Saturday, April 14, 2007


Leven sounds like a crazed Scottish laird serenading his ghost bride amidst the wreckage of a bacchanalian feast. Only Nick Cave gets darker, but Jackie out-sings him, out-baritones him and out-mans him.
Overlooked and underplayed: Doll By Doll

Thought about a girl I knew when I was sixteen

In early 1979 EoR discovered Doll by Doll with the release of their first album, Remember. Now, nearly thirty years later, the Doll by Doll oeuvre is finally available on CD (all four albums that were released - the legendary unreleased fifth album remains unreleased).

Never particularly liked by the majority of the music press or even by the public (they were drowned by a rising tide of cartoon punk bands), and troubled by too many drugs, Doll by Doll were something different. This wasn't helped by being thrown off tours when they supported Devo and Hawkwind (putting Doll by Doll with them is about as bizarre as Jimi Hendrix supporting the Monkees).

Playing what their lead singer, Scot and Fifer Jackie Leven, called psychodramas, they steadfastedly refused to associate themselves with the popular causes of the day such as Rock Against Racism and Ban The Bomb, choosing instead to play gigs in support of R D Laing's Philadelphia Association. Jackie says in the liner notes "Doll by Doll was rooted in its own genuine psychic problems - mainly mine". You didn't go to a Doll by Doll gig for a good time. Catharsis, yes, but not for fun.

Named for a line in an e e cummings poem, with a silhouette of Antonin Artaud on the cover (and which became the band logo), using lines from Anna Akhmatova and Rumi on later albums, this was clearly not some teenage angst band. Indeed, the band members were nearly thirty at the time which, as Jackie has commented, meant they had more life experience to deliver in their songs.

Remember is an assault of guitars and drums, with Jackie's voice swooping and soaring, delivering lines of drama and pain, capturing the sound the band delivered live. The sound is rough and hard, but it suits the trouble that Jackie sings about. Relationships that are ending. Relationships that have ended. And a poetry that transcends. Probably only Joy Division were covering the same territory at the time. There's a lot of blood in this album, like Jackie is opening all the wounds he's accumulated over the years.

Cut my heart in quarters, dropped it on the scale
Flesh was crimson, bone was shiny and pale
Staggered out and fell into the limousine
Staggered out and fell into the limousine
Thought about a girl I knew when I was sixteen
(Butcher Boy)

But if there's one thing I remember
That I think you have forgot
I was your sleeping partner
On the night that you got shot
As I held the blood stained pillow
A voice whispered forget me not
But if you want my love I'll give it anytime I can
I know you've had a hard time
I believe for every sorrow that is born
You've got to hit the mainline
(Sleeping Partners)

The lyrics to More Than Human (the nod to Nietzsche is surely intentional) were originally printed on the reverse of the album cover: surreal poetry that opens up possibilities of meaning:

I know a man whose heart is ready to chime
This man is waiting for you - he has no sense of time
I resurrected you but, I left out one thing
I wrote it in a song that no voice will ever sing
Love is the thing that separates
Love is what makes us make mistakes
(More Than Human)

Joy Division's Love Will Tear Us Apart, with its same theme of destructive love, was released a year later.

Then there's the ballad Janice - the first example of something that Jackie has done so well in his subsequent solo career: sweetly lyrical songs about the darkest of themes, with tunes that are almost too intensely beautiful, about the pain of love that neither partner has acknowledged is over.

And Janice, tomorrow I will walk across the moorland
A perfect place to rest your head in my arms
Forget the wailing alarms
Oh yes a good friend said that I would only make you cry
Oh strangers they come in disguise
Such emptiness in their eyes
And woman, in times of trouble when your spirits are low
Remember that's the only song we could share
And it was your word against mine
There was anything that could last a little longer
Than the journey to your room

Palace of Love, the final track of the original album (the CD release adds the B-side of Palace of Love) is a seven minute odyssey that ends in a sustained sequence of white noise and feedback: a demented Phil Spectorish Wall of Terror.

I love stealing fuck magazines
And tearing them apart
Last night one exploded
And a piece blew in my heart
And as I looked to see which picture
Caused my mortal wound
A woman who had trusted me
Was drowning in my blood
(Palace of Love)

Opinions differ about which is the best Doll by Doll album (or the worst) but, in EoR's opinion, Remember has the strongest energy and drive. Yes, it's messy at times. Yes, it's confused at times. But what a debut. What a soul laid bare. And in that sleep of death, what dreams may come.

Taxi drivers yawn from Earl's Court to the Strand

The next Doll by Doll album, Gypsy Blood (also 1979 - with a new bass player) saw a more highly produced album, with a wider sound and a wider range of songs (as well as the themes that embroiled Remember there also appeared subjects that would be seen as Jackie Leven concerns: how to be a "strong" man, the highlands, the sea, and the city, as well as the use of poetry - a verse from Artaud, and Akhmatova). Gypsy Blood is considered the Doll by Doll album par excellence. There's more light and lyricism here. If anything though, it failed more spectacularly than Remember to excite the critics. Nonetheless, the album contains some songs that can only be considered classics by anyone's standards.

Consider the (only slightly) skewed view of urban life in Strip Show that juxtaposes an essentially private, male ritual of female objectification with its declarations of love:

When the strip show is over
And the management have turned up the lights
Silent people have walked back into the night
I thought of you still living alone.
When the neon universe was winking to an end
Taxi drivers yawn from Earl's Court to the Strand
I thought of you decorating your new home.

The dark surrealism, the demons of the unconscious, from Remember still surface though.

I feel I am a hunter
In forests of regret
Who finds a moment's shelter
When all his clothes are wet
Who rubs his face so wearily
And counts the kill of the day
And quietly remembers
The one that got away
(The Human Face)

Jackie's voice soars seamlessly on that last "away" in pitch and volume, echoing the regretted escape.

I lived for a while in the shadow of Castle Frankenstein
With the sadness in the air and no life anywhere
The mirror of my voyage has been smashed so fine
And all god's eyes are strange and the season was deranged
The heroine in the story must wear gloves of steel
Her violence must be real
It is her act of glory that for love she'll kill
When death comes flying sad and sweet
It is my angel oh it is my angel oh it is my angel
(Hell Games)

Forget the past

It took two years, a legal dispute, and a change of label (though the group members remained the same) before Doll by Doll's third album (the eponymous Doll by Doll) was released. Maintaining the balance between dark and light, the opening words could almost be Jackie Leven's response to the critics:

Message understood
Now leave me alone
Since you're such a slick little girl
Since you run your very own world
There's one thing you can do
Figure it out on your own
(Figure It Out)

With the hard driving funk of Caritas (the single release from the album), the upbeat The Street I Love, the surreal folk inspired ballads such as Main Travelled Roads (an update of the traditional Bonnie Earl O'Moray) and Those In Peril, and the immensely powerful A Bright Green Field it was good to have the glorious harmonies, Jackie's exceptional voice, the range and reach of the guitars back in full force. This is mature Doll by Doll with more than one exceptional track. There's hope here as well as darkness, a bigger vision as well as hopelessness.

I put a penny in the toilet door
And then I quickly stepped inside
To some graffiti and a greyhound paper
And the gentle thought of suicide
A razor blade would make the perfect bride
Lift up your glass to the future bride
Forget the past
I'm taking your advice about that suicide.
(The Perfect Romance)

But if nothing kind comes from dying
And the holy wine tastes like rain
If the sand covers the word of the soul
If the heroes are drenched to the bone
He's an angel he's a demon
He's a child in the sand
He's a new star he's a centaur
A man in a bright green field
With a dry passion the high tide resounds
With a sigh passing from god to the ground
(Bright Green Field)

If all the leaders stopped leading and let grand passion take command

In 1982 the final Doll by Doll album, Grand Passion was released and, if it was possible, this got even more of a lashing from the critics. At the time, EoR could see why. The problem was that this wasn't actually a Doll by Doll album, even though it was marketed as such. Doll by Doll, the core three musicians that created the first three albums, had ceased to exist and Grand Passion was essentially a Jackie Leven solo album, with session musicians (though of the calibre of Dave Gilmour and Mel Collins). There was even a cover version (the Rolling Stones' Under My Thumb). There was saxophone on the album! There were even ocarinas!

After Grand Passion Doll by Doll and Jackie Leven seemed to cease to exist. Until 1994 when the first Jackie Leven album (The Mystery of Love is Greater than the Mystery of Death - Jackie clearly had accepted he'd never be a commercial success, and the silhouette of Antonin Artaud was tiny and hidden inside the CD booklet) appeared.

Now it could be seen that Grand Passion was part of a progression, from the bloody dark angst of Remember, through the more balanced (but still passionate and archetypical) Gypsy Blood and Doll by Doll, to Jackie's first solo explorations on Grand Passion.

There are still some amazing songs on this album. From the use of a Kenneth Patchen poem title for a song title (Boxers Hit Harder When Women Are Around, through the darker Doll by Doll driven energy of City of Light, the reggae influenced Grand Passion to the more laid back paeans to desperate lives such as Dancing Shoes and Lonely Kind of Show, there are many delights here.

In Eternal Jackie sings "Forgive me, I am dazzled by your sorrow" twisting the expected cliche ("I am dazzled by your beauty") into a shock of revelatory meaning, something that is a constant throughout Doll by Doll's albums. Just when you think you're safe, they'll pull you up, twist you around, and show you what's really following you.

It's a lonely kind of show
At times I laughed but it was touch and go
And when the very last curtain fell
Our eyes met through applause and snow
As we walked home through the night I felt the silence grow
Between us where do all the good feelings go?


But if the weir is blocked with tears
If the mills are closing down
Sleepy janitors disappear
By reservoirs where angels drown.
(Lonely Kind of Show)

Death is an eagle circling high
Life is an endless terror of the sky
But I shall walk into the night
And fear no evil touch
In the city of light.
(City of Light)

Doll by Doll existed out of time, untouched by the commercial fashions of the time, but not ignorant of the history of rock from the 50s on, or to the powers of poetry and dreams. An essential chapter in the history of rock is available again.

Jackie Leven continues his solo career, quietly producing an album (or more) every year of his individual mythic-poetic-balladic music (he's usually classed as "celtic soul" but that's too limiting for his range - maybe "human soul" would be better) with songs about hard men, bad relationships, the sea, the moor, the city, pubs, factories, desperation, philosophy, the ambiguity of meaning and with titles such as "The Sexual Loneliness of Jesus Christ", "The War Crimes of Ariel Sharon", "And You'll Never Hear Surf Music Again" and "Defending Ancient Springs".

Here can be great joy, but it is easy to be mangled by the process as to swing with it. It will require an act of imagination from those who do not know from their own experience what hell this borderland between being and nonbeing can become. But that is what imagination is for.
R D Laing: The Politics of Experience

1 comment:

  1. NZBC says Jackie out-sings Nick Cave. That's disputable, but must agree Nick gets darker. As for "out-mans" him, well... Jackie sure is twice the weight.


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