I used to think Donovan was a complete knob.
However, I was a pretty devoted Dylan fan for years and years, and that can make you seriously jaded. If you’ve seen D. A. Pennebaker’s documentary about Dylan’s visit to England in 1965, Don’t Look Back (which is awesome), you’ll probably remember the scene where Dylan and Donovan finally meet at a quiet party in a London hotel room. Throughout the film, people keep asking Dylan what he thinks of Donovan, a Scottish folksinger who was gaining a reputation as Britain’s own version of Bob Dylan. In the hotel scene, everyone is quite drunk, and there is clearly some tension in the air. Donovan plays a lilting song, “To Sing For You,” and Dylan interrupts with enthusiasm (“Hey, that’s a good song, man!”) which is probably him being sarcastic. Then Dylan plays a devastating version of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” and it’s sort of like watching a wolf devour a bunny. (You can watch the scene here, if you like.)
Anyways, maybe I’ve grown softer with age, but I’m starting to develop a real fondness for Donovan. Sure, over time he became the dippiest hippie of them all (and normally I have no time for that crap), but in spite of all the silly nonsense, he’s a fine songwriter with a lovely voice who made a few records that are perfect for a quiet Sunday afternoon. And to be fair, I’m not sure we would have had Nick Drake or Belle and Sebastian if it weren’t for Donovan, and that counts for a lot with me.
Here’s an excellent early Donovan track, a song set in the Goodge Street tube station in Bloomsbury. I think this clip was filmed for Swedish TV in 1965, a few months after the hotel scene in Don’t Look Back — and you can already hear how Donovan has begun to appropriate Dylan’s opacity, surrealism, and grittiness (in the lyrics, if not the delivery). You can also see the Carnaby Street influence — dude is wearing a cape!