Dear Ms. Schrader,
Thank you for allowing us a free choice of topic for our final paper assignment this semester. I have chosen to write about the singer-songwriter Leda Liebling. I looked up everything published about Ms. Liebling in English and French and—with some effort and a great deal of luck—conducted one short interview.
Ms. Liebling is regarded as a mysterious figure, aloof and solitary. For a few months she got a lot of attention; her first album was widely played and reviewed; articles were written about her and she was much photographed. Then she seemed almost to vanish.
Her early songs helped me through my penultimate year of high school when some bad things were going on in and around me. This debt, along with Ms. Liebling’s integrity, her disdain for celebrity, prompted me to seize the opportunity of this assignment to find out more about her.
I hope it will be all right that my essay is not a formal research paper. You didn’t stipulate that was what you wanted. I hope you will like it a little.
Thank you for your enlightening course.
English 102, Ms. Schrader
LEDA LIEBLING ALONE: ARTIST AND SURVIVOR
Part One: Things Almost Everybody Knows
Three years ago Leda Liebling’s album Laurels scored, as they say, a critical and popular success. Perhaps saying it helped to make it true. The lyrics are serious, even tragic, but most of the melodies are either catchy or gorgeous, some are circus- or waltz-like. Her guitar playing was frequently compared to James Taylor’s.
The story goes that Leda Liebling was performing in some small L.A. club when a talent-scouting record company executive discovered her, gave her a studio, a contract, a back-up band, publicity and promotion. This makes a good story, though hardly an original one, especially in Los Angeles, the city with the largest population of hopeful, not-yet-discovered stars. People knew it was a fairy tale but they bought it because it fit the grooves and they didn’t bother to question it. I know I was more interested in the songs and the songwriter than whatever machinations led to my hearing them. The funny thing is that the story is apparently true, or at least it’s mostly true.
Laurels had a lot of pain and bitterness and I guess it caught a mood, at least the mood of girls around my age—too old for ‘tween pop, not old enough for brutal hip-hop, techno, club music, or retro ballads. To me, the distressing lyrics were glamorous. If they listened to them, parents were, like mine, satisfyingly horrified.
Messed and marked and mucked up,
Fouled and screwed and fucked up;
Yet she’s got such pretty hair,
such long and silken hair. . .
Some songs were disturbing even to me, the more so because they said what I suspected about the world and myself—my worst suspicions. On top of this, the songs on Laurels seemed to embody a paradoxical but compelling, if obscure, wisdom. Leda could write the sort of lines you turn over and over when everything is quiet and you are alone.
Remember, when you lie down to rest,
Your worst is better than your best.
Other songs spoke directly to girls like me, grasped the texture of our teenage lives, our high schools, and confused sexual attraction/repulsions. Take these lines from “Harding High” for example:
The nice boys are too weak
The strong ones aren’t nice.
Boys are an infestation
Just like bed bugs or lice.
My schedule is a sentence.
The moment they ring the bell
The halls are packed with sinners.
School’s all nine circles of Hell.
After Laurels became popular, the media went after Leda Liebling. There were articles—mostly empty or made-up—and even photo-shoots. Still, she granted no interviews and gave no concerts. Leda did perform one song on SNL then—nothing. Demand was higher than ever but Leda adamantly supplied nothing. The story had it she was a recluse. Comparisons were made to Greta Garbo (I looked her up – I vant to be alone). By refusing celebrity Leda became an object of mystery. She was different. To young fans like me, her turning her back, even on us, looked like integrity, like disgust with the phony media machine, of which we, too, wanted to believe we had had enough. Not caring about money was a further proof of authenticity. For a time, indifference to fame became cool, even fashionable. Young women imitated her, at least the superficial things they knew of her. They wore tight black jeans and boots, let their hair grow long—even dyed it jet black—affected aloofness and cultivated solitude. According to one tabloid article, which might have been pure fabrication, Leda Liebling did not even date. As to fame, she was famously quoted as asking, “Why would I want to be known by people I don’t want to know?”
Eventually the talk show producers stopped phoning and the paparazzi went elsewhere. The record company canceled her contract for a second album.
I understand why the vogue for Leda could not last long. For one thing, she was independently wealthy, a quality harder to imitate than her Johnny Cashesque outfits. Her fans might have admired her anti-sociability but they didn’t really share it. It’s only possible to be cool in the sight of others. Solitude isn’t so cool if nobody’s there to notice.
I read somewhere that most vices are social and most virtues personal. Leda Liebling seemed to me to possess a lot of personal virtue and the proof was that she isolated herself when she didn’t have to. I liked that she stuck to what was essential and genuine: just herself, her guitar, her songs.
It didn’t take long before another mega-hit came along, sung by a performer far more accommodating and cooperative, also more sentimental and easy to understand, than Leda Liebling.
Part Two: Things Hardly Anybody Knows
Leda was born Leda Sylvia Lehman in Santa Barbara, California, and raised there. Her mother was fond of the Greek myths and named her first daughter Daphne. Leda was born six years later, which means that she was thirteen when Daphne died.
The mythical Daphne, of course, escaped Apollo when she was turned into a laurel tree by her father. Some critics speculated Leda called her album Laurels to suggest victory or domination, an act of bravado, even hubris. The title song is actually about Leda’s sister; in fact, the tone of the entire album is set by the fact of Daphne’s suicide.
The key of the title song is B-minor, the one in which Bach set his mass (BWV 232) and Scarlatti the most profound of his sonatas (K. 87). The melody, though, is not lugubrious. It sounds like a transposition into the minor of something jollier, something that used to be in the major—that is, a tune that was once happy.
“Laurels” was Leda’s nickname for her big sister, whom she adored. Daphne called her “Eggs.”
In the bleak reaches of the night
Wrong gets all mixed up with right,
Despair’s more plausible than hope,
Especially when you’re out of dope.
And so she took a razor blade—
Deep, deep the two cuts that she made;
Red the trickle and red the gush.
She heaved one sigh then she hushed.
It’s no go, no go, you know.
Killed by an asshole or by blow;
No go restlessness, no go rest.
Oblivion’s all that’s left.
The Lehman family was blown up by Daphne’s suicide. Leda’s parents stood guilty before one another, accused each other, offered briefly some inept comfort to Leda but soon ignored her in favor of clawing at one another. When they divorced Leda stayed with her mother, visited with her father on weekends, and was equally unhappy with both. Her father was a big shot in one of the larger production companies. Three months after the divorce was final he remarried. Leda disliked his second wife—a young actress whom she nicknamed the Cliché. When Mr. Lehman and the Cliché were killed in a private plane crash on their way to Montana to look at ranch they planned to buy Leda became rich. She was seventeen. That was when she changed her name, left school, moved into an apartment in Los Angeles, and began writing songs.
I found some of this out from an interview in a now-defunct French music magazine, Musique de Jeunesse. The interview was not with Leda but with the executive who had signed her. The contract for the second album had just been canceled. I imagine he was feeling disappointed, angry, maybe betrayed. Perhaps that’s why he spilled so many beans. The rest I discovered from public records and a conversation with the singer herself.
Leda Liebling, even if she is a recluse, has many and varied interests. She is a cyclist and collector of antique mantel clocks. She has also published two scholarly articles on the poetry of Gene Derwood (1909-1954). I can see why Leda finds her sympathetic. Ms. Derwood wrote religious poems that are short on religious consolation:
. . . Grow mild before the flicking lash
seems welded to your hand, self-wounder. . .
No seeded faith before, nor after, miracle,
Of bidden faith in things unseen, no particle.
For we think only through our troubled selves.
No one should be surprised that a singer-songwriter writes autobiographically. It has been the lyric tradition, from Sappho to Adele. Nevertheless, nobody seems to have looked closely into how autobiographical Leda’s first album was; I mean the specifics. Maybe this was because of Leda’s whole manner—the scorn of self-promotion, the almost haughty silence, those armor-like black jeans. Everyone knew the songs had to come from somewhere, of course, and that this somewhere had to be Leda’s life; all the same they (we, I) saw them in an abstract light. I believe it was just because Laurels seemed autobiographical in general that girls like me felt themselves read by it, moved even by the elusive wisdom of “Gnomic Song”:
Arcanae in roots of heather,
chthonous rumbling under clods:
if gods didn’t make the weather,
surely weather made the gods.
Go pluck pits from brittle pods,
songs from lungs fretted with feather.
If weather hasn’t made the gods,
Surely gods have made the weather.
From the French article I learned that Leda is also an amateur astronomer (myths in the heavens) and a geocacher. I am also into geocaching and I came across the name Leda Lehman and her email address in a newsletter. She was cited at the chief organizer in a northern California district. Geocaching is a treasure hunting game. Players use GPS devices, guiding themselves to specific locations where they try to uncover concealed containers. The hiding and maintenance are done by members of the community, especially the devoted ones, like Leda. Just before Spring Break I succeeded in contacting Leda by email and somehow convinced her to take me along on a hunt. It would have been shameful to trick her. I told her I knew that she was Leda Liebling and admitted I was a fan, but stressed my enthusiasm for geocaching. To my amazement she agreed to let me join her and suggested a specific day, the Tuesday of spring break, and a place up in Mendocino. I booked a night at the Holiday Inn in Fort Brag and borrowed a car.
We rendezvoused at the trailhead at eight o’clock. Leda Liebling is tall, reserved, and charismatic as ever. She was wearing blue jeans, a sweatshirt, and her hair was a little shorter than it used to be.
“How long have you been at it?” she asked. “Geocaching I mean.”
“Oh, I’m still pretty new. Only a year and only on vacations. I’ve only been out four times before, actually.”
She was so nice to me, told me about the tricks of camouflaging. “Always check the trees.” About half an hour in she began asking me about myself, about school, my family, my plans. I answered all her questions; in fact, I probably went on a little too long. Then I told her that Laurels was my favorite album of all time and about the bad things it had gotten me through.
“You may have saved my life,” I said dramatically. It was only as I spoke the words that I realized how true they were.
And that seems to have pried open the door. Not all at once, but in short snatches through the morning Leda revealed some details about her life and her family.
“Do you still write songs?” I asked.
She laughed. “Writing songs is a serious hobby; that is, a habit, a disease.”
We talked a little about things the critics had said about her work. I observed that the consensus was that she was a Romantic.
She scoffed. “Beethoven said only the pure in heart can make a good soup. That’s Romanticism for you. You really think I’m a Romantic?”
It was a wonderful experience being with her, and all too brief. We found the cache and walked back to the trailhead where I thanked her and we said goodbye. Two weeks later I got an email from Leda with an attachment. It was an MP3 of a new song. She said she was sending it to me because it was our morning together than had inspired it.
“It’s been a long time since I spoke to anybody about my family. In fact, I don’t talk to anybody about them. I don’t know why but it felt good.” The title of the song is “Black Forest Cake.” The melody is tender; here are the lyrics:
Hansel and Gretel needed a mother,
Lost a good one but got another.
Rock candy just wasn’t the same—
What was that old witch’s name?
Was it mother, Mother?
Gretel and Hansel had a weak father,
Married a bitch and wouldn’t bother.
Could he really not have seen
How greedy she was, cruel and mean?
Who was that feckless father, Father?
What the kids found instead of love
Were chocolate walls and a Topf stove.
All the same, the two survived,
Took the treasure, then they thrived.
Clever girl, resourceful lad,
Fucked-up mom, worthless dad.
Note: J. A. Topf und Söhne was the company that designed and built the furnaces used by the Nazis in their death camps.
A professor and author, Robert Wexelblatt lives in the Boston area.