Sixties survivor Donovan is back but this time, he tells John Naish, he really is going to change the world with transcendental meditation
Donovan is so sure that the enlightened consciousness of the Sixties is coming back (and him along with it) that he starts singing "This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius" at me. The Scots-born troubadour of hippy anthems such as Sunshine Superman, Mellow Yellow, and Hurdy-Gurdy Man is planning a world tour to reawaken us to the mind-expanding wonders of what he calls the " real flower of those times" - meditation.
And not just any meditation: Donovan, now still oddly boyish at 60, travelled along with the Beatles, the actor Mia Farrow and Beach Boy Mike Love in 1968 to spend a legendary sojourn at Rishikesh in India, to study transcendental meditation (TM) under the movement's leader, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. John Lennon fell out with the Maharishi and wrote Sexy Sadie, about his allegedly materialistic ways. But Donovan remains a firm devotee.
Indeed, the singer-songwriter, who first hit the charts in 1965 at the age of 18, appears to have kept staunchly faithful to the whole rag-bag of that era's counter-cultural ideals of peace, love and flower power, even to the point of becoming a little fossilised. But perhaps we should allow that of a surviving pioneer of today's New Age passion for self-exploration.
"My interest in alternative healing originated when I left school. It was primed by my father, a working-class bohemian factory worker, with elevated thoughts of poetry and great poets," he says. "At 15 I was reading Alan Watts, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, which led me to discover alternative health and living through Zen meditation. Yet there were no teachers in the West. They were all in the East."
The Fab Four got there first. George Harrison had become fascinated by a sitar he'd seen on the set of the Beatles' film Help! He flew to India to learn to play it from the master, Ravi Shankar. While there his wife Patti learnt of the Maharishi's work. "When the Maharishi arrived in Britain to teach TM in Bangor, I saw my friends the Beatles on the television going down to see him," says Donovan. "I made a note to look into it."
In fact, the Maharishi came to him, having learnt how pop star converts could help his crusade to alter the world's consciousness. "I was in LA doing a concert and two of the Maharishi's aides came to invite me to see him. He initiated me a few days later. The guys after me in the queue were the Grateful Dead."
So what did TM do for Donovan? "I had all the Western troubles of the psyche: anxiety, anger, stress and fear, which all cause illness. Over the past 40 years I have experienced the way this system has absolute healing benefits," he says. "Maharishi calls me his 'transcendental musician'. It's true that I'm unique. I'm a Celtic musician, poet and actor. My music is rooted in that and was putting people into a meditative state long before I learnt about meditation. I realised that you could transcend the world into bliss through music, through concerts, but it was not sustainable beyond the duration of the concert. True permanent immersion has to be found through meditation. I'm surrounded by healers - my wife is a reiki master and a reflexologist - but I find TM is a supreme healing system. When you transcend, all the solutions to your problems appear. You dive into pure consciousness. It's amazing."
Well, hmm. I've practised TM for the past ten years and while I'm certain it's done good things for my stress levels and helped to foster my pursuit of things spiritual, Donovan's huge claims have me thinking: "Eeek!" It's fair to say, too, that TM did not offer a complete panacea for Donovan either. He admits that his life fell apart at the end of the Sixties. "I felt displaced and I kind of had a breakdown. It was just getting ridiculous, too big; the Beatles had stopped playing in public but I was still out there," he says. "The tension had increased considerably. There was a slow panic caused by the question: 'What else is there to do?' I realised it was done. The Sixties mission was complete. It was an extraordinary experience to decide that that was it. My father smiled and my agent went crazy."
In fact, he continued to record throughout the Seventies and Eighties, with albums such as HMS Donovan and Essence to Essence achieving ever-diminishing sales. He even dabbled in glam rock. But the Seventies also reunited him with his "wife and muse" Linda Lawrence (who already had a son by the Rolling Stones founder Brian Jones), and they raised their own daughters, Astrella Celeste and Oriole Nebula. Now he feels we are ready for his return. "My comeback is scheduled for the time when Linda and I feel that the world's consciousness is high enough again," he declares. "Our bohemian ideas in the Sixties have taken years to be accepted into the mainstream. Now I have an enormous amount of festivals to play in the summer."
These include Montrose and two Celtic festivals in France, as well as two nights at the Jazz Cafe' in northwest London this weekend. But his renaissance has also been spurred by him licensing his Sixties hits Mellow Yellow, Catch the Wind and Happiness Runs to be used in TV adverts for The Gap, Volvo and Delta Airlines. Doesn't he worry about promoting a globalised clothes chain and gas-guzzling companies? Absolutely not, he says: "Adverts are now the way that millions of people encounter my music. I asked myself: 'Should I be selling out?' And I thought: 'No, I'm selling in.' The enormous number of people who see Gap commercials (Mellow Yellow) are turned on to my music, and that turns people on to my message. I don't have to agree with the product. I agree with the media exposure.
The enormous amount of money that makes for us is put to good causes."
Indeed, he oversees the Drukpa Trust, which supports Tibetan monks. Donovan and Linda have just returned from visiting Tibet, Bhutan and Nepal. "We are supporting a school being made in Ladakh, where the Dalai Lama and Drukpa Lama have homes," he says. And he is still in touch with the increasingly reclusive Maharishi. "I went with Linda to see him four years ago in his converted monastery in Holland. His retreat there is built on Vedic principles. We didn't realise that George Harrison had been there a little earlier, before he dropped his earthly body."
Donovan is not ready to drop his own earthly body yet. "My physical health is perfect," he beams. "Linda keeps me on a mostly vegetarian diet, though I eat fish. My wife does yoga but I don't much. I like swimming, cycling and walking. I've not done TM every day for 40 years. But it permeates your life. At times I would do other types of meditation such as Tibetan, Buddhist and visualisation. Giving up was not really changing, it was applying it in different ways and then returning to TM."
His boundless optimism and immunity to self-doubt belie the fact that he contracted polio through a childhood vaccination and has had a withered leg ever since. "Polio made one introspective," he says. "I still swam and won competitions. Football may not have been my forte but it never stopped me doing normal dance steps and getting the girls to come round the back of the school for a snog. It helped in a way because, when I was ill for a few years, my father read me poetry."
After the summer festivals, he plans a meditation-promoting tour of universities in America and possibly Britain, alongside fellow high-profile proponents of TM, the film director David Lynch and the quantum physicist John Hagelin.
"It's the start of a world tour to reconnect and establish ties with TM groups in Australia and South Africa," he says. "Last year saw the release of my autobiography and this year the accent will be on the jewel of the bohemian Sixties ideas - meditation. Its time is now."
Donovan appears at the Jazz Cafe' on May 18 and 19 (www.jazzcafe.co.uk). The paperback edition of his autobiography The Hurdy Gurdy Man (Arrow, £7.99) is available from Times Books First at £7.59 (p&p free). Call 0870 1608080 or visit www.timesonline.co.uk/booksfirstbuy