Stories and rumours abound of Scottish singer-songwriter Donovan hanging out with friend and fellow musician Gypsy Dave Mills in 'self-exile' on the Greek island of Paros around 1966, just before he left to head back to London to promote a surprise hit single that was already massive in the States (Sunshine Superman). I have started to uncover some links and resources to try to build a picture of what happened on the island.
MR: I’ve always been fascinated by your song “Writer in the Sun.” Can you tell me about that?
It was the real thing, it was happening. I was in Greece. Sunshine Superman went into a lawsuit for six months [when] I was being moved from one label to another. While it was in the courts, Sunshine Superman was held up but when it was finally released it wasn’t seen for what it was. When the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame nominated me, they cited this album as the initiation of a period in music before Sgt. Pepper and that was wonderful to have that recognition. I didn’t wait for it to be released. I said, well it’s been fun, “Catch the Wind” and the so-called folk world I came from… by 1965 I had 2 albums and top 10 hits. It’s been a good year and a half, so why don’t we go to Greece, Gypsy [Mills] and I say. So we went, saying it’s been fun, I guess it’s over. [I’m] getting sued for the album that I put all my heart into but not caring, saying we’ll just go away to Greece. And there I was, the retired writer in the sun. But not really. But what’s the song about? [It’s] about looking back and saying, I’ve had enough of the city, now we’re in the country on a beautiful island, Paros in Greece. We rented a little cottage on the hill. We ate tomatoes and cheese and drank big flagons of wine in baskets. There was no tourism. Everything was incredible. Gypsy and I did that when we were 16 before we made records. We were real vagabonds. When people saw me in the hat they thought somebody’s invented this kid but it was the real thing. So going back to the road was easy. I didn’t feel bitter about the album. That summer was so long I wrote all these songs for what was going to be the Mellow Yellow album. I’m 20 and I’m saying those days when I was 18, I’m looking back and saying I’m going to retire now to the beautiful island but of course I wasn’t. I was having a bit of fun. “Fishing for time with a wishing line and throwing it back in the sea.” I was having a bit of fun but then…
There was one telephone on the island. It was a wind-up in the tavern. We used to come down on donkeys. [There was] no transport, no roads. So we went down because the owner said, “You have a call coming in. Three days it takes for a call to come in.” We sat at the table with the tavern owner and have gave us two ouzos. Opposite was the monk from the monastery, he’d come down for his ouzo. Suddenly the phone started ringing. It was my manager and he was shouting down the phone, from London through Paris, to Rome, to Athens to this little island. “Hey Don, it’s Ashley [Kozak].” I said, what’s going on? He said “Sunshine Superman’s finally been released.” Yeah? “And it’s number one all over the bloody world. There’s a ticket waiting for you in Athens, first class all the way back.” Gypsy had been listening and he goes “How much money have you got?” We put our hands in our pockets and put the money on the table. We didn’t have enough money to get back on the boat and we got number one all over the world. So the tavern owner comes up and wipes the table and says “What was all that about, boys?” We told him and he laughed. By the way, it wasn’t a regular ferry–if the weather was bad it wouldn’t arrive for two weeks. So we had brought a briefcase which when you opened it had a record player and a cassette. We had three albums, Leonard Cohen’s first, the Beatles’ Revolver, and the white stamp of Sunshine Superman. So the tavern owner said, “You bring down the briefcase, I give you a ticket for the boat.” So we made the deal. “Writer in the Sun” wasn’t meant that I’d be retiring soon, but when we were waving to the tavern owner and old man who lived up the hill next to our cottage–as we were waving goodbye at the island to get the first class ticket to fame and fortune, big stuff, I realized I was waving goodbye to a way of life I wouldn’t live again. That song is full of all of that. It’s something we’re losing, but it’s something we’re gaining. And I went back and took accolades and acclaim. Gypsy and I went back and started having fun with the Beatles and all that. We met everyone on the way. But the music continues and here I am in a great music town, doing what I love. And one of the great pluses was to meet Peter Coleman, an English engineer who’s been working in many an English studio. It’s a historic return, but it’s also the beginning of a completion of songs I purposely kept aside.
You wrote “Writer in the Sun” (from “Mellow Yellow” album -1967) in Greece. Where in particular did you write it and what influenced you to compose it?
On Paros where Gypsy and I went when “Sunshine Superman” was held up in the courts, plus we were the first Celebrity Pot Bust. So, we thought if that’s it, who cares, we asked our manager’s wife, Anita (a Greek who sang Billie Holiday amazing). She led us to Piraeus. Paros had one tavern and no tourism, and a Tramp Steamer twice a month. I wrote “Writer in The Sun”… as it felt like I was the retired writer in the sun… unable to go back. But of course I was writing my next album and I didn’t know it. As you Thodoris are writing for Greece, which I love dearly, you should read this attached from my book, of my time on Paros and the song “Writer in The Sun”. You can use it if you like I own the rights. (ed: Below is the part about Paros. All rights by Donovan Leitch)
THE ROAD AGAIN
“Sunshine Superman” continued to run into legal problems as Allen Klein (ed: famous manager and The Beatles manager after the death of Brian Epstein) tore up the deal I had with Pye Records. As a result I was sued by Pye and there was no possibility of release soon. It seemed that my innovative work was to be shelved indefinitely and, that with the bust, it looked like my career was over. I told George about my
problems. “The illusion is very strong,” he said mournfully. Gyp and I decided we should just leave the whole game, go back to our travels. I had left home to find freedom, and now that I was losing my freedom I felt I would have to leave fame behind to find it again.
“Where shall we go, man?” asked Gyp.
“World’s our oyster”, I replied. “Greece sounds like it to me.” “Yeah, man”, Gyp agreed. Ever since I had taken Linda (ed: Lawrence; Donovan’s wife and muse for more than 45 years) to see the film “Zorba the Greek” in St Ives the previous year, I had fancied Greece. And so I asked Anita, who was a full-blooded Greek, to set me and Gypsy up for a visit. Meanwhile I wrote a poem and sent it to Linda, to try to persuade her to come with us. I’d heard she’d come back to England to see Julian (ed: Linda’s son with Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones). She was feeling disillusioned about LA. She loved the sun, but hey, how many tans can one girl get?
I love the girl in white
And the Sun flashed gold in a rose sky
I will show you beauty enough to swell your heart
If I run follow me
Time is on our side
a mile wide
there’s the cloud to ride In Greece
a little sweat in your palm dry your hand on my hair if I shut my eyes I can Wrap you in turquoise silk.
I packed a huge trunk full of books, then down to Granny Takes a Trip for a white sharkskin suit and a panama hat. The bootmaker Lobbs of St James had already become me cobbler and I now sported a pair of two-tone canvas shoes. I think I got me movies mixed up a bit -inside I felt like Alan Bates (ed: who plays in “Zorba The Greek”), but on the outside I looked more like Bob Mitchum in Macao. So Gypsy and I were on the road again, but this time First Class train down to Brindisi, Italy, there to catch the ferry over to Greece. Soon we were pulling through the dark, silent countryside past tiny stations with hurricane lamps burning on the platforms.
We went down to Piraeus harbour where Anita asked a shipping clerk for the most unspoiled island in the Cyclades and we boarded an old tramp steamer headed for the island of Pàros in the Cyclades. It was morning when we arrived and disembarked onto the quay with our trunks. Anita asked for a hotel. There was no hotel. “How about rooms then?” There were no rooms to be had. Our guide had an old house and he would let us rent it. Our guide led the way up a road packed with rocks, cleared from the fields of this arid island, the animals expertly picking their way slowly up to the empty house standing on its own, its nearest neighbour some way below. It was perfect, a large flat-roofed dwelling. Wooden shutters opened to the valley below and a panoramic view of the island. There was a nice little veranda with a low wall. A clutch of scraggly chickens lived in the barn and a small outhouse served as a toilet with a hole in the ground.
We returned for our stuff, stopping off at a hardware store in the whitewashed town to buy supplies. We would need mattresses, a hurricane lamp, teapot and kitchen utensils, not forgetting a large flagon of wine in a tall, woven basket as well as goat’s cheese, tomatoes and batteries for the portable briefcase cassette deck and record player, the first of its kind from Japan. Soon we had the place in some kind of order, had our first meal and a glass of wine. I had already fallen in love with Greece.
The next day, Anita fixed us up with a donkey named Serafina that had one good eye and, on its back, a rough wooden saddle with a worn, padded seat. Photographs show that at first we posed in our city-slicker clothes, squinting in the bright sunlight, with white skin and nice clean shoes. Soon the pictures tell a different story as we bought Greek shirts and waistcoats, sun hats and sandals, relaxing into the slow pace of the islands. I badly wanted my work released in the UK but the machinations of the business world in London had worn me down. Time was passing, and the “Now Music” of Donovan would soon become the “Then Music”. I also missed Linda terribly. I was lonely and hung out with a couple of girls down on holiday.
One morning Gypsy and I woke up to see a basket of figs in vine leaves sitting on the low wall of the patio. We ate the delicious purple fruit and wondered who had left them. The next morning the figs were there again. We saw our neighbour below us; he waved and we knew the figs were his gift to us. He was a silver-haired gentleman who lived in the farmstead close by. He lived alone in a tidy little farm below and rode an immaculate mule. He himself was always very cleanly dressed in simple clothes. Neat hair and aristocratic bearing. Baba Costa was his name. He sat with us in the evening while I played my songs. Neither of us knew the other’s language, but with smiles and miming Gyp and I communicated to him that we really loved the island. We would marvel at the sunset and he would nod, his eyes knowing. He had seen thousands of sunsets up here on the mountain.
… and here I sit,
the retired writer in the sun.
“Writer in the Sun” – Donovan Leitch
One day I was searching the landscape for birds through the small pair of pearl opera glasses I had brought from London, and the old man was evidently curious. I handed him the Edwardian glasses and he looked into the lens. He started back, surprised to see his little house so close. Was it possible he had not used a lens before? Was he kidding? Many Greeks go to sea and he would surely have seen binoculars before. But then, maybe not, from the way he carried on, so pleased did he seem with the discovery.
On one of our trips to town with Serafina, Gyp and I were jeered at by some less friendly villagers (our long hair, perhaps). Just then the old man came into view on his mule. He stopped to greet us and the town saw that he had done so. From that day forth we were never treated in an unfriendly fashion. The summer glided on through glorious days and star-filled nights. Gyp and I would take turns riding Serafina down each day to the little taverna on the seafront.
One day as we sat in the taverna the owner told us that we were to receive a call on his telephone, the only one on the island. The call came through eventually: it was from my manager, Ashley. We spoke over the noisy wires and Ashley said, “Don, come back. It’s all been sorted out. “Sunshine Superman” has been released – and it’s number one all over the world!” He continued: “There’re two First Class airline tickets waiting for you in Athens. Get there as soon as possible – the whole fucking music business wants you!”
The line broke up and I replaced the receiver. Gyp and I were blown away as the taverna’s owner came up to the table and wiped it, asking, “What was that all about, boys?”
“My record is number one everywhere and we have to get to Athens on the next steamer”.
The taverna’s owner laughed, not quite believing. We emptied our pockets of coins onto his table. Number one all over the world and not enough money between us to get back to Athens on the weekly steamer due in a few days.
“You boys are broke?” the Greek islander asked.
“We are”, Gyp said.
“Listen, guys, I have an idea”, the taverna’s owner said. “That briefcase record player you got –I’ll give you the steamer fare for it. That will get you to Athens, at least”.
Gyp and I toasted our luck with a few retsinas that day, rolled a few joints and sussed a change. The deal was done. Gyp and I wandered up the mountain to our little house in the sky to pack. We embraced the old gentleman. I gave him the Edwardian opera glasses, which made his face light up. The ferry pulled away from the harbour, and we saw him slowly waving, “Adio, adio, adio”, he said.
It was a great change in life when I stepped onto the steamer to Piraeus that summer. Never again would I be as free. But the world lay at my feet. My music was playing on every radio on the green rolling Earth. There was no going back. I strode into a glowing future and embraced fame and fortune, but not without one last melancholy look back at the old man of Pàros, who smiled and slowly waved goodbye. And I also waved, as I bid a sad farewell to a way of life I would never live again. I took one more languorous look at the boy who was fading away.
In this entertaining and informative interview with Howard Stern (broadcast earlier this week), Donovan mentions how he and his closest pal, Gypsy Dave, left London after a drug bust and other legal woes, for self-imposed exile on a Greek island (Paros, not Hydra) in the 1960s – taking with them only three records – the test pressing of his own, just recorded, Sunshine Superman, “the first Leonard Cohen album”, and the Beatles’ Revolver. (This portion begins at 54:00, but the entire interview is worth a listen.)
DrHGuy Note: Something is askew here. Several sites report Donovan and Gypsy Dave going to Greece in 1966, but Cohen’s first album, Songs Of Leonard Cohen, wasn’t released until December 27, 1967 (Revolver was released Aug 5, 1966; Sunshine Superman was released July 1966). Perhaps he took Judy Collins’ In My Life album, released in 1966, which included her covers of Cohen’s Suzanne and Dress Rehearsal Rag. Ah, it’s the thought that counts.
Howard Stern Interviews Donovan
Feb 5, 2014
Video should automatically begin just before the pertinent section
Fearing his career was over, Donovan left Britain for the Greek island of Paros. "Gypsy Dave and I said, 'That's it.' With the bust and everything, we thought, it's been fun, it's been a great year, but now it's over, and we buggered off to Greece. I'm fascinated by the idea that Gypsy and I just walked away, not with bundles of money, but with a little briefcase record player with a cassette player inside and the white label of the Sunshine Superman album, the first Leonard Cohen album and Revolver. We lived the life of Riley and it was wonderful and we didn't care. But then Gypsy and I get a call in Greece to say that [the single] Sunshine Superman is released in the States and it's No 1."
Sunshine Superman, released when he was 20 years old, is his first “electric” album. A perfect pastiche of jazz, folk, eastern ragas and blues, it foreplayed what would be come the hippie movement, it is one of the first psychedelic albums ever made. Upon release, due to bureaucratic issues with his record label, Donovan could not release his album in the UK right away. He decided to move to Paros Island in Greece with his best friend Gyp and was “living on a dollar a day and playing guitar on the beach at night”. After a few months, at the local taverna while having lunch he was told that someone from his record company had called on the island’s only phone and needed to talk to him urgently. The following day his manager informed him that Sunshine Superman was number 1 in the USA and had to come back to London right away. After an interior battle between choosing whether to live the Utopian, Bohemian life in Greece or to become a pop star, he chose the latter although never really topped the standards set by this cornerstone of an album.
"Sunshine Superman" is a song written and recorded by Donovan. The "Sunshine Superman" single was released in the United States through Epic Records (Epic 5-10045) in July 1966, but due to a contractual dispute the United Kingdom release was delayed until December 1966, where it appeared on Donovan's previous label, Pye Records (Pye 7N 17241). The "Sunshine Superman" single was backed with "The Trip" on both the United States and United Kingdom releases. It has been described as "[one of the] classics of the era," and as "the quintessential bright summer sing along".