Look on yonder misty mountain--
See the young monk meditating,
rhododendron forest over dusty hills.
I ask you what's it been like being you ?
Through all levels you've been changing;
Getting a little bit better no doubt.
The doctor bit was so far out!
Looking through crystal spectacles
I can see you had your fun.
Doing us paperback reader
made the teacher suspicious
fingers always touching girl.
Looking through all kinds of windows
I can see you had your fun. (2x)
[Repeat “crystal spectacles” refrain] (2x)
Rebel against society--
such a tiny speculating
whether to be hip or
skip along quite merrily.
Through all levels you've been changing;
Elevator in the brain hotel--
Broken down but just as well.
[Repeat “crystal spectacles” refrain]
[Coda & scat]
Epistle to Dippy was a single released by Donovan in the USA, and was never included on an album here until his first collection of Greatest Hits in 1969. It is reported to have been a “letter” in the form of a song written to a friend in the British military, and thought to have an anti-war message, though I don’t see it in the lyrics. There are private jokes, however, which do convince this listener that he is “overhearing” an intimate communication: The doctor bit was so far out! I don’t know what that might refer to. The Beatles' Doctor Robert?
A religious yearning is alluded to with the figure of a monk. (Monks appeared briefly in psychedelic lyrics--a monk also appears in Dylan's Desolation Row-- and have been abandoned by popular music, so far as I know, ever since.) Moving through “levels” was a popular way at the time of expressing spiritual growth, as if there were several stages to enlightenment. Donovan alludes to the damage of using drugs perhaps in his metaphor Elevator in the brain hotel / Broken down, but just as well, or maybe from another spiritual “level” he is merely pointing out the limitations of what the conscious mind can do, as if the rational mind can only reach to a certain “floor” beyond which it is incapable of going. These days I hear something prophetic in Donovan’s lyric which interchanges crystal spectacles with all kinds of windows, as if pre-figuring the computer age, and the limitations of the individual mind when compared with the World Wide Web. I think it important that the spectacles aren’t “rose-colored”, that is, tinged with innocent optimism, but rather “crystal”, which I imagine would make those things seen appear in sharper focus, somewhat like claims made for visions on LSD.
I wonder about the name “Dippy”, which according to Donovan was a friend’s actual nickname. For the public, the name also recalls the use of the term “drippy” (to rhyme with “trippy”) in the recent Stones’ song Something Happened to Me Yesterday, while having a cultural connection with the term “hippie”. On the Smothers Brothers Show in the U.S., George Carlin introduced his character the Hippy Dippy Mailman in 1967 (perfect for an “epistle”), which by 1968 had morphed into the Hippy Dippy Weatherman (perhaps in honor of the way the wind was blowing by that time).
I like Donovan's lyric technique of altering certain words in a repeated line. But I find the music in this song, with its simple rasp of a guitar accompanied by a harpsichord, strings, and orchestra somewhat muddy and too jumpy to maintain the dignity of the instruments played. James Cameron was Donovan’s music director on this song (he would go on to produce some of the biggest hits in the disco era for Heatwave). I found a quote from Cameron, cited by Lorne Murdoch in the liner notes to the contemporaneous album Mellow Yellow, which stated that Cameron preferred to work with jazz musicians because they were more flexible than rock or orchestra musicians at the time. Most of the album Mellow Yellow does have a decidedly jazz bent, especially when compared with the sitar-flavored music of the album Sunshine Superman. Nonetheless, Cameron employed the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra for Epistle to Dippy, certainly one of the earliest usages of an established orchestra (rather than studio musicians) in psychedelic music.