Beat Cafe: CD Review
by Ernie Black
Harken! Across the desolate landscape of the post-911 world of terror alerts, unjustified and pre-emptive war for oil and high finances, global warming, and corporate crime unchecked, a strong, inspirational voice can be heard above the din and sound bites. Can it be? Yes, the peaceful bard of the 60s, the Celtic Buddhist beatnik troubadour who forty years ago at the tender age of 20 helped define a generation questing for deeper meaning and truth in life has once again appeared to open our eyes, bearing the wisdom and energy of transformation from out the Bohemian tradition of artist, poet, and musician. Then, it was to open "eyes you've not used yet," but now it's to reopen those eyes to a new dawn, to see the world not only as it is, but as it could be. Yes, it's Donovan, with his first major album in eight years (not counting his wonderful Pied Piper cd for children), and quite possibly his finest work since 1970's Open Road.
This is far more of a back-to-the-roots album than a casual fan might realize, as Donovan early on brought together strands of folk, jazz, and blues; he was really more of a folk-jazz artist than a folk-rock artist, and in Beat Cafe he captures that smoky, jazzy, bluesy, folk and beat milieu brilliantly. Later, of course, he picked up the rock edge nicely on songs like Hurdy Gurdy Man and Barabajagal, but even the hit song Sunshine Superman shows the jazz and blues influence on the young composer. Rather than compare Beat Cafe with either his folk and acoustic work or his 60s folk-rock hits, think instead of Mellow Yellow (the album, not the single): listen to The Observation, Bleak City Woman, and Young Girl Blues and you'll hear the same smoky, erotic, jazzy (but subdued and bluesy) feeling throughout.
What Donovan attempts here could be mere nostalgia, or a banal effort at recapturing past glory. It seems few artists return to their roots without either falling into nostalgic self-parody or, at best, a mere echo of what once was. But Don has been down this road before, with his last cd, Sutras, which revisited his early folk stylings with the maturity of a fifty-year-old, and which presented the deepest teachings of many sacred texts such as the Tao Te Ching and the writings and lives of such wise men as Sai Baba and Thich Nhat Hanh. Here, he goes even further, as he not only captures his own youthful ventures into the smoky, dimly lit beat cafes of the early 60s which were the cultural seed ground of the yet-to-emerge counter-culture, but more evokes that period in itself, outside of his own ego and historical perspective, to bring to us today the same energy of social commentary and transformation which the inquistive mind of a sojourner of the 1950s and early 60s would have found in City Lights Bookstore, The Gaslight, or Club 47. And he knows his subject, deeply, having looked long into its development, from the Bohemian cafes in the Paris of the 1840s through the Existentialists of the 1920s to the beatniks, poets, and artists of the 1940s-60s.
Tracks such as the title song show Don as a cool cat hipster of the time, a young man who has just discovered this marvelous world populated by Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, and Jack Kerouac, by jazz bassists and bongo players in berets and turtlenecks, by, as he puts it, "barefoot baby with a painted toe." This was 1964, a seminal year which saw the appearance of Buffy Sainte-Marie, Mimi and Richard Farina, and many other young folk-poets who would play important roles over the next couple of years leading to the Summer of Love and all that followed. Donovan himself at the time reflected on this, in his 1966 song which possibly evokes the zeitgeist of the time better than any other, Season of the Witch: "Beatnik out to make it rich / Oh no, must be the season of the witch." This was 1966, recorded in the spring of the year before the Summer of Love, but already he was looking back to the still-underground time of 1964-65 (after all, the word /hippie/ in the 60s sense we now know it was first used by Michael Fallon in a series of articles in The San Francisco Examiner on September 5, 1965, which still used the term /beatnik/ in its title: "A New Paradise for Beatniks").
The cd pulls you in immediately as Donovan mysteriously intones a beat-era chant which sounds something like "shakapookatookapokatic" (and you thought "goo goo barabajagal" was a mouthful). "If I was your lover I'd take you to the sky" he sings, building to an enchanting chorus reminiscent of his spoken poem Two Lovers (also included, for the first time, on this cd):
love floats in space
that space in between us
love floats in space
that space in between us
Immediate, intimate, dissolving boundaries, all to a hypnotic echoing of chant and lyric, Donovan invites us to share his experience. He then cranks it up a notch with what, in lesser hands, might have been a throwaway song, Poorman's Sunshine, but the rhythm, thanks to Jim Keltner's drums and Danny Thompson's bass, is compelling. Poorman's Sunshine appears in his 1970 book Dry Songs and Scribbles, but here he breathes new life into it, and the opening lines of the song disspell any doubt: "from outa the darkness and into the light" he impels us, telling us that he's "just a poorman's sunshine", but oh, the light is so very bright. You're gonna need those dark sunglasses for this joint, man.
As a friend observed, the title track, Beat Cafe, has a touch of "Stray Cat Strut" style about it. There's an enchanting swagger and rhythmic pulse to this song, so evocative that you can almost smell the heady coffee, the smoke, the reefer drifting in the air. Don evokes the beat cafe scene as effectively here as he did years ago with his classic Sunny Goodge Street, "smearing their eyes on the crazy color goddess" as he sang then. Now he recreates that scene, making the forty years between then and now dissolve in a wisp of smoke lingering with a hint of hashish. Makes me want to go "to a beatnik cafe where the lights are low" (too bad I was only 12 in 1964).
The next song, Yin My Yang, probably stands as the weakest on the album, yet it's still engaging, once again thanks to the trio performance of Donovan (guitar), Thompson (bass), and Keltner (drums), along with John Chewlew on keyboards. This is a format which works well for the bard, as it did on one of his finest albums ever, 1970's Open Road. "You yin my yang / I'll yang your yin" are not the deepest lyrics Donovan has penned, but the song is pleasant enough, with a lilting chorus of "there'll be music everywhere / life without a care / flowers in your hair"--a tad twee, perhaps, but gently evocative.
He quickly recovers from this indulgence with Whirlwind, which rivals Beat Cafe and Lover O Lover as my favorite track, and I don't think it would have been out of place on Open Road (perhaps swap Poke at the Pope for Whirlwind). Hearing the chorus repeat "Whirlwind blowing all around our love into the mystic above", the old Donovan magic is strong here. Actually, Whirlwind was written around the same time as Open Road, and in fact several of the songs have roots back in the 60s, as we have seen with Poorman's Sunshine; in many cases, the music is new though the lyric has been around a long while.
Next comes a wonderful reading, to musical accompaniment, of his poem Two Lovers. This is a piece he has performed since the late 60s, yet has never (to my knowledge) officially recorded. Here it is, enraptured, loving, simple and profound as romantic love. More, it is the first instance of spoken word poetry set to music, reinforcing the beatnik cafe milieu the album celebrates.
One of the highlights of the album is The Question, which opens with and repeats throughout an evocative chant, "holla ma golo aholla" and goes on to blend poetry-as-song with the rhythmic pulse of the music:
the question that you should not answer
an answer that you should not ask
and the answer is the question
and the question is the task
Don then takes us down deep, deeper than we are perhaps accustomed to going, with the next few lines propelled by his hynoptic vocal pacing and the driving musical accompaniment:
as i stroll down through my madness
without worry or warning
dark before the depths of sadness
breathing through the grey morning
Donovan has only penetrated to poetic depths like this rarely in the past three decades, a poetic impulse you find in his early work on songs like Ballad of a Crystal Man, Belated Forgiveness Plea, Bert's Blues, or Hampstead Incident:
deep within the silent forest
gleams a gleaming so wondrous
could it be the pale moonlight
nay luna n'er can enter
forests dark and deep as these
see it is the secret goddess
wandering amidst her trees
There's a deceptive simplicity to these lines, suggestive perhaps of Yeats, one of Donovan's major poetic influences.
Along side Yin My Yang, Lord of the Universe is is one of the weaker songs on the cd, and as has often been the case with Don in the past, a slightly different arrangement and approach could render it at best silly if not downright embarassing. But he pulls it off, hitting just the right ironic tone and musical support to make them work. Danny Thompson's upright bass is an essential element here (and throughout the album), providing just the right balance to Don's acoustic guitar and vibrato singing. And, after all, how often do you get to hear a song written from the perspective of Lord Shiva?
At times, as in The Question, Don takes the poetic lead of Kabir or Rumi, penning stirring love songs which could evoke human romance and even eroticism, but which really are poems to the divinity within, the Self, or, as Don reflects in Lover O Lover, the Goddess. One can hear Lover O Lover as a song to one's beloved, but as with Kabir or Rumi, the Beloved is the Goddess or Self, and the song an invocation of Her power. Not necessarily religious, but symbollic, a metaphor for transcendence of one's little self to experience that which lies beyond. Poetically this works very nicely, as Don hints at his subject rather than stomps on it: "lady of seven lights" is the Goddess Kundalini, the creative, spritual current in man which, passing through the seven chakras, or energy centers located along the spine, leads to enlightenment: but he doesn't hit us over the head with this. Instead, he seeks to induce "the goddess" to open up his "temple of inner sanctuary", to "lead him within". Later in the song he sings "arise serpent arise from out your fiery lair / dance for the maiden with moonlight in her hair"; the serpent is the kundalini (the name means "coiled serpent" in Sanskrit), and the fiery lair is the muladhara chakra, the spiritual center at the base of the spine where, according to yogic doctrine, the kundalini lies sleeping until awoken by spiritual practice.
And the image of the "maiden with moonlight in her hair" is wonderful, evoking innocence and primeval nature; I see a maiden dancing in a stone circle in megalithic times, a parallel (if rather more simple, granted) to Robin Williamson's Invocation on the Incredible String Band's double album U. Yet none of this interpretation is forced upon the listener; it's all implied, suggested, hinted at, which makes it far stronger.
Don's version of The Cuckoo is already quite possibly my favorite. This is a nice touch of folk for the album, and while it may not evoke the presence of Ginsberg reading Howl, it is appropos, reflecting on the concurrent folk revival of the early 60s which also contributed to the cultural upheaval of the times. But getting back to the "beat" in Beat Cafe, Donovan follows The Cuckoo with a brilliant reading of Dylan Thomas' poem to his dying father, Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night. Don shortens the title of Thomas' poem (dropping "into That Good Night"), and at first I wondered if he pulled it off, but multiple listenings have it growing on me. Here I think he approaches his fellow Scot and 60s folk-rock-world music icon Robin Williamson in his commingling of poetry and music (see The Seed-At-Zero or the even better Skirting the River Road for Robin's recent and powerful work in this area). Robin, being the finer and more accomplished poet, takes this to a more sustained and elevated plane, but I think Don rises to that level here, as he does in his live renderings of Yeats' Lake Isle of Innisfree, and his own Two Lovers during his Beat Cafe concerts. It's great to see two of my favorite icons rising to the same impulse. If Don's Do Not Go Gentle is a little more affected, it's an appropriate styling, as he aims not merely to render the poem effectively, but to cast it as a vivid example of the way poetry readings happened in the smokey beat cafes of yesteryear. (For another fine example of the melding of poetry and music, go back to 1969 and Joan Baez's uncanny Baptism.)
The album closes with Shambhala, the most obviously Donovanian track, reminiscent of the opening of Atlantis or tracks from albums such as Essence to Essence, a half-whispered meditation on spiritual matters, hushed, dissolving even as you hear it.
Take me home back to shambhala
where peaceful rivers flow
take me home back to shambhala
where seeds of love they sow
though this dream called life
we all play a part
till the day we awake
unto the gentle heart
A fine, if not a great, song, which would have fit into the excellent Sutras cd wonderfully. And in works in this context, though not as well. I don't think I would have picked this as the final track. Instead, I would have done what Don wisely elected to do in the concerts: reprise Beat Cafe. This may have seemed too much of an artifice, but I think it worked wonderfully in concert as bookending the show, and just as the Beatles reprise the Sgt Pepper theme (though brilliantly go beyond it with A Day in the Life) or Macca brings back a chorus of Band on the Run at the end of 1985, I think it would work.
John Chelew, who I don't know, Jimmy Keltner and Danny Thompson, masterful bassist that he is, provide perfect accompaniment for Don throughout, though more extended versions of some songs would be welcome (and are provided in the live shows; I didn't see the San Francisco shows at Cafe du Nord, but I'm told the musicians gathered there were amateurs and didn't match the performances that the professionals he gathered in NY provided).
The album cover is unusual, showing Don in dark sunglasses and, apparently, red lipstick (!), a striking, moody cover. Don's not in any way feminizing his image; rather, it's all intended to evoke a mood, a time, a milieu, to invoke the artistic impulse of the time. The high contrast is shown by the emphasis on black and white with only a few other colors included here and there. It reminds me strongly of Andy Warhol's prints of the time. Inside you'll find some lovely little drawings he's done, especially a "centerfold" white charcoal drawing on black of a kneeling naked woman with her hands intertwined in her hair, and the cd itself is white with a portion of the same drawing in black lining up with that on the case. (It's a hardboard case, not a jewel case.) All is simply black and white, with just a few glosses of color (such as the red lips).
Word: Don is "cool again" - not that, to my mind, there was ever a time when he wasn't. Of course I hope for more than "cult interest" (and I think Don would enjoy a taste of his prior success once again), but I suspect the audience is rather small. After all, it's a celebration of what was, at the time, a cult tradition in its own right; the beat cafes (coupled with the civil rights and anti-war movements and other major cultural forces) may have given birth to the hippie movement, but it was relatively unknown in its time. But if you love Sunny Goodge Street, poetry mingled with acoustic jazz, Richard and Mimi Farina singing House Un-American Activities Blues Dream or Hard Lovin' Loser, Dylan's Mr. Tambourine Man, or snapping your fingers on the down beat (as Duke Ellington said, "Never snap on the up beat, it's considered aggressive"), then this cd deserves a prominent place in your collection.
Needless to say, the cd is in very heavy rotation on my stereo and in my car, and is one of those rare cd's which I can play several times at a run.
"Can a cat think - i think so
she asked me - do i wanna go
to a beatnik cafe where the lights are low"
I say: "go man go!"
- Ernie Black