I first met Donovan while eating a pencil. It was a good pencil. A solid HB. I had started chewing it while I sat thinking. As I was thinking, I didn’t notice the pencil getting shorter, my hand growing closer to my mouth, and I didn’t notice my mouth filling with moist splinters of wood and crunchy graphite. I was thinking that deep. I was thinking that hard. I was thinking the same way passengers in a hijacked plane are going on vacation; I was in no control of the direction, or the destination.
I was in a second-hand bookshop in the old town, close to the Nero's where I met Bruce Haack. The chewed pencil that filled my unaware mouth the side-effect of a recent mind-blowing experience. I was naïve back then. I had much to learn. At that moment, I felt like a Tsar Bomba had gone off in my frontal lobe, sending me offline, leaving my eyes flickering like a shoddy fluorescent tube. All I could see was the lost highway of eternity wrapping itself around my spider silk lifeline.
I came back to the present crying out in pain, spitting out soggy wood splinters and my half-chewed finger. I was choking on bits of pencil. I coughed and spluttered, tears streaming from my eyes. A young gentleman reading The Foundations of the 19th Century by Houston Stewart Chamberlain dropped the book and began pounding on my back.
This is the stupidest suicide attempt I have ever witnessed, he said, his voice lilting with a Scottish burr. His pounding dislodged the best part of the pencil shards and I coughed out a thanks. He passed me a handkerchief inlaid with intricate patterns that shifted under my gaze. I stared at it.
It's clean, he said.
Who carries a handkerchief these days? I asked.
These days, hardly anyone, but this isn't these days. You know that, or you wouldn't have tried to inhale that pencil. It's The Season of The Witch, kid.
He shook his head. Right now, you're nothing but a single thread. I'm here to pick at where this stitch starts, and make sure I get in on the right timeline. I take it you met Haack and Bassey?
I looked at the guitar on his back. You're one of them? I asked.
Them? He seemed amused.
A music maker, I said.
Get used to it, he said. Every general needs an army. I'm Donovan.
I need a lie down.
What did they tell you? Asked Donovan.
They told me more than I think I need to know, I said, sitting down on an overstuffed chair.
I need you to be specific, said Donovan. Did they tell you about Phil Spector? About the Andrews Sisters? About P. T. Barnum?
I don’t think so, I said. I had no idea what he was talking about.
Do you know anything?
Look, I said, losing my patience. You’re Donovan, right? The sixties singer? The Sunshine Superman? The hippy-dippy singer of chart topping, fey psychedelia? I have no fucking idea what you are doing in a bookshop in Bradford, and I have no idea why you look about twenty years old when you should be nearly dead by now, and I don’t know why your chin is so bloody massive. I also have no idea what your friends are doing hanging around Nero’s and WHSmith. And, I have no idea who any of those other people are. Well, apart from Phil Spector because I remember him shooting someone, or something. I’ve had a pretty fucked up day and I just need to lie down because I know nothing about anything and I feel like I might be going insane or dying or someone put some pretty heavy 2CI in my frappuccino and I am tripping fucking balls right now.
The few people left in the bookshop were all not making eye contact with me. The assistants dressed in black were looking at each other with the kind of faces that don’t want to make a decision.
I’m sorry, said Donovan. I think I’ve just got too used to this world. Look. Here, I've got something that'll help you relax. He took the guitar from off his back.
I don’t need any more music, I said.
Trust me, he said. He sat cross legged on the carpeted floor.
One of the assistants finally broke eye contact with their colleague, losing the battle of wills and finding themselves forced into a decision. She scuttled over to Donovan. Excuse me, she said, but, er, you and your friend… I think, you can’t…you're blocking the aisle.
Not for long, said Donovan. He plucked a few sombre notes and began to sing Sand and Foam from the album Mellow Yellow(1967). The assistant backed off, as if pushed by an invisible force, walking backwards, tripping on the stack of books she’d been sorting through and fell towards the floor. I didn’t see her land.
I woke up the same way I’d lost consciousness; suddenly. The bookshop was gone. All was dark and silent, only a cold, stone floor on my cheek. I sat up. I ached in a way that told me I had been out for a while. I called out for Donovan.
This isn’t a good start, said a voice out of the gloom. A match flared a few metres from me, illuminating the end of a cigar, which shone a bright circle in the air as the match touched the tip. The glow of the lit cigar reflected off the damp walls of what looked to be a tight, stone cell.
Can you open a window? I asked, wafting my hand in front of my face to clear the smoke.
Laughter chased the smoke to fill the cell.
Don’t mock me, I said.
Who’s mocking? asked the voice.
You tell me, I said.
The cigar glow moved closer. The speaker puffed hard, his nose, cheeks and forehead reflecting the bright orange cherry, shadows hugging his craggy features as if he was emerging from a pool of oil. A wicked grin sliced his face in two.
I’m Neal Cassady, he said, and we’ve been friends ever since.