Donovan, Epic 5-10212, 1967, #11 Pop
In high school, I wanted so badly to be a hippie. I was a hopelessly suburban, pimply, awkward kid, but I listened to The Doors and Jefferson Airplane, and every day when I got to school, I combed my hair to make the part on the opposite side so it would look longer. My most promising entrée into hippiedom was my acquaintance with two hippie chicks who were in the high school choir with me. Hippie chicks in choir. Somehow that was possible back then.
It’s the bongos and the flute riffs that make “There Is a Mountain” a great record.
Ellen was gorgeous, with long, strawberry blonde hair parted in the middle. She wore granny dresses and didn’t have a Texas accent. She was like a California girl inexplicably sprouted in Richardson, Texas, defiantly West Coast. Her best friend Pam wasn’t gorgeous, but she was earthy and smart. Both of her parents were doctors-of-something-or-other. She wore leather fringed jackets and short skirts. Ellen and Pam spoke to each other in lingo only they understood, and often burst into laughter together. I so wanted to be in on their jokes that I would try to laugh heartily in just the right places.
At a choir party, I sat between Pam and Ellen on the floor. Most of the kids were doing the standard-fare teasing and giggling, and occasionally someone would loudly sing a Latin phrase from one of the songs we were rehearsing at the time, and other parts would join in. I sensed that Pam and Ellen were restless and looking for an opportunity to duck out. I did not want to be left behind in choral land.
Ellen leaned over to me and asked, “Are you a head?”
Somehow, I understood instantly that this was the crucial question that could determine my worthiness to be a hippie dude alongside the hippie chicks. But I was taken off guard. Was she asking whether I was ahead? Ahead of what? Or was “head” short for something, maybe egghead? “What do you mean?” I replied.
It was the worst possible response. I should’ve just replied “yes,” and seen where that led. Or I could’ve been a little sharper and deduced that “head” was short for pothead, a term I’d read in Rolling Stone and Eye but had never heard an RHS classmate utter.
“Never mind,” Ellen said as she and Pam rose and slipped out a side door. I haplessly added a tenor part as my choirmates sang “Redemptori, Domino, puerulo jacenti in praesepio…”
Of all the Summer of Love hippie musicians, the one I most wanted to emulate was Donovan. After all, we had the same last name, kind of, and I could play all his songs on my acoustic guitar and impersonate him pretty well.
Donovan Leitch’s folkie beginnings, featuring his earnest voice and his plucked acoustic guitar, just didn’t interest me. But when he got hippie-psychedelic on “Sunshine Superman,” I became a Donovan fan. Most of his twee lyrics don’t date well, but the record production made several of them timeless. The organ, vibes, and mellotron rescue “Wear Your Love Like Heaven.” Without the fuzz guitar and tremolo, “Hurdy Gurdy Man” is barely a song at all. “Epistle to Dippy” features Donovan’s affected vocal, as he delivers precious off-accent lines like “Looking through crys-tull spec-tickles.” But the record, thanks to its production, overwhelms the dippy vocals with trippy cello. Yes, “trippy cello” is a thing, thanks to this record.
It’s the bongos and the flute riffs that make “There Is a Mountain” a great record. That isn’t to say bongos and flutes could make any song appealing to me—I can instantly think of a dozen that wouldn’t benefit from that addition. (An accordion, on the other hand, could improve any record.) “There Is a Mountain” seems the ideal song to play at a hippie love fest, where attendees often have recorders and bongos anyway, and groovy heads swirl and twirl along to the repetitive rhythms and mumbo-jumbo lyrics about caterpillars and snails.
When I used to hear “There Is a Mountain,” I’d slip into fantasies of frolicking in a sylvan meadow, recorder in hand, with Pam and Ellen, an equally hip friend sitting on a stump playing bongos. We’d be singing along, nearly ecstatic, and then fall to the ground at the end of the song—just as KLIF-AM DJ Jimmy Rabbit would interrupt with a promo and break the spell. I no longer have that fantasy when I spin this record, but I do lapse into a few subdued groovy moves by verse two, and by the third verse I’m almost a hippie wannabe again.