Graded on a Curve: Donovan,
Barabajagal

Where have all the flower children gone? And more importantly, where would they have been without Donovan Phillips Leitch? Stuck eating their FLT (flower, lettuce, and tomato) sandwiches to the sound of Scott McKenzie’s faux Flower Power ode, “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair),” that’s where. It was Donovan who best channeled the gentle and peace-loving vibes of the love-bead set into song, and without the fey Scot they’d have been, to quote one of the man’s lyrics, “as dragged as any hippie should be in old hippie town.”

Donovan began his career as a folkie and Dylan clone, right down to Bobby D.’s trademark corduroy cap. Donovan’s blatant aping of his hero reached its absurd culmination at the infamous Dylan/Donovan confab at London’s Savoy Hotel in 1965, when Donovan proudly offered to play his idol a brand new song. Which turned out, much to Dylan’s amusement, to be a note-for-note rip of “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Small wonder Donovan serves as a running joke amongst the caustic Dylan entourage in D.A. Pennebaker’s 1967 documentary “Don’t Look Back,” with Dylan himself at one point saying, “Donovan who?”

Donovan might have gone the way of Phil Ochs, but in 1966 he went from Dylan manqué to Sunshine Superman after dropping acid and tapping into the Universal Mind to watch groovy Technicolor mind movies of a smiling God grokking the ineffable infinite. The turned-on Donovan promptly helped pioneer the psychedelic sound, which in tandem with his gentle-to-the-point-of-wimpy voice (think Belle and Sebastian’s Stewart Murdoch, twee factor multiplied by 10) and mellow yellow emanations quickly made him the perfect avatar for the Age of Aquarius. A string of U.S. Top Ten hits followed, including “Sunshine Superman,” “Mellow Yellow,” “Hurdy Gurdy Man,” and “Atlantis,” which started life as a b-side but reached No. 7 after DJs flipped the 45 and flipped their lids to the far-freaking-out Atlantean sing-along. (Surprisingly, the great “Season of the Witch” was never released as a single, either in the United States or the United Kingdom.)

So why am I reviewing 1969’s Barabajagal, an album with only one of Donovan’s biggest hits on it? Because I’m perverse, that’s why. No, the truth is I love “Atlantis,” and all 270 of Donovan’s compilations and greatest hits packages either inexplicably omit “Atlantis” or are too long to review here. Besides, Barabajagal is a representative Donovan album, which is to say it combines the sublime (the title track, “Atlantis,” “Trudi”) and the ridiculous (“I Love My Shirt,” “Where Is She”), and hence offers a better perspective on Donovan’s flawed genius than his many greatest hits packages.

The Barabajagal sessions featured numerous luminaries, including the Jeff Beck Group, Graham Nash, John Paul Jones, and Suzi Quatro (!), not to mention soul singer Madeline Bell and singer/songwriter Lesley Duncan. And Donovan and producer Mickie Most made the most of the assembled talent, creating an album that combined rock, neo-folk, calypso, and even a round, whatever that is. Critical reaction was mixed, ranging from very positive to downright dismissive, with Robert Christgau for one dismissing Donovan as “a head full of nothing” and cynically recommending Barabajagal “to all the gentle people, while they die of the droops.”

Album opener “Barabajagal (Love Is Hot)” is a funky, fast-paced rocker featuring the Jeff Beck Group. From Beck’s opening guitar licks to Donovan’s nonsense lyrics (“Goo goo, goo goo barabajagal was his name now”), “Barabajagal (Love Is Hot)” is one outtasight slice of hippie pie. Why, I even dig the part where Donovan intones psychedelic gibberish (“In love pool eyes float feathers after the struggle/The hopes burst and/Shot joy all through the mind”) if only because it ends with Quatro, Bell, and Duncan singing “Love is hot!/Love is hot!” to which Donovan responds ecstatically, “Truth is molten!”

“Superlungs (My Supergirl)” is less a song than a Mann Act violation, its subject matter being a 14-year-old groupie “who knows how to draw.” Arranged by John Paul Jones, “Superlungs” is another up-tempo rocker, and opens with some blessedly brief freak-in-the-grass flute before quickly building up steam, propelled by some stellar drum bashing and the Owsley-strength psychedelic guitar of Big Jim Sullivan, the legendary UK session guitarist who played with everyone from David Bowie to Bennie Hill. I particularly love the way Donovan handles the chorus, singing “Suuuuuupergirl,” then following a short pause and in a voice heavy-laden with echo, “She’s my supergirl and I love her.” I highly recommend it to pedophiles and rock fans alike.

While Barabajagal doesn’t include any cuts as awful as Sunshine Superman’s “Legend of a Girl Child Linda” or “Guinnevere”—which is almost as bad as the CSN song of the same name—it does contain the musical methaqualone that is “Where Is She,” which is doomed from the very beginning by the insufferable jazz flute stylings of one Harold McNair. Donovan sings, “Springtime for me has gone/Where is she?/Waking in the blue dawn/Where is she?” Probably on a fast train so as to get as far away as possible from this snoozer, although to be fair if you can manage to tune out the flute, and snort enough crystal meth to counteract the song’s heavy-duty soporific effect, you will find the melody’s really quite pretty. That said, the song even seemed to put Donovan, who sings, “Drowsy sleepy with blue/I am here,” to sleep.

“Happiness Runs” is an acoustic round featuring vocals by Donovan, Graham Nash, Paul McCartney’s brother Michael, Lesley Duncan, and depending on who you believe, Suzi Quatro. A sunny distillation of the teachings of that giggling fraud the Maharishi Yogi, “Happiness Runs” opens in folkie mode, with just Donovan and an acoustic guitar. Then the tempo picks up and the other vocalists join in, their circular singing echoing the words of the chorus: “Happiness runs in a circular motion/Thought is like a little boat upon the sea/Everybody is a part of everything anyway/You can have everything if you let yourself be.” It’s a very pretty and joyous little ditty, perfect for a mellow psilocybin trip or Girl Scout jamboree, or both if you should happen to belong to Troop 4529, name The Magic Mushrooms, whose motto is “Be-In Prepared.”

Unfortunately, “Happiness Runs” is followed by the breathtakingly dumb “I Love My Shirt,” a perky and childlike number in which Donovan sings about, well, how much he loves his shirt. And his jeans. And his shoes. Accompanied by some back-up singers and a piano, Donovan sings, “Do you have a shirt that you really love/One that you feel so groovy in?/You don’t even mind if it starts to fade/That only makes it nicer still.” Why, he loves his shirt (a tie-dyed dashiki, most likely) and jeans (stitched with peace symbols, presumably) so much he can hardly wait to get them back from the cleaners, which I know from personal experience can be agonizing (how many times have I cried, “I simply must have my dashiki! And now!”), but more importantly makes him the only Love Child in existence to take his clothes to the dry cleaner in the first place.

“The Love Song” is more than just an up-tempo number—it’s an eerie foreshadowing of the entire career of those Kings of Twee, Belle and Sebastian. That is until the 1:27 mark, when the song morphs into a funky breakdown in which Donovan pal Murray Roman (the acid-fried comedian who opened for the likes of The Doors and the Flying Burrito Brothers, and whose LP You Can’t Beat People Up and Have Them Say I Love You I definitely want to get my paws on) delivers an inspired rap about putting your hands together and getting down to a dance called the Vulture, while a studio throng shouts, claps it hands, and laughs in accompaniment. Legend has it Donovan finally had to clap his hand over Roman’s mouth to shut him up, which I wish he hadn’t, because Roman’s spiel is hilarious. Unfortunately Roman doesn’t return for the reprise of the breakdown that ends the tune, being replaced by some female back-up singers and more hand-clapping and crowd merriment as Mekler plays some inspired piano and infamous Derek and the Dominos drummer and mom-killer Jim Gordon wails away on the skins.

As for the anti-war song “Susan on the West Coast Waiting,” Donovan’s record company thought highly enough of it to make it the A-side of “Atlantis,” and it frequently appears on greatest hits LPs, but I’m no big fan. To a lilting calypso beat featuring bongos and melodica, a breathless Donovan tells the story of Susan and her lover Andy, a soldier in Vietnam. The song is chiefly remarkable for the fact that, unlike most of his contemporaries, Donovan treats Andy as a sympathetic victim, rather than a war criminal and baby killer. As for the backing vocals, they were provided by three female fans who just happened to be in the studio at the time.

“Susan” is followed by “Atlantis,” that weird and wonderful song you’d have to be mad not to love. While the introductory spoken interlude may be a crack-up to all but the most-cracked New Agers, the laughter is replaced (at least in my case) by awe when Donovan concludes the spoken portion of the song with, “And as the elders of our time choose to remain blind/Let us rejoice and let us sing, and dance/And ring in the new/Hail Atlantis!” Then the song speeds up, and what follows is a long and very groovy chorus of singers repeating that infectious refrain familiar to all sentient beings: “Way down below the ocean/Where I want to be/She may be” to the accompaniment of tambourine and the occasional groovy guitar riff. Meanwhile, Donovan tosses in lines about his “Antediluvian baby, yeah yeah, yeah yeah yeah” and cries, “Wake up Wake up Wake up Wake up.” I don’t know about you, but I could listen to “Atlantis” every day of my life and never grow tired of it, something I can only say about Mott the Hoople’s “All the Young Dudes” and the Jimmy Castor Bunch’s “Hallucinations.”

The Jeff Beck Group joins Donovan on the jaunty hard-rocker “Trudi,” one of Donovan’s best but least recognized songs. A surprisingly frank song of seduction (“Won’t you go to bed with me/Won’t you take a chance babe with me”), at least by the child-man Donovan’s standards, “Trudi” opens with some drum and cymbal smash by Tony Newman, followed by the honky-tonk piano of the great Nicky Hopkins, at which juncture Donovan commences to sing in a surprisingly tough-edged voice. The rhythm section is locked down tighter than Fort Knox throughout, Beck delivers some crystal clear licks that are more country than rock, and Quatro, Duncan, and Bell punctuate the song with cries of “Oh” and “Sing low,” until Donovan shuts the song down with numerous repetitions of “Trudi motoring, Trudi motor away/Trudi motoring, Trudi motor away.”

“Pamela Jo” owes as much to the music hall as it does to rock’n’roll, and takes the album out on a note every bit as ramshackle and raucous as Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35.” A chaotic and upbeat burlesque of a tune, it opens with Donovan singing (to the accompaniment of piano, some simple drumming, and some background talk and laughter) “I’ll sing you a song called ‘Pamela Jo’/A girl with a sweet melody, don’t you know/The words are very easy to follow/So you can know ‘Pamela Jo’.” And so it goes, the song slowly growing more discordant as an increasingly rag-tag choir repeats the chorus to the accompaniment to whistling, absurd voices, woos!, screams, howls, and some very primitive drumming and the occasional hand clap, until Donovan closes things out with a bit of scat singing in a very ridiculous voice that proves he’s that rarest of all beings, a hippie with a sense of humor.

So where have all the Flower Children gone? “All those dayglow freaks who used to paint the face/They’ve joined the human race,” answered the gimlet-eyed cynics in Steely Dan. But Donovan is still knocking around, having suffered a long decline culminating in the late ‘70s, when he was mocked by the punks as the poster flower child of the hippies they so despised. Then came the rave scene, which seized upon “Barabajabal (So Hot)” as a kind of anthem, and Donovan’s star again began to ascend, culminating in a series of box sets that led to a major reappraisal of his contribution to music. And good thing, says I. Donovan may be an easy sneer, but he wrote some truly brilliant songs, and I for one would be happy to don a set of love beads, stick a flower in a National Guardsmen’s gun, wear a flowery merkin for peace, or do whatever else is necessary to demonstrate how much I love and admire his gentle and naïve genius. Hail Atlantis!

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B

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  • Martijn

    Hail Atlantis! Great review (great as in: very enjoyable to read for I’ve never heard the album in all my merkin-free days) and utterly infectious. I can feel my own old 2nd generation hippie chromosomes kicking in… Damn, it is coming back as sharp as cacti. The orange interior, the thick shag carpet, the wicker chairs and cork walls… But I love how you’ve dragged the man back into 2012. Beam up the Scotty! Hail.

  • Martijn

    I meant 2013. That was not intended as a joke, although I quite like it now, a non-intended joke. Who keeps track of the years? Honestly! Fuck the calender. It’s still the Summer of Love, people!

  • Theron

    Underrated record, but certainly flawed. Good read, especially since I took a tour of my Donovan records a couple of weeks ago, so it’s fresh in my mind!

  • Martijn

    “Where have all the flower children gone?” is too good!

  • Michael Little

    Martijn, as my attorney and biggest fan, I thank you. This may not have been my most popular review–by a long shot–but you’re kind words more than make up for that fact.

  • ManoloMatos

    @Martijn 

  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


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