Six Damn Fine Degrees #92: Hurdy Gurdy Man

Donovan’s Hurdy Gurdy Man (1968) is one creepy trip of a song. Judging only from the lyrics, the hurdy gurdy man should bring solace and tranquility to the suffering of all mankind by simply playing his instrument and softly singing his monotonous, hypnotising hurdy gurdy lyrics. Of course, on some level, it is a drug-addled tune, but the words point to an agreeable nirvana of semi-consciousness. The hurdy gurdy player seems to be some godlike being whose superpower is to reign benign over all of us.

But the song starts with a humming that belies its peaceful nature. Donovan’s voice is trembling, giving it a nervous depth that stands against its slow, numbing vocalization. Plus the voice is recorded in a way that sounds like it is seeping out of your speakers and slithering over the floor towards you. What should be lulling you to sleep is grabbing you at your subconscious and shaking loose your own private horrors. And I am referring to the first few seconds of the song.

A more mediocre song would be played slightly faster to gloss over the horrors that lie in Donovan’s voice; Hurdy Gurdy Man is recorded at a pace that lets a sickly light seep through its cracks. That Jimmy Page on guitar and John Bonham on drums are allegedly part of the recording brings high quality to the song, and makes it even creepier.

Donovan wrote the song while in India with the Beatles, studying transcendental enlightenment. Instead, the tune feels and sounds like the mental soundscape of a psychopath pondering his next kill. It cannot come as a surprise that David Fincher’s enigmatic serial killer flick Zodiac (2007) uses the song more than once – it is there at the beginning over the car radio when the two lovebirds on lovers’ lane get killed while everyone else is celebrating Fourth of July. Like it is not enough that the song scares the crap out of you, Fincher has to add graphic slow-motion violence. Like Hitchcock, Fincher knows how to build suspense through atmosphere. And of course, the song is used the right way.

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