My introduction to Jackie Leven came in 1978, when I was living in a mental health hostel. I read in the NME (New Musical Express) that Jackie’s band Doll by Doll were doing benefit gigs for R. D. Laing’s Philadelphia Association. I knew that Laing offered an alternative way of thinking about mental health. This inspired to me go and see Doll by Doll live, and to buy their records.
Jackie Leven was born in Kirkcaldy, Fife, to an Irish Cockney father and a mother from a Romany background. At fourteen he was expelled from school for taking drugs. He later settled in Devon. He started playing in folk clubs. Around this time he released an album called Control. Jackie and guitarist Jo Shaw moved into a squat in London’s Maida Vale. With drummer David McIntosh and bass player Robin Spreafico they formed Doll by Doll. The name came from e.e.cummings’ poem ‘The Enormous Room’.
In early 1979 Doll by Doll released Remember, their first album. In the track ‘More Than Human’ Jackie sings “there is a land beyond the spoken word, communication that only some have heard”. Shortly before the release of Remember, Jackie had tried to commit suicide.
In the autumn of 1979 Doll by Doll released their second album Gypsy Blood. The album ends with Anna Akhmatova’s poem ‘When a Man Dies’, which was translated into English by Russian translator and survivor poet Richard McKane.
According to one-time editor of Zigzag magazine Kris Needs: “There is no way you could call Doll by Doll a punk band in terms of what that meant at the time. But if it meant people from the street … being honest with themselves and playing emotionally-charged music, then this was the truest punk band of all”.
In 1980 the band moved from Automatic to Magnet Records. In 1981 they released their third album, Doll by Doll. The autobiographical ‘Main Travelled Roads’ is the story of a son that Jackie had lost contact with. ‘Soon New Life’ is about a baby being born. By 1982 Jackie was the only founder member left in the band. Jackie, his girlfriend Helen Turner and a band of session musicians made one last album, The Grand Passion. But in early 1983 the band finally split up.
In 1984, Jackie was mugged. One of the muggers kicked Jackie in the throat; he couldn’t talk or sing for a year afterwards. Jackie became addicted to heroin, but weaned himself off it with homeopathy and acupuncture.
In 1994 Jackie released his first solo album, The Mystery of Love Is Greater Than the Mystery of Death. The mugging had robbed Jackie of his falsetto. But his voice continued to be a strong instrument. The track ‘Heartsick Land’ continues the theme of ‘Main Travelled Roads’ but is more desperate. Jackie sings about staggering drunkenly through the pouring rain.
In 1995 Jackie released his second solo album Forbidden Songs of the Dying West, which has some fine songs on it. Jackie’s third album is Fairy Tales for Hard Men. The track ‘Extremely Violent Man’, is about a man who is unable to control his violence. ‘Boy Trapped in a Man’s Life’ carries a similar theme. Here however the man is asking, how can he move on from here? Since the end of the 1970s Jackie’s songs have been an important influence on my poetry.
Shortly after Fairy Tales came out, Jackie said how after The Mystery of Love is Greater than the Mystery Of Death, and Forbidden Songs of the Dying West, he wanted to call the new album It’s Always Better When Rigor Mortis Sets In, but the record company disapproved.
Around 2006 Jackie took part in a gig for Mad Pride, a survivor-run mental health organization. At the gig I told Jackie about the Kevin Coyne tribute album that I was involved with putting together. Jackie suggested asking Kevin Hewick, an underrated singer-songwriter, to contribute. Kevin’s contribution is one of my favourite tracks on the album.
In August 2011 Jackie got diagnosed with cancer. He carried on performing for a while but then became too ill and had to cancel gigs. By November he had lost the fight.
Jackie’s death came as a shock. I will miss the stories he told at his gigs. God bless you Jackie, and thanks for the music and memories that you have left behind for us to value.
Some obituaries to Jackie: