Born: May 10, 1946
The singer/songwriter who became known as Donovan contracted polio from a vaccination shot at the age of three. At age 15 Donovan Philips Leitch read Jack Kerouc's On the Road, as well as Alan Ginsberg, TS Eliot, Dylan Thomas and William Butler Yeats while listening to Joan Baez, Pete Seger, Woody Guthrie and Miles Davis. He "dreamed of Zen, of a Beatnick girl and some pot to smoke with her." Inspired by Arthur Rimbaud, he headed for London.
His personal philosophy joined Celtic spirituality with Oriental religions. In 1963, at the age of 16, he landed in St. Ives where he met his longtime collaborator Gypsy Dave and started hanging out with older Beats, smoking joints and making enlightening music. In the early days he says he was "mocked as a simpleton" for singing of birds, bees, and flowers. His early "Green" philosophy was taken from the "hallucinogenic shamanism of the Celts" for whom Mother Earth is a Goddess.
By Donovan's account in The Autobiography of Donovan (2005, St. Martin's Press), the documentary "A Boy Called Donovan" which aired in January 1966 nationwide in Britain, showed his "beatnick" lifestyle and attracted the interest of the newly formed Drug Squad, who made the singer their first high-profile arrest. He'd rented his Edgware Road flat to two young girls who had parties with lots of beatnick characters, including one identified junkie, while police watched and waited for Donovan to return. After returning home, "I was turning in after a joint with my girlfriend. I had a tiny piece of hash and smoked it all."
A knock was heard at the door and when Donovan's roomate Gypsy Dave asked, "Who is it?" a female voice answered, "It's me." He looked through a curtain and saw a young woman alone. As he opened the door, the policewoman stepped inside and nine "burly coppers" followed her in. They dragged Donovan's naked girlfriend from their bed, tearing the bedspread and destroying other parts of the house looking for drugs. Gypsy was manhandled and when the also-naked Donovan jumped on a cop's back, he was grabbed at the throat in an armlock and dropped to the floor. Stumbling to the kitchen, coughing, for a drink of milk, it was snatched away from him. "Quick men, the LSD's in the milk," a cop yelled.
After that, the apartment dwellers were allowed to dress. Donovan's manager and his wife were raided the same night and a "huge lump" of hashish was found. Police also claimed they found hash at Donovan's place. They were taken to Marylebone Police Station, booked, fingerprinted and given a cup of tea (only in England!) When they were left out at 4 AM, Sgt. Pilcher asked for an autograph for his daughter. George Harrison called the next morning offering L10,000 by noon and a place to stay, saying "It'll never blow over Don. We'll be next." Many in the music business community immediately shunned Donovan. But a taxi driver waved, asked, "Hey Don, got any of them funny cigarettes?" and refused to accept a fare.
"I wanted to turn the world on to self-transformation, not drugs," Donovan writes. But in court, he was admonished as a poor example to youth and fined 250 pounds. To this day, he is labeled a "criminal" on US Visas and needs a "waiver" to enter the US. But the press helped promote his new album, "Sunshine Superman."
The book also relates that John Lennon called one day, having gotten a tip he would be busted. Donovan and Gypsy Dave went to Lennon's Esher bungalow, where "three pyramids of the best California sinsimelia" were piled on a long glass coffeetable. A few minutes after they got rid of it, Sgt. Pilcher showed up at the door with a warrant. Nothing was found and the cops left, with Pilcher threatening, "we'll get you next time." But Gypsy had hidden two ounces of black hash in the botton of the goldfish pond which they promptly rolled into a "large English joint." Sgt. Pilcher subsequently busted Harrison. In November 1973 Sgt. Norman Pilcher was charged and convicted of planting illegal drugs and sentenced to four years.
While traveling to the US for the Newport Folk Fest, a large, black and friendly customs officer found a pot seed in Donovan's coat pocket, he writes. The officer let him go when Donovan explained he'd swaped for the jacket and supposed the seed belonged to its former owner. On parting company, the officer bragged, "I'm the guy who busts Ray Charles. When he needs busting they call me."
Donovan's deep studies into literature and spirituality stood him in good stead and he never overdid drugs. He had great things to say in his autobiography about the "expanded consciousness experienced by those ingesting or smoking the holy plants" and describes beautifully his first LSD trip. He also claims he wrote the line "Sky of Blue, and Sea of Green" in the Beatles hit "Yellow Submarine" while hanging out smoking pot with Paul McCartney.
Donovan dropped out of the music business at the end of the 1960s, settling down with his wife and children. "I had accomplished my aim, to help introduce to my generation the Bohemian Manifesto of Change, and the "Doors of Perception" were now opened for anyone to enter." Keep up with Donovan at www.donovan.ie
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