Columbus mourns the loss of a troubled musician who at one time threatened to own the world
A little more than a week ago, Jenny Mae Leffel shuffled off this mortal coil, finally succumbing to the harshness and cruelty of a life that ended up being proof that it can always get worse. She was barely 49 years old.
It all could have been so different.
Two decades beforehand, Leffel was working on her second, soon-to-be-well-received album, Don't Wait Up for Me. She was a rare talent, the sort of songwriter who has so many songs inside that she can leave them scattered to and fro, like Picasso and his napkins.
While she may not have gotten her due in the overly dude-ish local punk scene, to many outside of town, this pixie-ish and Pixies-esque pop tomboy was going to be the one to put Columbus music on the map.
“When she played New York, she played with big people,” said Anyway Records founder Bela Koe-Krompecher. “They knew her. They wanted to play with her.”
Koe-Krompecher was a lifeline for Leffel, a former boyfriend who released her two albums on Anyway, and one of the few she could rely on to the end.
“She would literally have a song come out, a melody, and it would be great,” he said. “In that sense, she was a lot like [Guided by Voices' Bob] Pollard.”
“I think she wanted it all to be organic, because there was something more honest about capturing that moment, and if you have to work, it was going to ruin some of the magic,” said longtime friend and musical collaborator Sean Woosley.
Woosley, who often functioned as Robin to Leffel's Batman, was instrumental in coaxing out the handful of live appearances the musician made since the '90s.
“She was really kind of a force,” Koe-Krompecher said. “A testament to her talent was she attracted so many great musicians. She would line shows up and she wouldn't have a band.”
Such rootlessness had its downside.
“You wouldn't know what the fuck was going to happen when she showed up,” Koe-Krompecher said. “Her shows could be brilliant, or she could get up there and be so drunk she's completely out of tune.”
The drinking became abusive early on. In addition, Leffel exhibited signs of mental illness over the years, brought about by bi-polar disorder.
“She said [she had] been hearing voices since she was 17,” Koe-Krompecher said. “She said the reason she slept in the closet was because she really thought there were guys in the wall that were going to get her.”
After Don't Wait Up for Me, and inadvertently killing a deal with major label EMI with her behavior, Leffel moved to Florida with her husband with the intention of starting work on a third album that never came to fruition.
“I had the worst feeling about it. Don't go to fucking Florida,” Woosley said. “I don't think she recognized how isolated she could be. She had so many friends here and had so much attention in Columbus.”
In 2005, only a few years after moving, Leffel returned to Columbus with nothing. “It was literally going from living in Coral Gables with this millionaire to being homeless,” Koe-Krompecher said.
I can still recall Jenny Mae relating this story to me eight years ago, expressing a sense of disbelief that something like this could happen, even in a life as chaotic as hers.
“She came back here and had nowhere to go,” Koe-Krompecher continued. “All her friends were barflies. She lived in the music building at [Ohio State University] that summer. She would sleep behind the piano [and] then go over to Bernie's and drink.”
“It seems like all of that activity was too much for her system,” Woosley said.
Things just get worse between here and the bitter end. At this point, I would just like to let Leffel rest.
There is a video of Leffel's first band, Vibralux, performing at Stache's circa 1993. Through the pixelation, you can see how young and lovely she was — a smart, pop ingenue any record store clerk would be thrilled to file next to the Breeders or Liz Phair. You can see how some thought the world would be hers.
Woosley summed it up in a text message that he later posted on Facebook. “If any one of us got to burn that bright, we'd gladly trade our longevity away,” he wrote. “She was magnanimous and righteous and so loving and real.”