Don’t Wait Up For Me: The Luminous and Troubled Life of Jenny Mae Leffel

Author Bela Koe-Krompecher remembers Jenny Mae Leffel, one of the most unique and troubled talents of Columbus’ 1990s underground music scene.

Bela Koe-Krompecher
Jenny Mae Leffel

2006

Cold and wet morning. The air feels as miserable as any mood I’ve ever had. I put my jacket on, make a feeble attempt to find my wife’s umbrella and go out to my car. I’m pretty much soaked at the end of my eight steps to our Volkswagen Golf. It’s 7:30, the hour that divides the day workers from the night crawlers. Merijn yells out to me, “Make sure you actually use the umbrella and bring it back!” I pull out, flick the wipers on and drive the quarter-mile to Tim Horton’s, where I buy a dozen doughnuts and four large coffees before continuing to the Goodwill parking lot in South Clintonville.

The scenic ravine sloping down behind the Goodwill has no trails, but if you follow the creek eastward, it opens into a small park complete with a cliff and two picnic tables. A perfect setting for young coeds to steal off into the night and discover one another under a covering of stars and trees hidden away in a large city. In the summer, the ravine is filled with weeds, brambles, vines, empty liquor bottles, fast food bags, tin cans, tiny plastic bags that used to hold crack cocaine, and 20 or so people sleeping. When the air starts to chill, the people amble out of the woods and construct a camp just to the rear of the Goodwill, separated only by a tall chain link fence and weeds. Trashcans burning in the middle of the camp provide warmth, light and a way to cook hot dogs, beans or chicken on wide metal grids. Tents are made of found materials: wooden grocery store pallets, blue plastic tarps and cardboard boxes. They form a half-moon around the fires.

On this fall morning, I pass several piles of 40-ounce beer bottles, one nearly 5 feet tall. I walk to the edge and notice a few men muddling around one of the trashcans stoking the fire. One of them turns and says, “Oh, hey there Bela. Good morning. Hold on, I’ll get her.” He walks over to the largest tent and brushes the blue tarp. “Hey Jenny! Bela’s here.” He looks at me, rain bouncing off his grimy face. “She’ll be up in a second.” I breathe in the smell of burning wood and stale beer. It is raining pretty hard. First the rain ricochets off my coat, then penetrates it like water in bread.

The tent parts, revealing a familiar face. Jenny smiles and says, “Hold on. I’ll be out in a minute.” Out pops an umbrella, one side with three of its metal arms poking skyward like tree branches, the other side in perfect working condition. She walks out, stooped but dry. “Hey, I was wondering if you were coming out. It’s kinda early, huh?”

“Yup, I got you guys some coffee and doughnuts.”

Jenny says, “I can’t drink coffee with my stomach, but maybe I’ll try to eat a doughnut. I’m sure Dale will have some coffee.” From the bowels of the tent, I hear, “Hey, Bela. Yeah, thanks.”

Dale is Jenny’s boyfriend. He is in his 40s with boyish features uncommon for a man who has been homeless for the last five years. Dale is a light-skinned Black man with eyes different shades of blue. The left one is almost translucent. He has been in and out of prison and mental institutions for most of his life. He is gentle when he isn’t smoking crack, and since he has been with Jenny, he has only smoked crack once. She won’t tolerate it. Dale told her that he killed a man once when he was a teenager because the man molested him.

The tarp shakes and leans, almost toppling over. Dale is tall, about 6’2”. He steps out and says, “Oh, boy it’s raining out,” to no one in particular as his hands move up and down his arms, trying to rub some warmth into his body. Jenny, seemingly reading my thoughts, says, “Oh, you wouldn’t believe how warm it is inside these tents. These fellows know what they’re doing.” Jenny, who is 36, had been squatting in the Ohio State School of Music building, where she could play the piano for hours in the practice rooms at night. Once discovered, she was tossed out and took to the streets, sleeping with different men for comfort and care until finding Dale and the small group of homeless men and women he kept with. They provided safety and support for her efforts to stay off cocaine and only use alcohol. After she was kicked out of the School of Music, she came to Used Kids Records, where I work, tears running down her face. She carried a small yellow and bruised suitcase and a Hefty trash bag full of what was left of her belongings. These were the clothes her wealthy ex-husband had bought her: Versace, real gold earrings, a diamond necklace. Nobody would have guessed the contents. She wasn’t upset because she was once again without shelter, but because now she wouldn’t be able to play the piano.

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I hand the coffee and doughnuts to Jenny and say, “I need to get back to the house and take Saskia to daycare and drive Merijn to work. Maybe I’ll stop by after.” Jenny thanks me and says, “We won’t be here this afternoon, we have to meet some of the church people. They dropped off a bunch of food last night, so we feel obligated to go listen to them preach. I hate that. They should just drop it off and not try to make us feel guilty. It is so boring, all the Jesus stuff and holy this and holy that. They mean well, though. We do appreciate it, but that church and singing they do is so ridiculous.” Jenny’s pores reek of booze. She bends down and picks up an empty bottle of Mad Dog 40-40. It’s more wet on the outside than on the inside. She tosses it into an old grocery cart.

“I tell the boys here to pick up after themselves, I don’t want us all to get kicked out of here, plus I’m trying to let them know this is our house, and we gotta keep it clean.” A small brown puddle of mud is climbing up around her shoes. They’re cracked brown vinyl, and she notices me looking at them. “These aren’t too bad, they keep me warm, they are better than what everybody else is wearing here.” She nods toward the small tents, water now pouring off them like a spigot. I spy Dale’s shoes. Brown thick boots, worn to the heel and only halfway laced up because the laces have been torn and knotted in several places. “The guys really need shoes. You don’t think about it, but shoes are vital out here.” She wipes the rain from her nose and looks at me, her blue eyes still brilliant but clouded with the remnants of the night before and the night before that and the weeks and years before that.

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Jenny Mae performs in 1990

1996

Jeff Graham is a different sort of musician than I’m used to; he has short, slightly gelled hair, good teeth, no tattoos, and he drives a Land Rover. I’m skeptical when Jenny starts working with him, due to my biases against anyone outside our insular DIY world. Jeff owns a small basement studio called Diamond Mine in the Linden area. Used to crappy cassette 4-track setups on cases of Black Label beer with awful Radio Shack microphones duct-taped to broken mic stands, I’m shocked when he leads me down the stairs. His soundboard has different colored lights and looks like it could have come from the set of Star Trek. It is huge and looks very expensive. He plays me some of the new songs Jenny is recording with him, Dan Spurgeon and Sean Woosley. The sound for the album that will become Don’t Wait Up for Me is rich, deep and sophisticated; I cannot believe my ears. I had no idea that Jenny could sing so well. I knew the loveliness that lay behind the crass in Jenny. But over Jeff’s massive speakers, her coarse voice transforms into a blanket of beauty, both surprising me and making me feel hopeful.

As the songs start to evolve, I send a few off to my friend James Hunter, a freelance writer and scout for several record companies. James is a thin man whose family provided him with impeccable taste in music, fashion and the arts. His tastes run to the far end of sophistication, but he is discerning enough to understand the loveliness of a Patty Loveless or Pet Shop Boys song over the annoyance of standard pop fare. I had met James several years prior when he introduced himself to me at Used Kids. We hit it off; he was an early supporter of Guided by Voices, the Dayton indie rock darlings who released a split 7-inch single with Jenny in 1993 on my independent label, Anyway Records. James later interviewed me for a story on the underground scene for The New York Times.

After receiving Jenny’s tape, James calls me almost immediately, his voice full of excitement. He cannot wrap his mind around the fact that this is Jenny singing. He has met her a few times at shows. With her Southwestern Ohio drawl and a propensity for saying whatever pops into her gin-soaked brain, Jenny does not always make the best first—or even fourth—impression. She is liable to snicker in your face with an inside joke that she barely understands herself. That it can be off-putting is an understatement. But here she is on tape, summoning dredged-up, forlorn darkness now bathed in a perfect light, crafted into three-minute pop songs.

James works closely with Davitt Sigerson, a longtime music producer who has guided both mainstream and alternative acts. He’s just taken over the failing American branch of EMI Records, once the home of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Queen and Pink Floyd. James asks me to send a few of Jenny’s tracks to Davitt, and in a few weeks, the EMI boss asks Jenny to play in New York. Jenny and her band have not performed live; in fact she has no stable backing band. Davitt is also advising Deborah Harry on what will become a Blondie comeback attempt. One of the songs Harry is considering is Jenny’s “Hey Baby.” Davitt seems serious. He must think I am more experienced than I am, working with so many labels and bands in my capacity as a promoter and running Anyway for half a decade. But I am in over my head. I have been from the day I was born.

More:Laughter, music and loneliness in Bela Koe-Krompecher's 'Love, Death & Photosynthesis'

The underground scene is becoming an above-ground commodity. Major labels realize there is something happening that they do not quite understand, as their business model shifts under the weight of Nirvana, Pavement, The Smashing Pumpkins and Helmet. In this environment, some of the finest Columbus bands of the ’90s—Scrawl, The Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments, Watershed and Gaunt—are scooped up by majors as they hunt for the next alt-rock cash cow, and shotgun marriages between corporate music companies and authentically independent labels proliferate. Davitt is interested in absorbing Anyway, with Jenny Mae as a flagship artist. This opportunity, however, hinges on the New York show.

After a handful of practices, we leave for New York, where I secure a gig at Brownies, an East Village club with a history of welcoming Columbus bands. After an eight-hour car ride chased by two hours of drinking, unshaven in a threadbare T-shirt and frayed jeans, I meet the president of EMI at the bar. Davitt is a large man, and he smokes a cigar the size of my wrist. The prospect of teaming up with EMI does not move me either way. In reality, I would be relieved if the larger label took Jenny and left me to lurk in my record store abode, content as a cat in a sunbeam.

The Don't Wait Up For Me band (left to right): Sean Woosley, Jeff Graham, Jenny Mae, Dan Spurgeon

Davitt sits at a table off to the side of the stage, while I huddle at the bar, not knowing what to say to this ambassador of music professionalism. It is not apathy that envelops my life; it is more being completely unskilled in any sort of communication outside of the familiar. Choosing the underbelly of life is a pragmatic choice, one made in increments. Dropping a class followed by dropping out of school. Staying out too late on a Tuesday night, then adding Wednesday and Thursday nights. Choosing a job that allows extremely casual clothes and schedules that are congruent with weeknight drinking and dancing. When one world is as welcoming as an impassioned lover, the disdain for the other grows. I yearn for Jenny to have large-scale success, but I am happy to just be a conduit to it. I do not necessarily want a piece of it.

The club is half filled when Jenny plays a ragged set. The sophistication on her recordings is displaced by too many glasses of Dewar’s and Iron Horse beer consumed since arriving in town earlier that afternoon. She rushed through her sound check to drink at a cowboy bar down the street. This is evident from the sloppy performance. After the show, Jenny stumbles up to Davitt. She offers him a drink; he declines. She asks again, and again he declines. Suddenly she leans over, clutches his large belly and tells him to “lighten up, have a drink!” He is horrified. That seals the deal: He is no longer interested. Deborah Harry recording one of Jenny’s songs is out the window with one ill-fated grab of the stomach.

Jenny continues to work on Don’t Wait Up For Me, not concerned about the brief flirtation with a major label, chalking it up as a night of free booze in the city and the pleasure of seeing old friends. Don’t Wait Up For Me is released to stellar reviews across the country and charts on the College Music Journal. Jenny does several small tours in support of the album, sharing stages with Neko Case and Cat Power, among other artists, but she never records another album.

2017

After finishing dinner, I get ready to leave for the hospital. “Dad, can I go with you? I want to see Jenny,” asks Saskia. “Honey, it’s late,” I tell my 12-year-old daughter, looking across the living room at Merijn for support. “I don’t care if she goes,” my wife says. Pulling into the parking lot of the hospital, my phone rings. It’s Rachel, Jenny’s sister. “I’m almost there,” Rachel says. “A nurse called my mom and said she should fly up from Florida, she’s coming tomorrow.” As we wait for Rachel to arrive, Saskia hangs close. “Dad, do you think Jenny is going to die?” Pondering her question, I am blunt. “Maybe, I don’t know—she is a strong woman. She was joking last week when I saw her.” I pause. “She goes to the hospital a lot. I don’t know.”

As we are led into Jenny’s room, Saskia clutches my hand. Jenny’s face is bloated from her liver shutting down. She is not just jaundiced; she is a pale yellow that covers her face like a curtain. Her lips are swollen, cracked and bleeding. They are parched and brittle, and since one of the results of liver failure is that the body can’t clot, she has been bleeding from her lips for over a day. She looks a far cry from the woman who wooed everybody who came into contact with her. Her eyes are closed when I hold her hand. “Hi Jenny, it’s me, Bela, and Saskia is with me.” The whirring of her ventilator in the background, her hand tightens around mine. Rachel approaches her. “Hey sis, it’s Roach, mom is coming up tomorrow to see you, hang in there.”

Later, in the car, Saskia asks, “Dad, she’s gonna die, right?” The key turns in the ignition. “I don’t know, but I think, yeah, probably.” The next day, with her family and closest friends by her side, Jenny’s life ends.

“Why are you so angry?” Jenny asked me that repeatedly over the years. Perhaps it was some of the unease that grew up around me when I was near her, the frustration of witnessing a slow-motion house fire, and every time you go to hook up the hose it’s an inch short. This was not going to end well. I would feel a flickering of hope that would offset the pervasive creepy feeling, such as when she would go to the liquor store at 5 p.m. instead of 11 a.m., but the victories were merely small retreats.

Never-spoken experiences drove her, memories that visited her when she was alone with the voices in her head. No wonder she gravitated toward anyone who could make her feel not so alone, even those who betrayed her with fists, insults and forcing themselves on her. Sometimes the demons in front of us are safer than the ones in our minds. As she once told me, “I’ve always drank because I’ve always been afraid.”

She cackled when she laughed. And she made everyone around her laugh. She could lift a room up and transport it to a place of bliss with just one line, an aside that would cause tears of laughter to cascade down the cheeks of anyone within earshot. A few of us played off one another, a small circle of suffering outsiders who kept our sanity by laughter and by pushing the envelope. And, of course, by the music that poured out of her.

Jenny Mae and the author, Bela Koe-Krompecher, in 1992

Attuned to the pain around her, Jenny comforted me. She held my head when I wept as a teenager, when the world broke apart within me. She would wipe my tears and sing to me, just her voice and her hands upon my cheek. “Edelweiss,” “Greensleeves” and “Grow Old Along with Me.” She could trill her voice like a 1930s Hollywood singer or turn it into a broken Billie Holiday, depending on what she felt was needed. Later, when she started writing her own music, she would pull lines from my notebooks of poetry to fit her melodies, singing songs to others from words that were written for her, or later, for my other lovers.

Over the years, the relationship changed, from high school sweethearts to broken barflies to creative partners to devoted friends. Where once she comforted me, I became the caretaker, trying to save a sinking boat in the middle of the Pacific. Creaky calls in the middle of the night, helping her get services, loaning her money that she would try in vain to pay back but of course never could. She pleaded with me to help change a system that is so selfish and cruel it smashes the poor underneath it with the quiet approval of an upper crust that is exactly that: crust. She is the main reason I work with the poor, the addicted and the mentally ill. She gave me a sense of purpose to challenge the levers of power to quit stomping on the disenfranchised. After I found sobriety, I returned to college and eventually became a social worker helping the homeless. What I discovered on our separate journeys is there are broken systems in the world that do a poor job in helping broken people.

At one time, I thought I could not breathe without her; later I helped her breathe, and now there is no breath at all. I miss her in everything I do.

This essay is adapted from “Love, Death & Photosynthesis,” by Bela Koe-Krompecher, about his life in the Columbus underground music scene, published in August by Don Giovanni Records. Koe-Krompecher will discuss his new book Friday at Secret Studio in Franklinton.

This story is from the October 2021 issue of Columbus Monthly.