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Donovan the boy to man oh man

What becomes a legend most?
Folk rock. Aaargh! An overloaded term that would make any self-respecting, post-Boom techno kid reach for his or her remote. Zap -- outta here. And flower power? Come on, you simply must be kidding. Was there ever really such a thing? I mean, the media, they manufacture these epochs, right?

Wrong.
Not only was there actually a generation that billed itself, without apology no less, as Flower Power, but there was also a time (some would argue prehistoric) when both Flower Power and folk rock were almost noble callings. I'm talking cool, man, the hippest of the hip, daddy-o.

If you're looking for a culprit, a single solitary figure to define that gilded Age of Aquarius, when hearts and minds and bodies were free to roam at will, you'd find few better than Donovan -- ethereal voice, trippy lyrics, quiet guitar, and minstrel otherworldliness. The mellow-yellow sunshine superman of the clouds. The "Hurdy Gurdy Man" who came singing songs of free love. Donovan: Three of the most evocative syllables in the history of popdom.

The time was 1965 and London was swinging wildly with a new kind of madness. The Beatles were on the verge of becoming "bigger than Jesus" and the press, having missed the magic bus on that phenomenon, was eagerly searching for the Next Big Thing. Enter a revolutionary television program called Ready Steady Go, a place where stars were literally born overnight. There were only two stations to choose from, so anyone who appeared was guaranteed a certain measure of (over)exposure.

On this special evening, the Brits were treated to not one but two promising young things. The first, a Welshman named Tom Jones, shook his hips to "It's Not Unusual," the hit that would forever mark him. The second, a denim-clad, engineer-capped Scot armed only with an acoustic guitar and a harnessed harmonica sang a poignant little wonder entitled "Catch the Wind."

The next day the teenager's name would be on the lips of an entire nation. "Catch the Wind" blew into the Top 10. And Donovan Leitch, that sublime boy from Glasgow, was a boy no longer.

The times were innocent then, trusting, and the airwaves much less cluttered. As word spread of the new sensation, stars as well as the multitudes came out out to touch the latest wonder boy: the Beatles, the Stones, the Byrds, and the N.Y.-folk-poet contingent led by Allen Ginsberg and, with a significant show of solidarity, Bob Dylan.

Donovan was thrown into an interstellar overdrive crowded with talent, opportunity, and the perks of celebrity. Mickie Most, soon-to-be-renowned inventor of smash-in-the-pan Herman's Hermits, offered his production know-how. The Beatles offered Abbey Road studio space. And three hep cats without portfolio offered their inspiration and musicianship -- Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, and John Bonham. Two masterful albums resulted -- Sunshine Superman and Mellow Yellow, both certifiably mega on both sides of the pond.

No longer faux Beat, Donovan adopted a kind of galaxy-hopping troubadour persona, where the myths and the fables of his picturesque youth tripped into life. Coupled with an aura of wisdom that belied his age, it was an intoxicating tonic for the masses.

Donovan's star continued rising, his horizons expanding in every direction, jet-set fame at hand. Gossip columnists salivated at his every exploit (he claims the distinction of being the first British pop star busted for pot) and the critics stayed steadfastly in awe. A highly publicized pilgrimage to see the Maharashi Mahesh Yogi in India with Mia Farrow and the Beatles followed hot on the heels of his marriage to Linda Lawrence, Brian Jones's ex-wife. The former probably marked the beginning of Donovan's near end, the latter probably saved his life (the two are still married). In 1974 Donovan (with the aid of Bowie) put together an ultra-wild, carnivalesque stage show to support his concept album (aaargh!) 7-Tease. Then he dropped out.

At least, he dropped out of the big picture. For Donovan success means not having to say you're sorry for staying alive. He may have fled the limelight, and may have had good reasons for doing so, but he consistently released new material up to 1981. He scored the flick If This Is Tuesday, It Must Be Belgium, penned songs for Franco Zeffirelli's Brother Sun, Sister Moon (a film based on the life of St. Francis of Assisi), and starred in David Putnam's production of The Pied Piper.

But what about recordings? There was a little-noticed live set in '86, which he toured to support, but the best and by far most comprehensive is Troubadour: The Definitive Collection: 1964-1976, a two-CD box set of 44 exquisite gems. With the release of this massive, impressive, and surprisingly fresh catalogue, Donovan has once again hit the road. Take a chance, check him out, and find out what becomes a legend most.

DONOVAN performs tonight, Wednesday, at 8:00 p.m. at Musicians Exchange, 729 W Sunrise Blvd, Ft Lauderdale, 764-1912. Tickets cost $16. And on Friday, with Peter Betan, at 9:00 p.m. at Stephen Talkhouse, 616 Collins Ave, Miami Beach, 531-7557. Tickets cost $15 and $20.

 
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