors Studio"-style Q&A, responding to questions from the audience read by his muse, actor Laura Dern. Then Donovan, whose music, Lynch declared, "conjures magical feelings," played his hits interlaced with anecdotes culled from his recently published memoir. Proselytizing was kept to a minimum, with each artist instead using the evangelizing tool of personal reminiscence.

What the night revealed in both men is an immovable innocence -- a belief that art can and should be free from over-intellectualism or aesthetic second-guessing. This conviction takes Lynch into weird, disturbing psychic corners; for Donovan, it's connected to childlike wordplay and storytelling. Though one operates in the rarified world of art cinema and the other is a pop star, each has produced bodies of work that don't quite fit into traditional canons, serene in their outsiderness.

Fielding questions seemingly chosen to split the focus between his filmmaking and TM advocacy -- his new foundation, featured in a glossy handout available at the theater doors, seeks to provide schoolchildren with scholarships to pay for the $2,500 TM instruction fee -- Lynch took the folksy, direct tone that dominates his new book, "Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity." Much of what he shared, from his love of sawing pine logs to his preference for digital video over film to his credo that "the artist does not have to suffer to show suffering," appears almost verbatim in the book.

Still, he managed to seem unrehearsed. Compulsively fluttering his right hand as if it were a lost character from "Eraserhead," he spoke in friendly, oddly Reaganesque tones about how meditation has helped him shed "the rubber clown suit of negativity" and could do the same for America's youth. "Ramp up the light of unity and all diversity is appreciated," he said. It's an uncomplicated solution to America's education crisis, more "The Straight Story" than "Lost Highway." But this was an evening of appreciation, not debate. The crowd cheered his every word.

Donovan set himself up for maximum approval too, structuring his set around irresistible hits like "Jennifer Juniper" and sharing tales of hanging out with the Beatles and Bob Dylan (he even sang a "lost verse" George Harrison wrote for "Hurdy Gurdy Man"; too bad it was nothing special). After his career cooled in the 1970s, Donovan suffered accusations of being an imitator, but in recent years his reputation has been repaired. With sunshine pop back in vogue, his hook-happy songs now sound sweet instead of corny, and he can mention his famous friends without seeming like a hanger-on.

As he wiggled his hips and finger-picked his guitar, Donovan showed himself more the heir to Buddy Holly than Woody Guthrie. His great gift is for irresistible hooks and meaningful free association.

"Happiness runs in a circular motion," he crooned, getting the ultra-cool Hollywood crowd to sing along with a fa-la-la. Like most of his lyrics, it sounded a bit like a Zen koan, a bit like a schoolyard chant.

Not every tune Donovan trotted out was as light-filled and charming. An obscure number about a wild week in Mexico fell flat. (Another, "Young Girl Blues," had a nice cynical edge.) A meditator's hymn that will appear on his next album was ponderously literal. His bassist and percussionist didn't stand out, though his daughter Astrella, who joined him on several songs, offered a wistful self-penned ballad, "Dream," that would fit better on a David Lynch soundtrack than anything her dad has written.

Fellow TM enthusiast Mike Love of the Beach Boys wandered onstage to join in a finale of "Mellow Yellow," and then Lynch strolled out. The filmmaker read a version of a Buddhist loving kindness prayer from his book as his pal softly picked his guitar. Then they locked arms and left the stage, two soldiers of innocence decamping for the night.

ann.powers@latimes.com

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