Your passions are like pipelines to your soul. They connect you to your heart’s desire. Donovan Leitch has been significantly influenced by His Holiness Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who summed up why the heart is so important when he said, It makes no difference how deeply seated may be the trouble, how great the mistake. Sufficient realization of love will resolve it all. If you could love enough, you would be the happiest and most powerful being in the world.
Donovan has helped add considerably more love to our world. He is a real-life music legend. He was one of the top British recording artists of his time, and continues to be a major influence in the musical world today. From 1966 through 1969, Donovan scored a string of 11 Top-40 hits in a row, including Mellow Yellow, Sunshine Superman, Epistle to Dippy, There is a Mountain, Wear Your Love Like Heaven, Hurdy Gurdy Man, Jennifer Juniper, Laleña, Atlantis and Riki Tiki Tavi.
Donovan was one of the few artists to collaborate on songs with The Beatles, contributing lyrics and vocals to the song Yellow Submarine. Donovan was also invited by The Beatles to join them at Abbey Road Studios for the final orchestral overdub sessions in a Lennon/McCartney collaboration of A Day in the Life, which was the grand finale of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
He influenced John Lennon, George Harrison and Paul McCartney in their guitar styles, and during his career played with folk music greats Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, as well as rock musicians Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin and Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones. In the past five years, Donovan has completed the successful album Beat Café, a new box set, Try For the Sun: The Journey of Donovan, and a book, The Autobiography of Donovan: The Hurdy Gurdy Man, from St. Martin’s Press.
In 1968, Donovan traveled to India with The Beatles, Mike Love of The Beach Boys, and Mia Farrow to learn the Transcendental Meditation technique with his Holiness Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Today he is fulfilling his 40-year interest in the TM program by heading up the musical wing of the David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness-Based Education and World Peace. Donovan will return to the stage for a slow world tour during 2009, 2010 and 2011.
Christine Comaford conducted Donovan’s interview. Bill Gates calls her ‘super-high bandwidth’. Bill Clinton has thanked her for fostering American entrepreneurship, and Janet Attwood calls her a ‘flipping light bulb’, because she’s so light, so positive, and all-time happy. She’s also the New York Times bestselling author of Rules for Renegades. Christine is CEO of Mighty Ventures, a business accelerator that helps businesses massively increase sales, product offerings, and company value.
Christine has led many lives, so it’s no mistake that she was the one to be interviewing Donovan. She’s been a Buddhist monk, a Microsoft engineer, a geisha trainee, an entrepreneur, and a venture capitalist. You can learn more about her by going to www.MightyVentures.com.
CHRISTINE COMAFORD: It is so cool to be here, and it’s such an honor. I’m so excited! Let’s get started. Donovan, you know how important passion is and the things that we care about in life. How has passion played a role in your life and in your music?
DONOVAN LEITCH: Christine, here we go! From a very early age, poetry, art, music and the spiritual path were essential to me. As I was thinking about it, I thought, These are the four lodestones. A beautiful word, lodestone. Who knew where that magic stone came from that always pointed in one direction? It was kind of an astrological center point of the whole universe, the magnetic center.
I was drawn passionately to the sound of poetry because my father read me poetry, Christine, from a very early age. I thought up to a certain age that every young child was read poetry by their father, who had a silver tongue. Sure enough, as I grew up I realized it wasn’t the case, but the sound of poetry was extraordinary to me before I knew the meanings.
Then when I started hearing the meanings of the words, I became aware they were read, these poems, by my father who was using a certain tone of voice different from his normal tone when he was reading these poems. I became aware these were poems of noble thought, introspection and very special kinds of dreams. They were written by people like Coleridge, Wordsworth and our own Scottish Shakespeare, Robert Burns.
I burned, like rubber burns, with a passion to know why these sounds were meaning so much to me. It became clear from a very early age my passion would be the movement of air that was created by speaking and singing certain sounds; and so, poetry. Art followed very quickly because as a teenager-12, 13, 14-the art class in school was very, very attractive to me. Music had always been, and it continues to be, the sister to poetry.
Poetry and music would come together for me. Then, when I picked up that book On the Road by Jack Kerouac and read the words ‘Zen’ and ‘Buddhism’, something happened. That led to Alan Watts; Alan Watts led to Christmas Humphries; Christmas Humphries led to Suzuki, and then Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Vedas, and then the Celtic mythology. These four passions ruled my young life, as they still do today, Christine.
CHRISTINE COMAFORD: Poetry, art, music, spirituality. When you were talking, I was listening to your voice and closing my eyes. I wanted to know what you think of this. It seems to me poems can be like incantations.
DONOVAN LEITCH: Very much so. It’s the actual vowel sounds. It became clear that the great speakers, the great orators, actors and, of course, vocal singers, were using the voice in a special way. I located the power of the vowel sounds to resonate. All other sounds in poetry seemed to be rhythmic; when the voice was used to stop air, they produced a rhythm.
When the vowel sounds were spoken, sung, orated in a certain way, you heard the sound of the blues; you heard world music; you heard the sound of the soul producing a sound, which doesn’t stop. It continues until the air is finished. These are chants, and chants are very important. The poet’s work is to harmonize the tribe, to delineate the four quarters of the year and the great agricultural cycle of the earth as she turns. Mother Nature is chanted by poets.
CHRISTINE COMAFORD: While you were just speaking, it also sounded like music, poetry, and mantras in meditation all have that power to harmonize and the power to transform.
DONOVAN LEITCH: Yes. It became clear that there already was a harmony, and that we as individuals can be out of that harmony. We can grow up thinking it’s quite natural to be out of the unity and to feel uncomfortable. Then I read more and more. I grew up in Scotland, Christine, of an Irish mother and Scottish father, although he had Irish on his side, and it was a very literary background.
The poorest Scot in the 1700s had a library, and books were very important. I just absorbed so many books, and the books that I absorbed told me of the innate, natural, normal, harmonic structure of the universe and nature, and that man and woman can be out of step with this harmony. George Harrison, once of The Beatles, and I would speak about it and we’d share books on it.
We’d wonder, How come we got out of step with this great harmony? Therefore, music does not produce harmony, but it reconnects us because the music comes from the natural harmony. We singers of song, we are actually harmonizing with the harmony that is in, as Yogi Maharishi speaks of, the unified field, which is totally harmonized and manifests what we call life.
This life can be very difficult. Without music harmonizing tribes all through history, the tribes would not be reminded of this great harmony. When we’re reminded and we feel it and we enjoy it, we are now home again. It became clear that music had a great relationship not only to the psyche, but to the human structure of what I learned to call the mantric system and the chakra system, how sound can be produced inside to produce the harmony and reconnect you with the natural harmony that you truly are.
CHRISTINE COMAFORD: I think that’s so important. Today we’re so connected to electronics, but we’re not connected to ourselves. The more we are electronically connected, I find the less we are connecting to real, physical human beings. I do want us to talk about that in a few minutes, but I have to know two things. I’ve got to know the story of how you began your career. Then I really want to know how TM came into your life, and how you first were introduced to that too. Can you let me know those two things?
DONOVAN LEITCH: It’s a long story to just say in a few words how I began, but beginning was the poetry. I won’t go over that again, the sound of poetry. The actual career? Was it a career, or was it, like in Jack Kerouac’s book On the Road, a great leaving, a great search? The search would become the call to adventure that Joseph Campbell speaks of. If I listened to it, I could follow it.
I followed it at the age of 15-and-a-half. There was this new town that my family had moved to in 1955, out of Scotland and down to one of the new towns. After the great damage of the second war, new towns were built, and they were little boxes on the hillside. They were all made out of ticky-tacky, just like Pete Seeger’s song and just like Weeds, that TV show on television now.
In nice little boxes, that’s were I grew up in my teens, but down at the bottom of that road was The Great North Road. This road linked the north to the south of the British Isles. I knew that down that road there were cars moving, and if I stuck my thumb out I could get a ride. That’s how it began. A friend of mine, Gypsy Dave, and I, we looked at society and said, It doesn’t work, does it? We have to go search for the reason why it doesn’t work, and also search for our way in this life.
I hitchhiked away with Gypsy Dave. We slept in the fields and we played on the beaches. He played a kazoo, I played the guitar, and we were ‘buskers’. I played in a club when I came home at the end of that summer of my 17th year. I played in a club with the local rhythm-and-blues band that I’d grown up with. Their manager was there, and in the break I sang two songs. They invited me up to Tin Pan Alley in London, Would you like to go up and record some demos?
I said, That’s exactly what I’d like to do. It became clear, Christine, that I would have to be beyond the pop scene that I was growing up in, which included The Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly. I was too young for Elvis at the time. I was fascinated when I heard Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Joan Baez because it married perfectly with the socialism my father had spouted to me; he was a union man. Here came a way to protest and sing of civil rights, to be a voice of a generation.
I set my sights on becoming a folk singer. When I went up to Tin Pan Alley, I recorded nine demos. Brian Jones was three studies along on this small street of studies called Tin Pan Alley, Denmark Street, London. Brian came in, he listened, and he put a good word in. He told the TV show that had just launched The Stones a year before, You’ve got to have this guy on. He’s going to be to Europe, and even different, what Dylan has been in the United States. My career began on television, no record; it was live, singing on TV.
CHRISTINE COMAFORD: I love the way you went on your hero’s journey.
DONOVAN LEITCH: Yes, and that’s it. Then, when I arrived on that television stage, of course, I was a little bit shy, but also I had total focus that there really was no other way. I’d heard Buffy Sainte-Marie, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, and Woody Guthrie. I knew what they were singing, and I’d read poetry of Jack Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, McClure, Ferlinghetti, and I knew what they were trying to do.
What they were trying to do, Christine, was return poetry to the popular culture, return poetry to the people, which is very dangerous. A government does not want poets to actually be heard by the masses.
CHRISTINE COMAFORD: It makes people think, yes.
DONOVAN LEITCH: Yes, poetry will carry the truth; it cannot do otherwise. Prose is powerful-words in their best order-but poetry is words in their very best order. I began to study poetry inside myself, and the power poetry had. The Beat Poets thought that poetry would be returned through jazz. Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road, with a continuous scroll of paper on an old typewriter, on Benzedrine.
He was tapping out the keys to bebop rhythms of Charlie Packer. The other poets were reading poetry to jazz. They thought it would come back through jazz. They weren’t all wrong, but where it would marry with popular song would be from the folk world, because folk songs already had meaningful lyrics. It’s history now, but the folk sound and the pop sound married and created what we now call the ’60s music.
CHRISTINE COMAFORD: Before we transition to TM, which I want to talk about in a second, I just want to mention, to me, what’s so powerful about poetry. I read a lot, and I’m so glad, Donovan, that you’re talking about the importance of reading because so few people are reading these days. That’s where you can go on your hero’s journey, by simply reading. You don’t have to travel the world.
Books can take you places and help expand your horizon. Poetry is so magical, I think, because it’s the distillation. Writing a book is hard, but writing poetry is the essence. It’s a beautiful art. TM has been so important to you and so transformative. We did hear that you went with an illustrious gang to learn TM. I would like to know how that touched you when you first went. What was it like?
DONOVAN LEITCH: As I say, it was from Jack Kerouac’s book, to Zen, to Buddhism, leading on to the Upanishads and The Diamond Sutra. As I started absorbing, I realized that behind the poets and behind the revolution was this extraordinary antique, ancient wisdom that spoke. Inside everybody was this extraordinary Pure Land of the Buddhists, the Avalon of the Norsemen, the Tiermanogue of the Celts.
There was this magical, spiritual land that you could only enter at certain times or with magical formulas, and I knew that the key was meditation. How do you actually go in? It’s called meditation. You get a mantra. Where? Has anybody got one? George Harrison and I would talk. We’ve got the books. We know we need to get the mantra; we need the technique, but there were very few yogis in the West.
We knew some yogis had come over the 20th Century, but there were none now. It was 1966 when George and I were talking about this. John Lennon was reading The Tibetan Book of the Dead, and George is reading Autobiography of a Yogi. I’m doing the Buddhist texts. We’re looking, looking. Then, in ’67, it came about that George was studying in India with Ravi Shankar trying to learn sitar, which is the most difficult thing for a Westerner to do.
George is going to adapt that and make an extraordinary sound on his guitar. While he’s practicing, Pattie Boyd is hanging out with the Shankar women. They’re all dressed in saris, and they take her to an evening. That evening, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi is presenting the Spiritual Regeneration Movement. Now this is really extraordinary, because she comes back and sees that Maharishi is coming to England. She introduced The Beatles to Maharishi, and they get initiated.
I noticed it, talked to George and he said, He’s arrived. He’s here. The Yogi is here who we were talking about. I met Maharishi and got initiated. We were looking for it, Christine, wondering when it was coming. Maharishi, beginning his mission in ’58, brought it into the world and there we were, finally, face to face. It’s extraordinary. From then, when I got my mantra, it was clear. I understood now what the books had been speaking of.
CHRISTINE COMAFORD: We’re going to have to speed up through some of these questions, because there’s so much important stuff I want to talk about. Oh, my gosh!
DONOVAN LEITCH: I’ll be short now! I’ll give you sound bites.
CHRISTINE COMAFORD: Yes, we’re going to transition to sound bites! We all know that following our passions is not always easy. Would you share some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your career? How did you overcome those?
DONOVAN LEITCH: At first, I was the sensitive youth; that’s a very basic story, boy or girl. You’re sensitive, you read books, and you’re going to be bullied in school. That’s the first one. The second one, even before school, was that I had polio as a kid, so I got used to being different. That was tough. I was the boy with the limp, and kids would make fun of that. That was hard to get over.
Then when I actually arrived, I was compared to Bob Dylan, and not only compared, but some people called me a copyist. Only a few knew that Bobby’s hat and harmonica and my hat and my harmonica were a direct honor and tribute to Woody Guthrie, the great American folk singer, who also wore a hat and had a harmonica. That was a hard one at first. My father was the poet, an amateur poet, but my mother was a Glascow woman called Winifred.
My father was called Donald. My mother was a Glascow woman who did not take any bull from anyone, no matter who you were. If you were a king or a pauper, if you were a pop star or a president, she would tell you what she thought. That was a great power. She brought me up to feel that, so whenever a challenge came, I rode above it. Of course, challenges continued beyond then. I guess one of the challenges was dealing with business.
None of us-The Beatles, me, and everybody in my generation-even looked at the money that was being attracted to this celebrity success that we were experiencing. We didn’t realize how many millions of dollars were pouring in and that one day we’d have to face it and take responsibility. There were lawsuits. Oh, my gosh! There was a small, mini nervous breakdown at the end of the ’60s.
I think those are pretty much all the challenges I’ve been through, but the heaviest one in the heart was losing Linda for the first time. I gained her later again, but losing Linda in ’65 was a great challenge. The record company loved it, because I started producing hit records from my songs.
CHRISTINE COMAFORD: What do you think are one or two things you do to overcome challenges?
DONOVAN LEITCH: Say that again, Christine.
CHRISTINE COMAFORD: What are two little tips or techniques that you use when you need to overcome a challenge?
DONOVAN LEITCH: These challenges I was speaking of came before I had my mantra. Gypsy Dave and I were pals. He would just look around and say, They don’t actually know what they’re doing. They don’t actually know what they’re thinking. Gyp and I thought it was all a big laugh. The more successful I became, the more we became aware that maybe we’ll do this for a few more months, and then we’ll hitchhike away.
I suppose the biggest legal challenge was when I was the first to be busted for smoking pot when, in actual fact, I didn’t have any that night and the police had to bring their own.
CHRISTINE COMAFORD: Oh, my goodness!
DONOVAN LEITCH: They busted me first, then The Beatles, then The Stones. They were trying to stop the revolution by busting the voices.
CHRISTINE COMAFORD: Right, don’t let them keep talking or singing. It sounds like the way you overcome these challenges was to talk to friends, have a sounding board, talk to Gypsy Dave, keep your perspective, and to realize that everything is transitory and these things will pass. It also sounds like once you learned how to meditate, ground yourself and stay connected, it was easier to overcome challenges. Would that be accurate?
DONOVAN LEITCH: Yes. Leaving home-what Joseph Campbell calls ‘the call’, and then following this call and being on the adventure-once the adventure begins, you know you’re leaving society and all its ways. If you feel temporarily challenged and somebody is saying you’re something you know essentially you’re not, it may hurt for a moment, but you know that’s just not true.
It’s the ‘innate understanding’, as Maharishi said. I’ve always been invincible to the world. I’m invincible against challenges, but I felt them personally for a little bit. When I started to meditate it became very clear that I was a Bohemian, and Bohemian thought is separate from social thought. Social thought is still conditioned thought; Bohemian thought is appearing to be free, and then becoming free.
Then true freedom is realizing, when you get your mantra and meditating, that really all of these challenges and all of these dualities of the upper consciousness are only illusions, as you say. When you dive deep down within, you find that there is pure bliss, pure peace and a cessation of conflict. Conflict cannot exist in the fourth level of consciousness.
This is described in the Upanishads as the super-consciousness. This is the way of the mantra, and meditation leads you if you have a true mantra and true teacher like Maharishi.
CHRISTINE COMAFORD: This helps us remember that being connected is what it’s all about. I find when we’re connected to ourselves and our own cores that the challenges of the world don’t have so much of an effect on us. They pass more quickly, like storms.
DONOVAN LEITCH: Yes. You have a conflict, you have a question. If you try to work it out rationally or logically, there is always an opposite. I haven’t read your book, Rules for Renegades, or renegades without rules; but however you look at it, there is a way of actually taking the present position you’re in, if you can transcend, and actually going into an area called the unified field where all outer things come from the unified field.
Like you allow a cut on your arm to heal itself miraculously, a question in your life or a challenge, once you transcend you will find all those problems will resolve just as that small cut on the arm seems to heal miraculously. Life’s challenges and difficulties resolve, so it seems like the whole system of the universe is programmed to heal itself, but we must know how. Transcending is the obvious one.
CHRISTINE COMAFORD: You said that your passions are poetry, art, music, and spirituality. I’m assuming that those passions are lifelong, that you still are driven by those passions.
DONOVAN LEITCH: Yes, sure.
CHRISTINE COMAFORD: I think it’s so interesting, the way you spoke about the song with the fewest words, the fewest notes, and the fewest chords; the simpler, the better. What do you mean by that?
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