How Donovan and Coco, his granddaughter, caught their wind
Folk legend Donovan and his colourful granddaughter Coco Sian are holding an art exhibition together, and the desire to create has bonded them
Holding a joint art and photography exhibition with your grandfather is an unusual thing to do by anybody's standards, but then again, folk singer/songwriter Donovan (70) and his granddaughter Coco Sian (22) are far from ordinary people.
Aside from the artistic, familial and spiritual bond that unites the pair, there are similarities in personal strands of their lives, albeit for different reasons. Donovan's eldest children grew up without him as a daily presence in their lives, as they lived in the US and his relationship with their mum ended.
Then there's Coco, whose famous dad is Shaun Ryder of Happy Mondays fame; his relationship with her mum Oriole ended when she was five. As a result, her grandfather Donovan has become a strong father figure in her life, along with her brother Sebastian, who is three years older.
Unlike the parent-child relationship, which can be complicated and fraught, the grandparent and grandchild relationship tends to occupy a much more harmonious and fun space. "It seems to be free and easy and lacking in complications," Donovan muses, while he and Coco agree that it enjoys the benefit of the parental layer of responsibility being removed from the equation.
Happily Donovan enjoyed a great relationship with his own parents growing up. He was born into the working-class Leitch family in Glasgow in 1946, the product of a Protestant father and Catholic mum. He has one brother Gerald and two Irish grannies, one of whom had tattoos on both arms. "She was the tough Irish girl in Glasgow," he laughs. He recalls that while all of the women in his extended family sang, his father Donald, who worked in a local factory, had a penchant for reading poetry. It was a tough but creative upbringing, and it was infused with poetry, music and the desire for radical social change.
Donovan walks with a slight limp, a legacy of contracting polio when he was five. His Achilles tendon had to be cut causing his foot to drop, in order to prevent a club foot developing. His mother blamed herself for his illness, but his dad got him swimming and he became a champion in that field. "I came to realise later that while a physical problem can restrict you in some ways, it can also improve you in others," he says. "I was a sick boy in bed for a while, but my father was feeding me poetry and stories all of the time."
Donovan owes his name to a character in a western film that his parents watched while his mum Winifred was pregnant. The registrar was loath to accept the name as it was an Irish surname, but after his dad produced a quarter gill of the best Scotch whisky from his back pocket, the objection miraculously went away.
When he was 10, his family moved to the south of England to Hatfield in Hertfordshire. He rapidly lost the Scottish accent to deflect the other boys' teasing. He enjoyed the regular family sessions where people sang and read poetry, and soaked up the whole atmosphere like a sponge. His father had taught him to speak well, and he used his powers of oratory to great effect at school. He believes his gift of poetry comes from being a poet in a previous life.
Donovan was instinctively musical, and sang and took up the drums and guitar, and had a passionate desire to learn from older bohemians. He describes himself as being a working-class poet and musician, who had a yearning to become part of the great social changes of the 1960s and help his fellow man.
While his parents were very supportive of his dreams, they were a bit scared when he went off hitch-hiking and busking around Cornwall with his pal Gypsy Dave at 16. Their fears were allayed when he came back with a publishing deal for his song-writing after a year. He became hugely popular, and featured regularly on the pop TV series Ready, Steady Go. His career exploded and he would go on to pen numerous hits including Colours, Catch the Wind, Mellow Yellow and The Hurdy Gurdy Man. In mid-1966, he became the first British pop star to be arrested for possession of cannabis, which meant he was refused entry to the US for a time.
Every poet needs a muse, and for Donovan, it was Linda Lawrence. They met in the green room of the Ready, Steady Go studios in 1965 and instantly fell in love. The problem was that Linda was coming out of a relationship with Rolling Stones founder, Brian Jones, father to her son Julian, so it was complicated and they couldn't be together.
This left Donovan heartbroken and he went on to have a relationship with American model Enid Karl, and they had two children, actor-musician Donovan Leitch and actress Ione Skye. "Sadly it wasn't meant for us to become a family and the children were displaced, but I looked after them from a distance," he says. "I wish it had started off in a better way, but 6,000 miles is a long way away. While we got together later and became quite close, the distance between us is still quite wide and my children have their own families now."
Linda was always on Donovan's mind through the three years they were apart and she appeared in all of his songs. He rose to great fame during this time, and his popularity kept growing. "Record companies and music publishers love a broken-hearted songwriter," he laughs. "Sunshine Superman became the album that turned people like The Beatles on because the No.1 hits kept coming."
As his fame increased, Donovan was hanging in the circles of music legends like Joan Baez and The Beatles. It all got too much for him and he left his tour of Japan, breaking his tax-exile year away which would have netted him $7m. Something was missing and his heart wasn't in it, so he got on the plane, much to the promoter's horror and came back home.
He happened to meet up again with Linda and they became a couple and got married. They moved to Ireland and have two daughters together, Astrella and Oriole.
Looking back, Donovan thinks a "magic spell" kept them apart for those three years, as he doesn't think their relationship would have survived the intensity and upheaval of that period. Many of their friends' relationships ended and he feels that the constant touring and demands would have killed the romance. When their daughter Oriole, Coco's mum, was born, Donovan and Linda moved to Windsor and rented a mansion for a couple of years. ''We had chauffeurs and Rolls Royces and a swimming pool and a gardener, and my God, I think there were even peacocks in the garden and orchids in the greenhouse," he laughs. "It didn't suit us though and wasn't our style as we didn't come from that background."
Donovan and Linda now live near Mallow in Cork, where they remain deeply in love. According to him, the secret is that their relationship started off as a friendship, and they were always seeking truth and meaning in life and wouldn't compromise on that.
He loved becoming a grandfather, and apart from Coco and her brother Sebastian, there are several grandchildren in the US. His stepson Julian has also had a son, and Donovan says that they are all welcome in his and Linda's hearts.
Coco was born in Manchester as a result of her mum's relationship with Shaun Ryder. That ended when she was five, and Coco and her mum and older brother (who has a different dad) moved in with Donovan and Linda for a while, which she loved. Her grandfather remembers her crawling into his guitar case every time he was due to go away on tour.
Coco is one of Ryder's six children by four women. Ryder has had a well-documented history of addiction - he wrote about it in his autobiography Twisting My Melon - and Coco was raised by her mum as a single parent. "I don't have a relationship with my father," she says. "I'm getting to know some of my brothers and sisters now, but my father is kind of in his own world. He also has a bit of that rock star lifestyle, so it was never really going to work. I do love him though, and I see a lot of myself in him. Even from a distance I can recognise his cheeky attitude, which is reflected in me even though we don't really know each other."
Coco adores her beautiful mum, whom she says is the number one person in her life. They are now based in Majorca, where Oriole is writing a children's book, but they moved around a lot previously and Coco went to seven different schools.
She was always artistic and loved sketching, which helped her when she left school at 15. She found it hard as she has dyscalculia, a specific learning disability affecting numbers and maths. "I had difficulties at every school as they would tell me I was ignorant or wasn't paying attention," she says. "I realised at 15 that the education system had failed me and hadn't tried to help me."
Coco has concentrated on reading books, travelling and art since she left school. She spent two whole years just drawing and sketching on pieces of paper while her vision was shaping and settling. Last year she realised that she was expressing herself without fear through watercolours, and she is currently developing her oil painting techniques. She decided to go to L'Accademia D'Arte in Florence and is loving the experience there. "I was a bit apprehensive moving to Florence as I have never been away from mum for that length of time, but I just went for it," she says.
While she says she is a very solitary person, Coco has met some amazing like-minded people with an incredible artistic flair in Florence. She is simultaneously nervous and excited about her very first exhibition, The Beginning - Iridescence, which opens this week at Origin Gallery in Dublin. Her paintings are full of colour and life with loads of movement in them, and she is excited to see how they will be received.
Art is a common bond between Coco and her grandfather, and she says that they both have a desire to understand themselves and humanity through creativity. "There is an esoteric, spiritual inner meaning behind his music and it's the same for my artwork," she says.
Donovan says he was impressed at how Coco was self-taught around art, much as he was around music. He believes that she is also reincarnated and was an artist in a former life. "When she started splashing around the colour, I thought, 'This lady is a painter'," he says. "I really wanted to encourage it as she's a natural and I had been to Florence myself for my photography.
''I love her new works, as she has been reading the ancient books from my library in Cork. Her dedication is bordering on obsession and I'm very proud that she has realised her hunger to communicate with others through her art. She's a chip off the old block."
By contrast, Donovan's photography is black and white and he calls it sapphography, inspired by the poet Sappho who is one of his greatest inspirations. Linda creates the sets and costumes and Donovan utilises a number of techniques to transform them into beautiful works of art using pigment ink print on watercolour paper. Many have sold for thousands of dollars and are housed in a Washington gallery.
"Donovan and I are a team in this adventure," says his proud granddaughter Coco. "He has encouraged me so much around art, and has always been there for me. He has been so supportive, even through the difficulties with school, as has my grandmother. Aside from that, he is everything you could want in a grandfather. I have such wonderful memories of him sitting by the fire telling stories and playing guitar."
Donovan and Coco Sian's joint exhibition 'A Family Affair' opens on Thursday at Origin Gallery, 37 Upper Fitzwilliam Street, Dublin 2, and runs until April 18. Tel: (01) 662 9347. It will contain a selection of Donovan's black-and-white sapphographs and Coco's colourful oil paintings.
Sunday Indo Living