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My First Donovan Gig(s)

by Ade Macrow


Not that they were commonly referred to as 'gigs' back then. No, they were always called 'concerts'. And quite right, too! (Or "quite rightly"). A person knew where he was with the formal 'concert'. All this informality and slang – good heavens, people will be smoking exotic cigarettes next and indulging in all kinds of reprehensible behaviour. And we all know, that sort of thing brings down Governments and threatens the very fabric of Civilization As We Know It.

 

My first experience of seeing Donovan live was on Friday 5th May 1972, in that mud festival known as Bickershaw, which was just outside Wigan. Donovan was the bill-topper and played both an afternoon and an evening set. I can recall little, apart from the unreleased I'm A Rock Star, I'm A Gambler and the fact it rained. And it rained. And it rained. Oh, did I tell you it was rather wet as well?  The Festival can be eloquently summed up in two words. Mud. Crud. I used to have a pathetically lo-fi cassette of one of the sets but I'm not sure where that's got to now.

 

Anyway, excluding the above as a 'proper' Donovan gig, on the grounds that he was just one of many artists and not the sole performer, my first real Donovan gig didn't happen until over 18 months later. This was on Saturday 2nd December 1973, at The Rainbow Theatre, Finsbury Park, London. In its earlier guise as The Astoria, The Rainbow had achieved fame as the place where the live in-concert segments of The Beatles' A Hard Day's Night movie were filmed. As an aside, I work with a lady who was actually in the invited audience of screamers for those sequences. Luck gal. I think she's just about recovering from the experience now.

 

This was the second of two consecutive nights Donovan was playing there and, despite his peak years being over, he was still sufficiently big enough to make obtaining a ticket for either gig very difficult. I've forgotten the precise details but I know I managed to get a ticket for myself and my classmate, John Wheatley.

 

On the way to the concert, we discussed Donovan's songs and I was surprised that John didn't share my enthusiasm for Catch The Wind. All became clear only years later. John was never the biggest Donovan fan and only had the Donovan's Greatest Hits LP. Pocket money being in short supply, this was an album I was refraining from buying until I'd purchased everything else, reasoning that, as I'd got everything on it, it would be the least essential part of my collection.

 

Only years later, having duly added it to my collection, did I discover that both Catch The Wind and Colours weren't the 'greatest hits' versions at all but new versions, complete with strings and lush orchestration, recorded in 1969 under the aegis of Mickie Most. Nowhere on the cover of the LP did it state these were replacement, inferior, versions. No wonder John was only lukewarm towards these numbers.

 

The wait to get in seemed to last forever but we made our ways to our seats. Unfortunately, these were in the Upper Circle or 'The Gods' as such seats are usually known in theatre-going company. Donovan was a small figure, as he stood up, centre-stage with his Nehru shirt, harmonica rack around his neck and wonderful Tony Zemaitis 'Blue Moon' guitar.

 

I cannot recall all the songs but can remember a piece of improvisation during There Is A Mountain. It was the days of power cuts in Britain and all places of entertainment, in the interest of fuel efficiency and saving supplies, were banned from using heating of any kind. Being December, it was bitterly cold. Inside the Rainbow, as well as out. Donovan started to improvise "First it's bloody cold in here/And then it isn't/Then it is" which drew laughter and a round of applause. Well, the first and third lines were accurate but the second was an exercise in blind optimism. Or a 'lie' to use the standard terminology.

 

All too soon, it was the halftime break. Though I cannot remember how it came about, John and myself ended up talking to a very attractive young lady who turned out to be a reporter for one of the newspapers. Yes! Donovan used to be considered important enough to merit concert coverage in those day, folks! Her name has long eluded me but I can recall her visage even now. (Nostalgic sigh).

 

Anyhow, this lady really turned out to be some kind of Astral Angel. Asking us several times if we really were "genuine Donovan fans?" (What do you think our answer was each time, reader?), we weren't sure where the conversation was leading…Which was to offer us a spot on the steps by the press-enclosure, slap-bang in front of the stage, about eight feet away from the man himself.

 

She asked if we'd mind giving up our seats for a mere space on the steps each but of course we didn't. The second half of the concert passed even more quickly than the first. Again, memories of the actual content are mostly gone but it was the first time I can remember Donovan using the appended humorous ending to Colours, viz "yellow are the colour of my true love's teeth/In the morning, when we rise/But it doesn't matter to me".

 

It seems odd, perhaps, to have such cherished memories of a concert I can recall so little of. But what memories they are. The sixteen year old boy I was then lives on, somewhere inside. John Wheatley is dead, sadly killed in a car crash just six years later. Donovan has long since traded spontaneous charm for auto-pilot and endless word-for-word recitations about Air India, George Harrison's long-lost Hurdy Gurdy Man verse, American girls holding parties in his flat, dangling naked from the end of a policeman's arm and other such by-rote tales.

 

Nothing can ever damp down the glow that suffuses me whenever I bring to mind that Rainbow concert. So, Donovan isn't the force he was. You know what? In light of the above and a host of other memories like it that Donovan has inspired and to quote Leitchoman man himself "it doesn't matter to me".

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