Friday, May 4, 2012

Innocence Regained: Donovan's "To Try For The Sun"

I sit here quietly on the evening of the 4th of May, reflecting on the terrible events of this date 42 years ago when National Guard troops fired live ammunition into a crowd of student antiwar demonstrators at Kent State University in Ohio, killing four and wounding nine. American soldiers firing on American students - it was something that I never expected to see in my lifetime. It was a page out of a history book, something that might have happened in 1864 or 1893 but surely not in 1970.

I was a few weeks short of my 20th birthday - and days away from an accident that grew indirectly out of this event and that very nearly ended my own life. I had already experienced, like everyone else my age, a series of traumatic national shocks: the Cuban Missile Crisis where we went to bed in October of '62 not knowing if we would be alive in the morning; the assassinations of JFK, RFK, Martin Luther King, and Medgar Evers; riots and violent demonstrations in Detroit, Los Angeles, my own home of Chicago; nightly news film of the carnage in Viet Nam; the general tearing apart of the social fabric of the country as a whole. I have read and heard it said that the 1960s began with John Kennedy's murder and ended with Watergate - but that is a kind of academic untruth, one that a professor or political pundit might espouse but not one shared by those of us who were on the ground living out those years. No. The 60s began with the ringing rhetoric of Kennedy's Inaugural - "Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country" - that ignited a burst of idealism in a generation of the young, and it ended in the utter and complete disillusionment of tear gas and blood in Kent, Ohio just under a decade later. May 4, 1970 is a line of demarcation in the nation's history, even given all the disasters cited above. Things have never been quite the same since that day. Whatever was left of our national innocence after the travail of our first two centuries expired on what had been a quiet university campus in America's midwestern heartland.

Or so it might seem were we all not aware that these are always someone's good old days, to crib a line from Carly Simon, and if the nation's identity and self-image and belief in the efficacy of politics and government to do good have all been seriously eroded in the last four plus decades, two subsequent generations have been born and come of age in those years, and for the young, the great world is always new and enticing and exciting and rife with the sense of limitless possibilities that all of us elders once harbored as well. "Your young men shall see visions," says the Good Book, " and your old men shall dream dreams." Amen to that.

If our elder dreams are of times long past and worlds that we have lost, those of the young are often colored by the hunger for the kinds of experience that we mature folks often recall ruefully. Taking an intercity Greyhound bus or long haul passenger train, for example, seemed desperately adventuresome and romantic when I was twenty; I doubt that today I would find the stench and the discomfort and the seediness of either quite so enticing as I did then. But that is not a failing or a descent into cynicism - it is simply part of the normal progression from innocence to experience, from ignorance, really, to knowledge. We should know more at 60 than we did at 20 - but we should also treasure the existence of those places in our hearts where the dreams of the boys and girls who we once were yet survive.

For my money, nothing quite delves into that secret repository as effectively as any song that I loved as a youth that celebrates youth itself, and just such a song is Donovan's "To Try For The Sun." I had my general say about Mr. Leitch a few weeks back in a post about "Colours", and writing that article reminded me of how much I loved the unabashed innocence and idealism of his best compositions, of which "To Try For The Sun" is certainly one. Written as Donovan himself notes in the first video below in 1964 when the composer was 18, "To Try For The Sun" not only embodies much of the best of youthful idealism - it also stands in stark contrast to the anger and disillusionment that was already beginning to characterize quite a bit of the other really good music coming out at the time.

Donovan has always performed the song, and in our first video from 2007, he provides a little background about the writing of it:

His original recording was a bit faster and included a great verse that he omitted in the video above - "We sang and cracked the sky with laughter...":

Several subsequent artists have changed the phrase "gypsy boy" to "gypsy girl," thus transforming the tune into a romantic story of a young couple. One of the best versions of these is that of Nemo Shaw, a young UK musician with a 60s sensibility who like Leitch himself is a Scot:

Shaw's voice, timbre, and intonation remind me a bit of a young Graham Nash.

John Stewart was one of the best songwriters of his generation, but in his last days as a member of the Kingston Trio he recorded "Try For The Sun" as a solo for an album of more contemporary songs than the Trio was accustomed to doing. That album was shelved until 2008, the year of Stewart's untimely death:

This is an unfinished cut but one that showcases some of Stewart's best qualities as a performer - thoroughgoing professionalism as a guitarist and that strangely affecting throaty singing voice that evokes a kind of loneliness that is perfect for this lyric.

Lindsey Buckingham is one of the scores of artists younger than Stewart who has acknowledged JS as a major influence on his own singing, writing, and instrumentation. The Stewart-Buckingham connection is not apparent at first glance in Lindsey's arrangement of "Sun" because the erstwhile Fleetwood Mac stalwart has gone all electrified folk-rock with his performance:

While I can't say that I like this version as much as some of the others on this page, I do enjoy Buckingham's restless experimentation and his willingness to take a chance at reinterpreting a classic in a wildly different mode.

"To Try For The Sun" touches me deeply and reminds me of who I once was. It also reminds me of the closing speech in Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie, one of the great creations of the modern theater and a play whose very theme is about an older man remembering the scenes of his younger days:

I followed in my father’s footsteps attempting to find in motion what was lost in space. I traveled around a great deal. The cities swept about me like dead leaves, leaves that were brightly colored but torn away from the branches. I would have stopped but I was pursued by something that always came upon me unawares, taking me all together by surprise. Perhaps it was a familiar bit of music. Perhaps it was only a piece of transparent glass. Perhaps I’m walking along the street at night in some strange city before I have found companions. And I pass a lighted window of a shop where perfume is sold. Windows filled with pieces of colored glass. Tiny transparent bottles and delicate colors like bits of a shattered rainbow...

That "shattered rainbow" is nothing less than the character's sense of loss over what he most valued as a youth. For me, however, a fine song like "To Try For The Sun" obliterates all the years between then and now - and takes me squarely back into the heart of youth's adventure.

Addendum - May 6, 2012
Donovan was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year on April 14th. The show was broadcast last night on May 5; here is a cell phone video from the event of "Sunshine Superman":


Mike said...

I've got his "Gift from a Flower to a Garden" box set on my Rhapsody playlists and it really immerses you in a place of innocent optimism I'm not sure a cynical generation that scoffs at "Jules et Jim" can appreciate. Our eyes may have said we were old, but we weren't, and, I hope, still aren't, no matter what our years total.

Jim Moran said...

May I simply say a hearty "aye" to that?

Ben Blake said...

Great blog, Jim. Yes, we've lived through an amazing time. Thank God we had the music to see us through.
I believe "To Try For the Sun" also has the distinction of being the only song recorded by Trio twice, with different lead singers from the same Trio configuration. And I would add that you don't have to be a Trio completest to enjoy "Rarities" Volumes One and Two. Some great tracks on both.

Jim Moran said...

Thanks, Ben! I have yet to hear the Reynolds version of the song that inspired Bruce Blazej to do his solo above. I may well get the CDs at some point, but I wish the individual tracks were available for preview and download on Amazon.

Jim Moran said...

By the way, Ben, I thought of another one recorded twice with 2 different leads - almost. On The "Above The Purple Onion" CD the group does a fairly straightforward "Shenandoah" with DG on lead; as we all know, "Across The Wide Missouri" is practically the same song with Bob on lead.