Graded on a Curve:
Donovan,
Sunshine Superman

Scottish born Donovan Leitch went from folkie fop to Flower Power avatar as fast as you can say Mickie Most, and by so doing became “the voice” of “Swinging London” in our Year of the Lord 1966. He brought America’s West Coast psychedelic sound to England’s green and pleasant land, one-upping his pals in the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in the process. A pretty cheeky move, one has to admit, for the feckless lad Bob Dylan more or less savaged in Don’t Look Back.

Donovan’s first stab at freaking out was 1966’s Sunshine Superman, and it would be nice to report that it’s a stone-cold psychedelic classic from beginning to end. Alas, the same man who was pioneering the sitar sound and dayglo imagery was still nurturing Medieval fantasies, and the latter constitute jarring interruptions in what is otherwise one groovy slab of vinyl. But not even “Guinevere” and “Legend of a Girl Child Linda” (written for Brian Jones’ girlfriend Linda Lawrence) can spoil the lysergic fun, and on “Season of the Witch” Donovan might as well be a soothsayer; its ominous vibe literally catapults us three long years into the future, when Altamont and Charles Manson would forever harsh the universal peace and love buzz. “It’s strange,” sings our Donovan looking over his shoulder, before going on to say cryptic things about how you have to pick up every stitch. Very spooky number what with that eerie organ and portentous bass line, and just what are those rabbits in the ditch running from any way? That great chicken-scratch guitar, maybe?

The title track is a slinky homage to getting really, really bent, and its sinuous contours, funky percussion, and rubber band bass are the perfect complements to Donovan’s cock-sure vocals. Studio ace Jimmy Page nails down a near-perfect guitar solo, Donovan brags that “Superman and Green Lantern/Ain’t got nothin’ on me,” and there’s a reason this baby soared, cape and all, to the top of the U.S. pop charts. It’s a perfect piece of sunny psychedelia and it’s brimming over with the kind of self-assurance that can only come out of a capsule. “The Trip” is every bit as LSD inspired, and succeeds despite the lack of guitar pyrotechnics being engaged in by Donovan’s American compadres. “What goes on, I really wanna know,” sings Donovan, more or less channeling (talk about your time travel!) the future Lou Reed. The lyrics are Dylan gone Merlin mythical, which for some reason I don’t find irksome, perhaps because Donovan also tosses in LA, a white straw chair, methedrine, the devil, and a talking seagull. And one Bobby Dylan, coincidentally enough. As for the instrumental breakdown, it’s to die for.

“Three King Fishers” sounds, to my ears, like a Ye Olde English Folk Song dressed up in Indian garb; it gives me indigestion, it does, and all of the tablas and sitars in the world can’t save it. The pretty “Ferris Wheel,” different story; the melody is sweet, the tablas burble, and I can almost see myself walking past a tea shop in a seedy old town on the English seaside, antique fun fair ferris wheel turning in the distance. “Bert’s Blues” is a beatnik throwback and tip of the hat to folkie Bert Jansch; it didn’t do much for me at first, but I’ve come to admire it despite its loose talk of fairy castles (gak!) and jesters. Over adorned? I think so. The harpsichord and strings are too much with us, to quote William Wordsworth. But I sure do dig its big jazzbo ending. “Three King Fishers” is more Medievalism with curry flavoring added, but it almost works on the strength of sheer hypnotism. Which is to say it’s trippier than some of its anachronistic fellows, and I imagine it would sound just peachy on a superhero’s dose of orange sunshine.

As for “Legend of a Girl Child Linda,” it’s god awful from its opening lines (“I will bring you gold apples/And grapes made of rubies”) to its risible end. Coming as it does with strings, woodwinds, and harpsichord this is effete folkiedom at its worst, and I would call it the nadir of Sunshine Superman were it not for “Guinevere,” which with its portentous “Middle Ages” sound is less offering than offal. I can almost see poor Donovan in period garb plucking away, mid-swoon, at some Medieval stringed instrument, as a gaggle of angry castle guards race to hurl him into the nearest moat. I certainly want to hurl him into the nearest moat. This song may well constitute the worst three minutes and forty seconds I’ve ever spent, and I’m including the time spent being driven by ambulance to the nearest emergency room after breaking my jaw and rupturing my spleen in an El Camino-related accident. It seems you can take the folkie out of the Middle Ages, but you can’t take the Middle Ages out of the folkie, acid or no acid.

Fortunately Donovan gets back on track with the groovy “The Fat Angel.” Unfortunate title, no doubt about it; I can hardly believe Mama Cass Elliott, to whom the song was dedicated, was happy about the title. But this is acid folk at its best; “Fly Jefferson Airplane,” sings our Donovan in hushed tones, “Gets you there in time,” while Shawn Phillips draws far-out sitar doodles on the inside of your skull. I recently had a horrible experience with Frontier Air, and have no doubt that Donovan’s own “Trans-Love Airways” would have made for a far trippier trip. And he closes on a lovely note with “Celeste,” which is swoon-worthy indeed. You can practically float away on the wings of this one, you can. “My songs are merely dreams,” he sings, “Visiting my mind.” What a revelation! He doesn’t write them; they just show up unannounced at doorstep, bottle of plonk in hand! But be that as it may. This is one of the loveliest songs I know, and a gem indeed.

Donovan would continue to deliver the goods on such LP’s as 1967’s Mellow Yellow and 1969’s Barabajagal before running out of psychedelic steam. For a while he was a laughingstock. Then he was rediscovered by rave culture, because when it comes to feeding one’s head there’s no such thing as a generation gap. The Sunshine Superman will always be psychedelia’s caped crusader, and a gentle spirit in possession of awesome powers. At his best he was the epitome of cosmic lysergic enlightenment. If only he’d abandoned the Medievalist tendencies.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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