This was written in tribute to a great Scottish singer, Jackie Leven, shortly after his death in 2011. It appeared in The Word, March 2012, along with a CD of his work that I compiled, entitled Heroes Can Be Any Size. (I couldn’t include tracks by his former band Doll By Doll, for licensing reasons, but Leven’s solo years yield an abundance as it is.) The track listing appears at the end.
(You can read my 2004 interview with Ian Rankin and Jackie here.)
Who was Jackie Leven? It’s hard to say. Of course he was the burly Scottish singer/songwriter who passed away late last year. But if he was a big man that’s hardly surprising: he had to fit three or four different personalities in there. A couple of years ago, he told me about a meeting with his former record company. Planning the next publicity photos, a female executive suggested he should think about losing some weight. “I’m a hero,” he told her, in that softly ominous burr. “Heroes can be any size.”
You wouldn’t argue with that particular Jackie Leven. Nor with the man who quietly but firmly reminded people it was “Lee-ven”.
Little about the big man is straightforward. He was a born raconteur and the tales could be as tall as he was. Perhaps he built the character of “Jackie Leven” like a house, and then decided to move in. He was actually born Alan Moffatt, in Scotland in 1950. He grew up in the Pictish region that he called “the Kingdom of Fife” – the river of Leven was never far away – but his parents were English, with Romany and Irish ancestry. He claimed to be the first child ever expelled in Scotland over drugs. For a while, in Kirkcaldy, he was a schoolmate of the future Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
Leven was sometimes aggressive, yet very literate. In his school library he’d devour every poet from John Clare to the early 20th century Russians. Then he’d bunk off, a solitary romantic rebel, to sit on the hillsides of Fife and write his own. He loved soul music and blues too, and taught himself to sing by mimicking the 1965 Fontella Bass hit Rescue Me. Leven took up his trade in the folk clubs of Scotland and travelled to Europe, sometimes sleeping rough; he played and recorded as “John St Field”, one of several pseudonyms. As he tells it, the early years were a dire succession of razor gangs, acid trips, hasty marriages and nights in jail. There was even some trainee journalism. He fathered a child but was never the settling-down sort.
By the mid-1970s, when he materialised in the squats of North London, Leven carried a formidably troubled aura. Broodingly charismatic, possessed of a steady gaze and hair-trigger unpredictability, this was one heavy dude. I met him in 1979 and like many others, was hooked for life. He took me to terrifying pubs full of angry Scotsmen; back at the flat he swallowed more drugs than I ever knew existed and told stories deep into the night. He was given to conspiracy theories: I recall one that involved the Vatican, Warner Brothers and Van Morrison. Another night he decided he would commit suicide on stage.
From the roiling, psychedelic riptides of his imagination he had dreamt up a rock band called Doll By Doll.
Their name came from an e.e. cummings poem: “two tiny selves sleep (doll by doll) motionless under magical foreverfully falling snow.” There were four of them, too old to be punks but more authentically savage than any band in town. Their records were replete with dread, stinging and deranged, or else hauntingly beautiful. Leven had a powerful voice, tender and expressive, while his lyrics overflowed in imagery and Celtic mysticism. The band fell out with record companies and were always thrown off tours by the headliners. But looking around their gigs, they did attract a lot of nutcases and fascinating women.
“We really liked all the exotic women coming and going,” Jackie told me a while ago. “I think we all knew that this was probably our one and only chance to have massive sexual availability. We all had far too many girlfriends going on. And swapping them didn’t assuage the situation.”
Despite four extraordinary albums, Doll By Doll never clicked with a wider public. Leven turned his failure into art: the band’s most golden moment, Main Travelled Roads, ends with the line “Eternal is the warrior who finds beauty in his wounds” – words so freighted with meaning for Jackie that he once broke down and sobbed when I asked him to explain. On stage at an outdoor festival in 1981, he observed the young singer of a new Irish act, U2, walking among the crowd and getting more attention than Doll By Doll. The 1980s were not looking auspicious.
In fact the whole decade was a horror show. The band imploded and Leven went solo. But his new career was kyboshed from the start, when he received a brutal kicking from unknown assailants in a London street. Even his larynx was damaged. In despair, the singer lapsed into heroin addiction.
Eventually, by sheer will-power, Leven cleaned himself up and co-founded a charity to help fellow addicts. Called CORE (Courage to stop, Order in life, Release from addiction, Entry into new life) it thrives to this day. CORE’s most prominent patron was Diana, Princess of Wales, whom Leven was to meet on several occasions. It was a mind-boggling combination, but Leven told me that Lady Di took a shine to him. She’d shoot him a sideways glance and say, “What are you doing after?” She once asked him to sing for her, so he obliged with an old Scottish air The Bonnie Prince O’ Moray (it’s the tune he borrowed for Main Travelled Roads). Reconnecting with his Gaelic folk roots, Leven felt the call of music once again.
Enormous credit goes to the Cooking Vinyl label, who signed Jackie in 1994 and supported him staunchly for the rest of his life. He forsook the psycho-rock of Doll By Doll for plangent balladeering, and hit his stride with gorgeously titled albums such as The Mystery Of Love Is Greater Than The Mystery Of Death. Gaining in weight now, he would stride about London with leonine hair, wearing an 18th century shirt and knee-breeches, like an undefeated Jacobite laird. He announced plans for his own blend of Scotch whisky, called Leven’s Lament (“the Lonely Spirit of the Glens”). For all I know it could have been a scam, but Jackie’s tales were too charming to scrutinise.
Naturally there was still trouble in his life. A girlfriend left him, running off with the Dalai Lama’s bodyguard. (We’ve all been there, haven’t we?) In recompense the bodyguard gave Jackie a tape of the American poet Robert Bly, known for his leadership of “the Men’s Movement”. After that, Leven was in demand as a spokesman for the UK wing of this movement, urging a return to men’s primal natures. One had visions of white-collar bongo-botherers, parking their Volvos just outside the woods. But, as usual in Levenland, what ought to seem nonsensical sounded entirely convincing when he sat you in a bar.
Levenland really exists. One of his final songs is called To Live And Die In Levenland; he himself coined the adjective Levenesque. The glorious records of his 17-year solo career comprise a whole world unto itself. Men, Women, Love and Trouble are its compass points and alcohol its oceans. “Everyone’s got a story,” he told me. “You either think there’s a universal value in your story, or you don’t. People are on different trees and I’m on the tell-your-story tree, because I’m a good story-teller. And I’m always looking for trouble.” Sure enough there were songs of waking up with unexplained scars on his right hand, the fell stigmata of the fighting drunk.
Though Leven was fond of a sherbert, his real love was bars, and he used to list his favourites on every album sleeve. A special interest were the haunts of old working men whose lives had lost meaning since the closure of mines, mills and factories. (Poortoun, a 1997 song, draws on images of Fife.) The young men of such places were even harder hit, neither workers nor warriors. The crime novelist and fellow-Fifer Ian Rankin was drawn to this dimension of Leven’s work. He pictured his great creation, the Edinburgh detective John Rebus, consoling himself at night with these songs. “Not only did I like, it,” he told me when I interviewed both men for The Word in 2004, “but I thought Rebus would like it too: 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.”
Rankin name-checked Leven in his fiction, and the singer responded with songs like The Haunting Of John Rebus. The pair made an album together, Jackie Leven Said. Rankin added, “He’s one of the most poetic songwriters I know… He’s an undiscovered treasure.”
Leven once told me that bars were “important places, where I’ve had splendid moments of reverie. You’re allowed to think about your life. When I was a boy Ted Heath came to our school and I was introduced to him. He said, What do you want to be when you grow up? I said, I’d like to be one of those wee men you see standing outside the pubs in a wee flat cap. To his credit, Ted Heath just laughed. But the headmaster didn’t.”
Deborah Greenwood, Jackie’s partner for the last 15 years of his life, offers a valuable insight here: “He told me that when he was younger, he used to wait for his dad outside the bars; that’s what men did in Scotland in the 1950s, they went to the pub. And there was a real yearning there for something. The idea that that’s where the men were, that’s where the big thing happened, you were going to get this big mystery revealed to you, in a bar. It was about this Congregation of Men.”
A fine singer herself, who often performed and recorded with Jackie, Deborah Greenwood helped Leven find stability he had never known before. He was still the wandering minstrel, suitcase and guitar in hand, forever taking trains across Northern Europe to play to his scattered tribes of disciples, or even disappearing for days, literally to sleep under hedges. But during his life with Greenwood, in a cottage in Hampshire, he “finally discovered the gods of the hearth.” A gifted guitarist, he’d practise for three hours every day (his tuning, from the bottom, was E Ab B E Ab B). He was absurdly fond of sentimental nick-nacks, and collected little pictures of dogs and owls.
“He felt he was covered in ‘electric fur’,” she continues, “which is a really strange thing to say, but it always stuck with me. He was prickly and he couldn’t do some of the things that we take for granted. I used to laugh and say, Well that’s a very good excuse for not doing the shopping. If you were busy you’d come home and think, I can’t believe this, I asked if you could possibly mend the fence that has blown down. And he’d have written you an amazing song about mending the fence, possibly taken Rilke’s view on wood-turning, and a few other things, which is phenomenal, and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. But at that very moment you needed your fence mended. He saw life very differently.
“He was a scary man when he was younger, and he could be scary when he was older as well. He was quite a presence.”
Leven gave up drinking in February last year, after the death of his younger brother. He wasn’t yet aware that he himself was ill. He stopped, just as he had with heroin, simply by deciding it was time.
“He had to feel very safe before he’d calm down,” says Deborah. “And it took a long time. I think living in a little village, eventually, with horses and dogs and all that, got Jackie as close as he was going to get to being a peaceful person. But as a friend said, he’d go the most difficult places and report back. He kept doing that.”
There was always this sense of Jackie Leven exploring the wilder shores, on our behalf, wasn’t there?
“Absolutely. And that’s the hard thing, if you love someone very much. Believe me, he was no saint, but it’s hard to see something that does a huge amount for everyone else in the world, that doesn’t do a huge amount for the person that you love. There was this view from fans that they almost wanted to see him suffering. They wanted to see him getting wildly drunk, getting through a pint of vodka-and-Windolene, because that was their image of who they wanted. They felt that he was doing something for them.
“All of which is wonderful and I’m incredibly pleased for them – says she, trying not to sound bitter – but on an individual basis it maybe didn’t make for as happy and contented a life as he could have had if he didn’t take that on.”
Among the many notebooks that Leven has left behind, Deborah found this:-
And my job is to listen
then I hear
then I write
then I sing
and I sing to those I heard
when I was listening
because those are your songs
I know you have to buy the songs
Just remember one thing
I too have paid the price
And it was worth it
Leven was always the most of everything. The gravest man, yet the funniest. The kindest, but the most unsettling. We never knew which was in the room. “What do you call a man,” he once asked me, “who sings and yet sleeps forever?” It sounded worrying. “I don’t know,” I admitted. “Perry Coma,” he replied.
Last spring he began to complain of tiredness. Friends begged him to see a doctor. In September his cancer was diagnosed. The final months were predictably awful. On 14th November, 2011, Jackie Leven at last “stepped out of his body and into blossom”
That quote is from a favourite poem of his, A Blessing by James Wright. Combined with Jackie’s own song, Working Alone, it forms the last track of this compilation, and was played at Leven’s funeral in Hampshire. “I had a beautiful letter from a long time fan who came to the funeral,” says Deborah. “It said, ‘I’m a dyed-in-the-wool atheist but hearing Working Alone/A Blessing rolling through that country church, as Jackie was carried in, was the nearest thing to a spiritual experience I’ve ever had.’”
A few months ago, in what may have been the final message he ever posted online, Leven wrote: “I have been a troubled soul most of my life although I have learned to be at peace with much of the troubles – a sort of Belfast Of The Mind in which the old conflicts remain raw in the imagination, but there is no real appetite for returning to the death ground.”
A Belfast of the Mind… It’s a Levenesque irony that his spirit was finding peace, just when his body decided to go to war. No musician I ever met has left so deep an impression as Jackie Leven. He was a man who looked into his own soul and found there all the things that everyone shares in common. And he made them sound beautiful. Leven was a singer and player of rare distinction, a world-class story-teller, and one of those elite songwriters who merits the name of poet. He was my friend for 32 years and I’ll never forget him.
HEROES CAN BE ANY SIZE
An Introduction To Jackie Leven
From the album Night Lilies, 1998
From the album Shining Brother Shining Sister, 2003
From the album The Mystery Of Love Is Greater Than The Mystery Of Death, 1994
Another Man’s Rain
From the album Oh What A Blow That Phantom Dealt Me!, 2007
From the album Fairy Tales For Hard Men, 1997
From the album Night Lilies, 1998
Friendship Between Men And Women
From the album Creatures Of Light And Dark, 2001
Men In Prison
From the album Forbidden Songs Of The Dying West, 1995
The Haunting Of John Rebus
From the album Jackie Leven Said by Jackie Leven and Ian Rankin, 2005
King Of The Barley
From the album Elegy For Johnny Cash, 2005
From the album Shining Brother Shining Sister, 2003
From the album Lovers At The Gun Club, 2008
To Live And Die In Levenland
From the album Wayside Shrines And The Code Of The Travelling Man by Jackie Leven and Michael Cosgrave, 2011
Working Alone / A Blessing
From the album Forbidden Songs Of The Dying West, 1995