Peace and love live again as singer Donovan hits the road

Fiachra Gibbons

Paris (AFP) - The folk singer Donovan has a secret plan for world peace. It involves ukuleles, meditation and his old friends Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr.

"We are helping a great guy who is getting Israeli and Palestinian children together to play ukuleles for peace," he told AFP on a visit to the French capital.

"Imagine if we could get them to meditate together too. That is our secret weapon for peace. We are already doing it with Catholic and Protestant kids in Belfast."

The sixties ended nearly half a century ago but its utopian dreams of a better world burn on in the man who penned such psychedelic hits as "Mellow Yellow" and "Sunshine Superman".

At nearly 70, Donovan is on the road again, playing to audiences across Europe in what he calls his "Retrospective" tour.

Sitting on stage crossed legged on a pile of sheepskins with just his acoustic guitar, it is as if flower power had never ended.

"After the concerts people say, 'But he's 70. How can he sit for two hours like that?'"

It is all the more remarkable when you consider that he spent his childhood battling polio.

"There's a secret," said Donovan with an impish twinkle in his eye.

That secret is the transcendental meditation and other Eastern spiritual techniques Donovan learned in India at the feet of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

It was Donovan who introduced The Beatles and the Beach Boys to the guru. And like the surviving Beatles, he is still a believer.

- 'Yellow Submarine' -

During that famous 1968 trip to the Maharishi's ashram with the actress Mia Farrow, John Lennon wrote "Dear Prudence" for her younger sister, and Donovan taught him and McCartney his finger-picking and clawhammer guitar styles.

Donovan is the first to acknowledge that his sixties exploits make him look like a musical Baron Munchhuasen.

Not only was he the first major pop star to be busted for cannabis, but he helped McCartney finish "Yellow Submarine", brought the three founding members of Led Zeppelin together on his hit "Hurdy Gurdy Man", and wrote the famous placards in Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" video with the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg.

A friend of Joan Baez, he was once even touted by the press as a serious rival to Dylan, with the American singer opening a newspaper in the 1967 documentary "Don't Look Back" and declaring, "Who is this Donovan?"

"It was all nonsense. There was no rivalry between us," Donovan said. In fact, it was Dylan who introduced him to The Beatles.

While his friends went on to become musical megastars, Donovan's own star waned in the 1970s with his more mystical style earning him the derision of the punk generation.

Though the likes of Belle and Sebastian, St Etienne and Badly Drawn Boy now all cite him as an influence, the insults clearly hurt.

"They said I was an old hippy -- guilty!" he joked, holding up his hands.

- 'I am a poet' -

"I didn't want to be a pop star, or a folk star. I was a poet and I still am," the Scottish-born singer insisted.

Instead Donovan, who today lives in County Cork, Ireland, returned to his Celtic roots, to the songs he grew up with in a Glasgow tenement block sung by his Irish mother and aunts and his poetry-mad father.

"People say I play the guitar like the harp. It is because I come from the remains of that bardic Gaelic tradition.

"I am a mix of the Irish and the Scots. The Beatles were the Irish in Liverpool. Oasis, The Smiths and the Happy Mondays were the Irish in Manchester, the Everly Brothers learned to sing from their Irish granny. Elvis Presley was Scots Irish and Woody Guthrie had Scottish roots. I am part of that tradition. We are very strong with the music and the poetry."

With mindfulness the big new thing and singer songwriters again at the top of the charts, Donovan feels he is now swimming with the tide rather than against it.

"People keep asking me, 'You thought peace and love would save the world, but it didn't, did it?'

"But I say, the 1960s were not an answer, they were the question... and it still holds particularly about the way we are treating the planet," the singer insisted.

"All the difficulties in the outer world begin in the inner world. That's where we need to begin."

Donovan tours Germany in April before concerts in London in May and Paris and Ireland in June.