Jackie Leven: Celebrating A Genius.

November 17, 2011 at 4:18 pm (Uncategorized)

Debated for a day or two about how to actually post this up.  The last thing I want PopNarcotic to turn into is an obituary blog, for gosh sakes.  Sadly though, a pretty amazing and singular artist passed away from cancer on Monday.  His name was Jackie Leven.  There’s a pretty solid chance you’ve never heard of him.  Had I not been blessed to work at Euclid Records and as a result be able to count the fellows there as friends, I sure wouldn’t know anything about him.   I thought that instead of talking about the sadness of his passing, though, I’d instead talk about why he was great, and hopefully pay forward the joy of discovery I got when I heard about this fellow and the music he made.

Leven was apparently kicking around the UK for a while in the 1970’s in a few different bands before his signature group came together in the wake of the mid-70’s punk explosion overseas.  The band was called Doll By Doll, and Jackie Leven sang lead, played guitar, and wrote the material.  I would like to describe what they sounded like, but I realize that in doing so I’d just be winding through a laundry list of bands who don’t sound like Doll By Doll except in fleeting bits.  So first, listen to this:

Now.  Marvel at what’s going on here.  You get this amazing post-punk intro that sounds like it could be from something like the Swell Maps or early Joy Division.  Then the vocals come in, and there’s a lilt to the harmony there that almost places it as a relic of the psychedelic era.  At various times, you’ve got bits of punk, of heavy metal, of prog rock, post-rock, art rock, noise rock, and improbably, soul and even Springsteen going on there.   You’ve got evocative, imagistic and frankly beautiful lyrics happening.   None of it should work.  Those things don’t go together….except here, where they do.

“Palace Of Love” was from Doll By Doll’s debut, Remember (odd title for a debut), a record that can be as confounding as it is wonderful.  It was on the second DbD album where Leven hit his stride.  Gypsy Blood is an all-timer, a record that belongs in any record collection.   There are moments of excess on Remember to be sure…but Leven wasn’t interested in reining them in.  Instead, Doll By Doll stepped on the accelerator.   On a song like “Strip Show”, he delivers a careening vocal that goes from baritone to falsetto in the blink of an eye over a melody that Springsteen would’ve been proud to claim for his own, with lyrics that are about as close to poetry as you’re gonna get in rock music.

Doll By Doll managed a self-titled album after Gypsy Blood that was nearly as good…but there were problems getting it recorded, and problems with distribution, and so on.  Doll By Doll by then was just Leven plus whomever he was able to enlist to record and tour with, apparently.   The band had never found any sort of widespread commercial success, either.  They were too punk, new wave, or arty for radio or what would become classic rock stations a few years later.  They were too rock and too real and intimidating for the punks and new wave kids.   They were an anachronism, not at all unlike the more-heralded Soft Boys.  The worst came when Leven was mugged and beaten, his larynx damaged to the point where it would be a year or so before he could talk properly, much less sing.  During that time he apparently got hooked on heroin, and struggled for years to overcome that addiction.  He beat it through a combination of various “holistic” methods, and ended up founding a group called CORE to help other heroin addicts.  Apparently CORE was successful enough at what it did to attract the attention of Princess Di, who became a patron.  It was the mischievous Princess who suggessted to Leven at a benefit that he start singing again, and so in the 1990’s Leven embarked on a solo career that was nearly as prolific as Robert Pollard’s.

There won’t be any more Jackie Leven solo albums.  That’s a shame.  But there’s also an incredible and incredibly diverse body of work out there to discover, too, and for that there should be celebration.

(Here’s a lovely blog post by one of the music writers in the Telegraph from a day or so ago that really puts a nice perspective on the career of Jackie Leven, and is a much better read than this.)

1 Comment

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