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bon jovi vs. donovan

As usual, I can’t let this go. The main question in arguments about a Hall of Fame lies in our varying notions of what criteria to follow.

Bon Jovi were, and are, massively popular. They are key figures in the emergence of pop metal. They have stayed true to their basic sound over the years, while also making small moves outside that comfort zone, such as the country version of “Who Says You Can’t Go Home,” which made the top of the country charts.

Still … and I’m trying to be fair, here, but I’m admittedly not a fan … Bon Jovi’s status as Hall of Fame nominees seems to lie first in their popularity, second in their consistency over a long career, and third as exemplars of pop metal. I’d argue that #1 and #3 are variants of the same thing, in that the “pop” in pop metal led to the genre’s popularity (yes, I know that sounds circular) … by removing some of the rough edges of metal and prettifying the visual image, pop metal bands like Bon Jovi were perfect for MTV. And consistency isn’t necessarily a good thing, if it means your eleventh album is as mundane as your fourth.

Donovan is also a first-time nominee. I can’t be trusted here, either, since I was a fan of Donovan in my formative years. I don’t know that Donovan succeeds in any of the three “Bon Jovi” items listed above … he was popular in his prime, but never as much so as Bon Jovi, his consistency was erratic (i.e. he was not particularly consistent), and if he is considered an exemplar of a particular genre (not sure he is), it’s some version of fey hippie folk, which is regarded at least as poorly as pop metal amongst critics.

But Donovan was much more than a fey hippie folkie, not that there’s anything wrong with that (he is said to have been a big influence on Nick Drake). A lot of that image was brought on by Donovan himself, I think … he never shied away from that “Atlantis” feel. But it’s very reductive.

When he first began recording, Donovan was called a Dylan clone, and he was famously dismissed by Dylan himself in Don’t Look Back (I appreciate that there are other readings of that scene, but to me, when Dylan sings “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” while smiling sarcastically at Donovan, dismissal is the best description of what is happening). A listen to Donovan’s first albums, however, shows that he was far more influenced by British folk than by Dylan … of course, everyone was influenced by Dylan at that point, but, to use an obvious example, Donovan recorded several paeans to fellow Scot Bert Jansch over the years. And subsequent Donovan albums showed a much broader range than, say, Bon Jovi would demonstrate. I’d argue that there are at least three clear periods in Donovan’s 60s output, with British Folk being the common strain.

After the initial British Folkie run, Donovan teamed up with Mickie Most for his most productive period. Many of the songs that are still remembered from this time are far from the stereotypical Donovan-as-mellow-folkie. Jazz-pop arrangements, emergent psychedelia (Donovan was a favorite of early FM underground radio DJs), and hot studio musicians (most notably John Paul Jones and, in a couple of instances, Jones’ future Led Zep buddy Jimmy Page), mixed together with a “Swinging London” ambience, resulted in an entirely different kind of music from the days of “Catch the Wind”: “Sunshine Superman,” “Mellow Yellow,” “Hurdy Gurdy Man,” “Barabajagal.” Much of the Mellow Yellow album reflected the London of the times (“Sunny South Kensington”).

Meanwhile, there was the blend of psychedelia and folk that marks what we commonly think of as “Donovan” … A Gift From a Flower to a Garden, a double-LP with hippie-ish lyrics and folkie music, and an entire second album (For Little Ones) filled with fairy tales, is the standard here.

That album was followed up by Barabajagal, arguably his last good album, and one which showed the ways his various approaches were perhaps becoming overwhelming. The British folk was still around, while the title cut, the most rocking song of his career, saw Donovan leading the Jeff Beck Group. But then there was the hippie stuff … “Happiness Runs” was a lovely combination of folk and hippie, but “I Love My Shirt” is Exhibit #1 in what was wrong with that era:

Do you have a shirt that you really love,
One that you feel so groovy in?
You don't even mind if it starts to fade,
That only makes it nicer still.
I love my shirt, I love my shirt,
My shirt is so comfortably lovely.

That these lyrics were set to an irresistible jazz-folk arrangement and sing-a-long chorus only made it worse.

All is forgiven, though, if you go back to Donovan’s greatest song, “Season of the Witch.” Here was the scary side of hippie life, with ominous music (and excellent guitar work by Donovan), as atmospheric as anything the Doors ever recorded:

When I look over my shoulder
What do you think I see?
Some other cat looking over
His shoulder at me
And he's strange, sure is strange
You've got to pick up every stitch
You've got to pick up every stitch, yeah
Beatniks are out to make it rich
Oh no, must be the season of the witch

Donovan continues to make music, although I lost interest after the 60s. But, if we’re talking Hall of Fame, we’ve got an artist who was important in multiple genres, with hits in all of them, who was deeper than his reputation would suggest. Against that, there’s Bon Jovi, mega-popular in one genre, where their reputation is accurate, in a what-you-see-is-what-you-get fashion. I don’t know if I’d put Donovan in the Hall of Fame, but I sure think he has a better case than Bon Jovi.

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