I can remember exactly where I was at 9.26pm on November 14th, 2011 for the same reasons I remember where I was when I heard of the deaths of Ian Curtis, John Lennon, Joe Strummer, Johnny Cash and David Bowie. Hearing of the loss of artists of this magnitude, who’d profoundly affected me, forever consigned the location I first heard the news into my memory banks. A music magazine cover spotted in a train station in Hull, a billboard outside a newsagents in Chelmsford, a phone call while on the A68 near Jedburgh, a news bulletin on a TV in Haverhill and waking up to a smart phone going crazy with messages in an undecorated bedroom at home. These locations are all indelibly etched in my mind.
On the date in question, I was ensconced in a small studio hidden in a corner of a church in Thetford, presenting a radio show with an audience likely to have been in single figures. As was the case when presenting these shows, I had the usual social media pages open in the hope someone might post a comment along the lines of ‘great show Dave’ or ‘what was that- it was awesome’. While scanning facebook I came across a post from one Tom Burgess, a recent acquaintance made through shared listening habits, with some news that left me reeling. The man born Alan Moffatt had passed away after finally succumbing to cancer. Alan who? Try the pseudonyms John St Field or Sir Vincent Lone. Still not familiar, then try the name Jackie Leven and bells might start ringing. Perhaps the band Doll By Doll and they might ring louder and more insistently. The show I was presenting still had 90 minutes to run, but it took great will not to walk out of the studio there and then to find the nearest pub and order the most ridiculous drink I could imagine in his honour. Instead I stayed on air and talked about this tragic news, hastily changing the playlist so I could add a few Jackie tunes by way of an all too inadequate tribute.
Of course, those other artists mentioned were universally known whereas Jackie was not. Despite a 40 plus year career and releasing over 30 albums (taking into account band releases, solo records, aforementioned nom de plumes and fan club releases). His albums were often critically acclaimed but criminally sold in less than moderate numbers. The truth of it is that he was probably better known and more popular in Norway or Germany than his birthplace of Scotland (in his feted Kingdom of Fife) or the England where he spent most of his life. His reciprocated love of these places often led to acknowledgement in his songs, and in one case led to him recording a version of Johnny Cash’s ‘I’ve Been Everywhere’ with all the U.S. town names changed to towns in Germany. Despite the lack of patronage in great numbers at home, in this humble scribes opinion, his body of work ranks up there with the very best British singer songwriters of the last 40 odd years. And I’m not alone in thinking that.
Jackie Leven’s first ventures in music were under the name St John Field, releasing an album called ‘Control’ in the early 70’s that could loosely be termed psych folk. Moving to London and living in a squat, he came across guitarist Jo Shaw and drummer Dave McIntosh and they started working together under the name Doll By Doll with a variety of bassists coming and going. The band’s name was taken from an EE Cummings poem- ‘two tiny selves sleep (doll by doll) motionless under magical foreverfully falling snow’- and was a pointer towards future use of published poetry in his songs and his own poetic lyrics.
Doll By Doll released four albums between 1979 and 1982- ‘Remember’, ‘Gypsy Blood’, ‘Doll By Doll’ and ‘Grand Passion’. Julian Cope was a fan, apparently rushing out to buy the first album after reading an interview where Jackie spoke of the bands LSD use, how he heard voices in his head and could communicate with the dead- all things that he would touch on in future songs. It was their live performances as well as the second album that really set them out as cult heroes. Gypsy Blood was stunning and was latterly described as ‘the lost masterpiece of British rock, by the greatest band you’ve never heard of’ by journalist Neil McCormick. Cope described the sound as having ‘traces of Traffic, John Cale, Moby Grape, Family, and Love- it’s that good’ and imagined Leven’s voice as being a cross between Scott Walker and Tim Buckley with its effortless range and power. On stage they could be aggressive, belligerent, challenging, almost savage at times but immensely powerful. They could also produce music of great sensitivity and beauty- witness ‘Main Travelled Road’, the hit that never was.
By the fourth album, Jo and Dave had left the band and Jackie set about a solo career, though both worked with Jackie again, at one point releasing an EP under the name Concrete Bulletproof Invisible with ex Pistol/Rich Kid Glen Matlock on board. Before the solo career could gain any traction, Jackie was the victim of a street attack that left him unable to speak for two years, let alone sing. Depression set in and heroin addiction followed.
Jackie finally cleaned himself up through a combination of acupuncture and psychic healing which in turn led to him setting up the Core Trust, an organization that treats addicts to this day through a holistic approach to drug and alcohol abuse.
The solo career finally started in 1994 with the release of a mini album called ‘Songs From The Argyll Cycle’ quickly followed by the full length ‘Mystery of Love is Greater Than The Mystery of Death’. The latter was named as one of the 100 Greatest Albums of All Time in a Q Magazine feature. This led to a run of albums that are consistently excellent and stand the test of time, covering a range of styles taking in celtic folk, soul, synth pop, blues and more experimental music to create a sound that was wholly his- Levenesque you might say. At one stage in the noughties, he was writing and recording at such a rate that Cooking Vinyl, his very supportive label, had problems keeping up, a situation that led him to release albums on the same label under the Sir Vincent Lone moniker.
His guitar playing was distinctive and unusual, using open tunings that could be perplexing to artists wanting to cover his songs, as I was to find when chatting to a great friend of Jackie’s, Michael Weston King of My Darling Clementine. He wasn’t averse to adding colour and depth to his songs with sound effects, the odd Russian choir, the women folk of the Shetland Isles singing in Gaelic or snippets of his favourite poems read by artists he admired and who in turn had great respect and affection him. He invited many artists to collaborate on tracks, generously giving space on his albums for their songs and perfomances. Singers of the stature of Mike Scott of The Waterboys, Johnny Dowd, David Thomas of Pere Ubu, Ron Sexsmith, Ralph McTell and the novelist Ian Rankin all contributed in some way. Aside from these contributions, he also wore his influences on his sleeves, writing and singing songs about his own heroes including Johnny Cash, Kevin Ayers, Townes Van Zandt and Judee Sill.
If his guitar playing was distinctive, his voice, presumably fully recovered from the attack, was the most magnificent tool of his trade. Ranging from a guttural growl (actually, I wonder if that was a side effect of the attack?) to a soaring falsetto with many stops in between, including the strange semi-yodel of ‘The Sexual Loneliness of Jesus Christ’, a whispered style as witnessed on ‘To Live and Die in Levenland’, the full on passion that’s in evidence on some of his best loved songs (‘Call Mother A Lonely Field’, ‘Classic Northern Diversions’ and ‘Ancient Misty Morning’) and the yearning emotion that adorns tracks such as ‘Working Alone/A Blessing’ and ‘A Little Voice In Space’. Mike Scott described his voice as ‘like rich coffee shot through with a dash of good whiskey’. Combined with the lyrics he wrote, this was a perfect storm of words, voice and music which left the listener in its eye with no wish to escape.
His words covered the good, the bad and the ugly of people and their relationships, filtered through the colourful and perceptive prism of Jackie’s mind, with a side order of mordant wit and gallows humour- in ‘Billy Ate My Pocket’ a possible affair is uncovered by a horse- to counterpoint the irresistible imagery that some of his lyrics conjured in the mind. Of his songwriting, he said himself ‘There are spiritual story tellers and there are soulful story tellers. I hope to be a soulful story teller. I see the two kinds as two different directions. Spiritual is ascending. Sky, God and all that. I hope my story telling is going down into the earth, is wetter, has more moisture.’
A year or so after Jackie’s loss, I was fortunate enough to witness his partner Debbie Greenwood perform some of his songs, accompanied by Michael Weston King. During ‘Universal Blue’ she faltered and stopped singing, explaining the imagery which Jackie had described to her when writing the song was so powerful it just took over the actual performance. Recurring themes included the plight of the working man, addiction, mental illness and the many people and places he came across, including the numerous pubs, bars and hotels he visited. I’ve often wondered how many bars he mentions in song, and considered how much of a challenge it would be to drink a pint with a shot of vodka in each- apparently one of his (many) favoured tipples. Anyone for the Leven Pub Crawl?
And it’s not just the songs through which Jackie communicated with his audience. According to journalist Paul Du Noyer, he was a born raconteur and his between song banter became legendary among his fans. Multi-instrumentalist Mike Cosgrave, who played on many of Jackie’s latter albums, was a regular companion on tour and there are dozens of You Tube clips of the pair playing live, complete with the singers shaggy dog stories. Rambling tales of how he returned home from tour to be greeted by his dogs and watch Columbo starring Johnny Cash, or the terrible day when he was shouted at by both Ralph McTell AND Debbie (‘FFS, pull yourself together man’), or the story of how he feared for his safety on a train to Newcastle after a rumour he’d started about the death of Sting spread along the carriages. As I found out later when I researched a tribute show for the radio, this mischievous humour wasn’t just reserved to the performance. His friends related tales of how he would go round the local pub and quietly ‘borrow’ a pound off everyone, before announcing the next round was on him. There was also a bizarre story involving cornflake packet tokens, train tickets and Richard Branson.
Despite all the humour and his skewed view of the world, there still lurked some darkness and conflict within the big man. In an interview in 2007 he declared ‘I sometimes think my problem is that I’m too connected to the pain of other people. It really breaks me up.’ His partner Debbie confirmed to Paul Du Noyer ‘He felt he was covered in ‘electric fur’ 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.’ before adding ‘He had to feel very safe before he’d calm down. 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.’
In that final year before he died, Jackie recorded his last studio album with Mike Cosgrave, ‘Wayside Shrines and the Code of the Travelling Man’. It contained a song about his younger brother who had recently died and ‘To Live and Die in Levenland’, a song which has added poignancy bearing in mind he may well have been suffering with the cancer that was to eventually take him while recording the album. There was also a song which was sent to him by an old friend, John Mayfield. John told me he’d had this song completed for a while and didn’t really know what to do with it. He sent it to Jackie for comment. In John’s words, Jackie sprinkled his magic on it and included it on the album. Typical of the man.
Following that night on the radio in Thetford, I waited expectantly for the weekly and monthly music magazines to be taken over with features and obituaries and was sadly disappointed with the coverage. Barely a mention on the radio or TV either. I’m still waiting for an all encompassing documentary or a career defining box set, but to date there’s nothing that can do justice to a massive, complex character as interesting and fascinating as any musician from these islands in the last 40 years with a back catalogue as consistently good as his. There were rumours a short time ago about a retrospective including rarities, live bootlegs, even a cd of those rambling between song stories. Then nothing, just radio silence.
It will be five years on November 14th this year and I’m still waiting for the rest of the world to wake up to his genius. The last word from Jackie himself, the man who would have a whiskey named after him, who insisted that heroes can come in any size, found in a notebook by Debbie Greenwood:
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