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*6.23-THERE WAS A TIME (Donovan)

Donovan

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     There was a time
     I thought of mine only.
     Could it be
     Occurred to me
     While lonely—

I was noble personage
Born to beautify the page
If I used time to set it down.

     [Chorus]

I was of high lineage
Cast up in a dreadful age
Born to be the hermit of my line.

          On a windy Saturday
          St. Alban's market day
          Little did I know
          The work I was to do
          Or the love I had to show.

     [Chorus]

[Repeat 2nd A stanza]

[Coda]


From a Flower to a GardenIn my estimation, Gift from a Flower to a Garden is the last of the Christmas 1967 albums to express the pinnacle of classic psychedelia before its decline and amalgamation with other art forms. It contains the seeds of a turning point in the psychedelic period—for one, it is the first album to announce that a psychedelic artist had given up on drugs, that he had found the true heightened reality in transcendental meditation rather than LSD. (This was quite an admission, as Donovan had been among the first—along with Country Joe and the Fish—to extol outright the virtues of LSD: think of The Fat Angel and The Trip back in the Fall of 1966.) For another, the album took the childhood innocence that the Beatles had introduced into psychedelia so far as to actually devote one of the two albums in the set to children’s songs. This collection of childhood songs was called For Little Ones and it was sometimes sold as a separate album from its twin, Wear Your Love Like Heaven. The songs on For Little Ones usually featured Donovan on acoustic guitar with minimal accompaniment, producing a folksy psychedelia which would become more prominent in the following years. (The Beatles White Album would have some examples of similar tone, and of course, in 1969 Crosby, Stills and Nash brought in the popularity of a new folk era.) Though there had been psych-folk songs on Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited by Bob Dylan and on Surrealistic Pillow by Jefferson Airplane previously, Donovan produced a whole record of this genre. Some songs on For Little Ones, most spectacularly Isle of Islay, exhibit Donovan’s fine guitar technique, taking up a growing trend (since Jimi Hendrix Experience and Cream) to feature an artist’s virtuosity.

The more pop oriented psychedelic songs were recorded in the Wear Your Love Like Heaven collection, from which There Was a Time is drawn. But even here, Donovan has removed himself (with the exception of the eponymous single) from some of the usual psychedelic tropes—there’s no sitar, very little manipulation of sound (though there are sounds of ocean waves and birds), no new technological breakthroughs; the songs owe less to world music (read East Indian) or experimental forms than to light jazz—a trend Donovan had started developing since the issue of the Mellow Yellow album. Soon jazz would be a major new element (along with the blues) to mix with psychedelia, a development that serves to make decadent, or residual, psychedelic music distinct from that of the classic period. Sid Smith of the BBC wrote, “However, one of the greatest problems listening to this musically fertile period is [Donovan’s] irksome tendency to intone certain couplets with a cod-Indian accent, as though underscoring the esoteric significance contained therein.” I agree that Donovan’s enunciation quirks do seem at times to be an affectation and for less tolerant listeners, might sound a bit fey. But I long ago had forgiven him this.

With this album, for the first time religion was brought forcefully to the attention of the audience. (Previously only George Harrison and Robin Williamson of the Incredible String Band had written a few “religious” songs.) Rock fans who read magazines devoted to their interests were aware by Christmas 1967 that the Beatles, Beach Boys, Donovan, members of the Rolling Stones and others had become interested in the Transcendental Meditation teachings of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. But Donovan put the Maharishi on his album cover! Though disenchantment with the Maharishi would soon follow in 1968, religious discourse (using mostly Christian metaphors) began to be a large part of psychedelic and pop music generally in the next couple of years, starting with Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding, released within weeks of Donovan’s album.

There was a Time features a trilling harpsichord and a drum kit. A chorus begins the song, followed by the A stanzas, and the B verse ,played on organ, appears only once, before a return to the A and harpsichord again. The lyric sentiment is of fulfilling the promise of an artistic or spiritual family to bring enlightenment to a “dreadful age”. Indeed the ideal of the poet is to be a “hermit” so as to have the time (and lack of distraction) to complete his purpose, which is to “beautify the page” of history. Rarely is a hermit the desired state in psychedelic music, but he has appeared as a “jealous monk” in Bob Dylan’s Desolation Row and is suggested in the Stone’s Something Happened to Me Yesterday ("Someone's singing loud across the bay / Sitting on a mat about to pray") and in Donovan’s Epistle to Dippy ("Look on yonder misty mountain / See the young monk meditating"). Still, the metaphor of a religious hermit seems far more likely in this period of psychedelic contemplation than in pop music that preceded or followed it. For just a little while in the last years of the 60s decade, people could withdraw from society and yet be seen as something more than victims of futile loneliness, shyness, or hostility. Like monks, artists, hidden from public view in order to create, could been understood as serving a higher purpose.

The B stanza seems to tell of the moment in which the poet was called to fulfill his mission of love. It was at the moment of the Summer solstice, on June 22nd, known in England as St. Alban’s Day, when the kingdom celebrates its first British Christian martyr. The date marks the time when the year goes into decline, with every day afterward being shorter. Though A Gift from a Flower to a Garden was released close to the Winter solstice in the U.S., and thus was released contemperaneous with the year's shortest days, it seems in Donovan’s album that a apex has been reached for classical psychedelia. The feverish competition between psychedelic musicians, so evident in the ambitious recent works of Satanic Majesties and After Bathing at Baxters, is beginning to ebb, perhaps to be abandoned as something unsustainable. Meanwhile, a simple peace reigns over Donovan’s songs.

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