It wasn’t Atlantis, but the most magical moment of Donovan’s musical career did occur “way down by the ocean.” On a noisy, congested little island filled with taxi cabs near the Atlantic Ocean on Oct. 17, 1969, Donovan sang his song "Isle of Islay.”
How high the gulls fly
How sad the farm lad
deep in play
Felt like a grain on your sand
How well the sheep's bell
Roving the cliff
when fancy takes
Felt like a tide left me here
How blessed the forest
How neat the cut peat
laid so long
Felt like a seed on your land.
It was at New York’s Madison Square Garden, and Donovan – who is now celebrating his 50th year in the music business – cherishes that concert.
“As I sang my song ‘Isle of Islay’ solo with one acoustic guitar, 20,000 souls were silent in New York City’s Madison Square Garden,” he recalls.
He was the first solo performer to sell out the celebrated arena, which was sparkling new at the time after its construction above Penn Station a year earlier. “It was one highlight of my career,” he says. “I broke the gate at Madison Square Garden for a solo performer, meaning the most income for tickets of a solo performer.” Tickets for that show were priced at $4, $5, $6 and $6.50.
In a review the next day in the New York Times, music writer Michael Jahn said Donovan wore “a flowing white shirt” and “sat on a raised platform on a stage entirely covered with flowers.” Donovan’s songs, Jahn wrote, “tend toward romantic pictures of flowered fields and fairy princes. They always are very melodic and lulling.”
It’s been a long time since that New York show, and numerous albums followed in subsequent decades. His new double album, Donovan Retrospective, includes his greatest hits of the ‘60s and one new reggae-influenced song, “One English Summer.”
Donovan, who will begin his 50th Anniversary Tour in his hometown of Glasgow, Scotland, in October before heading to North America, says his best works were his second album, Fairytale, released in 1965, and his third album, Sunshine Superman, released a year later. “They announced the return of poetry to popular culture,” he says, “bringing with it the return of meditation and Gaelic mythology.”
The albums also solidified Donovan’s reputation as a hippie poet. Sunshine Superman, a mix of folk, rock and psychedelia, included two big hits: the title song and “Season of the Witch.” My favorite was one of Donovan’s lesser-known albums, Open Road. It was released in 1970 on a relatively unknown label, Repertoire, after Donovan’s departure from recording giant Epic Records.
Donovan says he loves that record. “I experimented with a three-piece band and also developed a new kind of production sound,” he says. “Downstairs in Morgan Studios, Paul McCartney was doing his first solo album. I borrowed Paul's strat for ‘Changes’ on Open Road. My favorite tracks are ‘Roots of Oak,’ ‘Riki Tiki Tavi’ and ‘Celtic Rock.’”
Another artist with excellent songs and considerable appeal through the decades – Neil Young – performed a Dublin show that Donovan considers the best he has seen. It was in May 2003 at Vicar Street, a performing arts center that seats 1,050 people. Performing solo and acoustic that night, Young played his entire Greendale album before finishing with a second half of songs more well-known by his fans.
“Neil held back his popular songs as he presented a new project sitting in a makeshift cabin with an old harmonium and table and chair,” Donovan recalls. “Just as the audience was about to scream ‘Harvest,’ Neil sang ‘Heart of Gold.’”
A DVD of the Vicar Street show was released, and it was “a great evening,” according to the The Arizona Republic’s review of the DVD. The concert, the newspaper said, featured “a playful, sometimes rambling Young setting up each song with story, sipping Guinness and laying his new work out there, occasional warts and all.”
The Dublin show impressed Donovan, but he points to concerts by English folksinger and guitarist Martin Carthy as the most influential. Carthy is relatively unknown in North America, though he has been hailed as the father of the 1960s English folk revival. Besides his solo work, he played in various bands, including The Watersons, Steeleye Span, and The Albion Band. He now plays with his wife, Norma Waterson, his daughter, Eliza Carthy, and melodeon player Saul Rose in Waterson:Carthy.
Donovan says he was influenced by Carthy’s “representation of almost extinct folk songs, his exquisite guitar picking,” and his music’s “fiddle parts and squeeze box drones.
”On arrival in England [in the 1960s],” Donovan adds, “Dylan and Paul Simon headed straight for Martin to sponge the old songs.”