I first met Donovan Leitch sitting with Mal at the table by the cliff. He was twenty-one, soft-spoken and friendly. He had an interesting face, long and rectangular, with a shy, almost internal smile. He told me he’d always been a quiet and introspective person. At fourteen, he read about Zen in Jack Kerouac’s On The Road and became interested in the psychological and spiritual path of Buddhism. “It appealed to the bohemian in me,” he said. Brought up Christian, he accepted Jesus’ “Kingdom of God within. But how do you get there?” Later, he thought meditation might be the way but felt that meditation had been lost in the Celtic-Christian tradition. Then his friends, the Beatles, got interested and he, George and Pattie were talking about spiritual things all the time. He was taught meditation by the Maharishi in Los Angeles and when he got back to England he and the Beatles were invited to the ashram. Donovan and the Beatles had been good friends for a long time. He had written Sunshine Superman in admiration of them and they often attended each other’s concerts.
Recently, Donovan told me that when they all went to the ashram the Beatles walked away from fame and it seemed the whole world held its breath. “The press arrived en mass,” he added, “asking, ‘Where’s our Beatles. Where’s our Donovan.’ After camping out for days, the press went away and we were left on our own and for the first time in probably a decade, for the Beatles, they were on their own. They were singer-songwriters again. They were free from this extraordinary celebrity and we all had the freedom and the rediscovery of one’s own bohemian self, and the path was followed.” He said it was amazing, not only to be musically free from the expectation that everyone put on them, but also “Just to be songwriters again. Just to be musicians again. Just to be young men again and be fascinated with the wonder of the world, and to meditate deeper and deeper, to turn off fame—the outer way—to go inside. It was remarkable.”
Donovan was about 17 years old when he first heard the Beatles on the radio. It was Love Me Do and without knowing who they were he says, “Something clicked in me: The acoustic guitar, harmonica, drums, bass and Celtic harmonies, because that’s what the Beatles had in their first song—a Celtic sound.” Twelve months later he was sitting in the same room with them. Bob Dylan introduced them, in a darkened room in Dylan’s suite at London’s Savoy Hotel, the only light coming from a figure skating competition on the television. It’s a marvelous story and one best enjoyed in his own poetic words in his new autobiography. What he knew instinctively, from the start, was that they were on the same journey that he was.
The ashram was one more step on that path. Donovan was writing deep, deep songs and Hurdy Gurdy Man was the album that came out of Rishikesh. For the Beatles, they were away from their electric guitars, having only their acoustic instruments with them. John had asked Donovan to teach him his fingerpicking style and two or three of John’s songs on The White Album carry the folk-style guitar that is a Donovan trademark. George later told Donovan that his “influence was so strong, it’s all over The White Album.”
Donovan said his time at the ashram was life changing, as it was for me, as hopefully it was for everyone there. Musically, he says, “I actually went deeper into my roots in India: my blues roots, my folk roots, Celtic chants, and the Beatles seemed to follow me, because we were playing every day at one point.” And the music entwined the mystic: “So I discovered the spiritual sound of my Celtic past. The Hurdy Gurdy Man chant I wrote was really my first solid Celtic rock song. Through going east I was trying to find my Celtic past. But surely, there’s a spiritual path that is the Celtic path. And, sure enough, there is. India centered me,” he said. “It was what I needed. I needed to center really deep. It reaffirmed that there is a transcendental world and that it is the most important influence on my life.”
Speaking with his gentle humility, he said, “Creatively, there were not many like the Beatles, Dylan and myself in the pantheon of rock ‘n’ roll heaven of the 60s. You can count on your fingers those who wrote songs about spiritual subjects, who particularly presented the manifesto of change, not just spiritual but the bohemian manifesto of change. From songs like Nowhere Man and We Can Work it Out to Love, Love, Love and in a curious way I predate the Beatles’ spiritual lyrics in Sunny Goodge Street: ‘I tell you his name is Love, Love, Love.’ If you look at all the lyrics we wrote from 1965 to 1969 there’s an enormous amount of references to meditation and self-change.”
Outside their families, Donovan was closer with the Beatles than anyone. They shared the kindred background of rough, coastal shipping centers: Liverpool for John, Paul, George and Ringo, and Glasgow for Donovan. They shared a common sense of humor and an overlapping spiritual path. They shared music. Not just music, breakthrough music. “We were so experimental. We really didn’t care about staying in the one groove. We kept moving, and moving.” But they shared something else, even more intimate, “What we shared most secretly was a great loss of our privacy, of our bohemianism through our fame. Although we embraced it willingly, we had to lose something and in the ivory towers of the Beatles’ homes and my own home, when we visited each other, we found in our friendships a fraternity, a kind of oasis where we could actually be ourselves without the outer world asking questions and giving us celebrity status. So there were many touchstones between the Beatles and me. My relationship with them was extraordinary.”
That evening, as I was walking to the front gate, I met Donovan and Mia heading the other way. It was chilly and almost dark, and Donovan had a colorful blanket wrapped around his shoulders. A cigarette dangled from the corner of his mouth, which was a bit risqué since cigarettes were banned from the ashram. Mia was wrapped in a brown Kashmiri shawl, cuddling her dog, Arjuna, his head nestled in her right hand. I took several pictures of the three of them. By then there was so little available light I just set the camera speed as low as I could, opened up the f-stop as wide as it would go, and hoped something would show up on film.