I FIRST met Jackie Leven in 1994 on the telephone. We were conducting an interview promoting his album, The Mysteries of Love Are Greater Than the Mysteries of Death. He was a powerful presence down that telephone line, without even knowing of life’s dramatic twists and turns which had delivered him to that place.
He was raised by his Irish Cockney father and Geordie mother in the Fife new town of Glenrothes, but he did not feel at home there. Years later, sitting in the Old Chain Pier in Edinburgh’s Newhaven, he would glower over the Forth at his home town, proclaiming that was as close as he ever wanted to get to it again.
He became the first Scottish boy to be expelled from school for possession of drugs, and married at 16, before new town teenage gang politics drove him out of town. The itinerant lifestyle was in his Romany blood, and armed with his guitar he left home behind and worked as a labourer all over the UK, before finding his way first to Berlin and then to Spain.
There he found the time to record his first album under the name of John St Field, Control, and then returned to the UK and London to form Doll By Doll.
Neither punk nor New Wave, they had a cerebral style at odds with the simple three-chord philosophy of the era.
Four intensely rocking albums later, they called it a day, unable to reconcile the deeply divided critical opinions of their oeuvre.
Leven’s solo career stalled horribly when he was attacked in London’s Islington, and throttled from behind while using a cash machine. He was unable to speak for months, and permanently lost the falsetto end of his vocal range.
He turned to heroin to help deal with the despair, and lost the best part of a decade before getting that monkey off his back with the help of a Chinese holistic cure. CORE was the charity he set up to assist others in the same predicament, attracting the patronage of the Princess of Wales, among others.
All of which just about brings us to the introductory phone conversation 17 years ago.
At that time he was an enthusiastic subscriber to the cause of Robert Bly, the American poet and champion of the Men’s Movement, and fresh from a collaboration with Waterboy Mike Scott.
He was a Celtic Soul Warrior with much more appetite for the fight than other more celebrated singers. He had the smoothest alto and gruffest growl, continuing sonically to experiment with his vocal range in the latter part of his career.
He was a massive and modest friend. A huge bear of a man, with a sweet soul, and an exceptional songwriting talent. Other maverick talents such as David Thomas of Pere Ubu and Willard Grant Conspiracy’s Robert Fisher were drawn to a kindred spirit.
There was a memorable collaboration with fellow Fifer and long time admirer, crime novelist Ian Rankin, a show and resulting live album titled Jackie Leven Said.
He was a one-record label artist for the duration of his solo career, as rare these days as a one-club footballer. Cooking Vinyl’s boss Martin Goldschmidt is first a fan but importantly has displayed tremendous trust and loyalty in an industry where that can be an alien concept.
But then what made Leven so special was the relationship he enjoyed with his live audience.
When playing a late-night Edinburgh Fringe run, he was stymied when the venue moved back his show time to the early hours of the morning.
Two devotees journeyed from Teeside to see their hero, but peeking out from back stage and spotting that they were the only members of the audience, he felt he could not go on. The faithful fans accepted their disappointment gracefully, along with a compensatory drink. Having talked to their hero, the two forgave and forgot, and took their place in the front row the following year. They were rewarded with a vintage Leven performance in a packed venue. Few artists could command that level of loyalty.
It was Jackie’s habit to take to the stage with a pint glass filled with a mystery cocktail. Invariably it would be replenished by an adoring fan during the course of the performance.
Since that ill-advised early marital adventure, his rock had been Deborah Greenwood, who also sang on his later records. They lived in rural Hampshire, his base for a touring schedule that regularly took in northern Europe and Scandinavia.
Once in an Edinburgh New Town bar, he requested a “young bastard”.
“What’s that?” asked the perplexed bar man.
Jackie listed an improbably combination of alcoholic beverages.
“But why is it called that?”
“Because that is what all the young bastards round my way drink,” came the response.
Another exiled Fifer, the late poet Paul Reekie, was outside another Leven Festival show in Edinburgh, waiting to have a CD signed.
He said that Irvine Welsh had been in touch trying to persuade him to go and see Iggy Pop at Glasgow Green.
“That’s all very well, but, ultimately, Jackie’s the man.”
Indeed he was, inspiring and intuitive, a Scottish unsung singing hero who has left a rich musical legacy. COLIN SOMERVILLE