I often feel Scottish singer-songwriter Donovan has been misunderstood. When he shows up these days, it’s in songs like his creepy “Hurdy Gurdy Man” and “Season of the Witch,” in films and TV series about serial killers. This may leave younger viewers with the impression that the psychedelic folk hero went down some scary musical paths. But those who remember Donovan in his heyday remember him as the singer of “Sunshine Superman,” his biggest hit, and “Mellow Yellow,” which hit Number 2 in the U.S. in 1966. The following year, he urged his listeners to wear their love like heaven, in verses that rivaled Syd Barrett’s for their love of color: “Color in sky, Prussian blue / Scarlet fleece changes hue.”
Maybe it’s hard to entertain the sentiments of flower power in 2021. But maybe, also, Donovan’s sunniest songs have always had darker threads woven through them. Take “Sunshine Superman”: kind of a creepy tune, with its Lou Reed-like observation about “hustlin’ just to have a little scene,” and its hippie lothario’s confession that he’ll use “any trick in the book” on the object of his desire. Maybe it was early fans who got him wrong. Donovan has always been a weirdo’s weirdo, if you will. And so, it stands to reason that he would pick David Lynch to produce his track, “I Am the Shaman,” and to direct a video for the song for his 75th birthday this past Monday.
The song itself is not new, but was produced by Lynch in 2010 for the album, Ritual Groove, a collection of recordings, “some dating as far back as 1976,” writes one reviewer, held together by the “premise… that the planet is stuffed, the Goddess won’t care if we drift off into oblivion but wait, a saviour appears in the form of the previously humble minstrel Donovan, now a true poet.” (If fans of the cult psychedelic horror film Mandy are reminded of Jeremiah Sand, then we are in grim territory, indeed.) The collaboration gets even more interesting when we learn that “I Am the Shaman” was largely improvised, as Donovan himself wrote on Facebook:
He had asked me to only bring in a song just emerging, not anywhere near finished. We would see what happens. It happened! I composed extempore… the verses came naturally. New chord patterns effortlessly appeared.
This way of working suited him perfectly, as did the backwards-talking production Lynch applied to the track. “David and I are ‘compadres’ on a creative path rarely traveled,” he noted. It is a path that leads straight through the wilds of Transcendental Meditation, for which the video is intended to raise money and awareness. Despite its lack of color, another affinity shared by Donovan Leitch and David Lynch, “I Am the Shaman” shows both artists vibrating at the same frequency, which may either confirm or unsettle what you thought you knew about the mystical poet/singer/shaman Donovan.