Jackie Leven – an obituary by Kevin Hewick

Jackie Leven 1950 – 2011 an appreciation from fellow singer/songwriter Kevin Hewick

There is no air of distant nostalgia about Jackie Leven’s legacy, from his teenage duo Saint Judas in 1969 to Doll By Doll to his solo work of the 90s to the present there is a timeless edge, vivid insights into the human condition, funny and scary and beautiful all at once.

Jackie Leven RIP

Jackie Leven RIP

Blessed with a rich unique soulful voice and a dazzling percussive guitar technique between some downright filthy stories and the inevitable triple vodkas would come the songs, ballads full of power rather than power ballads, bruised epics of such incredible quality one can only feel utter bafflement at how comparative micro-talents like Sheeran, Blunt and Morrison (James not Jim) ever got away with it. Another Morrison, Van, has just showboated for years next to Leven, the real Celtic soulman.

But Jackie’s is no hard luck woulda coulda story, he lived the life to the full and he changed lives with his music, a lot of people all over the world will cry without shame over his loss, marking the passing of a true great.

In the post punk post Sid Vicious climate of early 1979 Doll By Doll released ‘Remember’ the classic album that many often forget or never heard in the first place. It is still quite a sonic slap in the face, the house band from hell killing their guitars at the end of the world. Headswirling psychedelic blues rock meets psychotic poetry down a very dark alley.

It connected with a displaced, disenchanted group of fans – soon a hardcore bunch of Derby and Leicester lads and girls (this was no boys club) followed The Dolls most anywhere on nights where it felt like they were the match of the mythical bands our generation were too young for – The Velvets, The Doors, The Stooges – the only things at the time to come close were to be Adrian Borland and The (equally bound for obscure glory) Sound and none other than Joy Division.

The chisel-like gouges in his Burns guitar were just that – Jackie told me he’d done it on acid making what seemed at the time to be beautiful carvings into the body. When Joe Shaw smashed his vintage Stratocaster he was no millionaire rocker doing a nice bit of auto-destructive theatre to please the crowd, he did it because that’s where the epileptic fit inducing strobe lit screaming feedback climax of ‘The Palace Of Love’ took him.

Amazingly Jackie, Joe, drummer Dave McIntosh and bassists Robin Spreafico and the late and also much missed Tony Waite kept this fearsome intensity up right into the eighties until Jackie tried a softer version DxD with a short lived new line up. I nursed the memories of the 50 plus shows I’d seen where they’d tried to reassemble their audiences brains and, in my case, succeeded. The night there was only eleven of the faithful in Barbarella’s Birmingham, when they got flung off the tour support for the Hawkwind, having U2 as their support act.. all priceless.

Most of all we treasure their insane generosity – loads of us kipping on the floor of their Warwick Avenue squat, they were our acid agony aunts and our true friends.

Jackie made one of the finest comebacks ever in the 90s, maybe not as noticed a comeback as he deserved but he embarked on a magical new career as a soloist pouring out a prolific number of superb studio and live albums. My old fellow Doll By Doll mega-fan Mick Nolan made Jackie’s pre-internet info service and ‘trashzine’ The Haunted Valley into a literal cottage industry.

At the annual Christmas party at the old social club in Mick’s native Milford Derbyshire people came from all over the UK and I and fellow Leicester players Dan Britton and Lee Allatson had our moment as stardust in The Stornoway Girls with Jackie.In 2002 I got an even greater shot of schoolboy glory with Jackie and Joe Shaw as a one off trio.

A lost dream came back for us all and Jackie matured as if he were a fine wine – or a kickass malt whiskey more like, going from his forties and fifties into his sixties with seemingly limitless inspiration, happy with his devoted partner Deborah, his dogs, his music and a good bar. It’s the saddest of all things for him to have left us so soon but even when I last saw him at the Musician in Leicester in June though clearly not well Jackie made us all laugh so much, cruder and ruder than ever, a shining brother indeed.

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26 comments on “Jackie Leven – an obituary by Kevin Hewick”

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  1. jonathan mcgiven

    In the world of music there are numerous cult names who attract enthusiastic devotees but rarely do you ever find an artist where their low commercial profile or levels of media exposure are so dwarfed by the towering stature of their live performances or the quality of their studio work.
    Jackie leven,as a recording artist at least,probably had 4 “musical lives” following his initial folk duo
    phase as saint judas.While the john st. field solo period seems to be a time when there were relatively few witnesses to this era–or at least reluctant to share their stories of those years–the Doll by Doll section has been wonderfully,if only partially related due to limitations of space,by Kevin Hewicks
    vivid recollections from 1979.
    Mick Nolan and I first encountered Doll by Doll as an unknown, unsigned support act to (John Foxxs) ultravox at st.albans city hall on the last day of september 1978.
    We were immediately aware,despite the poor mix,that this band thrived on tension and atmospherics at a level that few ,if any musicians ,have ever come near –never mind equalled!At the same time,meeting with Colin (their roadie) and Jo Shaw (guitarist) afterwards, we realised that there were some really amiable guys in their camp and ,with the leicester contingent (Kevin and co.) coming on board 6 months later,we watched as many dates as we could on the (legendary) “remember” tour of april,1979.Though omitted from even the most detailed versions of rock music history ,this set of epic live performances alone would `ve had them immediately inducted into the “rock and roll (concert)hall of fame” –alongside hendrix ,the who etc–if such a category had ever existed!
    A book could be written about the weekends spent at Doll by Dolls maida vale base but it was certainly a truly unforgetable part of our adolescent lives for a group of working class kids from the provinces.
    Jackie would eventually take the band to where there was a greater emphasis on beautifully written songs and less audience confrontation–although they always maintained a certain,tangible intensity.
    The post Doll by Doll era material,minus the core of the band, was never going to really appeal to their early followers but,in retrospect, the right single might`ve got a chart foothold in the overseas pop market if promoted in the right way.
    By 1992 ,with all of the old Doll by Doll “inner circle” assuming Levens “retirement” had become permanent,I ,via one of jackies scottish friends,acquired a demo tape of a set of songs that would form the backbone of his “comeback” cd–“the mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death”
    This phase of his career saw jackie seemingly more comfortable in his (middle aged)skin and his relaxed solo acoustic format interspersed with memorable ,if often bizarre, stories proved highly popular with a whole new “greying” audience who`d never heard of Doll by Doll.
    A remarkably prolific period ensued where,despite the quantity,the quality of most of his official and fan club releases rarely ever dipped below a level others artists–especially in his age range-would`ve been happy to even reach.Although the jackie leven solo experience was quite obviously as totally a different a “beast” ,as he was a person,from the Doll by Doll days the one regret for those UK followers outside london was that we rarely saw him play with other musicians.Economics and audience sizes in the provinces meant he could never tour here with some of the ensembles that added an extra dimension to certain compositions.Nevertheless we should be grateful that we had 17 years of memorable evenings with a man who was as eloquent with the written word as he was graceful with his guitar playing– nevermind THAT voice !!We should also remember the endless hours of toil mick nolan put into promoting Jackies solo career with “the haunted valley” magazine (and cds)that connected up so many people who were sometimes must`ve thought “Am I the only person who thinks Levens works remarkable ?”
    I personally,like many, would never have bothered buying an instrument ,never mind writing songs,if I hadnt seen those life changing Doll by Doll shows in 1979–80.Believe me never was the phrase “you really had to be there !” so apt !
    Finally ,though, we must remember Deborah and jackies relatives at this time and just all be thankful we shared time with a character who was truly larger than life and quite unlike anyone we will ever meet again
    jonathan mcgiven

    • Hi Jonathan,
      I was trying to contact your friend Mick Nolan with regards to his old Jackie Leven fanzine The Haunted Valley.
      Please let me know his current contact address if you have it.
      Best wishes,
      Rob Evans

  2. There are many of us who remember Jackie’s late 1960’s days. His voice was always magical, strong and true. Even as an 18 year old folk singer around the haunts of Carlisle and Newcastle. For the record: He was Alan Moffatt, from a very middle class, lovely Scottish family, but what the heck, the new names were more exciting!

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