Psychedelic Legend Donovan Visits the MIM

On Monday, October 10, British songwriter and psychedelic legend Donovan (born Donovan Philips Leitch) visited the Musical Instrument Museum, strolling around the exhibits and conducting interviews with writers about the history of music and education.

Speaking with Donovan was really something. They guy doesn't seem to stop to even think; he's just a fount of poetic musings about music, its global history and current importance.

We spoke just after Donovan finished touring the museum with another writer, and the exhibits were fresh in his mind. Over the course of 45-or-so minutes, Donovan explained to me the connections between ancient Africa, the music of the sixties, punk rock, electronica, and his work involving transcendental meditation with David Lynch, Ringo Star, and Paul McCartney.

Up on the Sun: This is your first time visiting the MIM?

Donovan: Yeah. Last night, we arrived from L.A. in the day, and last night we couldn't see the museum, but we were entertained in the auditorium, and that was the first introduction to the place. We had a wonderful experience last night.

Sounds pretty good in there, doesn't it?

It's amazing. It's world-class [and] it's unique, and it's only a year-and-a-half old. Great things are going to happen from this establishment, and already have.

Today you got to tour the museum. I'm sure everything was fascinating, but was there anything that was particularly exciting to you?

Well... [smiles broadly] We started in Africa. Maybe everybody does, thinking of the history. But one mustn't forget China; China is ancient, just like Africa. The whole world is ancient. But when you look at documentaries, trying trace the original civilization, where did it all begin? When you see an exhibit like this, when I saw an exhibit like this...It didn't matter where anything began. What was overwhelming today, was that the human race has adopted three different kinds of musical instruments. To express the human condition. To express the bond. And those three are: drums, pretty obvious, flutes and pipes, and stringed instruments.

Wherever I went in the exhibit, country to country to country, there they were. When I entered, it was clear that there was a map of the world. It's obvious that the trade routes, by see and by land, people were moving backwards and forwards. With the caravans and the ships, obviously, came the music. There would be a pollination, and hybrid, and blending of musical instruments and innovation. But there must have been sometime when they weren't. In the old days [those three types of instruments] seemed to be a natural expression of the human. That was the most amazing thing, to see it repeated everywhere...

Everybody figured it out on their own, as they evolved as cultures.

We tend to think someone invented it as and passed it on, but there is a need in the human, from my reading, a need in the human to measure time. From very early days, what we call primitive, they measured the crossing of the stars across the heavens; the traveling of the sun across the sky; and the moon every month. These rhythms seem to be part of the human condition. The woman's cycle each month. The coming of the crops, the coming of spring, summer, autumn, and winter. So the human wishes to be in some kind of rhythm. When you are in the rhythm, you survive, and when you are out, you have some kind of difficulty.

Don't plant your crops at the wrong time -- but how did we figure that out? What we call the animals...we call it instinct. They respond to patterns and rhythms, and time and measurement. That sounds, to me, a lot like music. The actual need to make a dance of some kind - and you see the animals dancing, in their courtship [dances in chair]. The humans must have figured it out. The idea of rhythm is very much celebration. But also, protect the human. Because the animals don't have music, but the humans developed the beating of drums and playing of flutes, and the strumming of stringed express. There's an ancient book, called the I Ching, in China, which says "Music is the invisible sound, which releases obscure emotions in the heart."

Herbs heal you. Massage can heal you. But there is another kind of release psychic difficulties, and psychic blockages in our body, where fear and anger and frustration build up...somehow, we go to music to be healed of these things. Throughout the exhibit, it became clear that humans have been doing this for a long while, and that the musician has been honored in the tribe, in a way, as a healer.

We are part of the natural. All around the museum you see this. Whether you call it Christian or Muslim or pagan, or Buddhist, or Hindu. It doesn't really matter what you call it, but it's very spiritual. A sacred thing, music. I'm very moved today, to see what I am part of. I am part of this, because millions of people have felt from my music that it was beneficial to their lives.

I'm sure it's a good feeling to recognize your role in that.

It's a confirmation. I mean, I knew. I know where I come from, Ireland and Scotland, traditionally the musician is honored. The poet is honored. The people can't express themselves, and a long comes someone like me, or hundreds like me, certainly not thousands, who can actually, naturally, express an emotion, and people can share it and sing with me.

The word unity --you would see the rest of the people in the videos, you would see the musician playing the drums or the harp, and the rest of the people, all around them, they were gathering and they were dancing. Often a musician, it's a see the musician when he's a child, perhaps, when he's 10 or 11, and he shows an inclination. To pick up an instrument, or to sing a song. Most bonding groups, like tribes or nations, when that musician arrives, it's encouraged. The older members of the tribe, the older musicians, they see the younger musician coming, and they say, "He should come with us, so we can teach him."

Musicians can be discovered. That's what happens today, on Teen Idol or American Idol [laughs]. But who is voting for them? A songwriter like Smokey Robinson, how many people said, "He's the one?" Obviously millions. But how did they hear about him? A DJ, playing the record. The DJ is like the older member in the tribe...who played the record on the radio. That's what happened to the Beatles, The Stones, me, Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen. Only one or maybe two or three DJs played what we were doing, and then the phones started ringing. Play it again. Play it again. Play it again. In the videos, there were no DJs in that tribe, there was no pop music, but obviously that one was selected. People knew, "We have to get around this guy! Let's dance! We're going to dance."

I talked with a member of a punk band for my music feature this week, a band that played here in the early '80s. He talked to me about something Tom Waits told him, and it's a very simple thought, but he said something like, "Music that is the same tempo as our heartbeat soothes us, music that is faster than our heartbeat excites us, and music that is slower kind of lulls us..."

He's right. Basically, because punk or edgy music tends to relate to the young, the young need to rush forward, out of the families they have grown up in. In the tribes it would be called initiation, where they would be taken from the parent by the men, and put through an experience that scared them, to tear them away from mother and the women, and place them in the tribe and say, now you're a man. In a way, that's missing now. So the first edgy music, in my generation, I guess, was The Who. And to some extent, The Kinks [sings "Girl, I want to be with you..." makes drum noises].

Rock 'n' roll in general is very edgy, but punk moved it into faster beats. And then of course electronic music, and ecstasy, and dance-clubs and the producers of dance music...they would stop the track now and again, and it was needed. The heartbeat was going too fast...there would be a slow down so the heartbeat could catch up. Most music is in four beats...[more drum sounds] and the kick of the drum is the heartbeat. You see the African videos where they are jumping up and down, and you go to a metal club, and you see the same thing. These things are quite natural, and if we didn't do them, there would be danger to the human...

It serves a purpose in our lives.

Because in the modern world we consider [music] entertainment, something we do when we stop work. It's so essential that people realize, no, it actually should be blended with work. The life that we are living is in great danger from being separated from praising what life is. What is work? What is five days a week leading up to a weekend where we just go crazy and then go back to work on Monday? Maybe music has a better purpose to serve; it should be reintroduced to schools, reintroduced to the curriculum, each child should learn how to play in instrument. Then they would be expressing themselves.

In ancient Greece, a full education was gymnastics, academia, and music. We're producing [children] in schools that are not complete. They are going out to hear their entertainment, but they could be part of the whole thing. Meditation, as well. I'm involved with David Lynch, the great film-maker, and the surviving two Beatles, to present meditation in schools. Not only do children celebrate their education, but they are able to withdraw into themselves, to be calm, to be peaceful, for at least ten minutes. Ten minutes in the morning, and ten minutes in the afternoon.

That should be part of education. It's called reflection...because TV is fast fast -- everything is too fast, never stopping...and music [should be taught, too.] You don't have to be on American Idol, you don't have to be a star, but it's very good for you to play music.

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Jason P. Woodbury is a music and pop-culture writer based in Phoenix. He is a regular contributor to the music blog Aquarium Drunkard and co-host of the Transmissions podcast.