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Donovan still experimenting with his music
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Singer and songwriter Donovan, who was hugely popular in the mid-'60s, is playing and touring again. He performs in the Twin Cities Wednesday evening. (Photo courtesy of Appleseed Recordings)
Donovan is one of those artists whose name may not leap to the lips of people under the age of 40, but if you hum one of his more famous songs, "Mellow Yellow," it usually brings a smile of recognition. Forty years into his career, Donovan is still recording and performing. He plays at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul Wednesday evening.

St. Paul, Minn. — Donovan is in his late 50s now, but he still cuts a boyish figure, little different from when he burst on the British folk scene in 1965. The story goes he was penniless, and playing coffeehouses and pubs. One day a talent scout spotted him, and recommended him for a spot on the hugely popular BBC TV music show, "Ready Steady Go."

"Yes, I was sleeping on somebody's floor the very night before I was on hit TV," Donovan recalls. "I didn't have a place to live. I had no money. I was the real thing."

His song "Catch the Wind" hit the British charts just weeks later, and then was rush-released in the U.S. Just two months after he'd been spotted in that bar, he was touring America. He appeared at the Newport Folk festival.

With the Beatles and the Rolling Stones blazing the trail, Donovan says it was a giddy time.

"The actual realization, how much money and fame, was going on came later. But it was a secondary thought then. But the power that it brought we accepted totally, because we really loved this music," says Donovan. "And when the Beatles wanted to project songs of peace and love, it was a perfect vehicle. They were the most popular band in the world. And when I made my first hit records, I said, 'This is it. This is what I want to do. I want to put meaningful lyrics into pop culture.'"

Donovan worshipped Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, and it's not surprising that people were soon comparing him with Bob Dylan. There is a scene in the movie, "Don't Look Back," which followed Dylan through his first British tour, where the two meet. Many people have interpreted their exchange as Dylan putting down Donovan, but he sees it very differently.

"No, he was very kind and he encouraged me. He was the one who said in the film, 'He doesn't play like me. He plays like Jack Elliot.' Everybody said, 'Who's Jack Elliot?'" says Donovan. "Of course, Bob knew who Jack was. The first disciple of Woody Guthrie was Jack Elliot. The second disciple was Bob. We all loved Woody."

It feels like the audience has been my friends, and it would be wrong not to sing songs that they know. I could actually carry an evening of three hours, singing songs that nobody knows. But what good would that be?
- Donovan

In fact, Donovan says he played another important part in the making of the film. He says he met Dylan, Joan Baez, and Allan Ginsburg at the Savoy Hotel in London.

"Bob was just about to release his first single, and Joan was about to release her first single, and I think Bob's was, 'Times They Are A-Changin.'' But he had recorded something else extraordinary, called 'Subterranean Homesick Blues.'"

"And there was this idea, I think Ginsburg had it, and he said, 'Why don't we write the lyrics on cards, and you can sing it, Bob, and pull the cards off with the lyrics on them.' And Allan started writing the lyrics on the cards on the carpet ... and I started helping Allan," Donovan recalls.

"I have a calligraphic art style that I learned in art school. And when Bob saw what I was doing he said, 'Hey Donovan, why don't you do the lyrics with Allan?' And so it was Ginsburg and I that wrote the lyrics that Bob peeled off in the alley of the Savoy Hotel all those years ago."

That scene became the opening sequence in "Don't Look Back."

Donovan says, though, he and Dylan don't have much of a relationship now.

"We all see each other at extraordinarily long lengths of time, and maybe never again. But we are all part of a fraternity, you see. I used to consider George Harrison a real close friend, and so did Bob, but we never actually saw each other much."

Talking with Donovan can be slightly surreal. He talks about the huge stars he worked with, bumped into, or shared some deep spiritual experience in India with, a little like other people talk about meeting someone they know at the store, or the coffee shop.

He went to India with the Beatles to learn about eastern religions. He was featured in the first edition of Rolling Stone Magazine. He was also one of the first to walk away from it all. In 1970 he announced he'd had enough fame, and stopped touring. Eventually he moved to California and raised a family.

It wasn't until the 1990s when he began touring again. He's also been recording, and just recently released a new CD, "Beat Cafe." He says he wants to recapture the bohemian culture of the 1950s coffee houses. He does it by mixing sounds of the time with very contemporary techniques.

Donovan will play some of the new material when he appears with John Mellencamp at the Xcel Energy Center Wednesday evening. Ever the experimenter, the concert will include a set from Donovan, followed by a set of Donovan material played by Donovan and Mellencamp together.

Donovan says he knows how important his older material is to fans.

"I've got no problem singing early stuff. But I've got so many new songs, that often I have tried to play more new songs than well-known songs -- and it doesn't feel right," he says.

"It feels like the audience has been my friends, and my music has been in their life, and it would be wrong not to sing songs that they know. I could actually carry an evening of three hours, singing songs that nobody knows. But what good would that be?"

Even as Donovan tours with the new CD, he's working on a couple of other projects. He hopes to complete his autobiography this year.

He has also spent some time organizing his basement, where he discovered hours of unreleased material, and a huge collection of instruments and clothes he's forgotten about. He's now working out what he is going to do with all the stuff.

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