Friday, December 3

I don’t know why Jackie Leven is not better known: he should be revered | Folk music

I actually, he adopted Jackie Leven belatedly. His new wave band, Doll by Doll, had passed me by. But then I saw a review in the music press that mentioned a singer-songwriter with muscular lyrics and good guitar, and from Fife. My ears perked up. I managed to find a couple of his CDs in a store. At the time I was writing an Inspector Rebus novel, and not only did I like Shining Brother Shining Sister, but I thought my boy Rebus would like it too.

And so, in Rebus’s next book, Rebus happily listens to a Jackie Leven album at home. I didn’t realize that Jackie was a fan of books. He was sitting on a plane somewhere in Scandinavia and suddenly he got mentioned. I don’t know how much of a criminal fiction reader he was, but in my books he was faced with a larger-than-life male character, John Rebus, who is flawed, complex and socially awkward, who has trouble falling in love and out of love, and whose work often makes him quite a lonely figure. And I think Jackie understood all of that – she understood the notion of a person wandering through a city and for a lifetime, searching for meaning.

He reinvented himself several times ... Leven and his band Doll by Doll in 1981.
He reinvented himself several times … Leven and his band Doll by Doll in 1981. Photograph: David Corio / Redferns

He was a man who reinvented himself several times. There was the popular troubadour of the early years, and then there was Doll by Doll, whom I wish I had seen live, apparently they were quite intimidating. And he suffered a terrible violent attack in Camden, north London, after which he lost confidence, he could not sing. He got into heroin, then quit, and then started a charity to help other people get off heroin. And then the further reinvention, when he went solo. It was an incredible life.

One more thing that brought us together was a love of the pub. It was great to go to bars and hear people share their stories, and I’ve been doing it my whole life.

There is an incredible passion in his work: masculinity, but rather fragile masculinity. Their album titles reveal the game: Fairy Tales for Hard Men; Lovers at the Gun Club. You get the feeling that he’s singing from the point of view of hardened men who hide their feelings, and that it would be so much better for them if they didn’t. Then there are the songs that borrow from Scottish ballads and other ballads, a popular tradition, but grafted onto something much more modern. Many of the songs are about touring and the alienation that comes with it, and is sometimes set out to surprise: The sexual loneliness of Jesus ChristWhat an extraordinary title for a song! That won’t get you many concerts in the Vatican.

It is difficult to stop it. Is it a Caledonian soul? Is it in the spirit of people like Van Morrison? Leven was a magpie. He loved to play with people of different traditions. African musicians; Arab musicians. Give him jazz musicians, he would play with them. He was a big fan of Johnny Cash and recorded a tribute to him. It was a machine for inventing melodies and lyrics.

Leven performing in Spain in 2006.
‘His guitar technique was incredible’… Leven performing in Spain in 2006. Photograph: Jordi Vidal / Redfern

After reading that Rebus book, he contacted my publisher and we began to correspond. I went with him to a solo concert on the outskirts of Edinburgh at midnight in an old converted church. I had hardly seen a photograph of him. I thought he was the roadie because he staggered onto the stage. Then he started playing, and as soon as you heard the voice you thought, “Oh, that’s Jackie Leven!” And his guitar technique was incredible.

We met briefly afterwards, and that was the beginning. He was doing an event at Celtic Connections and suggested we do a show together: “You read some of your work and I’ll sing some songs,” he said. “Why don’t we try hard?” Said. “I will write a piece taking up themes that I find in your songs, and you write some new songs in response to that story.” And that became Jackie Leven Said, who fell in love with her. We did it several times and it was recorded.

He wrote The curse of John Rebus specifically for the show. What a great honor that is! Touring the album was hilarious. Jackie asked what he wanted from the rider. I said, “What the heck is that?” He explained that they are the backstage requirements for the wardrobe. I said, “Dude, I’m a writer, we’re lucky if we get a bottle of water, you play the rider.” The first place was on the Southbank in London. We shared a huge dressing room – his side of the room was crammed with things, and there was nothing on my side of the room, until a technician came backstage with a haggis and said, “Which one of you motherfuckers ordered this? ? ” Jackie pointed at me. That’s what I had put on the rider: a raw haggis for each location.

Artwork for the Jackie Leven Straight Outta Caledonia compilation
Artwork for the Jackie Leven Straight Outta Caledonia compilation

After his death in 2011, I listened to a lot of his music. I named Standing in Another Man’s Grave for one of his songs, although it turned out that I had misheard the lyrics – its title was actually Standing in Another Man’s Rain. For my next book, I thought another of his lyrics would suffice, so I picked up Saints of the Shadow Bible: “The Shadow Saints of the Bible following me from bar to bar until eternity. I always wanted to ask him what the hell that meant and I never got it. There is no doubt that we would have worked together again, maybe we would have made another album, we would have made some songs together.

I do not know why it is not better known. He had his fans all over the world, but the media in the UK just didn’t notice. Go somewhere like Norway and people in the music press or music clubs know and revere Jackie Leven. I hope this Straight Outta Caledonia compilation makes a difference. It’s a beautiful intro that only scratches the surface. I would love for people to go and explore Jackie’s discography after listening to it. You could spend your whole life there, meeting this guy.

As told to Robin Denselow.

Straight Outta Caledonia… The Songs of Jackie Leven is released on Night School Records on July 23rd.

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