Caught by the River

Caught by the Reaper – Jackie Leven

15th November 2011

Mick Houghton remembers musician, songwriter, Jackie Leven, who died yesterday:

I was working in the press department at Warner Bros when I first met Jackie, then fronting Doll By Doll. It was sometime in the spring of 1978 and I’d been assigned to them or them to me. Representing Doll by Doll at the meeting were Jackie and guitarist Jo Shaw both of whom were quite obviously tripping wildly. I gave them my usual press spiel, we’ll get the NME blah blah blah, the cover of Sounds blah blah blah, Melody Maker blah blah blah… before asking them if they had any thoughts, to which Jackie responded: “I‘d like to meet a man in a castle.” I sent them off to be interviewed by Robin Denselow, then (as now) writing for The Guardian. As one of the few broadsheets which covered pop music, it was as close to a castle as I could come up with.

Doll By Doll didn’t fit into any recognisable or convenient niche. They were no ordinary group and had an attitude that was genuinely uncompromising. The group’s declared goal was to bring emotions to the surface, to make all your private agonies public. This was reflected in their highly charged but colourful and lyrical music and their ferociously climactic live performances. Doll By Doll took no prisoners, and more than any other group I’ve worked with – before or since – they completely polarised opinions. John Peel positively hated them, Record Mirror loved them. Figure that one out. They were either reviled by people or somehow cast a spell over them.

Where punk bands mildly threatened, Doll By Doll completely intimidated its audience. Punk, in Jackie’s phrase, offered a kind of cartoon violence, what Doll By Doll dished out was more ominous and emotionally cranked up. Their live shows were a fearsome tour de force with Jackie Leven a mesmerising, towering, threatening presence on stage. I first saw them at the tiny Rock Garden in Covent Garden along with the six other people who had turned up. Jackie always transfixed you with a drug-fuelled stare which dared you to leave or look away. Nobody ever moved. The music was stark but melodic, harsh but colourful, hinged round Jackie and Jo’s meshing guitars and building up to a crescendo of shattering white noise and blinding strobe lights on the epic, closing song “Palace Of Love“. Doll by Doll revelled in a dramatic grandeur and their music was always more colourful than the usual Velvet Underground rhythmic chug, and Jackie’s rich vocals (and the group’s harmonies, yes harmonies amidst the furore) were soulful and rousing rather than sneering and shouting.

They were intense both on and off stage. I remember taking Hugh Fielder from Sounds to a gig in Burton On Trent. At one point we were sitting in a fish and chip restaurant to do the interview when Jo stood up, declared “I’m leaving”, and stormed quietly out. Everyone looked at each other in uncertain astonishment. Had he just left the restaurant or left the group? No-one was sure. Another more famous encounter was Doll By Doll’s interview with Nick Kent. It was mid-afternoon on a Friday when I took Nick over to the group’s insidious West London squat, and introduced them before sodding off. I thought no more about it till I had a call from Tony Stewart, then Deputy editor at the NME, sometime on Monday asking if I knew where Nick was? He never made it out of the Doll By Doll house all weekend. The piece got held and we were bumped off the cover by Dennis Brown of all people.

Doll By Doll didn’t exactly have a master plan but they had a purpose and a game plan which cast them as bad boys, as loners among their musical peers. They spurned traditional rock causes like Rock Against Racism or Gay Rights in favour of discussing mental health issues. They performed benefits and donated money to controversial psychiatrist R D Laing’s Philadelphia Association. The flyers they distributed at gigs declared: “You are spending an evening in the company of the most untranquillised band in the land – Doll By Doll – in return for a donation to the Philadelphia Association.”

Their singular outlook was backed up by inflammatory press statements and images that left followers and critics alike convinced that this band, that these people were both individually and collectively fucked up. Their name may have been taken from a poem by e.e. cummings but it was the image of the tortured Antonin Artaud (one of the first victims of E.S.T) which they regularly used on their art work which truly set the tone. Even Doll by Doll’s self-penned mini-biography from 1978 emphasised their alienation and individuality, it’s heading- KEEP DEATH ON THE STAGE. Jackie’s mini-CV read: guitar, vocals – Secondary Modern, Planet Windows, Metal Box, 3 Divorces. 5 months Inside.

My part in Doll By Doll’s career (and their part in mine) didn’t last much beyond their debut album, Remember, although I came to work with Jackie Leven again a decade or so later, the amphetamine gleam in his eye now a more mischievous twinkle. The man himself, a gentler giant; was no less imposing and certainly no less impressive. By now it was 1994 and he released two exquisite and emotionally heart-warming albums in rapid succession, The Argyle Cycle, and The Mystery of Love is Greater than the Mystery of Death. I moved on or he moved on after another gem of an album called Night Lilies in 1998 and thereafter, from something of a distance, it seemed as if Jackie released an album every year without fail, sometimes two, one year he threatened to release four. Whether under his name or the thinly disguised Sir Vincent Lone, as prolific as he was, the quality control never lapsed on Jackie‘s records. Unfortunately, Jackie’s steady stream of releases somehow diminished the level interest in the media. He never made that one defining album or at least one that was recognised as such. He never crossed over into the big league. Let’s face it, artists tend to be celebrated more for intermittent bursts of creativity than Jackie’s remarkable plane of distinction.

Jackie was a lovable rogue, a teller of tall tales, some of which were even true. He once claimed to have met Bob Dylan in a Berlin hotel bar sometime in October 1988, and subsequently travelled with him by train from Berlin to St. Petersburg in Russia. During the journey, Leven claimed he showed Bob some song lyrics he had written, and Bob suggested he set them to the melody of “One Too Many Mornings“, crediting the song (“As We Sailed Into Skibbereen” from The Argyle Cycle) to Jackie Leven and Bob Dylan. I never believed a word of it – that twinkle in his eye was always a giveaway- and was found out, of course, when some spoilsport Dylan fanatic pointed out that Dylan was known to have been in Beverley Hills on the day in question.

That was Jackie all over, a lovely man who’ll be sorely missed by all who were touched by him and his selfless music. He was born three days after me and he used to enjoy winding me up that I was an old man by comparison. Jackie weaved in and out of my life for over thirty years. I never saw enough of him during that time but then you never do, until it’s too late.

Jackie Leven, born June 18th 1950; died 14th November 2011