I interviewed the author Ian Rankin and the songwriter Jackie Leven for The Word, April 2004. They were appearing together at the Celtic Connections Festival in Glasgow.
You’ll find my 2012 obituary of Jackie Leven interview here.
A bitter North Britain wind garrottes the city of Glasgow and we concert-going souls are glad to be in the warm. All are wondering if the predicted blizzards will arrive this evening. And if they do, might that mean we’ll be snowed in until the morning? Up on the stage, the burly Scottish singer Jackie Leven tells us not to worry: he’s sure he’s got some vodka stashed away.
By his side, peering around the room, sits the slimmer and less flamboyant figure of crime writer Ian Rankin. He reckons a lock-in would have the makings of an excellent murder mystery. A fine case, in fact, for his most famous creation, the dogged Edinburgh cop Detective Inspector John Rebus. We slither uneasily in our seats.
Billed for this event as “Twa Twisted Fifers”, Jackie Leven and Ian Rankin are an unlikely-looking double act. The singer bestrides the stage with flowing mane and Jacobite knee-britches; the novelist is a tidy, precise man with a hint of Edinburgh reserve (the city down the road is Rankin’s adopted home). But as tonight’s experiment will prove, there are powerful affinities at work here. Not only are both men from eastern Scotland’s ancient “Kingdom of Fife”. The singer and the novelist are both fully-accredited tour guides to the darker side of the human soul.
Rankin is here to read his new short story, Jackie Leven Said, while the said Jackie Leven will sing a few numbers from his back catalogue at judicious points in the narrative. Rankin’s tale is of two brothers – Fifers, of course – whose paths in life diverge when one goes down to London to become a big-time but disenchanted pop producer. The other stays in Scotland, where he raises a family. The brothers reunite in Fife for the funeral of their mother and in the course of the week confront their vicious, embittered old Dad.
Thus the stage is set for themes of exile, masculinity, Scottish culture, violence, drink and poetry. If you had to sum it up in a word, you’d call it Levenesque.
In real life, the singer’s stormy pilgrimage goes back to his days as a psychedelic folkie who traded under the name John St Field (“I was in a little trouble with the forces of law and order”). Later he led a punk era band, Doll By Doll, who were ferocious and passionate – and desperately unfashionable. A big misfit of a man among the new wave boys, Jackie Leven drank and drugged more than anyone and when his career died he consoled himself with heroin. When he recovered he founded an addiction charity, CORE, supported by Diana, Princess of Wales.
He also commenced a series of imperious solo albums, mainly in a Celtic folk blues vein. Sung in a regal, stoical tone, the songs are poetic explorations of male mythology that have won him loyal pockets of admirers from Scandinavia to China: “I play about 130 shows a year,” he tells me. “It used to be 200 but they’re better paid now, so I don’t have to work so hard. I’ve got friends who work in Shanghai who say the records are in the big stores. China is a very imagistic society and people who liked the CD sleeves were buying them on spec and finding they liked the music too.”
He and Rankin first met up at the Edinburgh Festival, having already signalled their mutual admiration via name-checks for Jackie in the Inspector Rebus series and a credit for the novelist on an album sleevenote. “I thought Rebus would like Jackie’s music as much as I do,” explains Rankin. “They’re stories about disappointed hard men. Guys who are like stone on the outside but if you chip away for long enough you’ll get to what makes them humane. Rebus sits alone at night listening to Van Morrison, Leonard Cohen, John Martyn. And Jackie is one of the most poetic songwriters I know. He’s an undiscovered treasure.”
Leven will soon repay the compliment with a song called The Haunting Of John Rebus. Of tonight’s short story he says, “It’s really heavy: seriously sombre notes of things between generations that will not be healed. I think its themes are pretty universal. I’m sure that much of it holds true in remote parts of China. But there is a very uncompromising east coast Scottish feel to these people. I know a poem about an old couple in a council house in Stirling whose old collie is dying, so the guy just takes it outside and drops the dog in the dustbin. He puts the lid on and looks up at the window where his wife is looking out. And she just nods with approval. And that’s the poem.”
Is that a Fife thing? Emotional reticence, and the male characters who battle to overcome it, seem to inform a lot of Leven’s songs.
“Yes,” he nods. “Reticent to the point that, when it bursts forth, it’s mighty in its joy and its need to conjoin. So we overdo it. That’s what the pubs are about. I really like that culture: it’s full of people having a holiday from that reticence.”
As Rankin says to me later: “Jackie Leven writes so well about Fife. About tough coal mining communities where you don’t let your feelings show because that’s a sign of weakness. I know when I was growing up there you had to at least pretend to fit in with the local gang. As a teenager I sat in my bedroom writing poetry, and sensitive song lyrics for bands that didn’t exist, and I had to hide it from my parents. I would have been less embarrassed to say ‘Yes Mum, I’m a drug addict,’ than ‘Actually, I’m a poet.’”
At times you suspect “Celtic” has become no more than a new age marketing term. But tonight’s event is part of the well-regarded annual music festival Celtic Connections. And for these men it’s a real identity, still alive with magic and meaning.
“There is a Celtic idea,” says Leven, “that reality lies betwixt and between. So the space between the tree and the bark of the tree is the all-important space, and those spaces exist within us as personalities. A long time ago those spaces probably had names and were divinities, and I think that’s how the Celtic psyche works.
“There is a great saying, ‘Friendship desires structure.’ There is an affinity among people who share this Celtic feeling, a friendship which desires the structure of doing things like this Festival.”
And Ian Rankin: “There is a peculiarly Celtic way of looking at the world. You feel on the edge of things, not quite part of the bigger picture. The Scots felt for centuries their lives were being ruled from another country; the Bretons felt that Paris had nothing to do with them. But you’ve got your own culture and your own spirits – and I don’t just mean whisky.
“For the Celts there is a sense that there is another world hidden behind this one. The supernatural actually exists. Our lives are ruled by outside forces. There is a meaning to things that we can’t quite grasp. Everything connects to everything else: if we could see how all the pieces of the jigsaw fitted together then we’d have the answers to life, the universe, and everything.
“We have a dark sense of humour. We’re quite pessimistic, the best days are in the past. This is how Scots celebrate New Year: Auld Lang Syne, we look back, not forward. It can be dour. I get a sense of it in the music, the poetry, the literature that has come out of the country, Jekyll And Hyde, the Border Ballads, Burns.
“When I read Jackie’s lyrics I got a sense of that; there is a romantic heart to his music but it’s surrounded by a lot of people who’ve been pissed off by life. I think his own life would be a brilliant book – one man’s struggle against his inner demons and outside forces.”
He looks out the window of our Clydeside bar: “Glasgow is actually the more Celtic city: hot blooded, passionate and gregarious. Whereas Edinburgh, where most of my books are set, is clipped and tight-bodiced: Presbyterian rather than Celtic. Crime in Glasgow is when someone gets stabbed to death for wearing the wrong football strip – no mystery about it. But crime in Edinburgh tends to be conspiracies, things happening behind net curtains.”
This evening, as the Glasgow wind whips up along the ruler-straight streets that rise from the river, the pairing of minstrel and wordsmith works its warm enchantment. The characters in Rankin’s story are brought alive with an easy economy. There are no writerly pyrotechnics. While the singer himself does not appear in Jackie Leven Said, the fictional brothers quote their favourite lines of his in conversation: “It’s like that Jackie Leven song says, ‘It took me 50 long years just to work out / That because I was angry didn’t mean I was right.’”
With musician friend Michael Cosgrave on hand to add some textural keyboard accompaniment, Leven’s songs lend weight to the emotional nuances of Rankin’s tale. Alongside newer inclusions such as Man Bleeds In Glasgow are stirring Leven laments like Gylen Gylen from his heroically-titled album The Mystery Of Love Is Greater Than The Mystery Of Death.
When the performance is finished the two men engage us for another hour or so in conversation. Few would complain if we really did have to stay here all night.
But they end on a cautionary note. Apparently two punters were drinking in a Fife pub. One was doing the crossword.
“Stranded on a desert island?” he enquires.
“Marooned,” the other replies.
“Oh aye? In that case I’ll have another pint.”
“Ma roond,” you see. Like I said, these men know humanity’s darker side.