Quote in title taken (and slightly altered) from Jackie's song, 'Some Ancient Misty Morning')
The Mystery of Love Is Greater Than the Mystery of Death
Larger than life in every way, especially in terms of his immeasurable talent, and a complete one-off, it’s hard to believe that someone who seemed more alive than most of us, and to me indestructible, is dead, this brave, lovely, completely genuine and incredibly gifted man. I felt better about the world just knowing he was in it so this is hard.
Since I found out Jackie was seriously ill, I’ve been unable to listen to more than a line from ‘Universal Blue’ without bursting into tears. I have the live version on the Deep in the Heart of Nowhere CD (quite different from the more uptempo and strangely cheerful studio one, actually a live version has just been added to YouTube) and his voice, so plaintive, goes straight to my heart. Somehow especially poignant and heart-rending in contrast to the light-hearted story that precedes it. Exquisitely melancholic. Now it’s very hard for me to hear his voice, which always had the ability to move me anyway, without sobbing. And who else is going to title a song ‘Young Male Suicide Blessed by Invisible Woman’?
I was introduced to Jackie’s music by a university friend who had all the Doll by Doll albums. Soon, I had them too but the band had already broken up without any success – their idiosyncratic talent out of step with the times as ever, too musically and lyrically accomplished for punk or New Wave and too rough-looking (they looked like a bunch of bruisers spoiling for a fight – you certainly wouldn’t want to mess with them) for an era of pastel suits, frilly shirts and floppy hair, neither a feel-good band in the 80s mould nor a pointlessly rebellious ‘what have you got?’ punk outfit. Way too real for people who wanted to escape, they pondered deeper questions with wit, eloquence and intelligence. From the anthemic ‘Main Travelled Roads' to the wild and thrilling ‘Gypsy Blood’, Jackie had this unerring ability to discern beauty in desolation and desolation in beauty, not to mention the elegiac in the everyday and the mythic in the moment (‘Some Ancient Misty Morning’), and express this in song while remaining something of an incurable romantic – ‘I do believe that lovers on the harbour wall were meant to be’ (‘Cool Skies’), I always imagined to refer to graffitied names on the wall but maybe there were real lovers, and ‘While the neon universe was winking to an end, And taxi drivers yawned from Earl’s Court to the Strand’, told me of a London I had yet to visit. Doll by Doll sounded as dangerous as they looked: ‘The Human Face’ – ‘A watched clock never moves, they said, so he never watched the clock. The only time he saw the hands, they were rushing like a torrent round a rock’ describes the song’s own trajectory, one minute soft, slow, tender, the next out of control, gathering momentum, an essay in intensity. It fit with my college life, ‘Angst, angst and more angst’ as a friend put it at the time. We were all so post-Joy Division (in fact, let's face it, post-'Blue Monday') although yet to experience any actual pain or sorrow. At the time, I wrote a poem that included the line ‘I'm in love with Jackie Leven’s voice’. I still am.
I hate to talk of Jackie in the past tense. He meant a lot to me. I did a fair amount of evangelising on behalf of him and his music. Part of me did relish the fact that he was little known but a bigger part wanted to share him with everyone.
I had some contact with him, mainly by fax (I was at work and too in awe to ring him up), persuading him to let Grant Hart play the CORE benefit show, then persuading Grant Hart to play the benefit (he was on a budget and was only paid £25 for expenses, while remarking to me that in 1987 he was paid $25,000 for one show although it was to be divided with the other members of Husker Du). Also convinced Jackie to play a gig for Bromley Acoustic Music Club, of which I wasn’t even a member, but it meant I got to see another Jackie gig. And so, my brief but exciting career as a music promoter, ended. I had a real job but this was so much more fun. I still dabble occasionally although some might call it interfering.
Although it’s lovely to read so many glowing tributes in the papers, it’s a shame they never devoted this many column inches to him while he was hale and hearty and at the height of his powers.
So, we’ve got the music and we’ve got the memories. And both are glorious. At the moment, of course, the sadness is overwhelming. Much has been written about the fact that Jackie never received the acclaim he deserved. It seemed that he would ever be on the cusp of making it but be destined to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, talked up one minute and forgotten the next but I think we should all concentrate on the dedication and loyalty of the fans that he has got, evident in the posts on Yahoo and Facebook. Maybe he was just too great to be appreciated by the hordes. There are a lot of undiscerning people out there. With Jackie, you either get it or you don’t and once you do, you’re hooked. He reels you in with those haunting melodies, the poetry of his lyrics and the breadth of their reach, his heart and soul, the power and the majesty of his voice and his extraordinary gift for telling stories, either spoken or sung. He was never less than captivating.
That voice – instantly recognisable, unique – I would know it anywhere. Unparalleled. Flawless. There are no words to describe it so I’ll give up right now. It will echo forever in our minds and hearts.
We did love you, Jackie and we always will. As Jackie says at the end of this live version of ‘Exit Wound’– God bless us all. We’ll see you somewhere else.
[I’m sure Jackie would have been amused by the obituary that eulogises Doll by Doll’s Gypsy Heart. Mmm. Like that famous Bruce Springsteen album, The Stream. How can you ever have listened to the track and not know it’s Gypsy Blood, especially as in inimitable Jackie fashion, the word ‘blood’ is extended to seventeen syllables in each chorus? As I wrote in my comment: 'Shades of Marge, the New York plugger, anyone?']
Here’s a review I wrote in 1994
Jackie Leven / The Borderline 29 July 1994
Jackie still has a voice that quietens crowds in seconds – massive, majestic, effortlessly soaring – he's a one-man choir, whether playing to a packed house at the Borderline where tonight we could sample his own whisky, Leven's Lament (bemused businessmen from the restaurant above are totally won over, by Jackie, not the whisky) or, barefoot and relaxed, to a few people sitting politely at tables in a church crypt in Clerkenwell where alcohol and cigarettes are prohibited.
The songs range from hard, rocky numbers like ‘Cabin Fever’* and a frenetic version of ‘Sacred Bond’ to the melancholy triumph of ‘Snow in Central Park’ and my particular favourite, ‘Call Mother’. "Call mother a lonely field." What does it mean? Somehow when he sings, it all makes sense. I hope you’re right, Jackie.**
Call it what you will - Celtic rock, folk, whatever, Jackie and the band give it their all. Tone, thanks for telling me about Doll by Doll all those years ago.
* Can't find this song anywhere. Have I got the title wrong?
** ‘Everybody gets the chance to fall in love again’ (‘Natural’)
Leven blogs can be found at The
King of Love Has Died,
Wound and I
Never Saw the Movie and Jackie
Leven and Adventures
I mention Jackie in my first blog about modern music. Also see bashful's blog.
- Ray Davies
- Dave Davies
- Jackie Leven
- Timothy B. Schmit
- christian kane
- Citizen Cope
- Doll by Doll
- Fleetwood Mac
- George Harrison
- Kinks reunion
- Don Henley
- Grant Hart
- Buffalo Springfield
- Chrissie Hynde
- Gene Clark
- Gordon Lightfoot
- Ron Sexsmith
- Rusty Young
- Shakey Graves
- Aimee Mann
- Bob Marley
- Bob Mould
- Carrie Underwood
- Cillian Murphy
- Colin Blunstone
- Conchita Wurst
- DB Sweeney
- Dawson’s Creek
- Hans Matheson
- Hüsker Dü
- Jared Leto
- Kurt Cobain
- Take That
- The Shield
- Vincent Kartheiser
- violent femmes