The first time I met Jackie Leven he had recently returned from performing in Norway. Instead of souvenirs or duty free, he had lugged back home with him the heavy memory of what he had seen in Oslo: the homeless and addicted, disaffected and disenfranchised, clustered around the city’s bus station. “I sometimes think my problem is that I’m too connected to the pain of other people,” he told me that day. “It really breaks me up. Out of that, and anger about that, I find myself writing. I’m not entirely sure that’s a healthy way to do things, but I think that’s where my music comes from.”
Jackie’s ability to recognise the damage and loneliness in other people could be devastating. He understood and empathised with their pain partly because it reflected his own. When he saw it, he recognised it as someone might recognise their own face in a mirror. His music was filled with the experiences of a life lived not always well or wisely, but to the full, and with the emotional sensors turned up high. It demanded an intense response from the listener. Sometimes that response would be intense sadness, or discomfort; at other times, intense empathy, or exhilaration. His work can be hard to digest because confronting such honesty is often acutely discomfiting.
Jackie had talent in almost embarrassing abundance. He was not only a beautiful singer, but a bold and unsentimental lyricist, a phenomenal guitarist and a consistently innovative record maker. A man possessed of such gifts could easily have coasted, yet he never took the easy option. His burnished voice was a place of safety, the equivalent of a fine malt supped by an open fire. Yet his specialist subject was humanity in its rawest state, damned to exist in some psychic dive bar at the end of the world: linoleum floors, bare strip lights, cold corners, a double measure of threat in each optic. Comfort and despair. The unique quality of his music stems from his willingness and ability to travel the full distance between the two states.
The blank verse of unfulfilled lives and searing loneliness was leavened with flashes of transcendence, beauty, surreal humour. Few people wrote more honestly about angry, damaged men, of aloneness, violence and family conflict. We hear it in songs such as “Poortoun”, “Single Father” and “Universal Blue”; small wonder he called one album Fairytales for Hardmen. Yet his sprawling catalogue also offers tender love songs, pastoral meditations, vivid storytelling, political anger and comically existential riffs on burger vans and hotel mini-bars. Critics often claim of the music they love that “all human life is here”. With Jackie, such claims have more credibility than most.
The son of a London-Irish father and a mother from the north-east of England, Jackie was born Alan Moffat in Fife on 18 June 1950. He went to the same Kirkcaldy high school as future Labour PM Gordon Brown, but felt branded by his Romany heritage. “I was always an outsider,” he once told me.
He left home at sixteen. Working odd jobs, playing folk clubs, fighting, drugging, drinking, loving and leaving, his music plugged directly into the energy of a chaotic life. Control, the 1971 debut album credited to John St Field (because, he claimed, his own name would have attracted unwanted attention from the authorities and Lord knows who else), is a postcard from the heart of a fragmented, scattered existence. Poetic but robust, parts of it still sound surprising contemporary and self-assured for a tripped-out 21-year old.
After its release Jackie travelled through Europe, before settling in London in 1975. There he formed Doll By Doll with Joe Shaw and Dave MacIntosh, establishing base camp at the band’s notorious Maida Vale squat. Signed to Warner Brothers subsidiary Automatic, in 1979 Doll By Doll released Remember and Gypsy Blood, two albums of remarkable music. “Changes” pitched Leven as a post-punk Dion. “Teenage Lightning” was a tooled-up reanimation of 1950s fairground rock and roll. The empathetic “Strip Show” was gentler but freighted with a desperate after-hours sorrow.
Mixing Leven’s folkish leanings, Shaw’s interest in black music and a collective love of 1960s pop, Doll By Doll were nine-tenths classic rock – but the remaining rogue ten percent frightened people. There was something dark and disquieting about the band which precluded mainstream acceptance. A terrible beauty lurked deep within the music, something thrillingly thuggish, plain wrong. Shaw recalled audiences “coming out of shows shaking, like they’d seen a horror film”.
Jackie laughed at punk. He viewed it as cartoon violence. Doll By Doll were the real thing. They were thrown off a Hawkwind tour – Hawkwind! – for intimidating the headliners. At home, Leven would stay up for days, scaring everyone, including himself. He would later reflect on this period and visibly shudder. “I think I was genuinely mentally ill,” he said. “Not all the time, but episodically, when my drug taking really got a grip. I can remember everyone staying well out of my way for significant periods.”
Doll By Doll split in 1983 having released two further albums, and Jackie signed to Virgin as a solo artist. After a recording session in 1984, he was brutally attacked on the way home. “I got properly mugged,” he recalled. “I probably would have been killed, except the guys I was working with decided to come looking for me and probably saved my life.”
Suffering from the physical and psychological effects of strangulation, he struggled to speak or sing for the next two years and never regained his falsetto. Heroin had been around during the end of the Doll By Doll days but now he succumbed to addiction for several years. He eventually stopped using a mixture of acupuncture and psychic healing. Encouraged by his doctor to formalise this unorthodox methodology, Leven set up the CORE Trust, a holistic treatment centre for alcoholics and drug addicts.
He finally returned to music-making in 1994 with The Mystery of Love Is Greater Than the Mystery of Death, the beginning of a long and immensely productive final act. There followed a “traffic jam” of records, many of them superb, all of them worthy of investigation. Over 30 albums in all, including official releases, fan-club CDs, live recordings and material released under his Sir Vincent Lone pseudonym.
It was a dam-burst of creativity. These albums are a restless, sometimes jarring mix of folk, blues, country, rock, spoken-word, garish synth-pop, smooth supper-club soul and girl-group harmony, with occasional handbrake turns into hip-hop and Euro-disco. Many artists pay lip service to the notion that their music recognises no boundaries. Jackie walked the talk.
In song and in person, he had extraordinary presence. He was physically imposing, David Hemmings with a dash of Robbie Coltrane. Very tall, very round, with Byronic hair and deep, dark eyes. Dangerously handsome in his prime. Powerfully charismatic to the last.
On stage, he could be eye-wateringly irreverent. I remember one gig where he drank warm white wine from the bottle and between songs teased and taunted our propriety with excruciatingly near-the-knuckle yarns about getting shit-faced with Laurence Olivier, losing a girlfriend to the Dalai Lama’s bodyguard, and defecating in a Glasgow alley, all delivered in his soft, rather luxuriant Scottish brogue. Jackie’s friend and collaborator Johnny Dowd once told me: “Most performers can’t be real onstage. Jackie was real.” On this night, I remember thinking, he was almost too real for the world.
The last time I saw Jackie Leven was at a club called Cabaret Voltaire on 11 August 2011. It felt like the perfect antidote to the ceaseless bray and babble of Edinburgh at festival time: Jackie playing his humane, humorous, bleakly beautiful songs to a handful of believers in a subterranean vault. I remember that night well, which is good. Three months and three days later one of Britain’s bravest and most distinctive singer-songwriters was dead, from pancreatic cancer, at the age of 61.
In his final years, living with his partner Debbie in rural Hampshire, Jackie seemed to find a semblance of peace, comfort and reconciliation. Still, his friend and sometime co-worker Ian Rankin – who named two novels, Standing in Another Man’s Grave and Saints of the Shadow Bible, in honour of his songs – was not alone in sensing that potentially hazardous currents were still at work, swirling just below the waterline: “Not rage exactly, but locked-in energy.” Jackie’s songs bubbled up from this source. On “Main Travelled Roads” he sang, “Eternal is the warrior who finds beauty in his wounds”. Jackie Leven did that, all right, but he didn’t stop there. His genius lay in recognising that there is something sacred in all our scars.
Graeme Thomson, Edinburgh, May 2021