Donovan on the Time He Helped Write a Beatles Classic and Then Watched John Lennon Chase a Paparazzo Into the Jungle
On December 2, at Music Without Borders' annual John Lennon Tribute concert, folk-rock vocalist and hippy star Donovan will be honoured with the Real Love Award, which recognises major bodies of work along with societal impact. (Donovan will also be performing at the tribute.) Playwright Eve Ensler and photographer Bob Gruen are former recipients of the award, as that same Beatle chased after a sneaky photographer but none of them helped out a Beatle with a tune or saw.
In advance of the concert, we asked Donovan — whose Open Road is overdue for rediscovery, by the way — to tell us a story about Lennon, and here (lightly edited for clarity) in accurate mystical, positive, Beatles y glory, is what he said:
Since you may understand, to an ashram in Rishikesh, India I travelled with the Beatles in 1968, to study transcendental meditation with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. It was quite an experience, one John was excited about, especially the idea that individuals exist on three levels of consciousness: waking, dreaming, and sleeping. Fairly simple. And this is nothing related to LSD, mind you. After all the dealers got involved lSD started to become a problem. Mushrooms, the holy plants and such, I discovered more productive. You likely know this, but Santa Claus comes from a Siberian custom whereby the shamans would see the tribal societies of northern Europe once per year, bringing drums and music and charming mushrooms to the tribes as well as the gift of comprehension the replies to all the excellent questions lie inside. Anyhow, when John learned about all this, a meditation that's, he said, "Inside the head is an amazing place? We launched, quite bravely I must say, into our thoughts, to a place beyond thought once we got there, and answers to questions about life began appearing in the sort of tunes — songs that could bring people together.
At the ashram of the Maharishi a very poignant experience occurred: John requested me to teach him some new chord constructions and the way to do finger-style guitar. You know, I understood in 1965 when we met that he and I were similar. So we had a similar perspective — I found myself very easily capable to contribute lines to "Yellow Submarine" for example. I suggested the lyrics "Sky of blue and sea of green" and they worked quite nicely. The purpose is that the Beatles and I were drawn and the time I spent in India educating him as a student, away from fortune and fame, was amazing. He was an excellent learner, he learned in two days what I Had learned in three. These flamenco, blues, and jazz chord types that he was taught by me, and the fingerstyle technique, developed into some of the amazing tunes on The White Album.
He explained he needed to compose a tune about his mother, as John was with me in this period of tuition. He said, "Donovan, you are the king of children's songs. Can you help me?" I asked him what precisely it was that he needed to do. He said, "I need to compose a tune about the youth that I never truly had with my mother." He requested me to help him with the pictures that he could use in lyrics for a song about this topic. So I said, "Well, when you think of the song, where do you imagine yourself?" And John said, "I am at a beach and I'm holding hands with my mom and we're walking together." And I helped him with a couple of lines, "Seashell eyes / windy smile" — for the Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland feel that John loved so much. And the song, which you may know, is the astonishing "Julia."
Here's something else from that same trip, something that shows a different side of John that I haven't spoken about much. No press managed to break into the ashram when we were all there. An awesome army of media were parked nearby for three days, until the Maharishi requested the local military to see them out, but a few of them managed to stick around. So John was washing his hair in the jungle after breakfast — I was sitting on the patio of his small bungalow — and John turned around and saw a paparazzo trying to catch a photograph. Yes, a photograph of the famed John Lennon in the jungle. He wasn't merely the star folks think of now. So John instantly began yelling at him and chasing him through the jungle, cursing and saw this paparazzo. I had never seen someone so scared in my life as that photographer. John caught him and threw him over the fence of the ashram. That John, we could use more folks like him. I miss him.