Seems an unlikely connection, such disparate characters are Donovan and David Bowie. It was there, in the early 1970s though. In early 1974, Donovan had been spending a lot of time in New York City. Although it isn't recorded how they first met, he became friendly -or what passes as 'friendly' amongst musicians of a certain stature - with Bowie. By this time, The Thin White Duke's star was not so much in the ascendant as already high as high can be (as was Mr Bowie for much of this time). Donovan's greatest days, as far as being a chart-troubling star, were a few years behind him, although there had been the welcome but brief return to the spotlight with his Cosmic Wheels album the year before and the 'airwave hit' Maria Magenta, which received plenty of needle time on UK radio stations but didn't seem so popular with the great Record Buying Public.
The initial meetings may have taken place not in the States but in England, as Bowie was in Olympic Studios, Barnes - a setting Donovan knew and had used often, particularly with some of the Barabajagal material - to record Big Brother, Rock 'N' Roll With Me, Candidate, Take It Right and Diamond Dawgs (sic). We Are The Dead was also recorded there and after 15th January 1974, Bowie was jetting everywhere, from Holland to Germany to the States to England and back again. Donovan must have had to time his visits carefully, to ensure Bowie was around.
It is documented that the first time Donovan called on Bowie in New York, the later was wearing a bright orange jump suit. With his hair the colour of angry flames too, Bowie must have resembled nothing so much as a giant carrot. Not someone who'd blend into the background in the street. There again, mega stars like David didn't walk the streets; they had limos with darkened windows to move them, whenever they ventured out of their domains. As the bigger star, it was concomitant for Bowie to be visited by Donovan and not the other way around. After all, the Queen or President wouldn't come to your abode, would she/he? You'd be expected to make the effort to call on them.
Always assuming you were invited. It was a mark of Donovan's standing (within their hearts) that musicians of Bowie's eminence were willing to entertain Mr Leitch. Bowie had been around since the mid 60s like Donovan, first as a Mod and had grown up with Donovan's music as part of his background. Whether it had proved to his liking was immaterial; as far as The Dame was concerned, Donovan had paid his dues and proved his worth and that was good enough. The music scene was like that, then. Most performers respected the achievements of their contemporaries and forebears. Not like now, where it's compulsory to 'diss' (horrible, ungrammatical expression!) everything and everyone that's gone before.
Without belonging to the CIA or FBI we cannot know the precise details of their conversations, but there were several such meetings and it's interesting to note how their thinking and careers ran along parallel lines at this juncture. Donovan was in the embryonic stages of putting together his 7-Tease album and stage show, with massed musicians, dancers and painted backdrops and Bowie was at the Diamond Dogs period of his career, similarly with musicians and much stagecraft.
Not that the concepts were too similar. Given the different psyches at work, Donovan's was an ultimately joyful celebration of the journey from childhood, through the beatnik era to the present day. It took in melancholia, the despoliation of Earth by man, drugs, loneliness and other matters but it was intended to present a picture that was sending a positive message. It's alright, don't worry/Take your time, don't hurry as the soothing words from The Quest had it. In contrast, Bowie's world was envisaged as a nightmarish Dystopia, where fleas sucked on rats the size of cats. There wasn't gonna be any redemptive ending it Bowie's world. It
was rock 'n' roll genocide.
Where Donovan had a Season Of The Witch eight years earlier, Bowie referenced a season of the bitch. The dogs might have been diamond but there was little that was 'precious' about them. Both shows suffered major changes to their original plans, as well. Bowie's was intended to be based around George Orwell's 1984 novel but his widow refused permission, so Bowie was left just with the song of the same title and a major rethink/rewrite on his hands. Donovan intended his show to include a cast of thousands but spiralling costs meant taped sections had to be inserted and spoken word links substituted in many places. 7-Tease was originally to be a double album too but this had to be pared down to the one record.
No question as to whose stage show was the bigger hit but Donovan never stood a chance. As a falling star, he didn't have the huge weight and promotional budget of a monolithic record company like RCA Victor and MainMan behind him. And Bowie was unquestionably the man of the time. It was very unfortunate that the intended 1975 UK/New Zealand Donovan 7-Tease shows ended up, again for reasons of prohibitive cost, being nothing of the sort, just becoming standard Donovan gigs. Not that there is anything wrong with a 'standard' concert but the spectacle would have been quite something.
One of the Boston 7-Tease shows saw David Bowie introducing Donovan but this is the only documented time they appeared on stage together. Ironically, the local union prevented Donovan's crew from erecting the Patrick-painted sets that night.
Many Donofans were shocked when he issued Rock 'N' Roll With Me as a single on 27th September 1974. On the surface, this was a most un-Donovan like track. Closer examination will reveal that the Diamond Dogs version of this is one of the less outre numbers and Donovan's piano-led take isn't far from Bowie's own song. Donovan's was a big production effort with echo-chamber styled doomy vocals in places and deserved further airplay. Or any airplay. Didn't happen, though.
The song was a co-composition between Bowie and Geoffrey 'Mac' MacCormack who was using the joke pseudonym 'Warren Peace' at the time and it thus credited. MacCormack was also introduced on stage each night under his 'Peace' alter ego. At least UK copies got the 'N' right, rather than the single apostrophe'd 'N of American pressings. On both sides of the Atlantic, the song was
backed by an Essence To Essence number, The Divine Daze Of Deathless Delight rather than anything from the more recent Cosmic Wheels, such as Appearances, which would have sat very nicely on the obverse. Donovan or Epic Records also curiously declined to premiere any material from the forthcoming 7-Tease.
Like all artists, there was cross-collateralisation going on for a fair while after their flurry of meetings. Well, Donovan picked up on some of Bowie's ideas anyway, either intentionally or subconsciously. Bowie's next studio album was Young Americans with its forays into 'white man sings blues/R&B territory. The most overt example of Bowie's genre-hopping was the title track itself but Fame and other heavily-riffed foot-stomping shouters also marked his path.
Donovan's next album was Slow Down World and therein we find the brass-driven A Well Known Has-Been. Another candidate for a white artiste doing what the black singers normally do but this was a very maudlin 'woe is me, why has fame now passed me by?' number, only lifted by the defiant I'm gonna raise my head up high attitude of the last verse. This also presaged a whole series of songs where Donovan grumbled and whined about his former status, with 1977's Sing My Song being one of the worst of a very poor but worryingly large selection.
Fortunately, A Well Known Has-Been had more than enough going for it to lift it out of the mire of lachrymose, in-my-cups musing that besets - and infects - so many of these songs. Sid Maurer, Donovan's manager and long-term artistic chum, also managed Brass Construction and it was this group that provided the
Memphis Horns style backing.
Scurrying back to 1974, nowhere were the differences in the two artist's approach to lyrics and subject matter clearer than on, in the first instance, Bowie's Alternative Candidate. This song was inexplicably left off the original Diamond Dogs LP but features - barring just one line! - completely new words and a new tune as well. Some of the most apposite but rude words ever penned by a 'white boy' to open a song perfectly capture that permanently - hormonal state of lust felt by most youngsters as they rage through their turbulent teen years. Inside every teenage girl, there's a fountain/Inside every teen pants, there's a mountain. Perfect. And it went on from there...
By contrast, Donovan's was far gentler, citing his mother Winifred's shock at seeing the tell-tale signs of puberty upon the sheets. Bowie bluntly goes on about it being a matter of fact that he takes it up himself to relieve himself. Both are valid ways of demonstrating all the confusion, uncertainty and well, wonderfulness of that era in anyone's life.
Young Americans (single and album) were huge hits, Slow Down World and Has-Been weren't hits of any kind. But it didn't invalidate the worthiness of the latter. It would have been intriguing if Donovan had ever wandered on as a surprise special guest artist on one of Bowie's shows in late '74, from which the double LP David Live was drawn. By then, Donovan was busy rehearsing/touring his own 7-Tease album, so it wouldn't have been possible but it remains something that can bring a wry smile of musing to one's lips.
Are there any outtakes, either from Olympic, Trident or from elsewhere, with the two very contrasting musicians singing or playing together? Given the huge interest that remains in anything connected with David Bowies, it seems unlikely. That stated, Beatles outtakes and alternative cuts still keep emerging, long after all collectors assume the well must finally have run dry, so we cannot rule the possibility out.