Thursday, 24 November 2011

‘The King of Love has died’ … Jackie Leven, Rest in Peace

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.

Then, when I was working in London, just as Jackie resurfaced, I had the privilege of seeing the phenomenon that was Leven live (almost invariably in shorts, him not me), many times, dragging friends and colleagues with me, to the Borderline, to the 12 Bar. All were impressed. I didn’t know at the time that some of the songs that I requested from Doll by Doll days, were, since the mugging, out of his new vocal range, ‘Main Travelled Roads’, ‘The Fountain Is Red’, etc. The studio albums are amazing but I will always treasure my memories of the gigs, which are where Jackie really shone – his magnificent, awe-inspiring voice, every emotion amplified, invested with an unbelievable vehemence, his skill as a raconteur and those incredibly funny stories. Though solo, you always felt that there was more than one person on stage, given Jackie’s skill on the guitar, – why just use the strings when you have a whole guitar? He was invariably entertaining, enthralling, entrancing. In a way, he was suited to these venues, because a Jackie gig was always a special and an intimate experience, where he would converse and interact with the crowd.

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’)

Other Leven blogs can be found at The King of Love Has Died Exit Wound and I Never Saw the Movie and Jackie Leven and Adventures in Levenland.

I mention Jackie in my first blog about modern music. Also see bashful's blog.


  1. A Fine Tribute.

  2. What can I say that you haven't already said? Thanks for evangelising, thanks for writing, thanks for caring. There's an even bigger picture now: we have to carry on the work without the help of the man who created the energy that's driven us for so long. I'm pleased there are other people who care as much as I do.

  3. This truly speaks of love for Jackie. It could have been my words except I didn't know him for so long, but the "I am in love with Jackie Leven's voice to the evangelising to the not being able until now to listen to more than one song maybe a day or a week of him, for it hurts so much.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I keep hoping that it will hurt less. I can listen to the stories and read the Deep Pool pieces without getting upset but certain songs just get me each time. Mainly Jackie songs but also other people's. Trying to think of him now as a gift to us but still, can't believe I'll never see him live again. It helps to know that there are so many of us feeling the same way. Hope somewhere he realises it.

  4. >>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.<< Thank you, are an unbelievably, gifted writer; your words sing and flow with a euphony I seldom encounter in my voracious reading. This is the most eloquent, the finest eulogy, for Mr. Leven I have ever read. Bless you.

    1. Thanks so much, Mavarla. I just tried to do him justice. Can't believe you are a Jackie and a Kinks fan. I think that must make 5 or even 6 of us who like both. I’m still really upset about Jackie. Everything I wrote came straight from the heart.

    2. >>Everything I wrote came straight from the heart.<< I *felt* that, dear Sshh, and it was truly *lovely*. I lived in Europe for 4 years (Germany) and he was much beloved there (as opposed to here, in the U.S., where I suppose, he *would've* been, had he been promoted here; he *was* known in Canada, however; ahhh, don't get me started on the U.S. music industry...). He was a superb guitarist and just seemed a genuine person with the right balance between self-respect, ego, and the desire to share. I admire how he bounced back after his horrific experience (the attack); the PTSD; losing his voice for awhile, but, how he resolved to just “get on with it,” you know? I honestly do not want to take time away from your brilliant writing and as much as I might be *so very tempted* to join in to comment on anything you write in future, in re J.L. or R.D., or any of the other, wonderful Singer-Songwriters---*the Artists*---you choose to spotlight, here, please know that even if I am “MIA” in the “Comment” sections of your pages, here, that I *am* reading your words and smiling inwardly at the intellectual music you make with them. Alas, I must truly elect to spend less time at my laptop and *more* of my life in front of my easel: Painting in oils is a sensual addiction for me to which I must surrender myself, anew. *Bless you*, and *thank you* Dear Friend Sshh (much love to your friend, the very, very shy one, as well). Mavy is now “over and out” (but, never, “down and out").

  5. Hi Mavarla, Listening to ‘80 Days’ on YouTube at the moment. Fantastic. Thanks for the recommendation. Very glad that you got to see Jackie. I hadn’t been for a while because around 2001 or so, I developed another interest that took me away from music. Plus Jackie’s humour had got a little too scatological for my taste. But last year I just missed a gig, hearing about it the day it was on, having already committed to something else, which turned out to be distinctly average. You’d think I would have learnt by now to ‘carpe diem’ but I never imagined it would be my last chance. Now I kick myself that I missed it. He somehow managed to be humble and certain of his worth at the same time and I can only regret that I’ll never hear him live again as it was always so special, so intimate. I think it’s a strange coincidence that the only live DVD of Jackie is from the Rockpalast, and there’s also a Kinks gig on YouTube from the same venue. God bless the Germans – they’re very loyal. Please know that I really appreciate your feedback – it’s nice to know someone’s out there reading what I write.

  6. In your post above, you wrote: >>‘Cabin Fever’* ... *Can't find this song anywhere. Have I got the title wrong?<< I don't know, Miss Sshh---all I could find was an amateur, guitar instrumental on YT (not bad, actually), entitled "Green Fever" (into KHT). Thank you so very much for acknowledging my comments, elsewhere; thrilled you are enjoying R.D.D.’s "80 Days." I apologize for my recent sadness: I am almost 60 yrs.-old and my life has been a continuous, inter-play of *fantastic* highs---actual events---followed in absurdly, rapid succession by actual events seemingly to have originated from The Nether World, itself, which have plunged me into depths of truly, abysmal lows. Is this zany, see-saw tandem of opposing experiences, possibly, God's way of keeping me humble? Is "humility" even possible in such an one as I? Normally, I deal, Lady Sshh (without unburdening my downer trips onto others [least of all, joyful, professional writers moonlighting on weblogs]. My job has always been to be the sunny, cheerful cheerleader; 98.6% of the time, I am; mother was a professional dancer; both parents "smile when they are low," to quote Mr. Irving Berlin). I am feeling much better these days and hope all is well with you, too. Your birthday celebration sounded so sweet. In re loyal, German, music fans: Indeed, they are---they are a poignantly curious, yet, fascinating culture with much to be proud of; conversely, also, much to be apologetic for, but they really like to be a part of what is happening musically, and take it all very seriously, from Bach to Pop-Rock. They are very proud (in the joyful way, not smugly), for instance, of how The Beatles got their start in Hamburg. Thank you, also, for your kind compliments in re my being "articulate." I try: This is not my Mother Tongue but I adore the English language; there are also lawyers in my clan, so, the way I write is how I was raised to write (a bit archaically formal, at times, I know). Bless you and take care, oh Grand Mistress of The Literary Keyboard. As Ever, Mavarla in So. CA. P.S. Oddly, the normally, "supercharged" HANW has been quite subdued, of late.