Tuesday, December 09, 2008

"Hurdy-Gurdy Man" / Donovan

I'm deep into a new book called Please, Please Me: Sixties British Pop Inside Out by Gordon Thompson, so all I can think about right now is UK pop from the 1960s (I know, I know, that's hardly a change for me). While this doesn't have all the salacious details about rock star lives that I was kinda hoping for, it's great on stuff like who engineered which track, how they created certain sound effects, how various songs evolved, and who really played the drums for the Dave Clark Five. And I'm just enough of a record geek to care.

I was too young when these records first came out to pay attention to technical stuff like this, but according to Thompson, "Hurdy-Gurdy Man" has been called by some sources the first Led Zeppelin recording, because most of the members of the band -- which hadn't yet formed -- were called in for the recording session. Thompson insists that this wasn't the case. John Paul Jones, Led Zep's eventual bassist -- at the time a very in-demand session musician -- was the musical director for the session. But instead of having John Bonham on the drums, Jones called in Clem Cattini, who'd long been his go-to drummer, and he hired Alan Parker for guitar instead of Jimmy Page (another popular session man, though his claim to have played Dave Davies' part on early Kinks recordings is apocryphal).

Well, I'm no Led Zep fan, so the exact personnel doesn't really matter to me. Still, I couldn't stop listening to this track after reading this. It's such a fantastic number, moody and ominous in a way that Donovan's early folky music hadn't been. There's the minor key, of course, and the hynotically repeated, downward-sliding melodies; there's the exaggerated tremble of Donovan's voice, sounding almost artifically distorted. When this came out in 1968, that psychedelic texture was still something novel and exciting. Sure, Donovan had already given us "Sunshine Superman" and "Mellow Yellow," so we knew that our sweet Scottish flower child was exploring the wonderful world of drugs. But the darkness of "Hurdy Gurdy Man," the disconnected groping for meaning, was a whole new dimension.

"Thrown like a star in my vast sleep," he begins, in a hushed and haunting voice, "I open my eyes to take a peep /To find that I was by the sea / Gazing with tranquility." But there's no tranquility here; a military drum fill erupts, then an exotic Indian tambura, then that insinuating sliding guitar line, like a foghorn moaning through the night. "Twas then when the hurdy gurdy man / Came singing songs of love," Donovan intones, but it sure doesn't sound like a song of love. "Hurdy gurdy, hurdy gurdy, hurdy gurdy, gurdy he sang," Donovan repeats, like he's in a trance. Whatever this mind-blowing message of the hurdy gurdy man is, it comes off as mumbled nonsense.

What's a hurdy gurdy man doing here? I visualize an Italian street-corner musician with a handlebar mustache, hardly the groovy hippie image you'd expect. Songfacts.com and Wikipedia tell me that the song was in fact written as a gift for Donovan's mentor Mac MacLeod, whose band was named Hurdy Gurdy, but once the song was written Donovan decided not to give him the song and recorded it himself. Too bad -- that prosaic explanation takes all the fun out of it. I like to imagine the Hurdy Gurdy Man as a mysterious figure like the Fool on the Hill, a magus who has all the answers, while we unenlightened souls can only hear it as gibberish.

It gets even more portentous in the next verse: "Histories of ages past / Unenlightened shadows cast / Down through all eternity /The crying of humanity." When you see the words printed out baldly like that, it's pretty silly, isn't it? But not when it's sung, over that insistent drum beat in that spooky echoey voice. And then the hurdy gurdy man becomes, for no discernible reason, a "rolypoly man -- roly poly, roly poly, roly poly, poly he sang . . . " It should sound cute and cuddly, but it's anything but. You just want to dive into those tangled skeins of sound and lose yourself.

Hurdy Gurdy Man sample


Natsthename said...

Sounds like I need to check out this book!

The Modesto Kid said...

Funny, you know I loved Donovan for a brief period of my adolescence -- and still do love him, in a more muted way -- but the only two songs of his that spend any time in my head are "Sunshine Superman" and "The Fat Angel". (Well, and maybe "Wear Your Love Like Heaven".) A couple of my friends were into his music and they seemed to think "Hurdy Gurdy Man" and "Isle of Islay" were his two best songs -- I listen to these and they are very beautiful but they don't really move me that way.

(When I was 16, in 1986, Donovan did a tour of the US -- my friends and I were psyched! But the concert ended up being pretty unmemorable. An afternoon of mellow psychedelic hits in the lounge of the San Francisco Fairmont, with nobody under 40 besides us and a couple of kindergarten-age grandchildren.)

Uncle E said...

I love this song. It was used to chilling effect in the movie Zodiac when the killer makes his first move. I haven't been able to listen to it without that image in my head since.
Nice post!

44 said...

Good job, hollyh.

Holly A Hughes said...

Yeah, put that book on your holiday reading list, Nat -- it's a little academic, but it delivers some good reminiscences from behind-the-scenes folks about the UK music biz.

Modesto, I love the image of you with the graying audience in the lounge, blissing out to Donovan. That box set of his, Troubador, really opened my eyes to a darker, edgier side to his work. Did you ever see the Dylan documentary, Don't Look Back? Dylan was competitively obsessed with Donovan, and the Donovan wanders into a party, all sweetness and generosity, and ol' jealous Bobby D was twisted up in the corner, watching every move the guy made. Priceless.

Funny you should mention Zodiac, Unc, I'd been thinking about that film lately but I forgot this song was in it. Brilliant, intensely creepy film. That's the one Downey should have gotten an Oscar for.

The Modesto Kid said...

BTW I've had a "Fat Angel" earworm for a couple of days now, from leaving this idle comment.

Anonymous said...

Donovan is like every Scottish person I've met- twee and mystical.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I think this is a message to the world's darkest hour: the serial killers. I don't know. But when I listen to it (which it is by the way, a very haunting song) those of images of jack the ripper, zodiac, and other killers appear. No, it's not because it was featured in the movie film The Zodiac or that it fit the movie perfectly, but the sound and the lyrics. We must go deeper on this.