Born in Scotland in 1946 and famous enough to have dropped his surname, singer, songwriter and guitarist Donovan Leitch has written songs for more than five decades, taking influence and returning it to the disciplines of folk, jazz, rock, pop, psychedelia and world music. A Bohemian lifestyle led to him settling in many cities across the world, but at heart he’s a child of the universe.
What was your early life like in Maryhill (the Glasgow suburb later portrayed in the film Trainspotting)?
I was born in Maryhill but almost immediately we moved to Anderston. My first ten years were spent in Glasgow. I was sick with polio but that didn’t stop me swimming and running about, playing in bombed-out buildings – it was after the war.
Were you a willing or able student?
I can’t recall much of my schooling in Scotland except being hit with the leather strap, so I must have been a cheeky brat. Things improved when we moved to England in 1956. I quite liked painting and writing.
What might you have done in life had you not become a musician?
I considered being a painter until Dave Richards, who designed the sleeve of The Hurdy Gurdy Man , told me that if I went to art school they’d teach me to unlearn everything I knew. That seemed stupid.
When was the first time you got drunk?
In London’s jazz clubs. My friend Gypsy Dave and I would dance all night and chase beatnik girls, drinking bitters and black ales.
What was your biggest waste of money?
Nothing. Money is just an energy to me. At seventeen, Gypsy Dave and I lived on beaches in St Ives. And don’t forget that in popular music’s early years none of us ever saw any money [laughs].
Are there any of your own records you now disown?
[Sounding shocked] None of them. They’re my creations. I’m one of the guys that did exactly what he wanted in the studio – nobody was telling me to try this or try that.
Do you really claim responsibility for the formation of Led Zeppelin?
That’s been misunderstood by all of the magazines. John Paul Jones arranged Hurdy Gurdy Man for me, and Jimmy Page was on my first record, Sunshine Superman . Hurdy Gurdy Man had an acoustic intro and power guitar, which became a hallmark of Zeppelin. But no, I didn’t invent Zeppelin.
Best piece of advice you’ve been given?
A swimming instructor told me never to ignore help when it’s offered. When I met [iconic folk guitarist] Bert Jansch in London he became my mentor and taught me his tricks. So always ask for help rather than say: “I don’t need it.”
You were busted for cannabis in the mid-sixties but later disavowed drugs. Wasn’t most of our great art made with chemical assistance?
The cops had brought their own pot – it was a sting. When I said: “No drugs”
I didn’t mean cannabis. That’s not a drug, it’s a plant. Synthesised drugs are what I’m against.
Should cannabis be legalised?
It’s already legalised, in many ways. Marijuana has been a healer for seven thousand years, it’s just that awareness that has been slow in catching up.
Presumably you get a little bored of talking about The Beatles?
Of course not. We grew up together. Early on, Gypsy Dave and I met all of those important bands and we were welcomed by everyone – especially The Beatles.
Were you aware of a sense of rivalry? Your producer Mickie Most advised you not to play Sunshine Superman to Paul McCartney; you didn’t listen.
No, I wasn’t [laughs]. Mickie knew it was an extraordinary song, but as soon as I made it I wanted to play it to my peers.
You have four kids and are stepfather to Julian, the son of Brian Jones and your current wife Linda Lawrence. What’s the essence of good parenthood?
In a modern world I’ve absolutely no idea, except that when Linda and I married [in 1970] she believed the first seven years are the most important. Give them information, healthy food, love and attention, and then they’re on their own.
What is the meaning of life?
To remember where you come from and to help my fellow man. Together we’ve poisoned this planet, and we need to try to save it.
Do you believe in God or some kind of all-seeing being?
Of course I do, and at certain times she’s a woman. Basically, the universe is
a female – it produces and continues to produce.
What will be written on your tombstone?
‘He played in between the notes’.
Donovan celebrates his 70th birthday at London Palladium on May 6.