Friday, 18 January 2013

Jackie Leven: 'To see a world in a grain of sand/And a heaven in a wild flower/Hold infinity in the palm of your hand/And eternity in an hour'*

Poster for Two Tiny Selves benefit
the first of all my dreams was of
a lover and his only love,
strolling slowly (mind in mind)
through some green mysterious land

until my second dream begins —
the sky is wild with leaves; which dance
and dancing swoop (and swooping whirl
over a frightened boy and girl)

but that mere fury soon became
silence: in hunger always whom
two tiny selves sleep (doll by doll)
motionless under magical
foreverfully falling snow.

and then this dreamer wept: and so
she quickly dreamed a dream of spring
— how you and i are blossoming.
(e e cummings)

you find me living in forbidden worlds (Forbidden Worlds)
I don't know how to describe what Doll by Doll sounded like to me when I first heard them. Perhaps poetry’s the easiest way to do it, hence the preponderance of poetry extracts in this review.

Uncharacteristically smiling
But visually … . Imagine one of those soaring aerial shots of Middle Earth (aka New Zealand) in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, sweeping over snow-topped mountain ranges, dipping into lush valleys, swirling through towering forests, from the fantastical Rivendell or Lothlorien to the grim Mordor, you’re halfway there, you have an impression of the vast vistas of a Doll by Doll soundscape – rich and barren, monumental and minute, extreme long shot and extreme close-up. They weren’t just a rock band to me, perhaps because I didn’t see them live, having only learnt they existed after they had ceased to (as explained in my first Jackie blog but at least I wasn’t as late to the party as I was to the Kinks), until they reformed for what I thought was one glorious night at the Borderline in 1995 (apparently they played gigs in Norway and the North of the UK too), but maybe because they didn’t slot into any particular category (New Wave? Post-punk? Straight rock?) – the best music never does. They allowed me a glimpse of a different life, extremes of experience I was still too callow to have encountered but dared to hope I one day would. Perhaps they didn’t achieve commercial success because there was just something so uncompromising about them. They weren’t about to make themselves more palatable to the masses (as the Fleet Foxes did). Theirs weren’t delusions of grandeur.

The thing about Doll by Doll is that they didn’t depend on image, and I loved them through listening to cassette tapes made by my friend (am I really that old?) so had no idea what they looked like. In fact, as I mentioned previously, they looked intimidating – they weren’t part of the floppy-haired, fringed-scarf brigade. They had no uniform. They weren’t constructed to appeal to teenage girls (except weird ones like me who got into them too late). Perhaps that’s one reason they never achieved mainstream success. They never appeared to court it. Too musically accomplished to fit into even the post-punk aesthetic, they were a bona fide rock band without any poodle pretensions.

Ok, more than that – there was total commitment and scary intensity in their music. You never doubted for a moment that Jackie meant what he was singing. I never needed to know what they looked like. Once you heard the music, you knew it wasn’t relevant. I just found this quote from Jackie:

I didn't have a conscious aim in the sense of a manifesto. But I think I wanted to be a severe writer. I like things that are severe. That doesn't mean I like harsh music or harsh art. But I love it when someone puts you into that intense moment of what they're doing. I can't live without that in my own writing. Nothing would ever shake me from that intense, severe thing in the song.

This makes it sound like listening to Jackie or seeing him live was a dark and frightening experience when in fact, it was totally joyful, intimate and full of humour.

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
*(William Blake, from 'Auguries of Innocence')
This is what Jackie and Doll by Doll did so well. I can't say it any better.

I bought all the records (Remember, Gypsy Blood, Doll by Doll, Grand Passion) (there were still record shops in those days) and immersed myself in their blend of poesy and power chords, rage and rhythm, delicacy and dynamism but didn’t hear any more of Jackie until I discovered The Mystery of Love in 1994.

As we remember him
flowers unfold without being told (The Perfect Romance)
It seemed that Jackie had effortlessly shaken off the persona of unadulterated and almost completely unknown Rock God to metamorphose into the poetry-quoting, men’s group-attending singer-songwriter of the mid-90s. Now I know more about the trauma, pain and heartache he experienced and rose above along the way but Jackie always had that alchemical ability to transform tragedy into something astonishing. Although gone, he is far from forgotten as this memorial show proved. I thought he could cheat death, could intone ‘and death shall have no dominion’ and the Grim Reaper would dissolve into ashes like a staked vampire in Buffy. If only.

there is a land beyond the spoken word (More Than Human)
And his solo work proved just as uncategorisable as Doll by Doll. He would variously be labelled Celtic folk, folk rock, singer-songwriter, but labels only diminish him because his scope was simply too broad to be so easily encompassed and because each term conjures up an image of something that is far removed from Jackie (perhaps a bleeding heart liberal or someone over earnest and politically correct – anyone else heard the Hitler’s Henchmen story?), that cannot begin to describe him.

[He has left his mark in literature too, his song ‘Standing in Another Man's Rain’ being misremembered by Ian Rankin for the title of his latest book, ‘Standing in Another Man's Grave’, the Rebus character, a Jackie Leven fan.]

when the neon universe was winking to an end (Stripshow)
And so it came to pass that one night in November, when TFL had decided to shut down the Northern Line, some of the faithful made our way by other means to The Castle Rocks on Finchley Road to attend a memorial concert to Jackie Leven, all proceeds going to Macmillan Cancer Support and Cancer Research UK. This was the second tribute get-together of the week, the first being in Botley, where Jackie lived (visited last year to remember and celebrate with like minds), which was a little too far to travel for one night. I hear it was also a great success. I didn’t really know whether I could bear to hear Jackie’s songs without Jackie’s voice. It couldn’t be the same, of course it couldn’t but in the end it didn’t matter. The passion of the performers and the power of the songs prevailed.

I was never part of the Church of Leven and normally I’m anti anything that deifies a human being yet when I think of Jackie and Doll by Doll, Biblical imagery comes naturally (I’ve already used ‘and so it came to pass’ and ‘faithful’, I can't seem to help myself). Jackie inspires a sort of (ir)reverent devotion and brings out the religious in me. This gathering, the performers, the friends, fans and family, are here to sing Allelujah for Jackie. There’s a spirit of camaraderie, solidarity among musicians and audience alike because we have this one important thing in common.

The Castle Rocks
The Castle Rocks interior is adorned with posters for previous gigs, an illustrated record of its musical heritage. I recently learned that this beautiful, rambling old building is going to be pulled down.

The performers are (not necessarily in exact order of appearance, apologies if I’ve missed anyone out):
Gerry Foster and Joe Shaw, Kevin Hewick,Tom Burgess, Steve and Lucas Chapman Smith (father and son) and then Two Tiny Selves.

i hear it in the deep heart's core
Enjoyed all these performances but Kevin has me in tears with The Fountain Is Red, the Fountain Is White, a favourite of mine that I used to request but which I never heard Jackie perform live. Although heart-breaking to think I’ll never hear Jackie sing this in the flesh, it’s great to hear someone else’s interpretation and very touching.

Of note are Tom’s version of Farm Boy and Steve and Lucas’s Some Ancient Misty Morning (although this Jackie version is sublime). They also play a song that sounds like a tribute to Jackie (at least I hear the lines ‘Sweet Jackie’s Gone’); Joe Shaw tells me it’s called ‘Jackie Leven’s Gone’ but I can't find a version of it anywhere and I’d love to hear it again.

Then the main event:

then the main event: two tiny selves
(Joe Shaw and David McIntosh from Doll by Doll and Kevin Foster and Cody)
The focus is on Doll by Doll songs but the band mixes it up by playing some new tunes. Joe plans to move into more rhythm-based tracks. Joe’s vocal delivery is powerful enough to stand in for Jackie, who I prefer to think of as unavoidably delayed.

Classic Doll by Doll
(taken from the band’s so some titles might be shortened)
Up; Stripshow; Epicentre; Good Thing; Hey Sweetheart; The Human Face; Roses Are Blue; Don’t Look Down; Main Travelled Roads; Palace of Love

It’s amazing to hear some of these songs again and difficult to single out any for particular attention but here I go:
Stripshow (They could have played the whole of Gypsy Blood and I wouldn’t have complained – it really is an album that needs to be reappraised as a classic) (Jackie exposes the underbelly of the city, revealing its minutiae; elegiac in tone and instrumentation, ‘the city was bursting into flower for the spring’, tenderness and strength intertwined. It’s a great city song, not as romantic as Lloyd Cole’s Downtown, more akin to Simon and Garfunkel’s My Little Town; you get the sense that Lloyd’s only playing at walking on the wild side before hotfooting it back over the tracks while Jackie is submerged in the urban wilderness. Never a dilettante, our man.)
The Human Face (Brilliant delivery of an awesome song)
Don’t Look Down (A Joe Shaw song I presume?) (I would definitely like to hear some of the Two Tiny Selves material again)
Main Travelled Roads (Suitably epic)
Palace of Love (Visceral. I never thought I would dance, well it was more like head-banging. which I haven’t done except in jest since I went through a thankfully brief thrash metal phase in the early 90s, to Palace of Love, the typical climax of a Doll by Doll set. Where do you go from here? Savage, abandoned, pure.)

There are a couple of ladies going wild dancing at the front. We assume they are huge Jackie fans but in fact, it turns out they’ve never heard of him or Doll by Doll, just out celebrating a birthday.

Really we need to leave because there’s no tube station nearby so we have to get a bus to another bus stop and another bus in order to catch a tube to Charing Cross before our last train leaves at 12.10. We are still in The Castle at 11.30 I’m sure. If we miss the last train, there is now no nightbus to Sidcup. We have to get one to New Cross (not the best place to hang out in the early hours of the morning) and then another from there and will still have a way to walk home. But then Joe comes back on stage and starts playing Poortoun and we no longer care.

I suggest my sister ask for Endgame (quoted at the beginning of an earlier blog), a song she's always loved (me too) and a Joe Shaw composition, but he claims not to remember it. How can you forget such a beautiful song? Next time, I hope.

Poortoun; Call Mother (both great choices for an encore and rapturously received)

(Jackie famously thought encores were a pointless affectation. Why walk off and wait to be called back on? He would simply play until the place closed which meant we were even less likely to make the last train.)

But there was no time for Gypsy Blood, Teenage Lightning, Natural or Figure It Out. Or Universal Blue, Marble City Bar, Single Father and The Garden. Jackie was so unbelievably prolific:

One of the many superb Leven albums
Some years ago I noticed that I was writing a lot more songs than I was ever going to record and get released, especially in these times where you can only release one studio album every eighteen months. As I am a writer of genius, this began to worry me more and more. So I went to see my Cooking Vinyl boss, Martin Goldschmidt, to ask him if I could make more records. He said no. I said to him 'Look, The Beatles once released four albums in one year, and nobody said to them, hey that's too many records in one year'. Martin said 'Jackie, this is not 1967 and you are not The Beatles'. We talked some more and we agreed that I could make records under a different name - that name is Sir Vincent Lone.

So this night was about the music but of course Jackie was a raconteur extraordinaire as well so here are some Leven tales I found on YouTube.

The benefit raised £950 and was a fitting tribute and memorial to a much-missed musical genius. We remembered; we celebrated; we danced. What more could we ask?

Just listening to Jackie on YouTube in another of his incarnations, John St. Field, a song called Soft Lowland Tongue and am surprised to see that it’s had over 3,000 views. He really does have a soft lowland tongue on this, so young and gentle.

if you could look inside my heart (Exit Wound)
... you would still see Jackie.

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight's all a-glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet's wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.
(The Lake Isle of Innisfree/William Butler Yeats, 1892)

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