You can only reconstruct it from the fragments.

It was 1979. I was a Psychology student. The last thing I wanted was to “discover” myself, I wasn’t interested in how child development works and although I respected anyone for doing so, the last thing I wanted to do was look after people with mental handicaps. What interested me was normality and its definition. Who decides? What criteria do they use? How do you know when something is not normal?

It didn’t take me long to find R.D. Laing. He was one of the “anti Psychiatrists” who doubted whether insanity even exists. A patient refers, and says she is worried about being blown up by an Atom bomb. After two decades or more of the Cold War, is she mad? Laing talks about “intelligibility”, by which any thought can be seen as sane if you can see it within the framework of the person doing the thinking. He talked about Language, and the way that we construct the world through it. He called it a game, because it had rules. And winners. It’s a complicated game. It ties us in knots. Words can only point to things, like a finger pointing at the moon.

Punk was over. The initial blitzkreig of shock had fizzled out into a pastiche of mock anger. Stupid and empty posturing that would eventually show its true colours in the dressing-up games of the Kings Road and the New Romantics.

One day when I was in the Students Union office (we did Ents) there was a promo LP on the desk. That was standard for any bands who happened to be on tour and wanted extra venues. It was a Doll By Doll album. In those days you were either Punk (or New Wave) or you were “rockist” which meant you played guitars loudly and probably allowed drum solos during your concerts. This was neither. It was certainly guitar-y and very loud, but the songs were about the weirdest of topics. The singer had an amazing voice – deeply resonant, but more heavy metal than Johnny Rotten, if you know what I mean. And he was singing about an absurdism of the everyday world. He was putting complex poems to music: “When a man dies, his portraits change”.

If I recall correctly we used the huge budget of a student rag week gig to cover the cost of booking them. It was an ill-matched affair. A bunch of drunken Eric Clapton-loving students who would have gone to anything that particular night. And we used the chance to give them Doll By Doll, just because we wanted to hear what they sounded like live :-/

I kept going. Next it was Doll By Doll’s “Remember” album, It was the cover that got me. I had to research it much later to find out more, but I was looking at an image of the poet/playwright Antonin Artaud in a pose of tortured, restrained anguish. Time to learn about Absurdism.

They sang about Issues, about inner torment, mental illness, sordid under-bellies of cities. They gave proceeds from their gigs to anti-Psychiatry foundations (including one of Laing’s).

In London, probably 1980 or 1981, I got another chance to see them. Afterwards I walked home from Camden to Hackney because I wanted to hear the encores and I couldn’t afford a taxi. No such thing as a night bus back then. It was a pilgrimage. And I would walk five hundred miles…

But we lost touch.

Then around 1994 I found a CD in a record shop in Cambridge. It was a solo effort from the lead singer, one Jackie Leven, and the title alone “The Mystery of Love (Is Greater Than the Mystery of Death)” was enough. Then maybe two or three tracks in, he sings a song with the starting lines:

Like young Irish men in English bars
the song of home betrays us

What an analogy. It was beyond language and the mere meaning of words. I felt it rather than heard it. First came the fear, the fact that you were an outsider. The fact that when you opened your Irish mouth, the local cockney geezers would have you. Then came the second feeling. The weird comforting sensation of an Irish pub in a foreign city, all the more bizarre in its comfort given that you have fled from the same thing back in Ireland.

Every CD included poetry and a list of bars that gave him shelter and comfort (the Free Press gets a mention). How could I not be impressed by James Wright “A Blessing” (1960):

Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.

or Louis MacNeice’s “Autobiography” (1940) about the death of his mother from TB when he was 5 years old:

When I was five the black dreams came;
Nothing after was quite the same.
Come back early or never come

Add to that pointers to e.e. cummings, Antonio Machado, Rainer Maria Rilke and Robert Bly, and the debt grows large indeed. Last night when I wrote this the snow was swirling in a blizzard around the house. Straight away, a reminder of Jackie’s rendition of W.B. Yeats’ “mad as the mist and snow”.

I saw Jackie Leven play live at least three times after that. Each time he was magnificent. He would tell the funniest surreal anecdotes. His voice was soaring. His presence, even in a small stage setting, was immense.

Jackie died from prostrate cancer last November. I just wanted to thank him for educating me.