A Cult Artist’s Cult Artist | Music Review | Chicago Reader

A Cult Artist’s Cult Artist 

Who’s Jackie Leven? Ask Johnny Dowd, or Ron Sexsmith, or Pere Ubu's David Thomas.

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Jackie Leven

Jackie Leven

Simon murphy

Jackie Leven Gothic Road (Cooking Vinyl)

I've been a devout fan of legendary Cleveland art-rockers Pere Ubu and their leader, David Thomas, since I first heard their debut album, The Modern Dance, on college radio in Winnipeg in 1978. The following year I invested with equal passion in lamentably unlegendary London art-rockers Doll by Doll and their leader, Jackie Leven, when I heard their brilliant (but not at all similar) debut album, Remember, on the same station.

I'm going to assume that you've heard of Pere Ubu and Thomas but not Doll by Doll and Leven (rhymes with "even"). The fact is, I've never met a Doll by Doll fan who wasn't also from Winnipeg, my hometown. It's a funny place, where odd things catch on that die aborning everywhere else. Does anyone remember a British prog band called Audience? No? Well, I swear they could sell out Winnipeg's downtown arena tomorrow on word of mouth. Ever seen Brian De Palma's 1974 glam-rock horror-musical, Phantom of the Paradise? Exhibitors couldn't get rid of it fast enough—except in Winnipeg, where it played to packed houses for four and a half months. Given half a chance and three Molsons, most middle-aged Winnipeggers can and will sing along to its awful Paul Williams soundtrack with 98 percent lyrical recall.

I realize these examples aren't buying me or my hometown any credibility, but the salient point here is that Winnipeg has a track record of pop-cultural idiosyncrasy. Even there, though, Doll by Doll was never a local phenom on the level of Audience or Phantom. They were embraced by a subset of the city's punk-rock/new-wave cognoscenti, but they seemed to have as many detractors as fans. I can still hear one of my high school buddies, a hulking, beer-fueled hockey monster whose concepts of the sublime overlapped with mine when it came to Pere Ubu, Can, and the Residents, denouncing Doll by Doll (in the charming parlance of our Neanderthal milieu) as a "fag band."

I knew he was being an idiot, but I also recognized what he resisted about Doll by Doll. Though the noisiest passages of Remember are a match for any Krautrock guitar meltdown, and Bill Price's abrasive production fit the cultural moment—he'd already worked with the Sex Pistols and the Clash—Doll by Doll were otherwise completely out of step with punk and new wave. God knows they were usually dark and moody enough in their lyric—violence, death, humiliation, heartbreak, the works—but Leven, an avid poetry reader since his teens, had no use for what he calls the "cartoon violence" of punk. "Especially on that first album, we were interested in exploring much heavier emotions than just a fixed adolescent sneer," he told me in an interview last month.

It didn't help that Doll by Doll weren't shy about flexing their technical chops, or that Leven's melodies had a sweeping, Morricone-ish scope—which, in combination with his unfashionably sophisticated song structures, invited fatal charges of prog influence. Then there was his voice: a rich, controlled, supremely undemocratic instrument that violated every tenet of the DIY ethos under which Gary Numan qualified as a singer.

Regardless, the first three Doll by Doll albums—Remember (1979), Gypsy Blood (1979) and Doll by Doll (1981)—are for my money among the three greatest and lostest of great lost rock albums. (Their fourth and final record, 1982's Grand Passion, isn't really up to snuff.)

When Rhino reissued Doll by Doll's catalog on CD in 2007, I learned from the liner notes that the band had polarized listeners in Britain as well. They'd attracted an ardent cult of fans and minority support in the music press, but punk tastemakers like the BBC's John Peel and rock critic Paul Morley positively loathed them. Their unclassifiablility is summed up by the best gigs they got as a supporting act: Devo and Hawkwind. The hard-drinking, hard-drugging Doll by Doll was fired from both tours, not for bad shows but for friction with the headliners. "One of the funniest things that ever happened to us was being thrown off the Devo tour," Leven writes. "They hated us, beyond endurance. Once we got over being stunned . . . we sat in our hotel in New Castle and tried to trace where it started. [Guitarist] Jo [Shaw] decided it was because he went and asked them if they had any beer, because we'd already drunk ours at the Glasgow Apollo. And they were so wary of Jo they gave him all their beer. He came back laughing, but that was what did it."

History issued an unexpected aesthetic verdict in my favor in 2000, though, when Leven and David Thomas came together to form a short-lived touring project called UbuDoll. I actually didn't learn this till the news was seven years old, and when I first encountered it online, I entertained the possibility that I was dreaming—especially about their cover of the Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'," which is exactly the sort of absurd detail that brightens my occasional non-nightmare.

Long story short, the revelation inspired me to follow up on what Leven, now 59, had been up to since Doll by Doll fell apart in 1983. Upon answering that question, I've concluded that, note for note and album for album, he just might be the most underappreciated songwriter alive today.

That said, I'd be hard-pressed to specify what genre he's been quietly excelling at. He recombines the raw materials of country, soul, blues, Celtic balladry, girl-group pop, art-rock, found sound, spoken word, and, once or twice and with quite respectable results, even hip-hop. Critics lazily tag his music either as "folk rock" or "Celtic soul," though Leven hates the first ("What the fuck is folk-rock about anything I've ever done?") and says the second is "better than nothing but probably doesn't do me any favors, given that I don't sound anything like Van Morrison."

His latest record, Gothic Road (Cooking Vinyl), a characteristically somber blend of folk rock and Celtic soul, is his 13th solo studio release since 1994's The Mystery of Love Is Greater Than the Mystery of Death—itself his first solo album since 1971's Control, recorded under the pseudonym John St. Field. That count excludes umpteen fine live recordings and Chip Pan Fire, a profanely hilarious 2007 spoken-word release whose stories are based in part on Leven's youth in the Scottish coastal region of Fife. But it includes the three albums he's recorded as Sir Vincent Lone, a persona he created in 2006 to absorb a surplus of songs that exceeded the carrying capacities of his record company. "My label, Cooking Vinyl, said that the dynamic laws of market phasing require 18 months to properly market a Jackie album," Leven explains. "But the songs are too good to waste, so I just hand them off to Vince, who unlike me can record an album in three or four days."

Over the years he's kept some diverse artistic company. In addition to David Thomas—who contributes to three tracks on the excellent 2000 release Defending Ancient Springs, including that improbable, wonderful Righteous Brothers cover—he's collaborated with alt-country hell-raiser Johnny Dowd, melancholy Canadian popster Ron Sexsmith, best-selling Scottish crime novelist Ian Rankin (who's also from Fife), and poet Robert Bly, whom Leven has known since the 1970s, long before he came to fame as a guru of the "men's movement."

This is how the notoriously autocratic Thomas explains his creative relationship with Leven in an interview on Leven's 2004 concert video, The Meeting of Remarkable Men: "I envy his voice. He's a great singer, he's a great storyteller, and he's a man's man, and therefore he's a lot of fun to work with, because you get that male poetic bonding right away, and that's a lot of fun artistically. . . . He's got a deep connection with the land, with geography, with landscape, and we connected immediately on that level. And working with Jackie is . . . When you're working with people who are your equals, then you're willing to be submissive to their way. It's like dogs. Dogs immediately recognize where they are in a hierarchy. They don't object to being in a hierarchy. . . . If I walk into a room I know pretty much immediately where I fit into the hierarchy of other arty types. I know whether I'm an alpha male in that room or whether I'm somewhere else down the line."

As a cult artist's cult artist, Leven has been obliged to make his living by relentless touring, playing small club dates with just his guitar or with a drummer and keyboardist. Until recently it wasn't unusual for him to be on the road 200 days a year, though lately he's been touring less—he says he wants to "spend more time writing songs at home and less time pillaging minibars." When Leven leaves Hampshire, England, where he lives with longtime romantic partner Deborah Greenwood, it's mostly to play in Germany and Scandinavia, where his biggest fan base lives. "It seems that these countries with gloomy reputations are also the places where people think that what I do is funny," he says. Most of Leven's lyrics could compete with Townes Van Zandt's and the Handsome Family's for sunlit cheer, but he's also recorded a rousing cover of the country-and-western chestnut "I've Been Everywhere" rejiggered with German place names.

Doesn't it sometimes drive him crazy, doing all this good work to so little notice? "Yeah, sometimes it does," he allows. "But then, I know so many musicians who complain that they're bored out of their minds with what they do, and if they only they had a choice, they'd be doing something completely different. To which I say, 'What the fuck do you mean? Of course you've got a choice, you've just got to be willing to pay the price.'"

Which leads me to a sly little joke Leven inserted into the lyrics of "Last of the Badmen," an atmospheric downer on Gothic Road. "I hold an ace of sunlight / In this weatherbeaten game / It's the card that saved me / From the injuries of fame." It's sure to have them rolling in the aisles in Germany and Scandinavia.   

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