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Pastime Paradise

Recent box sets by Donovan and Billy Joel

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What I've always recalled about Donovan was his celluloid dismissal by his hero Bob Dylan on D.A. Pennebaker's 1965 documentary Don't Look Back. Seminal 1960s groovy tunes such as "Mellow Yellow" figured little (if at all) in my environment but the Pennebaker film's line drawn in black and white between the über-cool Dylan and fey, urgent Donovan sent a very clear message concerning what kind of figure any young, aspiring bohemian ought to emulate.

Rock nerds typically come out in favor of Dylan. And yet Glasgow-native Donovan Leitch, raised many miles away from Dylan in the UK, seems to have been as transfigured by the 1950s rebel art of rock & roll, the Woody Guthrie-inspired folk music boom and Kerouac's On The Road as any of his generation who struck out against the postwar status quo. As John Mellencamp opines in the liner notes to recent Donovan box set Try For The Sun: The Journey of Donovan (Sony Legacy; Rating: *** 1/2): "People forget that, at one time, he and Dylan were seen as equals." Others declare that Donovan was the greatest folk troubadour of the 1960s besides Dylan and the sole other to leap the electronic divide to rock with a measure of grace.

Of course these observers are forgetting about several key musicians from the 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene -- particularly the decade's other great Dylan-n-Beatles heir, Roger McGuinn of the Byrds -- who made a similar crossing. Still, this box set (fittingly, since Donovan inaugurated the use of this form in pop) serves as a keen reminder that Donovan should not be reduced to a mere Flower Power footnote. To those who feel Donovan's trippy sentiment on his hits like "Mellow Yellow" and "Sunshine Superman" must be deemed outmoded and irrelevant in this technocratic time: Take a gander at the current "freak-folk" movement afoot in America. Sure, they really dig Vashti Bunyan and Fairport Convention, but what are Devendra Banhart et al if not the 21st century spawn of the Scottish singer-songwriter? Such linkages become a lot clearer through the less cited tracks of the set's three discs (and DVD), prime among them works like the jazzy "Get Thy Bearings" that echo the catalog of Joe Boyd's unique Witchseason label (named for Donovan's "Season of the Witch"), which released the cream of English folk, including Fairport, the Incredible String Band and tragic troubadour Nick Drake. Sure Donovan -- having switched muses from Dylan in Guthrie mode to the Fabs -- got blissed out with the Beatles' entourage at the ashram of the Maharishi in Rishikesh, India. But he also recorded one of the highlights of the forthcoming world-music catalog with the original Jeff Beck Group on 1968's funky, freakbeat classic "Goo Goo Barabajagal."

The finest songs of this collection hark both to Drake's Boyd-produced sound -- see "Sunny Goodge Street" and "Clara Clairvoyant" -- and Donovan's patented airy-fairy muse (aquatic themed "Atlantis"). Of great note are his tunes most familiar to me: Buffy Sainte-Marie's "Co'dine," "Wear Your Love Like Heaven," as covered by Richie Havens, and "There Is A Mountain," still being reconfigured by the Allman Brothers Band as the epic "Mountain Jam." It would seem the renewed bohemian aesthetic tenor of these times has come around at last to vindicate Donovan -- the defiance of his recent autobiography, The Hurdy Gurdy Man, underscores this. And the fine-tuned attention of artists as diverse as Al Kooper, Marianne Faithfull, Hole and the Pharcyde must have lessened the impact of critical knives and Dylan's initial long ago rejection occasioned by the hero's hypothetical fear of any heir apparent, competition or usurper to the folk-rock throne.

On the other hand, time may never spur rock aficionados to look favorably on Billy Joel. No one's disputing his ongoing popularity nor the ubiquity of his signature songs like "Piano Man" in the public sphere. Joel's recent box treatment, My Lives (Sony Legacy; Rating: ** 1/2) is certainly testament to his illustrious career. Disc 1 even includes some interesting late 1960s psych pop akin to Donovan's vibe, yet it's insufficient to reverse decades of rock snobbery against the guy who "ripped off" indie darlings R.E.M. with "We Didn't Start The Fire."

It's a pity that the talent who provided some fine post-Dylan urban folk -- see "Allentown" -- has been marred by the taint of dilettantism. Indeed, Joel's personae have ranged from a "blue-collar troubadour" model adapted so skillfully (and lucratively) by Bruce Springsteen to the very urbane yet still street "New York State of Mind" crooner. The original version of "You May Be Right" (featured in this collection as a live duet with Elton John) sounds more Stones than the Stones. It's Billy Joel's tragedy that he can never be rock's quintessential "Piano Man" -- that glory is Little Richard's lot. But Joel does deserve credit for providing an abiding soundtrack to the lives of everyday dreamers.

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