“Sunshine Superman” / Donovan
MAY IS BRITISH INVASION MONTH!
One thing the British Invasion rescued us from was folk music – relentlessly earnest coffee-house acts like Peter Paul & Mary and Judy Collins. There was Bob Dylan, too, but even though he came to the party dressed as a protest singer, we all knew he was going to have more up his sleeve. I adore the D. A. Pennebaker film Don’t Look Back which shows Dylan on his 1965 UK tour; in one of my favorite moments, Dylan enviously asks Alan Price (who’d just quit the Animals), “So who is this Donovan?” Price tells Dylan that Donovan is a Scottish folk singer and “he’s very good, actually.” Then Price adds (deadpan), “Better than you.” Dylan scowls.
Donovan -- the first singer I ever knew of who went by just one name -- started off as a traditional folkie, with “Catch the Wind” and “Universal Soldier,” but the Donovan I loved blossomed in 1966. Let the Mods drift into psychedelia; Donovan cornered the market on flower-child innocence. His song titles tell you all you need to know: “Mellow Yellow,” “Sunny South Kensington,” “Epistle to Dippy,” “There Is a Mountain,” “Wear Your Love Like Heaven.” Strictly speaking, I suppose this wasn’t British Invasion anymore, but Donovan never really belonged to any movement – he was just Donovan.
“Sunshine Superman” starts off intriguingly, with a muted plucked bass line, tiptoeing softly into the scene; then a harpsichord-like keyboard lays down a suspense-movie soundtrack. Guitar feedback flits through like a creaking floorboard. “Sunshine came softly through my /A-window today,” Donovan begins, in that velvety brogue of his. “Could’ve tripped out easy, but I / I’ve changed my ways.” Now that’s an arresting opening, even though it lapses next into love-song cliches: “It’ll take time I know it / But in a while / You’re gonna be mine I know it / We’ll do it in style / Cause I’ve made my mind up / You’re going to be mine.” But by now you’re hooked on that hypnotic melody – it’s almost like atonal plainsong, most lines being subtle variations of a basic pattern, with octave jumps bracketed by three-note chromatic sequences (except for that curling phrase, “I’ll tell you right now,” a jazzy dissonant touch that I love).
The lyrics go off in surreal, min-expanding directions. “Superman or Green Lantern ain’t got / A-nothing on me” – that’s the classic, but so many others stick in my mind. “You can just sit there thinking / On your velvet throne / About all the rainbows that you can / A-have for your own….” “Everybody’s hustlin’ baby / For a little scene…” “We stood on the beach at sunset / Do you remember when? / I know a beach where baby / It never ends….” “Pick up your hand and slowly / Blow your little mind.” What does it mean? Who cares? Logic is so 1965, man.
This track has so much texture, you can get lost in it. There’s Jimmy Page, moonlighting from the Yardbirds, on those twangy guitar accents; sexy Latin percussion lays down a sinuous cha-cha rhythm; and that plinging keyboard dances all around the vocal. How that jerky syncopation manages to feel so spacey, so blissed-out, I don’t know. It’s a wondrous thing.
Donovan started out in turtleneck sweaters and a seafarer’s cap; but by “Sunshine Superman,” he was wearing an embroidered Nehru jacket and visiting India with the Beatles and the Maharishi. It’s astonishing, how rapidly the scene evolved from 1964 to 1967, and Donovan was right there in the vanguard, floating serenely on his own magic carpet. Looking back at the 1960s, sometimes it’s hard to imagine how anybody took flower children seriously – but then I listen to Donovan and feel the love vibes all over again.
Sunshine Superman sample