The Autobiography of Donovan: The Hurdy Gurdy Man

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9780312352523: The Autobiography of Donovan: The Hurdy Gurdy Man

Donovan's autobiography charts his life from a post-war, Glaswegian childhood to the height of an international career as one of the leading figures of the 1960's music scene. Always feeling like an outsider, he found relief through music and poetry. The book reveals how he came to be influenced by Buddhist teachings, and the music of Woody Guthrie and Joan Baez. The book explores the significance of falling deeply in love with the woman who was to become his muse, and the profound sense of loss he felt when their relationship came to an end, and how the loss affected him both personally and creatively. A leader of the folk revival in both Britain and America, the book recounts how he rose to be an international star, releasing songs such as "Mellow Yellow" and "Catch the Wind", and his most successful album, "Sunshine Superman". Donovan is acknowledged as one of the most significant cultural icons of the 1960's. The book provides a frank account of his early experiments with drugs and his search for self. He reveals the story of how he developed friendships with Baez, Dylan and the Beatles, with whom he a shared spiritual sojourn to meditate with the Maharishi in India. Donovan's autobiography offers first-hand insights into his music and poetry, recollects his rise to fame and the way in which destiny was to play a hand by re-uniting him with the lost love of his life through a chance meeting.

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About the Author:

Donovan Leitch was born in Glasgow in 1946.  He is recognised as one of the most influential musicians to have emerged from the twentieth century. During the height of his career in the 1960's he wrote some of that generation's most memorable songs, with nine top ten records including Catch the Wind and Mellow Yellow. He is widely recognised as a founder of 'Flower Power' and travelled to India with The Beatles to meditate under the guidance of the Maharishi. He currently lives in Ireland with his wife Linda and continues to write poetry and music.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One

Childhood
Glasgow, 1954

I liked the danger wi' Harry. Ah was limpin', runnin' wi' Harry Cadbury across the back of St. Vincent Street. We were in a battle, lobbin' tin-can grenades over the line at the Anderson Gang. The cans were filled with cold ashes from the tenement refuse. We made the sound of explosions and felt brave.

Lots of the buildin's in Glasgow were skeletons from the bombing. Harry and me collected shell cases from the rubble of a World War: Spitfires and Hurricanes, Messerschmitts and Heinkels.

Oor wee battle over, we climbed the wall intae a ruined tenement---against the rules. The weak Scottish sun shone on the wallpapered bedrooms, open tae the sky, the mouths of the dead fireplaces gaping.

I was in a bedroom wi' half a floor and the ceiling caving in. Balancing on a joist, I found a cupboard and opened it. Inside was an old flower vase which had escaped damage. Inside the vase was a collection of Victorian "scraps," printed scenes of cherubs and young ladies in long dresses and muffs. I was amazed at this find. Harry was a rough-and-tumble Catholic kid. I was a sensitive Proddie boy. Harry saw how much the scraps might get whilst I saw Art and pretty girls to dream on.

Noo Harry was hanging oot a top-floor windae, tearin' the lead pipe from the eaves. His daddy had taught him this. Soon we had a fire in the back, splintered wood doors and windaes, paint bubblin' in the flames. Harry cut the lead into small pieces and smelted them in an old tin can. He poured the molten metal into ingots on a house brick. The company name came oot reversed. I was amazed.

The city night fell early in the northern wintery sky. Lights in the windaes shone in the dark tenements. Hungry yins (ones) called up to their mammies for a "piece 'n, jam." Bread spread with jam or butter and sugar flew doon from the kitchen sill, wrapped in newspaper. We crunched the sugar in our mooths, red-faced and hands tingling from the cold.

Efter a time, the windaes opened up again and the mammies called across the dark world.

"Are ye there, Harry?"

"Donovan, come up tae yer bed right now!"

I used to sleep wi' ma mammy. Daddy used to wake me up to kiss me good night, the smell of machine oil on his dungarees. He worked during and after the war as a tool setter in the Rolls-Royce factory that produced the Merlin engine for the Spitfire. He was a self-taught man. He might have made a scholar, had he not been born a poor boy, barefoot and underpaid. Mammy worked as a factory girl.

Donnie and Wynn had waited to begin a family, marrying in 1942, mammy at twenty-six and Daddy thirty. The ceremony was conducted in the side chapel of the Catholic church, as was the custom when a Protestant married a Catholic woman. Wynn was a young beauty who loved to dance, as did all the "Big Band Generation" and you could

See them doon the Barra-Land

Wi' frizzed and shinny hair

A blondie Ginger Rogers

And a skinny Fred Astaire.

---Donovan Leitch, "Glasgow Town"

The Second World War ended in the spring of 1945, but it wasn't until Hiroshima and Nagasaki were vaporized that all the Earth stopped fighting. I was conceived the August of that nuclear holocaust.

In the disruption following the Second World War, three epidemics swept the city: scarlet fever, diphtheria, and polio. The children were hardest hit. The vaccines were too strong, and I was actually given the polio disease this way. So my right leg began to show signs of "wasting." An operation was performed, cutting the Achilles tendon in the foot, and I wore an ugly leg brace for some time after. It was a long boot made of a hard substance that I wore only at night to give the little leg support. Removing the device would tear the hairs and hurt so much that I cried each morning, painful for my mammy and daddy to watch.

My limpy leg did not hurt, but I could not run fast with the gang so daddy bought a wee two-wheeled pram with a long handle and the boys whizzed me around the back screaming, "The injuns are comin', the injuns'll get ye."

I got battered by some boys. I didn't fight back. Harry had to fight for me. I jist hiftae find anither way tae beat the boys, I thought.

Daddy would cradle me in his arms and read poetry to me: Robert Service, W. H. Davies, and the Romantics, Shelley, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, and the Visionaries, Blake, Yeats, and, not forgetting the Shakespeare of Scotland, our own Robert Burns. His uncanny memory retained long monologues and difficult poems, a traditional talent of the Celtic race. Oh, how my bardic father would intone magic poems of wandering. He opened a mysterious door to the other world of vision.

One day I turned from my game on the linoleum to see my silver-tongued daddy standing in the doorway, his lips pursed in a smile. He winked at me. I tried to wink back but closed both eyes instead. When I opened them again, he was dressed in a fur parka with sealskin boots and mittens, a mischievous twinkle still in his eye. The parlor had disappeared, snow-capped mountains gleamed in the distance. As my Klondike daddy spoke, poetry came out of his beard in puffs of frozen air, snatches of Robert Service. When he got to the bit about Sam McGee being cremated, I closed my eyes again. I was feart. But Daddy was not feart. He was brave enough to dream. He was telling me it is okay to dream.

At the age of five I stopped sleeping in Mammy's bed, and instead slept alone in the front room on a convertible sofa covered with brown "American" cloth. The high Edwardian room had a dark plywood dressing table and a wardrobe in the 1940s style, soft and curvy. I remember the tall sash windows and a mood of somber stillness as I lay alone in bed, watching the silhouettes of the passing trams in St. Vincent Street moving across the ceiling.

Across the tramlines was a comic store that sold Superboy, Green Lantern, and the mysterious Mandrake The Magician, and cousin Billy would come round to swop issues with me. I remember my cousin Billy was an artist and he made a drawing for me of a graveyard with old-fashioned soldiers burying an infantryman. I was fascinated to see the drawing of the soul leaving the body. This image is as clear to me now as when I first saw it.

There was a big cupboard in my room where Daddy went to make pictures in his darkroom. He liked to take pictures of weddings and something called a "bar mitzvah." I didn't go into the darkroom without knocking. Sometimes Daddy let me stand and watch the white paper in the china tray slip about in the thick water. The magic pictures came from nowhere, and I thought ma daddy so fine to do this. He never said a word. It was so peaceful in there, his secret place.

One night, when he was not making pictures, I slipped into the darkroom and took down a large manual from the shelves. The pages opened at a lovely young woman in the nude. She was smiling, her eyes laughing and her toes painted. I couldn't stop staring at her soft curves. She stepped out of the book and slid next to me in my bed, her long wavy hair falling over my face as she held me close to her wonderful breasts.

At the back of the posh row of flats at the other end of our street was a large walled garden called The Henney. One morning, Harry and I were peering into the garden through a hole in the old stonework. A little girl was playing on the lawn---We'd never seen grass anywhere else than the park. She was pretty and skipped up to see the scruffy boys. She lifted her skirt and we gave her a mud pack on her wee girls willy. After school, Mammy was very serious and held my hand as we knocked on the posh door. I was told off for doing a bad thing. I didn't understand.

Two weeks later, unrepentant, I stood in the dark "close" while an older girl lifted her skirt and pulled her knickers down to show me her smooth quim, fine red hairs, sleek and silky. I was amazed when she then peed in a bottle. Afterwards, Harry said that one of the boys had got television. We all went up to see the wee shiny square of glass in the big wooden sideboard. It was just like the pictures but black and white and not so much fun. We got bored and played in the dark. I thought of the big girl and hoped no one told.

My mammy was the second eldest of seven sisters and two brothers. Her father, Michael Philips, had died soon after the First World War. Mustard gas had damaged his lungs and eventually killed him. They should have received the War Pension but the doctors insisted it was tuberculosis, so the family had only the Widow's Pension, and all the children had to work.

They fought for country, fought for King,

They won the war, it's true,

Tae see Germany and Japan,

Ye widnae think it noo.

---Donovan Leitch, "Glasgow Town"

My daddy was the eldest of two brothers and two sisters. His mother had married twice and outlived both husbands and was known to me as Granny Kelly. She lived on the other side of town, and I remember her dark wee kitchen where we took tea and scones. Uncle Bill still lived with Granny. It was through handsome Uncle Bill that I first heard American folk music. Bill would dress in full tartan sometimes, a silver dirk in his hairy sock. I was surprised to hear later from Scottish comedian Billy Connolly that he knew Bill as "Postie," a figure of some renown in Glasgow.

I often stayed with my Granny Philips in Argyle Street. Sometimes on Saturday nights when Mammy and Daddy were out dancing, Granny held me over the windowsill two floors up over the street, which frightened my parents, but she did it with all the grandchildren.

Granny was a big woman with tattooed arms. I remember a name of a dead husband in a freckled heart. She had long black hair, streaked with silver. Below us the Saturday night drunks were raving. One night a man was crawling along the pavement, clawing the paving stones, absolutely "legless" as they say.

Another night, at a pub over the road, it was kicking-out time and a ...

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