Donovan’s “Atlantis”, Goodfellas, Chappaquidick and the dark side of the 1960s

Recited passages used to be common in popular music. For instance, Elvis’ musings in the bridge of Are You Lonesome Tonight?:

I wonder if you’re lonesome tonight
You know someone said that the world’s a stage
And each of us must play a part
Fate had me playing in love with you as my sweetheart
Act one was where we met
I loved you at first glance
You read your line so cleverly and never missed a cue
Then came act two, you seemed to changed, you acted strange
And why I’ve never know
Honey, you lied when you said you loved me
And I had no cause to doubt you
But I’d rather go on hearing your lies
Than to go on living without you
Now the stage is bare and I’m standing there
With emptiness all around
And if you won’t come back to me
Then they can bring the curtain down

Recitation – as opposed to rapping or “performance poetry” – is generally on the decline. One can’t really imagine a song like Donovan’s Atlantis, with the first third consisting of Donovan recounting the story of the lost Atlantean culture (a German Atlantis enthusiast has however fact-checked Donovan on this one), being a success today.

Atlantis was number 1 in Switzerland and Holland, number 2 in Germany, South Africa and New Zealand, number 13 in Ireland and number 27 in the UK. In the US it was relegated to a B-side – even in 1968 it wasn’t exactly totally radio-friendly. Surely “Atlantis” is very much a hit of its time, a relic of the late 1960s hippy culture just as much as “Mellow Yellow” or “Wear Your Love Like Heaven?”

Well, yes, and yet there is evidently something in “Atlantis” that evokes a certain darkness, a certain slightly manic intensity. In Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas it is the music that accompanies the whacking of Billy Batts:

Of course, this could be said to be an example of ironic counterpoint, like Frank Sinatra’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” accompanying the execution of a deserter in 1963’s The Victors, and sundry other examples.

On the other hand, there is something in “Atlantis” – the manic intensity referred to earlier, the sheer hammering power of the piano chords and the repetitive, cascading vocals – that connects this song of mythical love with Joe Pecsi’s Tommy de Vito, not exactly an avatar of mythical love.

The recent film Chappaquiddick (released on this side of the Atlantic as The Senator, not sure what the Atlantean release might be called) retells the story of Teddy Kennedy and Mary Jo Kopechne, the Bobby Kennedy campaign worker who Teddy left to drown in a car he had been driving (as in many of these tragedies, the lost life is almost an afterthought in the subsequent brouhaha). One of the trailers for the film uses “Atlantis” to great effect:

The film is set in 1969 (over the weekend of the first moon landings) and here, again, one could read Atlantis’ use as ironic – and here again, I differ. The anguish of the situation, the gap between a public image and actual behaviour, the sense of the optimism of the 1960s having a dark side – all are unironically conveyed by Atlantis. (of course, the, um, underwater theme of the song may resonate with the Chappaquiddick incident itself)

A final movie connection. In the late 1990s Donovan became aware that Disney were making an Atlantis-themed animated movie. He endeavoured to interest Disney is using the song. Ultimately this led in 2001 to a collaboration with the German girl band No Angels. While preserving the lyrics and indeed the recitation (albeit interspersed with singing) this has a rather different vibe, to say the least:

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